What is art? Is its “meaning” inherent in the work itself or does it lie in the perception of the viewer? What are the merits of abstract versus representational art? What is the appropriate role of art collectors? These are just some of the questions that Lee Hall asks in The Pitmen Painters, based on the unlikely but true story of a group of English miners who became internationally recognized painters in the 1930s.
If Hall had focused strictly on an intellectual discussion of art, The Pitmen Painters could easily have fallen into a pedantic lecture more suited to a classroom than a theater. But Hall has done more than that. He’s written a moving exploration of what it means to be an artist and how, with the proper guidance and opportunity, the creative spark in each of us can be lit.
Hall wrote the book and lyrics for the musical Billy Elliott, which touches on the same theme, but here his focus is on a group rather than an individual: the Ashington Group of miners in that Northumberland coal town. Their true story is more heartwarming than anything a playwright could invent and the printed program for The Pitmen Painters contains several articles about them that are well worth reading. The basic facts are these: In 1903, the Worker’s Education Association was founded to provide unionized workers with educational programs including music, drama, biology, and geology. In many cases, the subjects of these programs were determined based on who happened to be available to teach them.
The Ashington Group began studying art appreciation in 1934 with Robert Lyon, a master of painting at nearby Armstrong College. But the miners soon tired of simply looking at slides of "great" paintings, so Lyon suggested they create their own work. By 1936 the group had become so accomplished that they held their first exhibition. Collectors around the world sought their paintings and there were later exhibitions in England, Germany, Belgium, and China. Though they disbanded in the 1980s, their remaining paintings are still on view in Ashington’s Woodhorn Colliery Museum.
In Hall’s telling of the story there are four miners and one dental technician who comprise the pitmen painters, plus their teacher Lyon, art patron Helen, and artists' model Susan. Hall has given the miners a string of clever one-liners and ripostes (when Lyon mentions Titian, one miner says “Bless you”), but except for Oliver Kilbourn (Jason Marr), they are largely one-dimensional personalities.
Daniel Brockley, Charles Leggett, Joseph P. McCarthy and R. Hamilton Wright bring as much individuality to their roles as Hall’s script allows and work together seamlessly as a tight-knit ensemble. But the play ultimately belongs to Kilbourn, a miner of singular talent but so constrained by his working class roots that he cannot grasp the gold ring of artistic success when it is graciously tossed to him by the art collector Helen (Morgan Rowe).
Through Oliver’s story, we see first-hand the wrenching ramifications of the rigid class system that ruled England for so many centuries. In the most powerful scene in the play Helen offers to pay Oliver to leave the mines and develop his artistic skills, but the idea is too radical and too distant from his self-expectations. Marr and Rowe express their respective awkwardness with a delicacy that tugs at the heartstrings and when Oliver finally declines Helen’s offer, we are devastated.
Frank Lawler is inspired as Lyon, who somehow never loses his temper with the miners’ initial insistence that a painting must “mean something.” Whether pushing the miners to find their own emotional response to a Renaissance painting or critiquing their early artistic efforts, Lawler’s Lyon is an empathetic and supportive mentor. It is easy to believe that this art scholar, however grounded in the academic world, is the best kind of instructor, one who is not afraid to admit that the student may surpass the teacher (as indeed they do).
Hall wrote The Pitmen Painters in the wake of British government cuts in arts and education funding. His play has both explicit and implicit political undertones, but they serve mostly to provide bursts of humor that lighten the very serious topic at hand. Director Kurt Beattie does an excellent job of working in the round and there is never a moment when dialogue is lost, even when the actors are facing away. It’s a brilliant stroke to use two large video screens on opposite sides of the theater to project the actual Ashington Group paintings as they are discussed.
More than anything else in The Pitmen Painters, they demonstrate that a gift for art can be found in unsuspected places and, when tapped, can transform everyone who comes in contact with it.
If you go: The Pitmen Painters, ACT Theatre, 700 Union Street, through May 20. Tickets $37.50-55, those under 25 $20, students $15, at the box office, by phone 206-292-7676 or online www.acttheatre.org. Pay-What-You-Will every day, day of show in person starting at 1 pm.