To the Waterfront Hall last night to see Sam Thompson’s play Over the Bridge, as adapted by Martin Lynch. The play, about sectarianism at Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard, was first performed 50 years ago, in controversial circumstances as described by Culture NI:
James Ellis, the recently appointed producer of the Ulster Group Theatre, accepted the play for production. However, in May 1959 the company’s directors announced that they were withdrawing the play just two weeks before its scheduled opening; they described the play as ‘full of grossly vicious phrases and situations which would undoubtedly offend and affront every section of the public … It is the policy of the directors of the Ulster Group Theatre to keep political and religious controversies off our stage’.....
..... His play was finally staged in January 1960 at the Empire Theatre by the newly assembled Over the Bridge Productions, comprising Ellis, Thompson, Henry Lynch Robinson and many of those previously associated with the UGT. It proved a tremendous success, and toured Dublin, Scotland and England. Far from offending audiences, Sam Hanna Bell thought ‘it was possible to detect a quite extraordinary feeling of relief that at last the unclean spirit of sectarianism had been dragged before the footlights’.
Nick and I took the bus through Ballymacarrett in the way to the performance, past the blue plaque marking the house where Thompson was born. We met friends beforehand, and quite by chance were talking about the Milgram experiment, where participants were ordered to deliver electric shocks (without knowing they were not actually doing so) and most continued to do so even when the subject appeared to be in considerable distress. We were all emphatic that we wouldn’t have been the ones to continue to apparently cause pain – and yet, the vast majority did.
On one level, Over the Bridge was a stunningly effective exploration of a tragic workplace sectarian incident with huge local resonance. However, on a deeper level it could be seen as another angle on Milgram. Would you be the one to stop inflicting the electric shocks? And would you be the one to stand by your trade union comrade even if you knew the likely consequence was a violent death? And in each case, if the answer was no, how would you justify it? This is why the play should be toured internationally again. The rather over-long final scene made the point that individuals will always pay a high price for standing by their principles, but that real change would have come if the hundreds of workers who thought the incident was ‘none of their business’ had acted to stop it.
There are two other reasons why the play is important to us in Northern Ireland. First, it reminds us of an aspect of the shipyards’ history which has been airbrushed out of the Titanic Quarter approach to regeneration of the area. I hope the new Signature Project ‘visitor experience’ includes information about the trade union tradition of the yards, and about the periodic sectarian incidents, along with presenting technological achievements past and present. Secondly, the play’s programme was full of trade union messages of support, reminding us that Sam Thompson was a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party and a trade union activist. Ultimately, in industries such as shipbuilding, sectarianism gave the bosses more power because it divided the workers. There is still no unified working class political party in Northern Ireland, fifty years later, but at least we have a relatively strong trade union movement.