Eric Winship Trumbull
Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School
of the University of Maryland in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
Professor Roger Meersman, Chair
Professor Patti Gillespie
Professor David Grimsted
Professor Ronald O'Leary
Professor Ronald Terchek
© Copyright by
Eric Winship Trumbull
I dedicate this work to my wife, Joanne, without whose patience, love, and understanding this would never have been completed; to my daughters, Mariah, Samantha, and Courtney, who were a source both of inspiration and of necessity; to my parents, Bettina and Van Vechten Trumbull, whose belief in my abilities never wavered; and to Peter and Jonathan, who were not able to do what I have done and by whom many of my achievements have been guided.
Title of Dissertation: MUSICALS OF THE AMERICAN WORKERS' THEATRE
MOVEMENT--1928-1941: PROPAGANDA AND RITUAL
IN DOCUMENTS OF A SOCIAL MOVEMENT
Eric Winship Trumbull, Doctor of Philosophy, 1991
Dissertation directed by: Dr. Roger Meersman, Chair
Department of Theatre
University of Maryland
The American workers' theatre movement rose in the nineteen-thirties to deliver a propagandist message to audiences seeking social change. The predominant forms of theatre presented by the movement were plays of agitation and propaganda (agit-prop) or of socialist realism, but the movement also presented many musicals that both reflected and influenced its policies. This study examines scripts of all available workers' musicals to illustrate the movement's use of the musical form as a propaganda tool.
The eighteen available workers' musicals were divided into the three periods of the American workers' theatre movement's development: 1928-1932, 1933-1935, and 1936-1941. The scripts were analyzed for characteristics of a social movement, for serving ritual functions, and for didacticism. Specific aspects examined included plot structure, characterization, settings, performance techniques, and lyrics. The social, economic, and political context surrounding the musicals was also considered in analysis of scripts, as well as workers' theatre's attitudes about the musical form. Examination of "leftism" in the thirties was also considered.
The results of the study are as follows:
1. The workers' theatre movement at first rejected the musical form as a tool of propaganda, using music in its productions sparsely during the early period.
2. As the movement gained more members and more legitimacy, the musical was used more as a tool of propaganda.
3. The workers' theatre movement produced more musicals after 1934, with the decline of the agit-prop play and as the ideals of leftism became subsumed by liberalism.
4. During the early part of the decade, musicals were characterized by vilification of enemies, bitter satire, calls for mass action, and militancy.
5. The workers' theatre movement eventually used the musical to appeal to a broader range of the population; however, once it did so, its message became less strident and more liberal-populist.
6. Once the movement began using the musical form in earnest and gained some degree of respect, its message became diluted.
7. Characteristics of social movements, ritual, and didacticism in the musicals changed during the decade in direct relation to the fluctuating position of the workers' theatre movement in America.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter One: Introduction 1
Chapter Two: Rejection
The Workers' Musical of Agitation and Propaganda, 1928-1932 33
Communism and Radicalism in the Thirties 34
Leftism in the Thirties 42
Background: Workers' Theatre in America 47
Proletarian Art / Proletarian Drama 50
Production History and Analysis 70
The International 70
Art is a Weapon 87
Sweet Charity 97
Chapter Three: Rapprochement
The Workers' Musical of the Deep Depression, 1933-1935 110
Background to the Musical of the Deep Depression 110
Production History and Analysis 120
World's Fair 120
Who's Got the Baloney? 128
Chapter Four: Realization
The Workers' Musical of the Popular Front, Part One, 1936-1937 161
Leftism During the Popular Front 161
Production History and Analysis 168
Who Fights This Battle? 176
Johnny Johnson 177
The Cradle Will Rock 197
Pins and Needles 214
Chapter Five: Regression
The Workers' Musical of the Popular Front, Part Two, 1938-1941 241
Gradual Decline of the Workers' Musical 241
Production History and Analysis 244
Don't You want to be Free? 244
Big Boycott of 1938 257
We Beg to Differ 264
The Life in a Day of a Secretary 280
Peace in Our Time 286
V For Victory 294
Chapter Six: Conclusions 305
Appendix One: List of Musicals Examined in this Study 328
Appendix Two: Lyrics to Unavailable Musicals 332
Sweet Charity 332
Who's Got the Baloney? 334
Frame of Reference
The American theatre in the twenties and thirties developed its own character and achieved international prominence. During the Great Depression of the thirties, professional theatre suffered the same economic pressures felt by all segments of American society, but in spite of those pressures, or perhaps because of them, the theatre of the thirties embraced social themes and topical subjects with a fervor never before witnessed in America. Even the American musical experimented with a broader range of subjects and forms of expression during the thirties, though perhaps without as much dedication as the non-musical theatre. The musical of the thirties captured the spirit of the times and established such traditions as the book musical and the topical revue that would influence the growth of the American musical.
