Walter Greenwood: ‘Tragedy Behind the Play’ Interview (Hannen Swaffer, Daily Herald, 1935)

Hannen Swaffer was to be a long-term champion of Greenwood’s work, and he started work early on this project by publishing an interview with Greenwood within a month of the play version being produced at the Garrick Theatre in London in January 1935. The interview relates Love on the Dole to the experiences of Greenwood and those he knew, allowing Swaffer to develop his sustained critique of Ramsay MacDonald’s National Government and its lack of decisive action on unemployment – a critique entirely in sympathy with that in Greenwood’s novel, which specifically refers to the National Government, and (if in a slightly more muted form) in the play too. Swaffer develops three main themes in the interview:

  1. Greenwood as both representative of the unemployed, one among many, and as extraordinary in getting an audience for Love on the Dole (though Swaffer says by ‘his chance success’)
  2. Greenwood as faithful recorder of conditions in Salford, especially the situation of his then future father-in-law
  3. The responses of some prominent (non-National Government) Labour figures to the play.

Swaffer (1879-1962) had a number of eccentricities, which he certainly cultivated, and by the mid-thirties was a very widely-known, widely-read and charismatic journalist, and a leading drama critic. He was also a committed socialist throughout his life, and had certainly known poverty in his youth. Swaffer often claimed in the thirties to be ‘the most widely read journalist in the world’ and also had a reputation as ‘Britain’s most devastating drama critic’. (1) Certainly, he was influential.

In adopting Greenwood and his work, Swaffer played a key role in promoting his work and picking up on what was already an emerging public interest in this working-class writer who had produced an account of poverty in the north with which almost every kind of audience seemed able to identify. Swaffer’s interview begins by introducing Greenwood and his current activities, before exploring, as the article title promises, the very real experiences of those close to the author which fed into his play about life in Hanky Park during the as yet ongoing Depression:

Walter Greenwood, aged 31, bachelor, council-school education, part-time worker while at school, Labour member of the Salford Corporation, sat with me yesterday talking of the eulogies about his play, Love on the Dole. Everyone praised him. He was a successful author . . . When Walter Greenwood goes on Wednesday to the Town Hall, not as an author, but as a Labour councillor, he will go representing thousands of Salford persons who, like his fiancée’s father, are Means Test victims.

Walter Greenwood’s literary life is possibly the greatest romance of the modern theatre. Kicked around all his life, a mere drudge, he read, in his early youth, some Fabian essays belonging to his grandfather, a Labour pioneer . . . Walter Greenwood is one of the lucky ones. There are working-men authors all over the country trying to express themselves, either in terms of fiction of of fact. While silly people talk of a National Theatre, the truth is playgoers hate Reality!

Except for his chance success, Walter Greenwood would be merely one of hundreds of thousands of youngish men on the Means Test. He was knocked off ‘the dole’ while his first book was being written (Daily Herald, 1 February, 1935, p.16).

These paragraphs move (sometimes awkwardly) between seeing Greenwood as an extraordinary working-man – one who has made it as a ‘successful author’, hero of ‘the greatest romance of the modern theatre’ – and as an entirely representative figure, who has emerged to fame through chance and luck, since ‘there are working-men all over the country trying to express themselves’. In this unflattering aspect of the narrative, Greenwood’s typical biography (rather than artistry or a gift for writing or systematic social critique) leads him to ‘express’ a mass experience of (male) unemployment (though his election as a Labour councillor makes him representative in a less typical way too). In the usual run of things, such an expression of mass experience would never make an impression on the theatre-going public, because Swaffer with his long experience of British theatre concludes that it ‘hates’ hearing and seeing ‘Reality’. Greenwood and his play have somehow breached this instinctive aversion to serious theatre (the middle-class co-writer Ronald Gow is not mentioned at all, perhaps because he would weaken the claim that the work’s origin is purely in working-class life-experience).

At this point, Swaffer briefly turns his attention to the positive responses of a particular group of named audience members at the play. He rather gives the impression that there was an organised Labour Party outing to the play, for nearly all those named were well-known Labour figures, and all opposed to Labour participation in Ramsay MacDonald’s National Government. Included are Herbert Morrison (then Labour Leader of the London County Council), Lord Ponsonby (leader of the Labour Party in the Lords), Susan Lawrence (an MP in the first Labour government, 1923-24), Dick Mitchison (standing for election as a Labour MP), Lady Cripps (pioneer of international aid, and married to the important Labour figure, Sir Stafford Cripps), Jim Middleton (Labour Party Secretary 1934-1944), and Canon Dick Sheppard (prominent Christian socialist and pacifist). The only figure not linked to the Labour Party is Gordon Selfridge, who also pronounces Love on the Dole ‘a remarkable play’, perhaps lightly implying that those not from a Labour Party background will also be moved by Love on the Dole. (2)

Swaffer then returns to his focus on the play’s biographical origins but shifts this onto the life of Greenwood’s ‘fiancée’s father’ to reinforce the author and play as reproducing a common Salford and northern experience:

Fate of a ‘Hero’

In Salford, his fiancée’s father is merely one of those innumerable Means Test victims, who, before long, will bring down Ramsay and his sorry crew . . . He lives in Salford, near Greenwood’s home. He was one of those millions of men who rushed to the colours when war broke out. Broken and wracked in the struggle, he came back with a chest full of medals – and gas.

Too proud to claim a pension, he merely went back to work. Then came the Cotton Slump . . . So for three years he has been unemployed. He cannot claim a pension now, for it is too late.

He was on ‘the dole’ as were millions of his mates. Now the Means Test has thrown him on the scrapheap. His war service does not count. His years of work as a cotton warehouse-man count for naught. He is chargeable to his children!

