Part 10, Chapter 2 : Strife
Part 10, Chapter 2
NOT since Hauptmann's "Weavers" was placed before the thoughtful public, has there apt peered anything more stirring than "Strife."
Its theme is a strike in the Trenartha Tin Plate Works, on the borders of England and Wales. The play largely centers about the two dominant figures: John Anthony, the President of the Company, rigid, autocratic and uncompromising; he is unwilling to make the slightest concession, although the men have been out for six months and are in a condition of semi-starvation. On the other hand there is David Roberts, an uncompromising revolutionist, whose devotion to the workers and the cause of freedom is at redwhite heat. Between them are the strikers, worn and weary with the terrible struggle, driven and tortured by the awful sight of poverty at home.
At a directors' meeting, attended by the Company's representatives from London, Edgar Anthony, the President's son and a man of kindly feeling, pleads in behalf of the strikers.
Edgar. I don't see how we can get over it that to go on like this means starvation to the men's wives and families . . . It won't kill the shareholders to miss a dividend or two; I don't see that that's reason enough for knuckling under.
Wilder. H'm! Shouldn't be a bit surprised if that brute Roberts hadn't got us down here with the very same idea. I hate a man with a grievance.
Edgar. We didn't pay him enough for his discovery. I always said that at the time.
Wilder. We paid him five hundred and a bonus of two hundred three years later. If that's not enough! What does he want, for goodness' sake?
Tench. Company made a hundred thousand out of his brains, and paid him seven hundred--that's the way he goes on, sir.
Wilder. The man's a rank agitator! Look here, I hate the Unions. But now we've got Harness here let's get him to settle the whole thing.
Harness, the trade union official, speaks in favor of compromise. In the beginning of the strike the union had withdrawn its support, because the workers had used their own judgment in deciding to strike. Harness. I'm quite frank with you. We were forced to withhold our support from your men because some of their demands are in excess of current rates. I expect to make them withdraw those demands to-day.... Now, I want to see something fixed upon before I go back tonight. Can't we have done with this old-fashioned tug-of-war business ? What good's it doing you ? Why don't you recognize once for all that these people are men like yourselves, and want what's good for them just as you want what's good for you.... There's just one very simple question I'd like to put to you. Will you pay your men one penny more than they force you to pay them?
Of course not. With trade unionism lacking in true solidarity, and the workers not conscious of their power, why should the Company pay one penny more? David Roberts is the only one who fully understands the situation. Roberts. Justice from London? What are you talking about, Henry Thomas? Have you gone silly? We know very well what we are--discontented dogs--never satisfied. What did the Chairman tell me up in London ? That I didn't know what I was talking about. I was a foolish, uneducated man, that knew nothing of the wants of the men I spoke for.... I have this to say--and first as to their condition.... Ye can't squeeze them any more. Every man of us is well nigh starving. Ye wonder why I tell ye that? Every man of us is going short. We can't be no worse off than we've been these weeks past. Ye needn't think that by waiting ye'll drive us to come in. We'll die first, the whole lot of us. The men have sent for ye to know, once and for all, whether ye are going to grant them their demands.... Ye know best whether ye can afford your tyranny--but this I tell ye: If ye think the men will give way the least part of an inch, ye're making the worst mistake ye ever made. Ye think because the Union is not supporting us--more shame to it!--that we'll be coming on our knees to you one fine morning. Ye think because the men have got their wives an' families to think of--that it's just a question of a week or two-- . . .
The appalling state o f the strikers is demonstrated by the women: Anna Roberts, sick with heart trouble and slowly dying for want of warmth and nourishment; Mrs. Rous, so accustomed to privation that her present poverty seems easy compared with the misery of her whole life.
Into this dismal environment comes Enid, the President's daughter, with delicacies and jams for Annie. Like many women of her station she imagines that a little sympathy will bridge the chasm between the classes, or as her father says, "You think with your gloved hands you can cure the troubles of the century."
Enid does not know the life of Annie Roberts' class: that it is all a gamble from the "time 'e 's born to the time 'e dies."
Mrs. Roberts. Roberts says workin' folk have always lived from hand to mouth. Sixpence to-day is worth more than a shillin' to-morrow, that's what they say. . . . He says.that when a working man's baby is born, it's a toss-up from breath to breath whether it ever draws another, and so on all 'is life; an' when he comes to be old, it's the workhouse or the grave. He says that without a man is very near, and pinches and stints 'imself and 'is children to save, there can be neither surplus nor security. That's why he wouldn't have no children, not though I wanted them.
The strikers' meeting is a masterly study of mass psychology,-the men swayed hither and thither by the different speakers and not knowing whither to go. It is the smooth-tongued Harness who first weakens their determination to hold out.
Harness. Cut your demands to the right pattern, and we'll see you through; refuse, and don't expect me to waste my time coming down here again. I'm not the sort that speaks at random, as you ought to know by this time. If you're the sound men I take you for-no matter who advises you against it--you'll make up your minds to come in, and trust to us to get your terms. Which is it to be? Hands together, and victory--or--the starvation you've got now?
Then Old Thomas appeals to their religious sentiments:
Thomas. It iss not London; it iss not the Union--it iss Nature. It iss no disgrace whateffer to a potty to give in to Nature. For this Nature iss a fery pig thing; it is pigger than what a man is. There is more years to my hett than to the hett of anyone here. It is a man's pisness to pe pure, honest, just, and merciful. That's what Chapel tells you.... We're going the roat to tamnation. An' so I say to all of you. If ye co against Chapel I will not pe with you, nor will any other Got-fearing man.
At last Roberts makes his plea, Roberts who has given his all--brain, heart and blood--aye, sacrificed even his wife to the cause. By sheer force of eloquence and sincerity he stays his fickle comrades long enough at least to listen to him, though they are too broken to rise to his great dignity and courage.
Roberts. You don't want to hear me then? You'll listen to Rous and to that old man, but not to me. You'll listen to Sim Harness of the Union that's treated you so fair; maybe you'll listen to those men from London. . . . You love their feet on your necks, don't you? . . . Am I a liar, a coward, a traitor? If only I were, ye'd listen to me, I'm sure. Is there a man of you here who has less to gain by striking? Is there a man of you that had more to lose? Is there a man among you who has given up eight hundred pounds since this trouble began ? Come, now, is there? How much has Thomas given up--ten pounds or five or what? You listened to him, ant what had he to say? "None can pretend," he said,"that I'm not a believer in principle--but when Nature says: 'No further,' 'tes going against Nature!" I tell you if a man cannot say to Nature: "Budge me from this if ye can I"--his principles are but his belly. "Oh, but," Thomas says, "a man can be pure and honest, just and merciful, and take off his hat to Nature." I tell you Nature's neither pure nor honest, just nor merciful. You chaps that live over the hill, an' go home dead beat in the dare on a snowy night--don't ye fight your way every inch of it? Do ye-go lyin' down an' trustin' to the tender mercies of this merciful Nature? Try it and you'll soon know with what ye've got to deal. 'Tes only by that (he strikes a blow with his clenched fist) in Nature's face that a man can be a man. "Give in," says Thomas; "go down on your knees; throw up your foolish fight, an' perhaps," he said, "perhaps your enemy will chuck you down a crust." . . . And what did he say about Chapel? "Chapel's against it," he said. "She's against it." Well, if Chapel and Nature go hand in hand, it's the first I've ever heard of it. Surrendering's the world of cowards and traitors.... You've felt the pinch o't in your bellies. You've forgotten what that fight 'as been; many times I have told you; I will tell you now this once again. The fight o' the country's body and blood against a blood-sucker. The fight of those that spend themselves with every blow they strike and every breath they draw, against a thing that fattens on them, and grows and grows by the law of merciful Nature. That thing is Capital! A thing that buys the sweat o' men's brows, and the tortures o' their brains, at its own price. Don't I know that ? Wasn't the work o' my brains bought for seven hundred pounds, and hasn't one hundred thousand pounds been gained them by that seven hundred without the stirring of a finger. It is a thing that will take as much and give you as little as it can. That's Capital! A thing that will say--"I'm very sorry for you, poor fellows--you have a cruel time of it, I know," but will not give one sixpence of its dividends to help you have a better time. That's Capital! Tell me, for all their talk, is there one of them that will consent to another penny on the Income Tax to help the poor ? That's Capital! A white-faced, stony-hearted monster! Ye have got it on its knees; are ye to give up at the last minute to save your miserable bodies pain? When I went this morning to those old men from London, I looked into their very 'earts. One of them was sitting there--Mr. Scantlebury, a mass of flesh nourished on us: sittin' there for all the world like the shareholders in this Company, that sit not moving tongue nor finger, takin' dividends--a great dumb ox that can only be roused when its food is threatened. I looked into his eyes and I saw he was afraid--afraid for himself and his dividends, afraid for his fees, afraid of the very shareholders he stands for; and all but one of them's afraid--like children that get into a wood at night, and start at every rustle of the leaves. I ask you, men--give me a free hand to tell them: "Go you back to London. The men have nothing for you!" Give me that, and I swear to you, within a week you shall have from London all you want. 'Tis not for this little moment of time we're fighting, not for ourselves, our own little bodies, and their wants, 'tis for all those that come after throughout all time. Oh! Men--for the love o' them, don't roll up another stone upon their heads, don't help to blacken the sty, an' let the bitter sea in over them. They're welcome to the worst that can happen to me, to the worst that can happen to us all, aren't they--aren't they? If we can shake the white-faced monster with the bloody lips, that has sucked the life out of ourselves, our wives, and children, since the world began. If we have not the hearts of men to stand against it breast to breast, and eye to eye, and force it backward till it cry for mercy, it will go on sucking life; and we shall stay forever what we are, less than the very dogs.