Many scholars of American theatre and the American musical consider the period of the thirties to be one during which the American musical gradually became more sophisticated and mature. Musicals began to deal with subjects that had once been considered inappropriate for the musical stage. For writers and audiences of the thirties, social and political comment in the better musicals became almost as important as entertainment. Despite the social and political comment apparent in the musicals of the thirties, however, protest in the musical stage was less strident than the protest found in straight dramas of the period. Except for a few left-wing musicals, the Broadway musical of the thirties did not distinguish itself as an organ of political and social propaganda.[Please note: clicking on an endnote in the text will take you to the referenced note. To return to your spot, click your browser's "Back" button.]
Not only did the musical mature in subject matter, but also in form. The musical rose to a level equal to that of straight, non-musical drama with the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize for drama to George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, and Ira Gershwin for their musical Of Thee I Sing. It was the first musical to receive the Pulitzer, which Bordman says caused a "hardening of standards" in evaluating the musical. Also, the musical throughout the twenties and thirties, according to Ewen, began to integrate the story, characters, situations, and ideas more than had occurred in the "jigsaw puzzle" structure of previous musicals. Librettos changed, according to Engel, placing their emphasis on "plausible plots, identifiable characters and settings." The decade of the thirties was a period in which the musical was "tinkered with," says Mordden, to be triumphant in the forties and "distilled and varied thereafter." The gradual growth of the musical in subject matter and form during the thirties suggests that the decade was an important one for the musical theatre.
A professed alternative to the commercial theatre also arose in the thirties: the Workers' Theatre Movement. It was organized with the express purpose to create a theatre that would appeal specifically to the working class and its needs, rather than to the middle-class, which was the principal audience for commercial theatre. Performing primarily plays to agitate and propagandize ("agit-prop") or plays written in the style of "socialist realism," workers' theatre in America experimented with many forms that would drive its message across to the workers of the United States. Of Thee I Sing had offered the kind of good-natured political satire that the workers' theatre movement rejected but toward which it would find itself propelled. In its search for an audience beyond those already committed to the leftist cause, the workers' theatre used chants, mass recitations, vaudeville, minstrel techniques, song, and dance.
Recent interest in the Workers' Theatre Movement has produced several valuable books and articles about the movement, its plays, and its period. Few of them focus on the place of the musical theatre in the movement, however, focusing instead on the history and development of workers' theatre. Most detailed and insightful of the most recent studies on American leftist theatre of the thirties have been those by Levine on left-wing dramatic theory and studies by Cosgrove, Friedman, and McDermott on the development of the workers' theatre movement in America and of the Prolet-Buehne (Proletarian Stage), a leftist theatre troupe that performed plays of agitation and propaganda in the German language and that was a catalyst for the movement. Sporn and Altenbaugh study workers' theatre on the auto picket lines and in labor colleges. Much of the groundwork for current discussion of the workers' theatre movement of the thirties was laid by Morgan Y. Himelstein's carefully-researched though biased study, claiming that the Communists tried but failed to take over the theatre in New York; Malcolm Goldstein's detailed examination of the left-wing theatre of the thirties; Karen Malpede Taylor's polemical discussion of American peoples' theatre; Sam Smiley's rhetorical analysis of didactic drama of the thirties; and Jay Williams's Stage Left, a first-hand account of the activities of many workers' theatre groups of the thirties. All base much information on two pioneer studies by Ben Blake and Mordecai Gorelik.
