Frail heroine of Communism

Heart of the Heartless World
November 10, 1995

Communist activist, novelist, fellow of New Hall College, Cambridge, author of what remains the most important critical study on Thomas Middleton, Puritanism and Theatre, editor of Labour Research, and above all an inspirational teacher, Margot Heinemann's influence on cultural and political life is measured by the range of contributions in this collection. By the time I first met her, at a meeting in support of the miners in Cambridge in 1984, she looked frail, but that first impression was swept away by a passionate speech from the floor denouncing government policy and advocating vigorous resistance.

The title of this important memorial collection plays a similar trick on the eye. "Heart of the heartless world" is a line from John Cornford's poem (taken from Marx), written to Heinemann just before he was killed in the Spanish civil war.

According to Eric Hobsbawm, she is not in any of the histories of the Communist party or of Cambridge in the 1930s, so if they were all we had to go on, that poem might be how she was remembered: as an image of a time when Communism seemed "the great, the only hope". This volume tells a different story.

Not surprisingly, the six essays on the 17th century stand out strongly. Christopher Hill, Robert Weimann, Victor Kiernan and Inga-Stina Ewbank all engage in a dialogue with Heinemann's scholarship, but with an eye on the continuing relevance of these debates for the present.

That was very much the thrust of Heinemann's essay on Brecht and Shakespeare in Alan Sinfield and Jonathan Dollimore's pathbreaking collection Political Shakespeare, in which her contribution made an important link between the new cultural materialism and an older materialist tradition. In this volume, four essays on the 20th-century theatre continue the discussion of the relationship between politics and culture.

Sinfield provides a timely critique of the relationship between postwar theatre and the welfare state. Peter Holland discusses the difficult idea of community in current dramatic practice. Colin Chambers and Jean Chothia write on the history of Unity Theatre and the representation of the working class on the British stage respectively. Three of the five other essays relate to debates about the novel, an abiding interest for Heinemann. Andy Croft's essay usefully places her own work, The Adventurers (1960), in the context both of debates about socialist aesthetics (in which Heinemann herself was an important player) and the politics of the 1950s.

What links all the essays is the theme of cultural resistance, but the tradition that is sustained is a long way from the uncritical advocacy of heroic struggle that, as Croft's essay tell us, the Communist party fell into in the 1950s.

Resistance in these essays is more about a transformative dialogue. Many of the contributors remember debating with Heinemann. All look at the uses of culture as part of a continuing argument, where the first impression is never quite what it seems, and the meaning of a line of poetry can be transformed by a political intervention that leaves nothing quite the same again.

Scott McCracken is a lecturer in English, University of Salford.

Heart of the Heartless World: Essays in Cultural Resistance in Memory of Margot Heinemann

Editor - David Margolies and Maroula Joannou
ISBN - 0 7453 0981 X and 0982 8
Publisher - Pluto
Price - £45.00 and £14.95
Pages - 239

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