Good People, showing at the Noel Coward Theatre in London until 14 June, is written by David Lindsay-Abaire, and is well worth the visit. Online tickets are available from £11. The acting is excellent, although the South Boston accent spoken at speed can be a little difficult to follow at times. Imelda Staunton as an all-American working-class woman is totally convincing.
The play is a mordant comedy, exploring the contradiction between those who have risen from the lowest ranks of the working class into the labour aristocracy or petty-bourgeoisie. Whereas objectively this is a contradiction among the people rather than an antagonistic one between hostile classes, this does not mean that it is any less painful. In fact, it can often be more so, as it is more immediate – involving people one knows, rather than tycoons tucked away behind the walls of their gated estates, whom workers almost never encounter on a social basis.
The play illustrates that pain, showing as it does the contempt felt by a person who has been lucky enough, with a great deal of effort, to improve his social status for those who have not. Typically, such a person attributes his success entirely to the effort he has put in, discounting other factors altogether – for example, the luck he has also enjoyed.
It follows that he attributes the failure of other working-class people to rise out of poverty to their lack of effort and to a lack of moral fibre. This attitude is especially prevalent in proletarianised professions such as medicine, which are still awash with the petty-bourgeois prejudices inherited from the era not so long ago when most doctors were self-employed.
The pain arises because those people who have not enjoyed the same luck, who never had the opportunity to ‘improve’ themselves regardless of how much effort they exerted, do not take kindly to be looked down upon. People who feel they are being despised will tend to respond with a strong emotional urge to resist, which expresses itself as anger and hatred towards the smug idiot who dares look down on them.
Because of this, the contradiction between privileged and poor sections of the working class, which objectively is one among the people, can subjectively become antagonistic and prevent people who should at very least be allies in the class struggle from working effectively together – and can even result in them trying to hurt each other. This is a regrettable phenomenon that can from time to time even be observed among comrades.
The play does not offer a solution, though it does point to the disastrous results of not finding one. Communists, being aware of the problem, need to keep an eye open for those exhibiting petty-bourgeois arrogance and make every effort to help them realise they are far from being as wonderful as they think they are. Meanwhile, those who are the victims of arrogance must deflect the anger they feel away from half-wits with delusions of grandeur towards the real class enemy – the stinking-rich mean-spirited moneybags whose capitalist economic system is the real cause of working-class misery and destitution.