Also of the period are examinations of Russian and German theatre, which discuss characteristics of the plays, their performances, and their politics. Huntly Carter's 1925 study of Russian theatre and film and Ben Brown's 1938 examination of Russian theatre are perceptive contemporaneous works, Gorchakov's 1957 work has the advantage of historical perspective and offers valuable discussions of the "proletcult" and its mass recitations, and Stourac and McCreery's recent detailed analysis of Russian, German, and British workers' theatre movements uses much information not previously available, including interviews with participants and witnesses. These works do not focus specifically on the musicals of the workers' theatre movement, however.
Recent dissertations have also focused on aspects of the workers' theatre of the thirties or of the period's musicals, but again none focuses specifically on the workers' musical. Jorns's dissertation examines the use of three European political theatre forms--the post-Revolution theatre of Meyerhold, the epic theatre of Brecht, and the workers' agit-prop play--and concludes that in the United States the forms were not fully understood and therefore not executed properly. Sherr's dissertation examines the use of satire in musicals of the thirties and concludes they were serious about serious matters in their search for the right form to express their ideas about social and political problems in America. Elam's examination of theatre for social change involves the workers' theatre movement of the thirties, and Chicano and black theatre of the sixties. He finds that theatre for social change joined audiences and performers together in an emotional bond when three elements worked together: ritual and collective consciousness, urgency, and an agitational propagandist message. Finally, Frank studies the magazines associated with the left-wing theatre movement of the thirties and concludes that they both reflected and stimulated the movement.
These previous studies, however, do not focus particularly on musicals of the workers' theatre movement, except perhaps for interest in the four more famous works--The Cradle Will Rock, Johnny Johnson, Parade, and Pins and Needles. Goldman focuses in detail on Pins and Needles and Hunter examines The Cradle Will Rock as a document of the thirties. But these studies barely touch on any of these shows as musicals distinct from non-musicals of the workers' theatre movement. The work that has already been completed, however, will be helpful in my examination of all the musicals. These four more famous musicals of the workers' theatre movement might have been forgotten were it not for unique circumstances, luck, and special talent. These four successful and famous left-wing musicals needed fertile soil in which to grow; the musicals of the workers' theatre movement may have formed the seedbed of musical satire that allowed these famous shows to remain in historical memory.
As I have shown, scholars have paid little attention to the musicals of the American workers' theatre movement. This is an area of American theatre history that needs to be addressed. The use of the musical form in workers' theatre did not develop fully, despite frequent attempts within the movement itself to encourage experiments with the form. John Howard Lawson, whose Processional had been produced by the Theatre Guild in 1925 and who was co-founder of the Workers' Drama League and the New Playwrights' Theatre, explained his use of vaudeville and revue forms in that play by declaring that there is "a shining if somewhat distorted mirror" of American society in popular forms of theatre. To revive theatre's ancient function of encouraging communal interaction, Lawson combined popular entertainment forms with what he called European "expressionist" techniques in many productions of the New Playwrights'.
The use of the musical form was limited by the workers' theatre's attitudes about commercial, mainstream theatre, about the musical, and about the proper form of theatre for workers. Before 1932, the workers' theatre movement considered middle-class or bourgeois theatre irrelevant to its goals, but soon viewed it as an opponent that leftist theatre could conquer by using its techniques. As early as 1932, Workers Theatre magazine, the organ of the Communist theatre in America, declared that agit-prop plays must have good entertainment value, and that the workers' theatre must establish contacts with sympathetic elements in the bourgeois theatre to the extent sufficient to make bourgeois theatre workers participate in proletarian theatre. John Bonn, head of the Prolet-Buehne, the German-language theatre group that was the first to popularize the agitprop form in the United States, and, as such, CO-editor of Workers Theatre magazine, urged that workers' theatre plays should combine entertainment and propaganda within their form, suggesting that future workers' theatre plays should "have more variety in form and content." The magazine even called for workers' theatres to experiment with forms and to use whatever seemed useful from the bourgeois theatre.