Swaffer’s use of the classic rhetorical figure of zeugma (linking two often contrasting and surprising nouns to the same verb) makes his point strikingly and concisely: ‘he came back with a chest full of medals – and gas’. Clearly, this account draws on the widely-perceived failure of the ‘homes for heroes’ promise made by Lloyd George to returning servicemen after the Armistice in 1918, and links it to the National Government’s current failures to help working-people in the Depression. In fact, neither the novel nor the play of Love on the Dole did play this war-service card in their written texts – except that in the list of props for the play at the end of the Samuel French acting edition were listed the framed war medals of Mr Hardcastle – and this detail of the set was certainly noticed by at least one reviewer of the play in production. Thus the review in the Stage gave Mr Hardcastle a character very like that attributed by Swaffer to Greenwood’s then future father-in-law:

‘Mr and Mrs Hardcastle are entirely decent persons. Mr Hardcastle has fought in the war, and his medals hang on the kitchen wall. Julien Mitchell (the actor) makes the fine ex-soldier a truly tragic figure’ (7 February 1935).

To this narrative of an ungrateful government, Swaffer adds to Greenwood’s future father-in-law the independence, shown by his unwillingness to claim a war-pension in 1918, which also features as part of Mr Hardcastle’s character in the play. Swaffer brings out well the sense of humiliation likely to have been felt by such a man at not being able to earn his own living, a feeling to which the Means Test adds the last straw as under its rules his two children must keep him.

Swaffer’s ‘father-in-law’ character was the father of Greenwood’s then fiancée, Alice Myles, a Salford Co-Op Dairy manager, so she would have been one of the two children supporting her father under the operations of the Means Test. In the end, Greenwood and Myles did not marry, and at the urging of her family she successfully sued the writer for breach of promise in 1935. Greenwood admitted some liability and settled out of court, making a considerable payment of £700 plus court costs. Alice Myles has been suggested as a part model for Love on the Dole‘s Sally Hardcastle, and judging from this unique press story about her father, it seems likely that he too was indeed a part model for Greenwood’s Mr Hardcastle. Perhaps, given this closeness to some of the origins of the play, it was no wonder that Alice Myles went to see the Manchester Repertory Company production of Love on the Dole twelve times before she and Walter parted. (3)

The article moves in its final paragraphs onto the truthfulness of the play itself, and the honesty of the author, with one paragraph given the sub-heading: ‘Author Who is Frank’:

Greenwood has dodged nothing. He does not make the working people of Lancashire heroes and heroines. They have faults and stupidities.

An author who allows his heroine, as a brave challenge to the apathy around her, to become in the end the mistress of a street bookmaker, is not afraid of showing the life he has seen.

A dramatist who will allow the hero, a Labour leader, to be killed in an unemployed demonstration, is not currying favour with people who pay for stalls.

But Love on the Dole is a great play.

This is the earliest interview with Greenwood about the play. It is notable for its clear sense that the play, which had been a great theatrical success, is also an explicitly political play which exposes the failings of Ramsay MacDonald’s National Government in its response to the Depression and mass unemployment. Swaffer also makes the point that though the play is popular, it does not necessarily in every aspect give the audience what it might want, or find easiest to deal with. The article is also distinctive in arguing that the play is based largely in the real experience of Greenwood and people he knew well (indeed the biographical material on his father-in-law is found in no other source), though this has the side-effect of damping down its praise of Greenwood’s authorship of a ‘great play’ and the ‘romance’ of his achievement as a working-class writer. Hannen Swaffer in my view underestimates Greenwood’s creativity and artistry, as well as leaving unexplored other including literary origins of the play, in order to stress his ordinariness and ‘truthfulness’. Nevertheless Swaffer’s support was significant and sustained, and he not only introduced Greenwood to a wider public but kept him in their minds. Swaffer published at least seven articles about Greenwood and his work between 1935 and 1937, some long, others short pieces, but always drawing attention to the continuing work of this successful working-class author – and after 1935 to his troubles with the British Board of Film Censors. (4) In one respect, Swaffer was forgiving to Greenwood, for as well as a famous journalist and socialist, he was also a convinced Spiritualist after speaking to his former boss, the press baron Lord Northcliffe, in a series of séances in 1925, and yet never wrote anything at all about Greenwood (and Gow’s) portrayal in the play of Love on the Dole of spiritualist séances as comic examples of how the people of Hanky Park could easily be duped and manipulated by offers of false hope and small-time exploiters from their own community. (5)


Note 1. ‘Swaff‘: The Life and Times of Hannen Swaffer, by Tom Driberg, Macdonald, London, 1974, p. 1.

Note 2. I have previously discussed Swaffer’s listing of these Labour Party figures from a slightly different point of view in another article: Who Went to See the Play in the Thirties? The Reception of Love on the Dole Revisited .

Note 3. The Hull Daily Mail reported Alice Myles’s record of attendance in an article which interviewed Greenwood in London and Alice in Salford (1 February 1935, p.4). Geoffrey Moorhouse in his Dictionary of National Biography entry for Greenwood suggests that Alice was a model for Sally Hardcastle. The breach of promise case was widely reported, including in great detail by the Liverpool Echo (27 November 1935, p.8).

Note 4. See five articles in the Daily Herald (2 February 1935, p.10, 8 March 1935, p. 16, 20 May 1935, p.10, 21 October 1935, p.10, 17 February 1937, p.8) as well as in John Bull (9 January 1937, p.21) and the Era (30 December 1937, p.5). This is probably not a comprehensive list.

Note 5. For a detailed account of Swaffer’s involvement with Spiritualism see ‘Swaff‘: The Life and Times of Hannen Swaffer, by Tom Driberg, chapter VI, pp.111-128.