Company Name: CAST (Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre)
Founders: Claire and Roland Muldoon, David Hatton, Ray Levine and Red Saunders
Reason: Disillusioned with the Labour government elected in 1964, and with the Communist Party of Great Britain turning away from radical politics, the founders wanted CAST to be part of the resistance to established politics.
Current Status: CAST stopped producing theatre around 1985 when their Arts Council grant finished. However, from the early 1980s they produced New Variety nights, which increasingly became the focus of the group. This culminated in them taking up residency in the Hackney Empire between 1986 and 2005. CAST is still active today, predominately producing comedy events and supporting emerging comedians.
Area of Work: Political; engaging working class audiences
Policy: They aimed to bring radical plays to working class audiences – a ‘workers theatre group’. CAST are credited by some as the first theatre group in what would become a golden age in political theatre. For example, David Edgar later reflected: ‘In 1967 there was one independent socialist theatre group in Britain: Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre’ (Edgar, 1988: 24); and Itzin asserted ‘CAST was the first and for a long time the only avowedly socialist theatre company of the sixties’ (Itzin, 1980: 12). This movement gained momentum in 1968 and lasted through the 1970s into the mid-1980s.
The name was reference to the archetypical characters like Charlie Chaplin’s tramp. So CAST’s characters would be archetypical working class characters, embodied in the recurring character Muggins. This was an influence from Music Hall: ‘They would play greater characters, bigger characters than they really would be. But they would be based on a typical working class character. So they were Arch-typical’ (Roland Muldoon 2014). It was also a play on the word ‘cast’ in terms of the actors in the production, a way of keeping the individuals within the group anonymous.
In the early 1970s there was a shift from more overt political pieces to entertainment with political themes – agitpop – in order to continuing engaging working class audiences.
Structure: The company described themselves as ‘self-educated working class’ (Roland Muldoon 2014) and were a collective socialist theatre group.
Based: They formed in Camden, London. After receiving their first Arts Council grant in 1976 they toured more and were in London less. However, the company were still based at Roland and Claire’s flat in west London.
Funding: Arts Council funding from 1976. This funding was awarded in the wake of the success of Sam the Man (1975-77). Prior to that they balanced theatre work with paid work, ‘living the contradiction’ (Roland Muldoon 2014). They were also later funded by the GLC and received other local authority funding.
Performance venues including: They began at the Unity Theatre, but were expelled. The venues they performed in included pubs, union meetings, folk clubs, working class socials, universities, the Royal Festival Hall, and the Roundhouse.
Audiences: Working class audiences, union members and the left-leaning middle-class.
You will find more CAST images on Roland Muldoon’s web page.
Company work and process:
Roland and Claire had met in Bristol soon after Roland had completed the stage management course at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. They moved to London and joined the Unity Theatre as stage managers, which was then run by the Communist Party of Great Britain. They formed their theatre group there but Roland was expelled from Unity Theatre for political reasons after the party changed direction and no longer pursued a revolutionary strategy. The minutes of the Unity AGM asserted that the expulsion was due to ‘conduct injurious to the society in that he secretly conspired with non-members to overthrow the legally elected management committee’ (quoted McDonnell, 2010: 98). Yet there were generational as well as political tensions, with the group being young and part of the ‘rock’n’roll generation’.
Roland secured a teaching job at the Working Men’s College in Camden Town, where he enrolled the other members of his Unity theatre group, now named CAST, as his class: ‘We took on the hall they didn’t want to use and we studied our style of theatre. They were very critical because we didn’t seem to be doing proper theatre. They thought we would be, but instead we were developing our style’ (Roland Muldoon 2014). In a page-long article written for the college’s journal in 1965, Roland looked at once popular dramatic forms, many now declined, which could connect with the ordinary audiences – ‘Theatre for the People’ – and identified their key elements:
‘We are talking, of course, of the Music Hall, Burlesque, Pantomime and farther back still, the Mediaeval Guild play. But analyse their success, study their techniques, consider their comment, and you will find pungent direct social commentary – plus artistry, so pure and honest, based on a good sense of the social archetype; thus giving a direct relationship and meaning to the audience. Therefore, it became reflective and relevant to its time and, at the same time, indisputably entertaining’
(Muldoon, 1965: 11)
He concludes by saying the drama group would present a series of presentations in this form. It would become the basis of CAST’s style. They performed Beckett’s Endgame to please the college, but the group felt constrained by the stage directions. At this time they were meeting two nights a week at the college and in time devised their first piece called The Nightmare of Joe Muggins which Roland later felt ‘was not very good but in the style [of how we wanted to work]’ (Roland Muldoon 2014). From this they gained a booking to perform at the Peanuts Club, which in turn led to further bookings.