Most workers' theatres did not include musicals in their theatrical experiments, however, until a few years later. The workers' theatre movement seemed reluctant to adopt the musical play or the musical revue for a proletarian end as avidly as had the European theatre. This aversion to the musical form arose from the workers' theatre's distrust of commercial theatre's techniques; from the feeling that the musical was perhaps the most commercial, and thus the most capitalistic and bourgeois, type of theatre; and because many workers' theatres felt ill-equipped for the intricacies involved in producing a musical. As late as 1933, Harry Elion, an original member of the Workers' Laboratory Theatre and the first editor of New Theatre magazine, noted that "our groups are in poor condition to do revues, musical comedies, and vaudeville." In practice, however, the workers' theatre of the early thirties seems to have incorporated much music in its activities, at least according to some members of the Workers' Laboratory Theatre, but music was seldom written down or copyrighted; therefore, finding music or lyrics to early-thirties workers' musicals is difficult.
By 1935, however, with the advent of the "Popular Front" policy emanating from Russia and the Communist party, the musical form in the workers' theatre became more acceptable as a means to express a propagandist message. The Popular Front changed the party's message from flagrant pro-Communism to vehement anti-fascism, the anti-bourgeois attitude changing to one of cooperation with commercial theatre and its forms and techniques. After 1935, the workers' musical achieved its greatest success and critical acclaim. The rejection by the workers' theatre movement of the musical form, the eventual acceptance by the movement, its whole-hearted embrace of the musical form, and finally the movement's regression back to the style of crude agit-prop, can be illuminated in part by examining the scripts of workers' musicals of the thirties. This is an area that other scholars have not approached, and it is an area that needs to be addressed.
The workers' musical went through phases similar to those of the workers' theatre movement in general: rejection of bourgeois theatre, gradual rapprochement toward commercial theatre forms including the musical, realization that it had to accept and be accepted by the commercial mainstream theatre in order to survive, and a hasty regression back to its roots as it found itself at odds with success measured in terms of which it did not approve. The workers' musical was at first rejected by the workers' theatre movement, eventually embraced by the movement, and finally absorbed into the mainstream of American theatre. Thus, the workers' musical may have failed as workers' theatre by the workers' theatre's own standards because it became assimilated into theatre of the mainstream and therefore lost its clear propagandist function.
This study will summarize the workers' theatre movement and focus on the musical as part of its development. In particular, I will examine extant scripts of American workers' musicals between 1928 and 1941 and illustrate their use as a propaganda tool by the workers' theatre movement. I will place the workers' musicals and their messages in the context of the period in which they reached fruition. Propaganda is always geared to a particular audience at a certain time in a particular place, and, as a reflection of and stimulus to the thirties left-wing movement in general and the workers' theatre movement in particular, the workers' musical theatre formulated its message for its time and circumstances.
The texts and productions of these workers' musicals offer an especially fruitful subject for examination, not only because many of them have been virtually neglected by most historians and practitioners of the theatre, but also because the musical has frequently carried with it the label of escapist fare rather than socially-significant art with a purpose. First, the musical has always been a dramatic form with easy appeal for audiences. Music has been an integral part of most Western theatre since its beginnings--from ancient Greek and Roman, to medieval, to Shakespearean, to melodrama, which was the most popular form of American theatre during the 19th century. Second, the musical also can appeal to an audience on an emotional, as well as intellectual, level. Music, as a "universal language," appeals to the emotional and spiritual dimensions of humankind; music reaches the emotions of people before it reaches their intellect, according to Arnold Perris in his study of musical propaganda. In 1952, the Music Research Foundation, in Music and Your Emotions, suggested that music definitely has effects on emotions and detailed some empirical research on those effects and on music's use in psychotherapy, but made clear that the number of variables involved in scientific study of music render it difficult to determine exactly how much, in what way, and under what circumstances different types of music affect the emotions of different people. The foreword for the 1934 Workers' Songbook, however, suggests what some have seen clearly as the emotional power of music: "Music Penetrates Everywhere/ It Carries Words With It/ It Fixes Them In The Mind/ It Graves Them In The Heart/ Music is a Weapon in the Class Struggle." Carter suggests that the songs of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) helped to paint a clear picture of the workers' enemy and encouraged hope for a brighter future, and as such played an important part in the total