Trevor Griffiths, Marxist writer for theater and film, dies at 88

Trevor Griffiths, a prolific and avowedly Marxist writer for stage and screen, best known for his play “Comedians,” which ran in London and on Broadway, died March 29 at his home in Yorkshire, England. He was 88 years old.

His agent, Nicki Stoddart, said the cause was heart failure.

An important figure on the English left, Griffiths bridged the political with the personal and expressed this affinity across a wide range of topics, whether related to British party politics or comparable upheavals abroad.

Its maximum visibility occurred during the decade from 1975 onwards. That period included the premiere of “Comedians” in Nottingham, England, in 1975, as well as its premiere in New York in 1976 – it was his only play on Broadway – and his lone foray into Hollywood, as Warren's collaborator Beatty to his screenplay. for the admired film “Reds” (1981).

His plays gave Laurence Olivier his last stage role, in the National Theater premiere of “The Party” (1973) – an anatomy of the British left set against the backdrop of the 1968 political riots in Paris – and offered opportunities to budding talents. Among them were Jonathan Pryce, who won a Tony for “Comedians,” and Kevin Spacey and Gary Oldman, who starred in the American and British premieres of Griffith's play “Real Dreams” in the 1980s.

“Comedians,” set in Manchester among aspirants to an evening comedy course, has had notable revivals over the years, including a 2003 Off Broadway production, with Raúl Esparza inheriting Mr. Pryce's career-defining role , and one at the Lyric Hammersmith in London in 2009, with David Dawson playing the same role.

Mr. Pryce's performance as the angry, class-conscious Gethin Price, who shaved his hair in a symbolic gesture, caused a sensation first in Nottingham and London and then in New York, where Mr. Pryce, at 29 years, he took to the town playing The Bilious Skinhead by Mr Griffiths, who is also an amateur comedian. (Mr. Pryce's performance survives in a 1979 version made for the BBC.)

“There were a few hiccups along the way in trying to connect a Manchester United fan with a shaved head and the New York crowd,” Pryce said in a telephone interview.

But comedy, he said, “established me in America; getting the Tony” – in 1977 – “and having a foothold there meant I could go on and on, which I've done all my life.”

Mr. Pryce's memories of that period include watching how Mr. Griffiths was “wooed and seduced,” he said, by Mr. Beatty, who had approached Mr. Griffiths to write the screenplay for “Reds,” the historical film by Mr. Beatty. epic about socialist activist and Harvard-educated author John Reed.

“Politically they were like-minded,” Pryce said of Beatty and Griffiths. “I think Trevor saw the film as a way to appeal to a larger audience for his beliefs and his thoughts, although I don't think he came away happy with it, per say.”

This was largely confirmed in a 2007 Vanity Fair article about the making of “Reds.”

“The atmosphere around us was poisonous, terrible,” Griffiths told Peter Biskind, the article's author. “It was messy, it was vile and it was foul-mouthed on both sides.” As a result, Griffiths left the very film for which he had shared a 1982 Oscar nomination for original screenplay with Beatty – whose Oscar acceptance speech that year, when he won best director, made no mention of the his former colleague.

Trevor Griffiths was born on 4 April 1935 into a working-class family in Manchester. His father, Ernest, cleaned vats in an acid factory, and his mother, Annie, was a bus conductor. Britain's Education Act of 1944 expanded access to good schools, which changed his horizons in an instant. He studied English at Manchester University, graduating in 1955, and then worked as a teacher and education officer for the BBC.

From the 1970s onwards, Griffiths combined writing for the theater with large-scale work for television. One of her early plays, “Occupations,” was performed several times before being staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company, with a young Patrick Stewart and Ben Kingsley in the cast. His focus on the Italian Marxist writer and theorist Antonio Gramsci was characteristic of Griffiths's interest in revolutions of all kinds: a self-proclaimed playwright-provocateur, who once said he was keen to “teach through entertainment”. (The show was seen briefly Off Broadway in 1982.)

In “The Party,” Laurence Olivier played John Tagg, a Glaswegian Trotskyist who finds himself at a fancy dinner in London discussing the other meaning of that word: party politics. “It was an amazing thing to see him hold the stage with a Marxist lecture for 20 minutes,” Tony Award-winning playwright David Edgar, who attended the show, said in an interview.

Griffiths' original works for TV included “Through the Night” (1975), inspired by his wife Janice's experience with breast cancer, and “Bill Brand” (1976), an 11-part series spanning a year in the life of a Labor member. Party member in Parliament. “Country” (1981) was a family drama influenced by Griffiths' earlier adaptation of Chekhov's “The Cherry Orchard” and was screened as part of “Play for Today,” the influential BBC series dedicated to new socially conscious writing busy.

He wrote Ken Loach's 1986 film “Fatherland,” about a German singer-songwriter, and had long hoped to make a film with Richard Attenborough about the American revolutionary Thomas Paine; that material instead ended up in a 2009 play, “A New World,” at Shakespeare's Globe, in which John Light played the passionate pamphleteer.

Griffiths' adaptations included “Sons and Lovers” (1981), a six-part BBC version of DH Lawrence's novel, and “Piano,” a 1990 play for the National Theater adapted from a 1977 Russian film which in turn takes as its source Chekhov's first play “Platonov”.

London-based Turkish director Mehmet Ergen directed the Turkish premiere of “Piano” in Istanbul in 2010, as well as the London theater premiere of Griffiths’ “Cherry Orchard,” which until then had only been seen regionally and on TV .

That revival of Chekhov was staged at the Arcola Theater in Ergen in East London in 2017 and proved to be the last major staging during Griffiths' lifetime of one of his plays in London.

He married Janice Stansfield in 1960; she died in a plane crash in 1977. He is survived by their three children, Sian, Emma and Joss, and his second wife, Gill (Cliff) Griffiths, whom he married in 1992.

In an interview, Mr. Ergen spoke fondly of Mr. Griffiths. In his final years, Griffiths “still thought that art played a particular role in social change: for him everything was political”.

Or, as Griffiths himself said in a 2008 speech at the University of Manchester, his alma mater, about the drive for awareness and social improvement that has always been present in him: “An army of principles will penetrate where an army of the soldiers he cannot. He will march on the horizon of the world and win.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *