Gareth Jenkins Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Gareth Jenkins


Shadow from the past

(February 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 172, February 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Unfinished Business
by Michael Hastings

One of the myths about the Second World War is that from the outset the British people were united as one behind the fight to destroy Nazi Germany.

In fact there was considerable hostility to the war. The Communist Party denounced it as an imperialist war and backed the call for a ‘people’s peace’ and a ‘people’s government’. This had some resonance among workers.

But there were other forces wanting peace. As Hitler’s plans for the invasion of Britain in the summer of 1940 got underway, fascists prepared to welcome the German forces. The Nazis were in contact with a home-based puppet government and a New British Broadcasting radio station took to the airwaves in southern England.

This play focuses on events in a country house in the long hot summer of 1940. It is a symbol of tradition, of the continuity of British life and everything worth defending. But the aristocratic family to whom it belongs, together with their guests, a bishop and a woman police commander, are plotting the success of the planned Nazi invasion.

Their attitudes and behaviour are by turns idiotic and sinister. They drawl on about a ‘third way’ that harks back to rural Saxon ways and the need for a classless society (a society free of class antagonism).

At the same time they are absurdly snobbish, bitchy and dependent on their servants, particularly the butler whom they suspect of informing on them.

The son of the house exercises the traditional prerogative of his class by seducing the maid and then kicking her out when pregnant. He too is full of cant about wanting to be in touch with the working classes.

The unfinished business of the play’s title refers to the fact that this is no quaint episode from the past which is over and done with. The play is cast in the form of the son, now an old man in the nursing home which his country seat has become, recalling events to his nurse.

A querulous, self-pitying invalid in the opening scenes, he is still dependent on those beneath him. Just as he used the maid as a young man, he now uses the nurse. He is unrepentant, rejoicing in the present day revival of fascism.

A rather far fetched coincidence at the end of the play reinforces the point that fascism is still active and exploitative, trading on weakness while despising it.

The image of fascism that comes across is not very political. It is conveyed as a fairly grotesque collection of upper class pasties, more absurd than a threat, more to be pitied for their personal inadequacies than to be fought.

So it is difficult to see that the play goes anywhere once the basic conflict is established. And the butler’s behaviour, on which so much of the theme of social dependency depends, is frankly not very convincing. Despite some really comic moments, it’s a bit of a disappointment.

Unfinished Business is now showing at the Pit, Barbican Centre, in London

Gareth Jenkins Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 25 February 2017