persuasive rhetoric of the IWW. And in his dissertation examining persuasive aspects of songs, Kaye has suggested that the interconnection between words and music is an important one: a song and a speech combined have a more persuasive effect on audiences than a song or a speech alone. Finally, theorists of the workers' theatre struggled with their own conflicting opinions about the value of the musical form for workers' theatre. On the one hand, they saw the musical as a particularly "bourgeois" form of popular theatre, one that calmed people's fears and made them feel that everything would be satisfactory--"a basically optimistic form of theatrical entertainment," claims Stanley Green--a form of theatre that George Szanto would later call "integrative" propaganda. On the other hand, they realized that the musical, as David Hirst recently stated, "has always been acutely responsive to social and political issues, an immediate recorder of contemporary events," and is therefore a potentially powerful vehicle for satire. Green suggests that the musical of the thirties discovered it could say things more effectively than many serious-minded dramas simply because its appeal was to a broader spectrum of the theatre-going public. Perris makes the same point about Mozart's and Beaumarchais's The Marriage of Figaro: "As political propaganda it was all the more seductive, and hence more dangerous, because it was masked in a non-revolutionary musical language." Qualter agrees that propaganda too strident in tone has a negative effect. If, as Perris believes, the musical stage is the best and most persuasive form for musical propaganda, the manner in which the workers' theatre accepted the musical form and used it to communicate its propagandist message is particularly important to any examination of American musical theatre.
For the purposes of this study, an American workers' musical will be defined as a stage presentation, substantially incorporating song with dialog and theatrical presentation, performed or developed by workers' theatre groups or directed toward criticism of capitalism or sympathy for the worker. For my purposes, I will work only with such musical plays written or performed in English between 1928 and 1941 in New York City or by groups established first in New York City, which was the acknowledged center of workers' theatre in its heyday. In helping to define what were considered workers' musicals, I make use of leading left-wing theatre journals, publications, and essays of the period, as well as more recent analyses of theatre of the thirties.
This means, for instance, that Parade, produced by the Theatre Guild in 1935, would be considered a workers' musical because its principal writers, Paul Peters and George Sklar, were part of the Theatre Union, which turned down the revue, and because New Theatre magazine published skits from the show as good examples of workers' theatre. We Beg to Differ was performed by American workers' theatres and was the first full-length musical published by the New Theatre League, the central organization for American workers' theatres. Thus, it also fits the definition I have established for an American workers' musical, even though the show was written for and first performed by the New Theatre of Montreal.
Furthermore, the workers' theatre movement was centered in New York City and its most significant developments occurred there. Theatres around the country affiliated themselves in some way with the New Theatre League (originally called the League of Workers' Theatres), or the movement in general, and more or less followed guidelines coming from New York. Most, but not all, of the available workers' musicals were originally performed in New York, and many were also performed in other locations as well. For instance, Middleman was never performed in New York but was presented by the John Lenthier Troupe, a theatre group from New York that was known as the "Let Freedom Ring Group" until one of its members, John Lenthier, was killed while fighting for the Loyalists in the Spanish civil war.
I will not be examining workers' musicals presented exclusively by foreign-language groups or musicals originated and performed by workers' theatres in other cities in the United States. I have found references to musicals performed in languages other than English by theatre groups affiliated with foreign-language cultural organizations, the scripts of which I am not capable of examining and that do not fit within the scope of this study. Similarly, I have also found a few references to workers' musicals performed or in the planning stages in other American cities, which I will not be examining in this study. For instance, the San Francisco Blue Blouses workers' theatre performed The Blunders and Follies of 1933 on July 15, 1933, which had an original book, lyrics, and music, and was apparently a success. References to workers' musicals outside New York City are a bit more numerous later in the decade: I Want a Governor, a musical skit with lyrics by Arthur Clifford set to popular tunes, was performed in Detroit; Not On My Life, performed by the Chicago Repertory Group, was listed in the New Theatre League's 1939 Catalog of Plays; and the New York Times mentions that the Dallas New Theatre in 1939 produced Sticks and Stones, a free adaptation of One-Third of a Nation with script and lyrics by two local women.I have found no other references to American workers' musicals anywhere other than New York. Therefore, the workers' musicals performed in or originating from New York represent the heart of the movement.
