James Graham’s political drama, This House, follows the hung parliament of 1974. This play reflects on the engine that runs not only Westminster but the engine that runs the nation. Through theatrical techniques and dramatic story, Graham uses this play to remark on what it means to be British in a time of change. Two of the most pivotal themes that run throughout the play are that of social class and tradition. Graham uses these themes to reflect on Britain of the past and Britain of the future. Both of these themes are not only present in This House, but they also continuously loom over the real Westminster and the British nation.
This House explores the theme of class through the dichotomy of the Conservative and Labour parties. Stephen Unwin remarks in his book, The Well Read Play, that a “[...] character’s social background is an essential part of his makeup” and that the character’s “[...] personality is a product of environment as much as inheritance." Graham creates characters that truly embrace their social backgrounds; the characters of This House are products of their social class and environment.
Graham makes the societal contrast between the two parties strikingly clear within the first few pages of the text. The Deputy Whip for the Conservatives, Weatherhill, is introduced as “wearing an incredible suit," and Atkins, the Chief Conservative Whips, is introduced as “listening to classical music." The atmosphere of the Tories' Whip office is calm, relaxed, and dignified. Contrastly, the Chief Whip for Labour, Mellish, is introduced as “picking from sausage and chips wrapped in a newspaper," and, as the rest of the members enter the office, cheers of victory mixed with heavy swearing erupts throughout the space creating an atmosphere of uncouth behavior.
Graham continues to emphasize this separation with the dialogue between the characters. Later in the play, Atkins explicitly states to his fellow whips, “And remember, our one advantage is our, um, oh how do I put this so it won’t sound... I can’t, our ‘class.’ Labour Whips are foul-mouthed, brutish, trade unionist--." Graham immediately transitions to the Labour Whips’ office with Mellish in the middle of a long chain of expletives. Mellish also puts the class difference bluntly by telling Ann, “go in [to the toilets] and try and work out if the feet in the cubicle are Labour or not,” insinuating that Tory members would have more expensive and smarter shoes.
The theme of class is also depicted in the performance of the play. There is a stark contrast between the appearances and language of the members of each party. The costuming of the characters was one of the biggest indicators of the differences in class. The Tories were dressed in impeccable three-piece suits and smart shoes, while the Labour members wore mismatched, shabby suits with playful ties and worn out shoes. This indicated the amount of wealth each member had. Moreover, the accents of the different members represented the different classes within in each party. The Conservative members had very elegant and clear “London accents;” the accents that most people associate with British people. On the other hand, the Labour members all had middle and northern England accents, which most people would associate with the working, middle class. The performance of This House, like the text, played with the idea of a clear social divide between the Labour and Conservative parties.
From the onset, Graham is creating a social discourse between the two political parties. He shows the Tories as pomp and dignified, whereas Labour is shown as rowdy and unkempt. With these subtle characteristics, Graham is monopolizing on the common stereotype in Westminster that the Tories are wealthy, upper class, “posh” men, while Labour is working class, unionized men from Northern England. This is a stereotype that is held by many people in Britain, and even by the people in Westminster themselves.
Like Unwin suggests, Graham creates characters that are a product of their social background, and their actions and behaviors reflect that background. He takes these stereotypes and, almost, exaggerates them in order to show the disconnect between the two parties. This theme resonates even further when discussing Britain a whole. Metaphorically, the discord between the Labour and the Conservative classes are very much represented in the lives of the everyday people in Britain. Particularly in 1970’s England, the division between the social classes was striking, and they often caused great discord within the nation. Within the context of the narrative, Graham uses the social division of the parties to represent the real struggle that was happening throughout England in the 1970s. But, even today, social class divides Great Britain. It may not be as prominent as it was in the 20th century, but people are still judged by the sound of their accent or the shine of their shoes.
Yet, Graham chooses to end the play by having Weatherill selfishly offer to pair himself to allow the poorly member of the Labour party to stay home. In this moment, Weatherill chooses to support the dying Labour member regardless of the fact that he might be sacked or that his party would lose its chance to gain power. In this moment, the politics aren’t about social standing or wealth, but about humanity. Although Harrison eventually denies Weatherill’s offer, it was the humanity of the action that Graham is attempting to leave the audience with. He said in an interview with the National Theatre, “[...] Hopefully that is why [this play] resonates because it is about the human begins at the heart of it." He also commented that “[This play] is not about legislation, it’s not about policies, it’s not about domestic, foreign policy, anything like that. It’s about people who are struggling. Yes, it’s set in Westminster, but it could be set in an office, in a call center, it could be set in a school, it could be in anyone’s workplace, but essentially the rules are the same. It’s about friendship, it’s about loyalty, about rivalry, and about power. So, it’s about human beings [...]." He wants the audience to see that even though social class divides them, each party member is human and they all are seeking the same things in life. He wants the audience to see the humanity of the characters outside of their class. Graham reinforces that whether you’re Tory or Labour or upper class or working class, we are all human, and social standing shouldn’t be put before humanity in politics or in life.
