The British parliamentary drama This House by the wunderkind playwright James Graham, a smash hit at London's National Theatre, was transmitted to cinemas worldwide as a part of the National Theatre Live series. Graham has chosen a rather unusual subject for his examination of British democracy, the period from 1974-1979 when the Labour Party had a plurality, but not a majority in Parliament over th e Conservatives, resulting in a hung Parliament in which the so-called “Odds and Sods”, the collection of small minority parties, made up the difference in representation. Graham has narrowed his focus to the respective offices of the Parliamentary Whips, whose assignment it was to ensure that the members of each party were in line with each other and voted as expected.
Once in the play, however, it's easier to understand why Graham chose to dramatize the period that he did. This five year period, during which Labour was able to maintain control of the government by the skin of its teeth, was the last period in which the representatives and constituencies of the two major parties were easily identifiable. The Labour members are actual working-class men and women, clad in ugly, loose-fitting suits, and the Tories are still the toffee-nosed products of public schools, in possession of upper-class accents, and outfitted in tweed. The House of Commons is still run by gentleman's agreements, most notably the “pairing” custom, in which absent members from one party are offset by voluntary no-shows from the other, so a party doesn't lose a vote merely due to the absence.
The party Whips are shown in the play to have no concern other than party unity; their machinations in the bowels of the Palace of Westminster are entirely dedicated toward achieving this goal, which brings to mind the sarcastic “apology” from Monty Python's Flying Circus, in which the Pythons apologize for suggesting that politicians are “weak-kneed political time servers” who “sacrifice their credibility by denying free debate on vital matters in the mistaken impression that party unity comes before the well-being of the people they supposedly represent.” We never get the sense that the whips have any conviction, but that they are merely doing a job that has to be done, without any ideological compass to guide them. Graham hedges his bet further by not giving any issue much time; most of the time, we have no idea what issue is at stake, what the respective parties' positions are on it, or what the outcome of the vote in the House is. The one wild card is a female Labour MP who refuses to toe the line, voting her conscience on major issues and literally getting out on the front lines of labor struggles, marching with her working-class constituents and even striking police officers; having been arrested for striking the officer and given a choice between a fine of 20 pounds or writing an apology letter, the latter preferred by her party. She agrees to come to the Whip's office; while the Labour whips sit around, smugly believing that they have finally gotten her to capitulate, she sits down at the desk of the Chief Whip, removes the money for the fine from her wallet, and gets up and leaves the office, never saying a word.
To make clear that this is not the perspective of a contemptuous American, let me point out it would be very easy to make a few minor changes and set This House in Washington. To his credit, Graham's play (mercifully) lacks the smugness that characterized The West Wing, or the misty-eyed mawkishness of Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln. These men and women have a job to do, and they exhaust themselves, even to the point of dying (not an infrequent occurrence). Americans would also have virtually no idea what it's like to have a party composed of working-class people. Many young Brits, after the reign of Thatcher and the rise of New Labour, would probably not recognize this Parliament either. Graham, having been born after all of this took place, belongs to that group as well, so his writing this play was an act of discovery.
After seemingly vituperative presidential elections end in the United States, the losing candidate often gives the best speech he or anyone else has given during the campaign. Despite all the effort that goes into winning the Presidency, somehow, the relief seems to allow the loser to enter into a state of grace. The same thing seems to be happening in This House; after losing the vote of no confidence, both the Labour and Tory MPs feel a great relieved that the years of fighting are over; some of us in the audience may still find ourselves wondering what the fight was all about.
James Graham's play This House will be repeated in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N Southport Ave, on Tuesday, June 25 at 7:30 PM. For other venues across the country, please visit ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk.