The Pitmen Painters, in the middle of its Chicago premiere run at TimeLine Theatre Company (through December 4), shows what happens when a group of coal miners try to figure out the secret of art. When Mr. Lyon, the man they hire to teach them “Art Appreciation” asks for clarification, they tell him, “We just want to be able to look at a picture and know what it means.” Don’t we all.
The play is the latest written by Lee Hall, the working-class British writer who brought the world Billy Elliot, and is based on the very real story of The Ashington Group, a group of pitmen turned painters starting in the late 1930s. They signed up for a class on Art Appreciation at their local Workers’ Educational Association—next on the syllabus after Evolution—and were so frustrated with it that their teacher told them that the only way for them to develop an appreciation of art was for them to do it themselves. It stuck.
The most magnificent thing about this production is that it makes you feel exactly like they do, like a total beginner who knows absolutely nothing about art. The actors are so earnest in their attempts to figure art out (and nail it down for good and all) that you experience the whole journey with them, from staring blankly at Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam and asking what the Renaissance is, to talking about art in lively discussions with ten-dollar words. The ensemble of is so strong and they have such group comradery and spirit that it’s impossible not to get swept into their world.
Add to that director BJ Jones’s bustling staging and designer Timothy Mann’s simple but quite brilliant set. The house-wide wooden ceiling beams in “The Hut” (the headquarters of the Workers Educational Association) extend over the thrust and audience alike, creating the effect that we are actually in the same room as the actors, with no division. It’s a very distinct breach of the fourth wall, and not a common one. It’s rare to see a production so effectively include the audience without a lot of direct address. The actors talk directly to the audience only in a single short scene, and yet I felt a strong personal relationship with them. Maybe it’s just bonding over figuring out what art is.
The play is more directly discussion-based than any I have ever seen—much of it consists of the characters looking at art and sharing their reactions to it, questions, impressions, and crazy ideas. It’s inspiring. Most of the time, the paintings they’re looking at are projected on the wall above them, so if you never took art history in college, now is your chance to see what that’s like.
But although this staging often feels like a college classroom, the fuel of the play is the clamorous energy of the union. These characters are, after all, pitmen, as they constantly remind us. Next to Piet Mondrion and Ben Nicholson (who makes an appearance as the disillusioned and bored boytoy of an heiress art-patron) these pitmen clash in the most ridiculous way—and that’s exactly the point. It’s very funny and never boring.
The Pitmen Painters is all about the idea that anyone can be a great artist, or rather a great artist can come from anywhere, regardless of class. This was clearly a secret collaboration with those at Pixar who brought you Ratatouille; it was even released in the same year. Coincidence? I think not. It’s a wonderful, inspiring message—if slightly oversaid—and we love to watch these unassuming underdogs prove themselves to the likes of Ben Nicholson.
It does, however, run the risk of objectifying these loveable working-class artists, especially in an audience full of old, white people (which I find unsatisfying as always, because it’s the young artists that need to see this play). Hall seems to be making the point that the pitmen are somehow more authentic than traditional artists because they are doing this in addition to a grueling subsistence job, compared to the elite, well-educated traditional artists who have cushy lives. There’s one line, said by the wealthy Helen Sutherland, the enigmatic arts-patron whom the cast referred to afterward as Mrs. Sexpot, about how wealthy people all look like stereotypes from afar, but when you look closer you see how complex things really are. Hall is definitely asking us to look closer at the complexity of everyone—something we as a society desperately need to do, but I hope we’re fostering understanding and not more idealizations and more guilt.
The play is least effective when it’s didactic. The whole journey of Dan Waller’s tortured and angry Oliver, the pitman with the soul of an artist who is singled out from the beginning as the most talented of the bunch, for example, is a pretty simplistic fable about selling out and remaining true to yourself. Those parts were often frustrating to watch. The play also gets a little preachy at the end.
You’re willing to forgive them anything, though, with an ensemble this strong. All the pitmen stand out as they banter back and forth ruthlessly, criticisizing each other’s art, decisions, or personality. William Dick is especially irresistible as the stubborn leader of the WEA who takes everything very seriously. The bumbling Steven Pringle, kind of the odd man out among the miners, also kept me laughing. Andrew Carter, as the ambitious Robert Lyon, changes before your eyes. He’s loveable at the beginning, when he sets off the artistic spark in the pitmen, but then, we watch as he gradually realizes that he doesn’t have that spark himself. Instead, his hopes turn to pretention and arrogance; starting with these wonderfully two-faced compliments he gives the pitmen. He ends by betraying the one group of people he had on his side. At the end, he is the most boring one in a world of interesting people, propelled by hope of escaping his mediocrity. His failure speaks to the failure of so many of us hopeful, earnest artists.
The Pitmen Painters is a reminder of the importance of art and why we love it. We really follow these great characters, who have never seen a piece of art before, and so we can look at art ourselves with fresh eyes.