CAST was a collective, but in practice Roland and Claire Muldoon often drove the activities ahead of the group. The plays tended to be short (just over half an hour), fast and funny, although occasionally they produced longer plays. CAST evolved a distinctive style that drew on music hall, rock’n’roll and commedia dell’arte-style theatre. The early plays John D Muggins Is Dead, Mr Oligarchy’s Circus and Les Enfants du Paradis were important in the development of the style. They saw themselves as part of the youth culture of the 1960s: ‘We were the first rock’n’roll theatre group. Other groups eventually took their historical references from the Russian Revolution and the agitprop of Germany, but we took ours from pop culture. We were a group with a gang ideology.’ (Muldon quoted in Itzin, 1980:14)
Central to the plays was the recurring character Muggins. Inspired by the Good Solider Schweik and a music hall song (‘I’m Billy Muggins’), the character had a different Christian name in each show. Muggins is an everyman: ‘Muggins is the English archetype who does everything and gets no reward. Charlie Chaplin, if you like… There’s a part of everyone in Muggins, and a Muggins in part of everyone. Muggins represents the working class – the people who are mugged!’ (Muldoon quoted in Itzin, 1980: 14-15). It was also a common phrase amongst the working classes at the time: ‘A working class cliché – “what kind of muggins do you take me for?”; “I’m the muggins around here”… It was the classic clown character who had everything done to them and they became our anti-hero’ (Roland Mudloon 2014).
There were various other aspects of their distinct style, including interaction between a mime artist and a speaking actor, as well as a chorus whose function was to hurl ‘ultraleft accusations against a working class who seemed to follow all the crap’ (Roland Muldoon 2014). Muldoon explained the style of value of directly addressing the audience: ‘The most important thing CAST did in the history of political theatre was turn to the audience. At the time, we actually invented looking straight in the audience’s face and telling them what we were talking about. We called it “presentationalism” – sort of here we are, entertainers, but theatre as well… You start telling them a story, cut fast, distract them from what they thought was going on, catch them with a glass of beer in their hand, so they stay and watch’ (Muldoon quoted in Itzin, 1980: 14). They worked with John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy on Harold Muggins Is a Martyr (1968). It proved a challenging experience with clashing working styles: ‘Arden was a great playwright, but we had another style; our approach was completely different’ (Roland Muldoon 2014).
In terms of their working methods, it was not confined to a scripted process until the Arts Council funding of the mid-1970s. They workshopped ideas. The director was agreed to have 100% authority but everyone had the freedom to improvise. This process meant that it could take a long time to get material together. Claire Muldoon would write descriptions of what was planned but this could change. This means that the CAST scripts in existence do not necessarily reflect the plays as performed. They often act more as a record. The whole group moved into Roland and Claire’s flat in 1969 and rehearsed there too. However, the original group split in 1971/2. There were arguments about childcare for the Muldoons’ child and also whether to accept Arts Council money. Those that left formed Kartoon Klowns and Red Saunders also set up Rock Against Racism in 1976.
Around this time they were moving in circles of people making agitprop, including meeting those who would go on to form Red Ladder, who were then called the Agitprop Players, who had supported the ‘Not A Penny On The Rent’ protests on council estates at the time. The idea was that they could all work together. There was some tension between CAST and Red Ladder, with Muldoon stating: ‘we fell out with them a bit because we thought they were a bit straight and weren’t artistic enough and weren’t really about theatre; they were about propaganda’ (Roland Muldoon 2014). Muldoon felt they later became ‘state agitprop’ after their move to Leeds and being funded by the Arts Council to put on information plays. However, Muldoon also felt that Red Ladder did ‘play a really important parallel role to us’ (Roland Muldoon 2014). Other contemporary political theatre groups included: 7:84, Belt and Braces, Northwest Spanner and West London Theatre Company. Muldoon differentiated CAST’s work from these other groups: ‘Community theatre we weren’t. Nor were we Agit Prop. We were political theatre. We never told people what to do in our plays. We were part of the culture to whom we played our theatre. In comparison to General Will, Red Ladder and Broadside, CAST were like a psychedelic trip. … it was seriously avant-garde.’ (Rees, quoted in McDonnell, 2010: 101)
Money was short and poverty sometimes necessitated taking food from supermarkets without paying. Claire used to ‘freak out’ about Roland doing this but it did not worry him: ‘I didn’t have a moral problem with it all but some people do. I don’t think you should steal from the poor but I think you should steal from the rich.’ (Roland Muldoon 2014). During this period Belt and Braces gave CAST their grant for that year, their own finances bolstered by the success of Accidental Death of an Anarchist.
The play that ultimately helped CAST gain Arts Council funding was Sam the Man (1975-77), which explored the Labour Party’s record and betrayals since 1945, appealing to the audience’s ‘emotional socialism’. They ended up being recommended for a grant of £35,000 but in the end received only £14,000. The CAST crew now included Derek Couturier, Dave French and Liz Olney . The subjects of plays included cuts (Community United To Save or Cutting us to Shreds) and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (The other way round performed with John Arden). The Arts Council grant lasted from 1976 to 1985, which was ‘amazing’. However, the demands of the grant required them to tour nationally and they hardly ever played London.
A key work in this period was Confessions of a Socialist (1978). In the play Harold Muggins, played by Roland, spends his redundancy money on a package holiday to Spain, unfortunately meaning he misses the people’s revolution in England.
Confessions of a Socialist was developed into a solo show, Full Confessions of a Socialist, which was taken to America. In 1980 Roland won an Off-Broadway Theatre Award (aka an OBIE) for the play.
As the personnel changed, they tried to maintain their distinct style but it was challenging to teach it to new people. Roland would look after the children whilst Claire acted in plays. The rise of Margaret Thatcher saw Claire playing her a number of times. CAST produced a variety of plays in the early Thatcher period, including Sedition 81, which featured the execution of the monarchy and Muldoon offering the audience a joint as a tax rebate. However, Muldoon felt the company and the movement was in many ways doomed by then: ‘Thatcher was in power, the writing was on the wall… We could see we were all going to get done’ (Roland Muldoon 2014). Their Arts Council grant ended in 1985. Muldoon later reflected this coincided with the end of the miners’ strike and the demise of the GLC.
The focus of CAST shifted away from production of plays. Since the early 1980s they had been producing CAST New Variety shows. This was partly in reaction to the changing funding climate of the early 1980s.
‘When Thatcher came to power at the end of the seventies, Gavin Richards, John McGrath and I met to discuss the way forward. Gavin said he was going to get out of touring, McGrath said he was retreating north of the border, and we said the answer was Cabaret, working through the circuit we had created with CAST. So the seed for “New Variety” was formed.’ (Rees quoted in McDonnell, 2010: 108)
In 1986 they took over the Hackney Empire, which they ran for the next twenty years. They helped to launch the careers of many in the alternative comedy movement.
Personal appraisal and thoughts:
‘The pieces usually revolve around a pathetic working-class slob (usually played by a droopy, ass-scratching Muldoon) who is the butt of every media-fraud and Establishment-trickery, who bleats 1930s socialist jargon and doesn’t realize that he is being trampled by monsters spawned from the dead bones of an ideology officially killed by Harold Wilson and the unpublicized volte-face of the Labour Party. The group performs in leotards and levis, usually in chalk-white make-up, in a highly-physical, brashly-demonstrative manner which deliberately incorporates crudeness and earthy humor. Its message is blunt and simple; revolt!’ (Marowitz, 1973: 167)
‘CAST’s is a paradigmatic history. In their development from cultural “gang” to subsidised professional ensemble to cultural entrepreneurs, they have exemplified the contradictions, crises, and transformation of British oppositional theatres in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.’ (McDonnell, 2010: 109)
|John D Muggins is Dead |
(From his birth in the US to his death in Vietnam)
|Various, inc folk clubs (in the interval), Festival Hall, Roundhouse.||1965|
|Mr Oligarchy's Circus |
(A comedy about the ruling Labour Party)
|The Trials of Horatio Muggins |
(Trial by 'The left' of the Working Class - ends with the tables being on the left by Muggins)
|Muggins Awakening |
(Muggins becomes aware of the Third World)
|Harold Muggins is a Martyre|
Produced in collaboration with John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy.