Also, the terms "proletarian" and "worker" cannot be used interchangeably, nor can the terms "bourgeois" or "bourgeoisie" and "middle-class." Although most American workers probably did not think of the class distinctions in terms of "proletarian" and "bourgeois," many theorists and practitioners of the movement used that terminology, even if many of them would more justly be called members of the middle class rather than of the working class--intellectuals, writers, dramatists, theorists, and other white collar workers (those who the secretary of the New York John Reed club called "socially conscious creative workers"). Gerald Rabkin has claimed that in the thirties "proletarian" art was to be distinguished by its point of view rather than its subject matter. The Marxist writer was "not confined to writing exclusively about the working class. His viewpoint, rather than his subject matter, qualified his work as `revolutionary.'" The words "worker" and "proletarian" connoted, in Marxist terms, much more than belonging to the labor force. Levine uses the term "revolutionary drama" or "radical drama" to denote any dramatic work written from a left-wing perspective. The term "social drama" he uses to encompass a broader range of plays, "liberal-reformist as well as revolutionary," written to illuminate and protest social conditions. He admits, however, that the left-wing dramatic theory that developed between 1911 and 1939 was not a coherent and formalized doctrine, but was rather a "shifting patchwork of disparate ideas by people who were often unified by little more than a common antagonism to capitalism and a dedication to the theatre as a medium of social enlightenment and societal change." Similarly, John Gassner claims that in the thirties the term "leftism" applied to the entire serious-minded stage and that it was not a pejorative term; rather, it was vaguely complimentary when used by proponents of liberalism. Elsewhere, he uses an even broader term: "the theatre of social purpose." Gassner also uses, however, the term "Workers' Theatre Movement"; so, too, do many current scholars of the left-wing or radical or revolutionary or social theatre of the thirties. Proletarian art, according to Levine, was "designed to arouse the revolutionary consciousness of the American working class," while "theatre of social purpose" was intended to make audiences aware of societal problems.
"Workers' art," or "workers' theatre," is a term I will use to include both revolutionary theatre and theatre of social purpose written from a left-wing perspective. The terms "proletarian/proletariat" and "bourgeois/bourgeoisie" will be used, therefore, when a Marxist perspective is considered or when the terms were actually used at the time; the terms "worker" and "middle-class" will be used at all other times.
The primary question I will address in this study is as follows:
--In what ways do scripts of workers' theatre musicals between 1928 and 1941 illustrate the workers' theatre's use of the musical form as a propagandist tool?
Part I. I will divide the era of the workers' musical into three distinct periods, characterized by different attitudes and practices that resulted in different kinds of musicals. For each of these periods, I will analyze the available texts by examining first the historical, political, and social context within which they developed. Many scholars have stressed that the extent and type of propaganda in any art form is in part determined by its context and is perceived by its audience as a product of its context. For instance, Foulkes has stated that art as propaganda can be understood only if examined within specific historical and cultural contexts. The context surrounding an artwork will affect the propaganda that appears in the artwork and therefore cannot be ignored. In order to analyze the workers' theatre's use of the musical form as a propagandist tool, I will examine the texts as documents reflecting the significant events and concerns of the day. Furthermore, I will determine, as much as possible, the number of performances given of each musical and the approximate size of the audiences for the musicals. I will analyze ideas on leftist theatre and musicals--attitudes of workers' theatre personnel regarding the purpose, proper content, mode of presentation, and intended audience for workers' theatre. Most of this information I will derive from primary materials: production documents, reviews, clippings, and photographs; statements by workers' theatre personnel, playwrights, and practitioners in the workers' theatre; leftist journals and newspapers, such as Daily Worker and New Masses; and leftist theatre journals, such as Workers Theatre, New Theatre, New Theatre and Film, Theatre Workshop, New Theatre News, and TAC (a publication of the Theatre Arts Committee). These sources were connected to the Communist party, some directly and some tenuously, and each reflected the policies of the workers' theatre movement to a degree.
