Trevor Griffiths, Marxist Writer for Stage and Screen, Dies at 88


Trevor Griffiths, a prolific and avowedly Marxist writer for stage and screen most widely known for his play “Comedians,” which was staged in London and on Broadway, died on March 29 at his home in Yorkshire, England. He was 88.

His agent, Nicki Stoddart, said the cause was heart failure.

An important figure on the English left, Mr. Griffiths conjoined the political with the personal and expressed that affinity across a wide range of topics, whether connected to British party politics or comparable upheavals abroad.

He was at his most visible during the decade or so from 1975 onward. That period encompassed the premiere of “Comedians” in Nottingham, England, in 1975, as well as its New York premiere in 1976 — it was his only Broadway play — and his lone foray into Hollywood, as a collaborator with Warren Beatty on his screenplay for the much-admired movie “Reds” (1981).

His plays granted Laurence Olivier his last stage role, in the National Theater premiere of “The Party” (1973) — an anatomy of the British left set against the backdrop of the 1968 political tumult in Paris — and offered early opportunities for budding talents like Jonathan Pryce, who won a Tony for “Comedians,” and Kevin Spacey and Gary Oldman, who starred in the American and British premieres of the play “Real Dreams” in the 1980s.

“Comedians,” set in Manchester among the hopefuls in a night comedy class, has had various notable revivals over the years — among them a 2003 Off Broadway production, with Raúl Esparza inheriting Mr. Pryce’s career-defining role, and one at London’s Lyric Hammersmith in 2009, David Dawson playing the same role.

Mr. Pryce’s performance as the angry, class-conscious Gethin Price, who has shorn his hair in a symbolic gesture, caused a sensation first in Nottingham and London then, finally, in New York, where Mr. Pryce, then 29, took the town playing Mr. Griffiths’s bilious skinhead, who also happens to be an amateur comic. (Mr. Pryce’s performance lives on in a 1979 version filmed for the BBC.)

“There were a few hiccups along the way trying to relate a shaven-headed Manchester United supporter to a New York audience,” Mr. Pryce said in a phone interview.

But the play, Mr. Pryce said, “established me in America; getting the Tony” — in 1977 — “and having a foothold there meant I could go backwards and forwards, which I have done all my life.”

Mr. Pryce’s memories of that time include looking on as Mr. Griffiths was “wooed and seduced,” he said, by Mr. Beatty, who had alighted upon Mr. Griffiths to write the screenplay for “Reds,” Mr. Beatty’s historical film epic about the Harvard-educated socialist activist and author John Reed.

“Politically, they were like-minded,” Mr. Pryce said of Mr. Beatty and Mr. Griffiths. “I think Trevor saw the film as a way of getting a bigger audience for his beliefs and thoughts, though I don’t think he came out of it happily, shall we say.”

That was very much confirmed in a 2007 Vanity Fair article about the making of “Reds.”

“The atmosphere around us was poisonous, terrible,” Mr. Griffiths told Peter Biskind, the author of the article. “It was messy, it was vile and it was foulmouthed on both sides.” As a result, Mr. Griffiths departed the very film for which he went on to share a 1982 Oscar nomination for original screenplay with Mr. Beatty — whose own Academy Award acceptance speech that year, when he won for best director, made no mention of his onetime colleague.

Trevor Griffiths was born on April 4, 1935, into a working-class family in Manchester: His father, Ernest, cleaned vats in an acid-making factory, and his mother, Annie, was a bus conductor. Britain’s Education Act of 1944 broadened access to good schools, which in an instant changed his horizons. He studied English at the University of Manchester, graduating in 1955, and then worked as a teacher and an education officer for the BBC.

From the 1970s onward, he coupled writing for the theater with larger-scale work for television. An early play, “Occupations,” had several runs before it was staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company, with a young Patrick Stewart and Ben Kingsley among the cast. Its focus on the Italian Marxist writer and theorist Antonio Gramsci was characteristic of Mr. Griffiths’s interest in revolutions of all stripes — a self-appointed playwright-provocateur, he once said he was keen “to teach through entertainment.” (The play was seen briefly Off Broadway in 1982.)

In “The Party,” Laurence Olivier played John Tagg, a Glaswegian Trotskyite who finds himself at an upscale London dinner party discussing the other meaning of that word — party politics. “It was a fantastic thing to see him hold the stage with a Marxist lecture for 20 minutes,” the Tony Award-winning playwright David Edgar, who saw the performance, said in an interview.

Mr. Griffiths’s original work for TV included “Through the Night” (1975), prompted by his wife Janice’s experience with breast cancer, and “Bill Brand” (1976), an 11-part series covering a year in the life of a Labour Party member of Parliament. “Country” (1981) was a family drama influenced by Mr. Griffiths’s previous adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and was screened as part of “Play for Today,” the influential BBC series devoted to socially engaged new writing.

He wrote the 1986 Ken Loach film “Fatherland,” about a German singer-songwriter, and had long hoped to get a film made with Richard Attenborough about the American revolutionary Thomas Paine; that material instead ended up in a 2009 play, “A New World,” at Shakespeare’s Globe, in which John Light played the passionate pamphleteer.

Mr. Griffiths’s adaptations included “Sons and Lovers” (1981), a six-part version for the BBC of the D.H. Lawrence novel, and “Piano,” a 1990 play for the National Theater adapted from a 1977 Russian film that itself takes as its source the early Chekhov play “Platonov.”

The London-based Turkish director Mehmet Ergen directed the Turkish premiere of “Piano” in Istanbul in 2010, as well as the London stage premiere of Mr. Griffiths’s “Cherry Orchard,” which had until then been seen only regionally and on TV.

That Chekhov revival ran at Mr. Ergen’s own Arcola Theater in East London in 2017 and turned out to be the last major staging during Mr. Griffiths’s lifetime of one of his plays in London.

In an interview, Mr. Ergen spoke affectionately of Mr. Griffiths. In his later years, he said, Mr. Griffiths was “still thinking that art played a particular role in social change: Everything was political for him.”

Or, as Mr. Griffiths himself put it in a 2008 talk at the University of Manchester, his alma mater, with regard to the impetus for societal awareness and improvement that was always present within him: “An army of principle will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot. It will march on the horizon of the world, and it will conquer.”

Mr. Griffiths married Janice Stansfield in 1960; she died in a plane crash in 1977. He is survived by their three children, Sian, Emma and Joss, and by his second wife, Gill (Cliff) Griffiths, whom he married in 1992.


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