The term ‘agitprop’ is a conflation of the words ‘agitation’ and ‘propaganda’ and derives from the name of the Department of Agitation and Propaganda created in September 1920 as part of the Central Committee Secretariat of the Soviet Communist Party. The Bolsheviks wished to use art as a weapon in the revolutionary struggle, and the agitprop department mobilized culture across the vast and largely illiterate country to stimulate people’s understanding of and involvement in such important matters as health, sanitation, literacy, or the military situation. Cine-trains and boats showed short agitational films and colourful posters carried stirring slogans. In drama, the Blue Blouse movement, named after the industrial clothes a worker would wear, drew on these visual forms, on traditional folk art, and on avant-garde techniques to develop its own accessible and popular forms of agitprop.
Blue Blouse troupes usually performed away from conventional theatres, in pubs and clubs, on wagons or platforms. They used colloquial language and music in cartoon-style Living Newspapers and revues that featured a political analysis of a single topic presented in a montage of effects. This new form was physical, flexible, and mobile. It relied on striking but simple costumes, minimal props, and little or no scenery. The troupes worked collectively and attempted to create a new style of performance to match their new form of non-literary, non-naturalistic drama. They were predominantly amateur and reached the height of their influence in the mid-19205, but were eclipsed by the rise of official, dogmatic socialist realism.
In the wake of the Russian Revolution, agitprop drama spread to Europe, Scandinavia, and America through visits abroad of Soviet companies and by way of the international Communist movement, particularly during its extreme sectarian period at the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s. Agitprop was seen as a proletarian antidote to bourgeois drama and in each country it evolved as a mix of the imported model and indigenous traditions. Outside the Soviet Union, Germany had the most powerful agitprop movement until Nazism suppressed it. The German troupes were noted for their cabaret forms and mass or choral speaking and were associated with, among others,
Erwin Piscator (1893–1966) and Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), whose film Kühle Wampe shows an agitprop group in performance. Agitprop influenced the development of epic theatre and didactic play and in the long run affected techniques of dramatic presentation. Britain and the USA had numerically smaller agitprop groups, but each played a vital role in animating drama when the Communist Left sought to build alliances in the Popular Front period up to the Second World War.
The American Workers’ Theatre was absorbed by the government-financed Federal Theatre Project in 1935 and had direct links with the Group Theatre and the plays of Clifford Odets (1906–63). The British Workers’ Theatre spawned the influential amateur Unity Theatre movement, and, after the war, the professional Theatre Workshop of Joan Littlewood (1914- ) and Ewan MacColl (1915-89).
Hard-hitting agitprop linked to workers’ campaigns resurfaced in Europe and America at another period of international and political turmoil in the late 1960s and 1970s, by which time the term agitprop was being applied loosely to any drama that was seen to place ideology above aesthetics. A new movement came and went as it had forty years previously but again was marked by innovation, energy, and far-left views.