Tradition plays a similar role in Graham’s story. In 1974, Britain was a changing nation, and Graham used this modernizing social change as a catalysts for his play. Yet, he couldn’t ignore the looming theme of tradition over Westminster.
Britain is a country built on tradition. For better or worse, British laws, culture, and governance relies on the past. And Graham represents this theme with the most historic representation of tradition: Parliament’s clock tower. The clock tower, both in real life and in the play, is a physical representation of the order and pride in Britain’s past; a physical representation of the power of the Empire. In Graham’s play, the clock tower physically shows the disorder and chaos of government when tradition is lost. Stephen Unwin says, “Metaphor enhances the power of the narrative and lifts the play beyond literalism into a complex web of significance. By listening to the patterns of imagery and metaphor we grasp the writer’s insights into life and the world." Graham uses the clock tower to symbolize the greater metaphor of tradition and it’s hold over Westminster.
When the sacred tradition of pairing is taken away by Atkins, the clock stops ticking. This clock has never stopped ticking, not even during the Great Wars. Cocks discusses his distress of the clock not ticking and what it means for the house. “Ha ha, yet, no you’re right, not important, eh, It’s not a, a, symbol of anything, doesn’t mean anything, only carried on ticking through all the bloody, all the great wars, the biggest crises, any time our backs were against the wall, oh yeah. And you’re telling me now for no reason it’s just stopped?" Metaphorically, the breaking of the clock represents the breaking of the government. By refusing to pair, the order and clarity of Westminster are gone.
The clock tower is used in performance as well to represent the idea of tradition looming over Westminster. This historical symbol is persistently overlooking the House of Commons throughout the play. Moreover, the members are constantly looking up to it, being reminded of the past and it’s legacy.
One particular moment in the performance that reinforced the idea of tradition is in a scene between the two parties Chief Whips, Atkins and Cocks. The clock begins ticking underneath Atkin’s dialogue about the traditionalism of the house. “One party governs, and one party opposes. That’s our system. That’s this building. Two sides of the house, two sides of the argument, facing off against each other: the gap between the government and the opposition benches the precise length of two swords drawn." A system that has operated the same way for centuries. A system that is cherished and respected by its members, a system that works. It’s possible that director Jeremy Herrin deliberately chose to put the sound of the clock ticking over top of this speech to reinforce the importance of tradition to Parliament.
Graham uses the clock tower as a metaphor for Britain’s reliance on the past and on tradition. He shows the disorder and chaos the house falls into when they don’t have their traditions to fall back on. The chaos of the second act demonstrates this idea perfectly. The Labour party is passing bills with a one or two majority, the members are fighting in the house using the Mace, and members are literally dying in the house. There is no sense or order within the Palace. Westminster can’t function because the “status quo” has been tempered with.
But, in the end, the clock is repaired and continues to tick. Pairing is restored in the house, and eventually, the Conservative party returns to power. The status quo is restored. Westminster is able to function again because the traditions are back in place.
Essentially, what Graham is trying to reinforce is that the traditions of Parliament and the way things are run are not necessarily bad. He wants to show that when tradition is lost, order is lost. Graham commented in an interview that he didn’t write this play to be a criticism of the way the government is run. “[...] As in with This House, I really tried not to do the normal thing and go, ‘they’re all crap, the system’s rubbish, why do we bother.’ I tried to see the positives in it. I tried to find ways to suggest how things might get better, and I think that’s best kind of theatre for me."
Yet, This House can’t help but to inadvertently reveal the dangerous cycle the government falls into because of tradition. Many aspects of the 1974 government can be reflected in the 2016 government. Two of the most relevant are the Scottish devolution and the “referendum on staying in or getting out of Europe”. It’s because of tradition that this government keeps going around and around in circles. It can’t evolve or move forward because it’s always looking towards the past. Graham himself remarked on Britain continuously reverting to past traditions in an interview with the Huffington Post. He said, “One of the depressing things about seeing this play be so accidentally resonant, according to audiences, is that it does reveal the fatalistic cycles that we exist in, particularly in this country." Britain is stuck in a continuous cycle because it refuses to step away from its ancient traditions. The same issues will continue to arise in the government because they can never truly be solved since actions never truly change. It shows that whether it’s 1974 or 2016, traditionalism still haunts the halls of the Palace.