|CAST invited to Amsterdam, Berlin, France||Amsterdam, Berlin, France||1969|
|Auntie Maude is the Happening Thing |
|Come in Hilda Muggins'|
(Showed exploitation of women)
|Sam the Man |
(Samuel Keir Hardie Muggins Labour MP - cartoon history of the Labour Party since 1945 to date)
|CAST received small grant from ACGB enabling it to go full time.|
|Three for the Road |
Cuts (Cutting Us To Threads - Government cuts in public spending)
Heads You Win - Tails You Lose ( a farce about unemployment)
The Other Way Round (Ireland)
30 minutes each
|Goodbye Union Jack |
(A pun on the retiring union leader Jack Jones - about the Social Contract)
|Confessions Of A Socialist |
(Black comedy - day in the life)
|What Happens Next? |
(Dealt with the muddled resistance by the Labour Movement to the rise of black hating white workers)
|Killer On The Loose |
(Health and Safety at work)
|Waiting For Lefty |
(About the New York taxi drivers strike in the 30's. 1st professional production in Britain produced with North Wet Spanner of Manchester and two ex-Untiy Theatre Actors)
Writer: Clifford Odets
|Toured by the Union Circuit (CAST's new venture)||1979|
|Full Confessions of a Socialist |
Writter: Roland Muldoon
(Hosted by the Labot Theatre NY. Roland Muldoon won an OBIE award for best script as well as his performance)
|Labor Theatre, New York|
|From One Strike to Another |
(Life on the picket line for the Smellnice Strikers)
|Sedition 81 |
(First produced with Belt and Braces then CAST)
|Hotel Sunshine (The story of one woman and her struggle to survive in the shadow of Armageddon)|
|Last Tango in Hua Hyua Tanango|
(This was the San Fransico Mime Troups visiting Britain)
|The birth of CAST Presents - New Variety.|
CAST suports other artists who are not as yet funded. Later funded by the GLC.
|Brixton, later Cricklewood, Wood Green, Shepherds Bush.||1982|
|The Return of Sam the Man (History of the Labour Party since 1945 to date and beyond) |
|What's Funny? & Mrs T and Left Wing Teds|
(1st half monologue, 2nd half play). Featuring band)
|Reds under the Bed|
(A Political Pantomime for our time with New Variety Artists and CAST. Featuring the Wickedest Person in the West)
|CAST takes over and set up (formerly Variety Theatre & then Bingo Hall) Hackney Empire Theatre|
CAST prioritises New Variety, Black Theatre and other Popular Forms such as 291 Club, The Emerging Comedy/New Variety Shows.
Includes CAST productions of Teka Boo (spoof talent show) & the annual New Act of the Year Show, highlighting the new comedy talent such as Linda Smith, Stuart Lee, Harry Hill, Russell Brand, Nina Conti + hundreds more.
|The NATY's (New Act of the Year Final) continued yeary at different venues until it found a regular home at the Bloomsbury Theatre||2005 -|
|Rural Comedy produced regular New Variety shows in Buckinghamshire||2008 -|
Interviewee reference: Roland Muldoon
Existing archival material:
The CAST archive is at the University of East London and can be viewed online here and here.
New Variety Lives
Alternative Theatre Directory (1980?)
Confessions of a Counterfeit Critic: A London Theatre Notebook 1958-71. Charles Marowitz.
Dreams and Deconstructions: Alternative theatre in Britain. Sandy Craig (1980). ‘Unmasking the Lie’, in Sandy Craig. (ed) (Derbyshire: Amber Lane Press Limited, 30-48)
Jesters to the Revolution – A history of Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre (CAST), 1965-85. Bill McDonnell. (2010). Theatre Notebook, 64 (2).
New drama outlook at the college. Roland Muldoon. (1965) in The Journal – Working Men’s College, 502.
The Second Time as Farce: Reflections on the Drama of Mean Times. David Edgar. (1988) (London: Lawrence and Wishart)
Stages in the Revolution. Political theatre in Britain since 1968. Catherine Itzin. (1980) (York: Methuen Publishing Ltd)
Acknowledgements: Page created was created by Andy Curtis. With thanks to Roland and Claire Muldoon.