The Shape of “Pitmen Painters”
Unlocking the structural secrets of a new Broadway play
Lee Hall’s new play The Pitmen Painters is a fantastic example of the old saying that “form equals content.” The play’s structure reflects the emotional and political arcs of the characters, and studying it closely opens a new window on the show.
Consider, for instance, that when he first started writing the play, which opens Thursday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Hall made the character of Oliver Kilbourn the narrator.
From one perspective, that makes sense: The Pitmen Painters relates the true story of a group of British miners who signed up for an art class in the 1930s, only to find their paintings celebrated by the established art world. Eventually, the miners, who were known for painting about their hardscrabble lives, became known as The Ashington Group, and Kilbourn was their most celebrated member. Since he stood out from the pack, he’s an obvious choice to narrate a play.
“But once I began writing that way, I realized we were selling the themes and the story short by following just one character,” says Hall. So he dropped the idea of an all-seeing protagonist. Now, with the exception of one key scene, the characters never speak to the audience directly. Instead, they speak only to each other, usually in a group, and their arguing and joking pushes the story along.
This structural decision reflects the idea that a group of pitmen was suddenly thrust into the art world, and it also embodies Hall’s desire to make the play feel like a constant debate. “It’s trying to make arguments,” he says. “It’s not didactic or making one statement. It’s about raising several questions.”
Those questions tend to be about the role of art in society: Does class affect the way we create art or appreciate it? Should it? When people from lower classes become artists, should they make art about where they came from, or should they make art about where they live now?
If Oliver Kilbourn narrated (or even dominated) the play, those questions would invariably be answered with a slant. But since he’s just one of many vocal characters—and since the characters come from a range of backgrounds—the show creates a much more complex conversation.
For most of the first act, that conversation happens in the men’s art classes. Hall explains, “I’m very interested in the dramatic form of a [classroom] lecture. It’s a lively forum because it’s a democratic forum: It allows everyone to speak and maybe be wrong and loud and funny. It hopefully allows ideas to feel human, and it allows us to make our own realizations about our attitudes. If we agree and relate with a character, then what are we realizing about ourselves?”
The audience’s role in the debate is underlined at the end of the first act, during the one scene when the miners actually look across the footlights and speak to us. In that moment, the men are just about to make their professional artistic debut, or as Hall says, “That’s when then they become solidified as a group. It’s important that we join them. I knew I wanted to have one moment where we end one phase and begin another.”
In other words, the characters break out of the world of their play and talk to us because the world of their play is changing: Once they’ve finished speaking to the audience, the curtain comes down, and when it rises again, the Ashington Group is officially part of the art scene. From there, the play resumes its pattern of debates, but this time, the encounters are scattered throughout galleries, studios, and posh homes. We’re asked to consider how class and art change when a rising painter becomes a working painter.
And then, the world changes again. At the end of the second act, projections deliver historical information about what happens to the Ashington Group (and their mining town) after the final scene. Once more, we’re pulled out of the play when things can’t stay the same.
Discussing the conclusion, Hall says, “I hope it presents the audience with the problem of art and the political responsibility we all share for allowing certain things to happen. Are we going to accept the scraps, or are we going to make something better?”
In a way, then, Hall has structured The Pitmen Painters so that the final moment—the one that exists on the other side of those projections—doesn’t belong to him. It belongs to us. We have to create the form and the content for the end of the story. We have to decide what happens next.
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor