restricted access Politics, War, and Adaptation: Ewan MacColl's Operation Olive Branch, 1947
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Politics, War, and Adaptation:
Ewan MacColl's Operation Olive Branch, 1947

In 1947, Ewan MacColl, left-wing playwright, committed Communist, and cofounder (with Joan Littlewood) of the highly influential British company Theatre Workshop, wrote a play entitled Operation Olive Branch, a work that was, by his own admission, "freely adapted from the Lysistrata of Aristophanes."1 Intent on creating a working-class theatrical forum, this company was one of the most prolific, agitational, and artistically experimental groups in British theater history. In 1938, the group had performed a version of Lysistrata as a response to the Spanish Civil War, an event that cast a long shadow over the culture of the British Left.2 After the Second World War, MacColl revised and renamed the play; Operation Olive Branch, as it was now known, was produced by Littlewood in 1947 as part of the touring repertoire. The company had a long-standing interest in Greek drama; in fact, Littlewood notes that "it was considered mere philan-dering to read latter-day classics, let alone modern plays, unless you'd acquired a thorough grounding in the ancients."3

The company's interaction with Lysistrata occurred during one of the most bloody and turbulent periods in twentieth-century history, what the Second Manifesto of Theatre Union (an earlier incarnation of Theatre Workshop) called "times of great social upheaval … faced with an ever-increasing danger of war and fascism."4 If "the 'Fifty Years' and the Peloponnesian War are the background to the entire great period of Athenian drama,"5 it seems perfectly understandable that MacColl, amidst the carnage of the Second World War, would choose to adapt a play from this tradition.

Operation Olive Branch, with Lysistrata as its source material, was an attempt to comprehend the contemporary transnational situation through drama. MacColl placed particular emphasis on certain original elements, expanding and developing specific themes in order to create a contemporary critique of war. It is these elements that really draw attention to the mid-twentieth-century context and MacColl's authorial intention.

Though the soldiers are a key aspect of Aristophanes' original, in MacColl's version they are predominant. Consequentially the women, central to Aristophanes' play, are not introduced until the second scene; rather, MacColl begins his play with a tableau of the soldiers playing cards, bemoaning their lowly position in society. According to the Third Soldier (noticeably, only one of the soldiers is actually named), "a soldier doesn't need a reputation, all he needs is a good [End Page 536] sword, keen sight and segs on his feet. The rest is superfluous."6 By contrast, it is Aristophanes' old men of the Senate, transformed into modern warmongers (who are thinly veiled presentations of actual world leaders, including Winston Churchill), who control the fates of the men. They are well aware of the changing international scene and the need for diplomacy, illustrated by Draces' question, "Have you any idea who our allies are now, Strymadorus?" Philocleon replies, "Ssh! Things change, boy, change! The people you praised yesterday you have to fight to-day."7 The futility and arbitrariness of a war organized by unscrupulous leaders is MacColl's central interest.

MacColl therefore brings this ancient Greek play firmly into the post–Second World War context. His aim is to explore the decisions of the senators/governmental leaders but, further, to explore fully the effect of those decisions. There is a key transformation in genre here, as Operation Olive Branch is more a tragedy (or at least a tragicomedy) than a comedy, being an analysis of the actual lived experience of the soldiers and their families. In light of this, language becomes a central philosophical battleground. One of MacColl's primary aims was to "evolve a dramatic utterance which would crystallise, or at least reflect, a certain kind of working-class speech," and his version of Lysistrata is part of this ongoing project.8

Dialect has always been central to adaptations of this play; indeed, the dialogue of Aristophanes' original is infused with local speech patterns.9 In Operation Olive Branch, dialect becomes a local, contemporary political symbol, challenging national barriers created by war and mistrust. Take, for example...