Consistency is the greatest crime of our commercial age. No matter how intense the spirit or how important the man, the moment he will not allow himself to be used or sell his principles, he is thrown on the dust heap. Such is the fate of Anthony, the President of the Company, and of David Roberts. To be sure they represent opposite poles--poles antagonistic to each other, poles divided by a terrible gap that can never be bridged over. Yet they share a common fate. Anthony is the embodiment of conservatism, of old ideas, of iron methods:
Anthony. I have been Chairman of this Company since its inception two and thirty years ago. . . . I have had to do with "men" for fifty years; I've always stood up to them; I have never been beaten yet. I have fought the men of this Company four times, and four times I have beaten them.... The men have been treated justly, they have had fair wages, we have always been ready to listen to complaints. It has been said that times have changed; if they have, I have not changed with them. Neither will I. It has been said that masters and men are equal! Cant! There can only be one master in a house! Where two men meet the better man will rule. It has been said that Capital and Labor have the same interests. Cant! Their interests are as wide asunder as the poles. It has been said that the Board is only part of a machine. Cant! We are the machine; its brains and sinews; it is for us to lead and to determine what is to be done; and to do it without fear or favor. Fear of the men! Fear of the shareholders! Fear of our own shadows! Before I am like that, I hope to die. There is only one way of treating "men"--with the iron hand. This half-and-half business, the half-and-half manners of this generation, has brought all this upon us. Sentiments and softness and what this young man, no doubt, would call his social policy. You can't eat cake and have it! This middle-class sentiment, or socialism, or whatever it may be, is rotten. Masters are masters, men are men! Yield one demand, and they will make it six. They are like Oliver Twist, asking for more. If I were in their place I should be the same. But I am not in their place. . . . I have been accused of being a domineering tyrant, thinking only of my pride--I am thinking of the future of this country, threatened with the black waters of confusion, threatened with mob government, threatened with what I cannot say. If by any conduct of mine I help to bring this on us, I shall be ashamed to look my fellows in the face. Before I put this amendment to the Board, I have one more word to say. If it is carried, it means that we shall fail in what we set ourselves to do. It means that we shall fail in the duty that we owe to all Capital. It means that we shall fail in the duty that we owe ourselves.
We may not like this adherence to old, reactionary notions, and yet there is something admirable in the courage and consistency of this man; nor is he half as dangerous to the interests of the oppressed as our sentimental and soft reformers who rob with nine fingers, and give libraries with the tenth; who grind human beings and spend millions of dollars in social research work. Anthony is a worthy foe; to fight such a foe, one must learn to meet him in open battle.
David Roberts has all the mental and moral attributes of his adversary, coupled with the spirit of revolt and the inspiration of modern ideas. He, too, is consistent: he wants nothing for his class short of complete victory.
It is inevitable that compromise and petty interest should triumph until the masses become imbued with the spirit of a David Roberts. Will they ever? Prophecy is not the vocation of the dramatist, yet the moral lesson is evident. One cannot help realizing that the workingmen will have to use methods hitherto unfamiliar to them; that they will have to discard the elements in their midst that are forever seeking to reconcile the irreconcilable--Capital and Labor. They will have to learn that men like David Roberts are the very forces that have revolutionized the world and thus paved the way for emancipation out of the clutches of the "white-faced monster with bloody lips," toward a brighter horizon, a freer life, and a truer recognition of human values.
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