I've been teaching a module for final-year students called 'Positions' - my role is to lead the strand dealing with class, both in literature and as readers. The idea is that we don't just look at how social class develops as a cultural theme, we take a Gramscian approach to literature as an hegemonic vehicle, and a reader-reception/Barthesian take on the reader's role in creating meaning.
On the course so far, we've done some Chaucer, some extracts from Piers Plowman, an extract from Michael Drayton's interminable Poly-Olbion, and Anthony Munday's The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon, a play which hasn't been revived for the simple reason that it's structurally all over the place, though very interesting in many ways. The Drayton and Munday both feature Robin Hood, because I'm using him as a way to examine class as a site of social anxiety - Robin starts off as a threatening, shadowy figure, before becoming appropriated for aristocratic purposes: Munday is the first to make him a peer.
Today we're taking a different approach to Robin: Geoffrey Trease's Bows Against The Barons, a 1930s children's novel which is a rare example of children's communist propaganda. Last year it got a very good reception as a novel, but the propaganda element went largely unnoticed.
I don't think it's because my class were unsophisticated - they're familiar with the relevant theory and history. Instead, I think it's because the general culture is very disinclined to examine class in a political sense. Downton Abbey and various working-class soaps and comedies prove that there's plenty of cultural mileage to be made out of class differences, but the irresistible tide of individualism, allied to the downfall of mass employment means that political class-consciousness seems to be a thing of the past. We'll boo (or thrill) when a toff behaves arrogantly in Downton, and scoff at Vicky Pollard or the Big Fat Gypsies, but this is all class as lifestyle: the implied audience is securely middle-class, and the ways in which class is portrayed (snobbish, patronising, loud, drunk etc) are viewed as individual choices to some extent. The slew of these shows is meant to discipline us into adopting middle-class values: don't be common, aspire to the Downton lifestyle but don't be arrogant either.
I wonder if this year's class will be different: whether Occupy and Greece and Tahrir Square and bankers' bonuses and a government made up of the landed gentry will alter their positions as readers. I think my generation and the ones after me have lost the sense that we have a collective identity. We consume, usually as individuals. We work as individuals, jealously guarding each demarcation and distinction. Union membership has been crushed outside the public sector - and even in it the least well-paid are excluded by their insecure contracts and fear of victimisation.
After Trease, we're doing two plays about the clash of new and old money - Massinger's A New Way To Pay Old Debts (1625) and Caryl Churchill's Serious Money, a comic and tragic play in rhyming couplets about the clash between aristocratic corrupt bankers and pushy working-class corrupt bankers, from the 1980s. I saw the Birmingham Rep revival a couple of years ago, and was stunned by how prescient the play was.
If you get a chance - go. Then we look at some of Gerard Winstanley's pamphlets, Churchill's play about him, A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, and end the module with Lewis Jones's misunderstood Cwmardy and - in total contrast - Waugh's Vile Bodies - now adapted for the stage.