Blog: Lauren Mooney

The co-creator of a new play about the Luddites asks what impossible things we should be ready to fight for in 2019

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Four years ago, my dad told me about the rash of mechanisation occurring at his work, in the sorting office at Royal Mail. If things continue at their current pace, technological advances will see 10 million of us out of our jobs in the next 15 years – and I started thinking about the Luddites and what their story has to offer us today.

In 2019, their name is a synonym for technophobia and resistance to progress: if you don’t know how to use your phone, send a tweet or stream films, you might call yourself a luddite. But to be a Luddite in 1812 was to resist the kind of progress that wanted to dash you against a cliff face. Caught in the first stirrings of the industrial revolution, these people faced losing their source of income in a society that would let them starve to death without one.

The rebellion started in Nottingham in 1811 and spread like wildfire through the East Midlands and the north of England. Groups of people, often in the cotton or woollen industries, were facing starvation. Their jobs had been cut and wages forced down by bad trade and new machinery. Workers in 1811 couldn’t vote, couldn’t unionise – and they began fighting for their lives using the only means available to them.

Luddites worked at night, in groups, disguised. They set factories on fire and destroyed machinery. For a while, the country looked close to all-out revolution. Almost all of their violence was against property rather than people – but a desperate government made machine-breaking a capital offence, punishable by death, officially placing the value of the machines – and the money they made their employers – above human life.

We make theatre through a devising process. That means that we don’t write a script in advance

I tinkered away at the Luddites for a bit, trying to write a show about them, but got nowhere. And then, two years ago, my Kandinsky Theatre Company collaborator, director James Yeatman, spent the summer in Manchester, working on Persuasion at the Royal Exchange. He fell in love with the city’s radical spirit. There was a kind of identity in Manchester, he felt, that was more marked, more openly political than that of other places he’d lived. We started talking about trying to make a show that spoke to that, and when we began discussing what that show might look or feel like, we came back to the Luddites.

We make theatre through a devising process. That means that we don’t write a script in advance. James and I plan a story, the shape of a show, and on day one of rehearsals we share that plan with our company of performers and designers and ask them to create it with us. It’s a collaboration – and that felt appropriate for a show about collective action, about how groups of people can work together to create change.

A few weeks before we came up to start rehearsals, Amber Rudd talked about the risks to work posed by technological advances. “History shows that we can be positive,” she said. “This is not the first industrial revolution; all the evidence from the past is that automation and technology can be hugely disruptive, but the role of labour evolves – it is not obliterated. No one looks back now and thinks: I wish the Luddites had won.”

For us, one reason to revisit this moment in history is to say that, in many ways, the Luddites did win. The things they were fighting for felt impossible to them: a minimum wage that would allow them to afford to eat at the end of a 60-hour week; a working day of no more than 10 hours. They were told these were ludicrous dreams. Employment rights still need safeguarding and protecting – the rise of zero-hour contracts has meant that many people using food banks or claiming housing benefit are actually in work – but the Luddites would have been proud to see what rights we do have, and have them partly because, 200 years ago, people died to bring this reality a little closer.

So the question is: what are we being told is impossible now? And what impossible things should we be ready to fight for?

There’s is a Light That Never Goes Out: Scenes from the Luddite Rebellion is at Manchester’s Royal Exchange until 10 Aug

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