Part II. In order to illustrate how the workers' theatre used the musical as a propaganda tool, I will examine the texts of the musicals as they reflected aspects of a social movement, as they functioned as ritual, and as they attempted to achieve a didactic purpose.
A.) The musicals of the American workers' theatre movement were part of a social and political movement and share characteristics of social movements. Roberta Ash defines a social movement as follows:
a set of attitudes and self-conscious action on the part of a group of people directed toward change in the social structure and/or ideology of a society and carried on outside of ideologically legitimated channels or which uses these channels in innovative ways.
This definition conforms to Alberto Melucci's, which holds that social movements have three essential characteristics: solidarity of the members of the movement, recognition of and engagement in conflict, and participation in activities that go beyond the limits of the current established system. Herbert Simons and Elizabeth W. Mechling distinguish between institutionalized and non-institutionalized movements, calling the American labor movement one that at first was non-institutionalized--no government agency, mainstream political party, or other legitimate organization accepted the labor movement fully throughout the thirties and even into the forties and fifties--but is now generally accepted as a legitimate part of American society and is thus institutionalized. Movements use documents, leaders, and actions--such as in-group rituals, ceremonies, and collective displays of power and purpose--in order to label all sides of the issue, articulate the important issues, oppose other points of view, affirm the righteousness of their own side, and increase members' confidence that they will succeed. Moreover, Marsha L. Vanderford asserts that the technique of vilification, which has been used by many movements, including the American Communist party, helps today's pro-choice and pro-life movements construct their enemy as simultaneously powerful and vulnerable and helps to provide urgency, empowerment, reward, and sustained commitment for the movements' members.
B.) Musicals of the American workers' theatre movement sought political and social change. Elam suggests that theatre for social change, like ritual, attempts to establish a feeling of communitas--a term the scholar of ritual Victor Turner described as a collective understanding and communion of principles among those gathered together for an event. For communitas to exist in the theatre, as in ritual, the community needs to maintain collective ideological concepts and share values apart from the ritual so that they will recognize its fundamental importance. The spirit of communitas is characterized, during the ritual, by a "spontaneous, collective effervescence, a feeling of endless power, mutual understanding, and illumination on the part of the gathered community." Political plays that aim to create a feeling of communitas, claims Elam, are written not to attract new adherents but rather to preach to the already-converted. Techniques used in such political plays, according to Elam, include the following:
--a change in the social order that occurs after the radicalization of a character or characters; the change on stage reflects the desired change in real life, and thus change is urged;
--a remodeling or "mythicalization" or ritualization of history before the new social order takes place;
--new culturally-created symbols are ritualistically used for the characters' struggles for change;
--social solidarity is revitalized by enhancing self-esteem; important institutions and concepts of the audience are symbolized so that the audience would feel that they were not alone and that their struggle was part of a greater cause.
C.) Workers' musicals also tried to teach their audiences lessons based on Communist doctrine. Sam Smiley's studies of didactic, or non-mimetic, drama of the thirties, combined with Szanto's ideas on propaganda, suggest valuable avenues for examination of the musicals as a tool of propaganda. For instance, Smiley insists that the didactic dramas of the thirties used thought as the action of their plots. The four types of didactic plays of the thirties, he claims, correspond to Aristotle's three types of rhetoric. While some of the plays had as their purpose to depict social conditions and therefore resemble mimetic, or non-didactic dramas, the other three types resemble types of speeches: the play to accuse corresponds to Aristotle's forensic or legal speech; the play to censure resembles Aristotle's epideictic or ceremonial speech; and the play to exhort has similarities to the deliberative or political speech. Smiley believes that examination of rhetorical tools of persuasion will yield valid tools for judgment about the plays, which tended to express a social struggle through one of four points of view: individual protest, which stimulated social awareness only indirectly; social protest, which accepted the inevitablity of capitalism; collective protest, which advocated mass action; or revolutionary protest, which attempted to agitate by portraying characters actively resisting capitalism.
