Thursday, August 20, 2015

Upward Social Mobility and the British

You don’t always have to travel long distances to meet someone from another country. When I was growing up, throughout junior high, high school, and even college, I had an English pen pal named Irene. I would receive lengthy letters from her each week and reply with a lengthy letter of my own. We often felt as though we knew each other better than we knew many of our other friends as a result of all those letters.

I was reminded of Irene this past week when we went to see the play After Miss Julie.  Performed by the Straw Dog Theatre Company at 3829 N. Broadway in Chicago, it was written by Patrick Marber and directed by Elly Green. The story takes place in 1945 on the estate of a wealthy landowner on the election night of the Labour Government that initiated the British National Health System.

What was remarkable about the relationships among the characters in After Miss Julie was the complete social separation and subsequent differences between the upper class people living on the estate and their peers and the working class people that worked for them virtually as serfs. Successive generations of servants had grown up on the estate and never known or dreamed of any other status in life.

I won’t give away the plot of this play because I hope that Chicagoans reading this post will go see it. Even in the previews, it was seamlessly performed. Anita Deely, John Henry Roberts, and Maggie Scrantom did fine jobs as the actors in this three- person play. It will be playing at the Straw Dog Theatre through September 26th and I definitely recommend it.

By the mid 1960’s when I was corresponding with Irene, it seemed to me that the social mobility situation in England hadn’t improved very much from how it had been in the 1940’s. I was shocked when at the age of 15 or 16, Irene failed a test that determined whether or not she would be allowed to continue high school. After two years of high school, she was required to drop out. She got a job as a clerk at Woolworth’s and for her, that was that.

I was pleased when I met British people on our last trip to hear that that exam is no longer given in the English public (what they call private) schools. Hopefully, the opportunities for social mobility for working class people have improved dramatically. I haven’t corresponded with Irene in decades and have often wondered what happened to her. Did she actually work as a clerk at Woolworth’s forever? Did she ever think about doing anything else?

Seeing After Miss Julie inspired me. I don’t know how to find Irene. Not knowing her married name, I wrote a letter to her at the last address I had for her. If I don’t hear from her, I have a few other places that I can try. I probably have a 5% chance that I’ll find her. If I do, I’ll ask her what she thinks about After Miss Julie.

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