One needn’t be interested in painting, mining, or things British to enjoy “The Pitmen Painters,” an often funny and at times ferociously affecting new play on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. The play was written by Lee Hall, whose screenplay and book for “Billy Elliot The Musical” (still running) won the 2009 Tony Award. Hall’s two plays have some aspects in common: both take place in the austere coal-mining district of northern Britain; both are based on true stories; and both concern very manly men who allow themselves to be stretched by circumstances, into taking up a cultural pursuit uncommon to their class and local community—ballet in “Billy Elliot,” oil painting in “Pitmen.”
Hall’s latest play was inspired by William Feaver’s book, Pitmen Painters, about a group of miners in Northumberland who, through an art appreciation class, began to paint. In the 1930s and 1940s, the work of the Ashington Group, as they called themselves after the name of the Ashington Colliery, was exhibited internationally and acclaimed widely.
The play proved popular in London for two years before the British ensemble cast and director were brought to the U.S. stage by way of the Manhattan Theater Club.
Four men (three miners and a dental technician), their teacher Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly) who is an art historian, a female model, and a rich art collector Helen Sutherland (Phillippa Wilson) make up the cast.
The class is both an ensemble and also distinct characters. One miner is rule-bound and rigid in temperament; another is focused on domestic life, which can be seen in his paintings of his dogs and his dining room table; the dental technician is a Communist sympathizer, whose ideology breaks out in unbidden speeches. The character of Oliver Kilbourn (Christopher Connel) is the most highly developed among the class. Not only is his work noteworthy from the first painting shown, but he is the first to understand what art is, what role it can play in a society, what an artist is, and how art has also spawned a business for collectors and dealers. The works shown throughout the play are select reproductions by the Ashington Group. See the New York Times video for examples of their art and images of the cast.
While the play has received criticism for being didactic, the classroom setting makes that allowable, in my view, as does the fact that the audience silently beholds how learning—about art and their own power to make it—affects and changes the men in the class.
In the initial session, the teacher Robert Lyon realizes that his students do not have enough background in the subject—that is, they have not learned enough history nor have they attended museums or seen real art—to learn from a standard art appreciation course, which consists of discussing slideshows and comparing artists and genres period by period. These students live in impoverished, rural communities. They began to work while still very young. Lyon, a member of the privileged, educated class, realizes immediately that these men can learn best and quickest by making art themselves. So he assigns them to make a painting for the second class. They will talk about that.
Who knows what quality of work Lyon expected from his students. But when Oliver Kilbourn reluctantly shows his painting of a miner, the audience all but gasps for the clarity and emotion portrayed within it. Art is no respecter of class. This man has raw talent and deep passion.
Then there’s the level of experience. These men’s ignorance of the art world accounts for much of the play’s humor, such as when a model appears in class before the teacher arrives and inquires about where to remove her clothes.
Yet ignorance is only a foible. A somewhat disturbing scene takes place between Helen Sutherland, the wealthy art patron, and Oliver. Sutherland asks whether he would like her to set him up in her studio so he can pursue his art. She has done this for another artist whom Oliver meets and finds disgruntled, perhaps even used. Her proposition is explicitly sponsorship, but it is delivered with erotic overtones, and Oliver eventually decides against it. “I’m a miner,” he tells her. He apparently knows who he is, and how isolating and ruinous it would be for him to be thrust into her world, since his art is being mined from his own.
One of the best scenes is when the men describe having seen art for the first time after a field trip to London. Their enthusiastic, fresh response is striking. Of Van Gogh’s painting of his bedroom, a miner says, “It’s not a rich man’s room.” While that might seem obvious, given the room’s simple and scant furnishings, the subtext is enlightening: it’s not being a rich man’s room didn’t stop the artist from painting it or viewers from deeming it a masterpiece. That populist viewpoint is what this drama is all about.
Karen Sue Smith