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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Rocking the Cradle

Pall at the Poll Dept.: Thanks to the embarrassing and tragic botched recall election in Wisconsin yesterday, we have more proof than ever was needed of how completely our political system is once again the grip of the bosses. And it's no coincidence that the likes of Scott Walker have as a priority the elimination of collective bargaining. It was the labor unions that liberated us from the bosses' greedy whims, as any student of real American history should know. I wrote what follows eight years ago for a local revival of Marc Blitzstein's labor opera "The Cradle Will Rock," basing it on a speech John Houseman gave when The Acting Company revived the piece under his aegis. And I delivered it, Houseman-like, before the start of each show. Not that it was needed: the show speaks passionately for itself.


"The Cradle Will Rock" in rehearsal, 1937
THINK OF A TIME in which unemployment is high and economic prospects are getting ever lower. A time in which an overseas war threatens to overtake our homeland with its unpredictible violence and ever-shifting foreign alliances. When a terrorist network is suspected of infiltrating this country.

Welcome to 1937.

The Federal Theater Project of the US Works Progress Administration was created in 1935 to bring quality stage productions to all parts of the country, and give work to actors, writers, directors, musicians – people whose careers had been stilled by the Great Depression.

In New York City, the project brought together three talented young men who would go on to make significant names for themselves in theater and film: John Houseman, Orson Welles, and Marc Blitzstein.

Blitzstein’s early path as virtuoso pianist took a literal left turn as he embraced Brechtian ideas of theater as political arena, and it was Brecht who suggested the idea of a “labor opera.”

It couldn’t have been more timely. At the beginning of 1937, strikes were headline news,  like the sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan that gave birth to the United Auto Workers union. But it was also the era in which we had the first stirrings of the anti-communist hysteria that would dominate the post-war years.

Houseman and Welles had just revived “Dr. Faustus” by Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe for the Federal Theater Project; somehow, the subject matter of this play caught the attention of a Congressional investigation that asked whether Marlowe was a member of the American Communist Party.

That’s one of the reasons why, five days before “Cradle’s” much-ballyhooed opening, a Federal  order went out to the directors of all WPA arts projects that ‘no new play, musical performance or art exhibit was to open until further notice.’ 

“Three days before our premiere,” said Houseman, “a dozen uniformed WPA security guards invaded our theater ... to make sure that no government property was used or removed. This covered scenery, musical scores, and costumes, including actors’ underwear and our leading man’s toupee.”

The cast and crew continued to rehearse furtively, but by opening night they still saw no way around the major problems: they had no scenery, no costumes, no theater – and the actors were forbidden by their union (o terrible irony!) from performing on any other stage! Houseman sent an agent out to find a theater. Tech apprentice Jean Rosenthal, who would become one of America’s most respected lighting designers, was dispatched with a five-spot to find a piano. The show would go on – with Blitzstein alone at the keyboard if necessary.

By 7:45, as hundreds of prospective audience members waited in the street, a piano arrived – along with news that a theater had been found. Houseman and Welles borrowed the hundred-dollar rental fee from members of the press, then led the crowd on a 21-block march uptown to the Venice, at 59th and Seventh.

Says Houseman, “At 9:01, like partners in an old-time vaudeville act, Orson and I made our entrance in front of a shabby curtain that depicted Mount Vesuvius smoking above the Bay of Naples. We thanked our audience for making the long voyage uptown and related the full history of ‘The Cradle Will Rock.’ We told them how the show would have looked and sounded in the production they would not be seeing.”

The curtain rose on Marc Blitzstein, alone at the battered upright, and that first performance began with his voice and piano setting the scene. 

Then a wonderful thing happened. Within a few seconds, Blitzstein became aware that he was no longer singing alone. It took the spotlight operator a few seconds to locate the source of the second voice. It came from a box, stage right, in which a girl in a green dress was standing, looking frozen with fear.  She was only half-audible at first, but she gathered strength with every note.  Years later, a member of that cast wrote that “If Olive Stanton had not risen, on cue in that box, I doubt that the rest of us would have had the nerve to stand up and carry on.” 

The actors had been forbidden to appear on stage.  There was no rule against their performing from the house, and that’s what they did.

The troubles of 67 years ago seem quaintly antique by now. We live in comfort and freedom, our jobs protected by those hard-won union contracts. The communist threat has vanished – and turns out never to have been there in the first place. Our trusted news media keeps what could be a corrupt political system honest and accountable.

Let’s go back in time, then, to “Steeltown U.S.A.” and Marc Blitzstein’s – I think it’s still appropriate to call it “timeless” – “The Cradle Will Rock.”

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