Men Should Weep at the Lyttelton is a harrowing play about the misery of life in a 1930s Glasgow slum tenement. Scene after scene portrays the unrelenting horror of extreme poverty, overcrowding, sickness, unemployment and the brutalisation of the dispossessed, even of the bravest and best. Yet in a scene towards the end, I was suddenly reminded of Oscar Wilde's remark about Dickens: "One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing."
Maggie, the heroic but almost defeated mother, crushed by yet another disaster, is talking to her kind sister Lily. "It looks to me, Lily," she says, "there's nae end tae trouble. Nae end tae having the heart tore oot o ye."
"I don't suppose there is," replies Lily. "It's jist life, Maggie. (Pause) Life! Ye don't ken the hauf o' it...and neither dae I. Come oan, gie me your coat."
This was presumably one of the great moments of truth of the play, led up to throughout the action by one heart being torn out after another, yet I hardly felt a thing, except a fleeting temptation to giggle at one or two mawkish banalities. Even the truths about the exploitation of working-class women fail to arouse the sympathy they deserve. And for most of the rest of the play, I was almost completely unmoved by the characters in their torments. They seemed unreal. They lacked felt life.
This was strange because there is something profoundly moving about the bitter lot of so many people in this country, within living memory. Men and women should indeed weep, but somehow one couldn't at this. The author, Ena Lamont Stuart, who had a huge success with this play in 1947 and who was passionately concerned about the deprivation in Glasgow slums, is full of interesting observations and stories and has produced cleverly intertwined plot predicaments and well-constructed group scenes. But her characters are somewhat one dimensional and in the end she lacks that mysterious ingredient called talent. She cannot write lines worthy of her ideas and feelings, or worthy of good actors.
Perhaps the actors bear some of the responsibility, good though they are. Many of them in the big cast seemed to be, at least some of the time ,struggling with the strong Glaswegian accent, with the result that they tended to shout in a forced and unconvincing monotone. Ena Lamont Stuart wrote that she loved Glasgow speech: "It is marvellously rhythmic; it lends itself to pathos and humour. ‘Aw naw!' on a high doh can be a cry of despair, an octave lower a keen of deepest sympathy." But such vocal range and subtlety was in short supply in this production.
Bunny Christie's design was, as usual, magnificent. Most of the set consists of the interior of a miserable family kitchen — the only living room — but the rest is glimpses of the bottom part of the rooms above, and views to each side, as if the back of a congested doll's house had been left open, giving a powerful sense of the total lack of privacy in such a building. We see the bedstead and legs of a man who regularly beats up his pregnant wife, while everyone downstairs can hear, and the constant dramas on the tenement staircase. However, the squalor is not truly squalid, somehow. There was an almost Vermeer-like beauty about a collection of pewter and white china on a shelf above the sink which undermined the sense of relentlessly ugly deprivation and perhaps contributed to the general feeling of unreality.