Performing History, Class and Gender in Billy Elliot: The Musical

By Jay Young

Elton John was in Toronto last week for the official opening of Billy Elliot: The Musical, a production I was lucky to recently see.  The musical, which premiered in London in 2005 and won 10 Tony awards in 2009, is a stage adaptation of the popular 2000 coming-of-age film about Billy Elliot, a fictional, 11-year-old, working-class lad who dreams of becoming a professional dancer.  As I watched the musical, I was struck by the ways in which the musical’s overarching historical context – the British mining strike of 1984-1985 – served as the backdrop to examine issues of class and gender through the story of a struggling community and one very talented boy.  Yet I also pondered: what happened to those who lacked the opportunity to leave town like Billy?

Billy Elliot takes place within the context of the bitter conflict between the British National Union of Miners (NUM) and Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal campaign to close unprofitable coal mines.  This historical context is presented to the audience at the onset of the musical.  As the curtain opens, Billy sits on stage and watches with the audience a film sequence that introduces the nationalization of the British coal industry in 1947 as part of Keynesian postwar reconstruction, and the subsequent push from Thatcher’s Conservative government to close the mines.  This quick montage of political figures – British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, Clement Atlee, and Margaret Thatcher, and NUM leader Arthur Scargill – is then juxtaposed with the people of a northern England mining town, where we see the everyday impacts of the strike on the community.

The Billy Elliot playbill also provides some historical context through a three-paragraph long background on the strike, positioned directly underneath photographs of the production’s leading cast members.  The programme’s short outline is sympathetic to the union cause.  As echoed on stage, it notes the destitution of mining families during the strike and the use of riot police to intimidate strikers.  In contrast, the programme reflects that Thatcher was “politically opposed to state-owned industry and determined to crush the unions” (italics mine).  The summary concludes by revealing the ultimate outcome of the struggle: mining “had been the major employer for hundreds of years” – with approximately 300,000 men employed in the coal industry in 1984 – but today almost all coal used in Britain is imported and less than 1,000 Britains work in the industry.

One criticism of the earlier film Billy Elliot is that it assumes the audience has a comprehensive knowledge of the 1984-1985 coal strike.  A lack of knowledge about the strike is particularly true for non-British audiences, so the footage that starts the musical and the programme notes are especially important for audiences watching the production in Toronto.

The intersection of class and gender pervades the musical, as the mining strike and Billy’s desire to dance are used to examine the crisis of working-class masculinity in 1980s postindustrial(izing) Britain.  The fictive aspect of the musical medium allows the audience to see the intensely personal struggles of people fighting to preserve the traditions of their working-class community.  Billy’s father and brother, striking miners who initially fear that Billy’s dancing may indicate he is a “poof” (British slang for homosexual), serve as vulnerable symbols of a hyper-masculine culture fed by homophobia: they prefer the masculine sport of boxing over the feminine practice of ballet.  In this sense, both father and brother are used to illustrate an apparently traditional – and even ignorant – working-class male understanding of sport, art, gender, and sexuality.

Yet once Billy’s father sees his son dance, he realizes Billy’s individual talent offers an escape out of the conditions of working-class existence.  In order to afford transportation for Billy to an audition at the Royal Ballet School in London, the father decides to scab, which leads to a confrontation between himself and Billy’s politically radical brother.  The dispute signifies the conflict between the longing for individual success held by Billy and his father, and the brother’s vision of working-class solidarity.  Ultimately, a resolution occurs when Billy’s father is spared the plight of strikebreaking as the community bands together to provide funds for Billy’s travel to London.

Although the musical presents a highly personal narrative of issues of masculinity and working-class consciousness, critics have questioned Billy Elliot’s dichotomous presentation of class and gender during the coal strike.  In particular, David Alderson, a senior lecturer of modern literature at the University of Manchester, has pointed out that the death of mother Elliot before the strike’s outbreak means the audience is not shown the essential role of women during the strike.  Women Against Pit Closures mounted a national campaign in support of striking miners; indeed, women joined picket lines, were arrested, and suffered physical violence from police.  The existence of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and Lesbians Against Pit Closures, groups that supported and found support from striking miners, especially complicates the homophobic narrative.  Although Alderson cautions against an exaggerated understanding of solidarity between striking miners and gay supporters, he asserts that “[h]ad the miners won, the strike might have contributed to a transformed, more diverse political future for a truly socialist Left.  Instead, their defeat made it possible for a film like Billy Elliot to represent the strike as the collapse of a straightforwardly repressive patriarchal order.”

Billy Elliot: The Musical ends with the strike over and miners returning to work in defeat.  The eradication of the mining community following the strike is foreshadowed through the song “Once We Were Kings,” in which miners reflect on their proud past and unsure future.  Billy, in contrast, leaves for London’s Royal Ballet School as he walks through the audience, signifying his entrance into the middle-class.  We see that individual talent and leaving behind one’s working-class community, not the promise of equality promoted by an evaporating welfare state, is the only opportunity for success in neoliberal Britain.  Billy may have been able to use his dancing talent to succeed, but we are left to wonder what happens to the children of the other 300,000 British miners.

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4 thoughts on “Performing History, Class and Gender in Billy Elliot: The Musical

  1. jocelyn

    Thanks for the history of this play. I know of many friends and family who have seen the play. Now i can pretend to know/understand what they are talking about! Won’t i look smart!

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