George Szanto distinguishes among three types of propaganda in the theatre: agitational, which calls for some kind of political or social change; integrative, which attempts to reinforce stable behavior and attitudes according to a particular social setting and which is the "most frequent and yet the most invisible propagandist theater"; and dialectical, which tries to present opposing views and demands that the audience think rationally and arrive at its own conclusions. Integrative propaganda usually comes from the entire social hegemony, from social institutions and constructs, and from those who passively accept the society's ideology, and it succeeds, according to Szanto, when it helps the audience accept the dominant ideology. Qualter also suggests that propaganda will be most popular if it bolsters popular sentiments and if it integrates existing opinions--when it says something people want to hear, when it calls for single-minded concentration on the essentials of what is to be said, and when it tends to simplify political issues. Agitational theatre of the thirties may have functioned more as integrative propaganda to the members of the movement than as agitational propaganda to everyone else, insofar as it functioned ritualistically to establish a feeling of communitas, a feeling that everything was satisfactory with the left-wing political and social view, a jubilant and effervescent feeling of endless power.
Based on these notions of social movements, ritual, and propaganda, as they relate to the drama and to the workers' theatre movement, I will examine, to the degree that the material allows, the texts of workers' musicals of the thirties in light of the following:
1. Examination of characteristics of social movements present
in the musicals:
Do they vilify their enemies, do they construct the enemy
as simultaneously powerful and vulnerable?
Do they provide a sense of urgency and commitment?
In what ways do the musicals argue for group participation?
Were the techniques used in the musicals different when the
movement was non-institutionalized than when it became
2. Examination of the type of propaganda found in the texts
and the purposes it served:
Was the propaganda integrative, agitational, or
What was the major purpose of the musical: to depict, to
exhort, to accuse, or to censure?
Was the theme of the texts individual, social,
collective, or revolutionary protest?
3. Examination of the ritualistic aspects present in the
Do they reconstruct history, recent events, or political
concepts into myth?
Do they act as documents or collective displays of power
Do they establish a spirit of communitas?
Do they suggest or show a change in the social order?
Do they recreate symbols for the new hoped-for culture? If
so, what symbols are used by the musicals--are they
newly-created symbols, or already-accepted symbols
imbued with new meaning?
Do they fulfill a stabilizing and revitalizing function
for members of the movement?
For each musical, I will examine particular theatrical elements as they relate to the three subjects above:
1. Organizational structure:
If organized causally, what are the main elements of the
If organized thematically, what are the major themes?
If organized ritualistically, what are the major
ritualistic functions fulfilled?
2. Examination of the characters in the musicals:
Are they individuals, or are they representatives of a
group or class?
To what class or group do the characters belong?
What class do the characters represent?
How does the class of the characters affect their depiction
by the authors of the musicals?
3. Examination of the settings of the musicals:
Where do they take place?
How important is the setting on the message of the
4. Examination of the performance techniques of the musicals:
Do the musicals call for a realistic, "fourth-wall"
style, or do the characters address the audience
5. Examination of the song lyrics of the musicals:
Are the lyrics serious, comic, or satiric in tone?
Do the lyrics refer to current events, topical concerns,
historical events or persons?
Do the lyrics stress political, social, or personal
Are the lyrics written for original music or for tunes that
are already popular?
Part III. Finally, I will attempt to assess the musicals' effectiveness as theatre and as message, as perceived at the time by workers' theatre personnel, playwrights, participants, and critical audiences, both from the mainstream press and from the leftist press. The success of the American workers' musical must be evaluated as it was seen at the time by those who were most directly connected to it, willingly or unwillingly. I will examine attitudes and opinions about the workers' musical in order to determine, as much as possible, whether it was perceived as a successful form of propaganda for leftist concerns.
For each script examined, I will include the following information: the title of the show; its date of production, as far as I can determine; its author and composer, if known; and the source of the script--some of the scripts come from published sources, some from public collections, and some have had to be reconstructed based on available material. Furthermore, I will discuss, as much as is possible based on the available material, information about each show's origin, its production history, the political and cultural context surrounding the script and the production, critical reaction to the script and the production, a brief summary of the script, and an analysis of the script based on the criteria I have established. For those shows whose scripts are unavailable, I have had to rely on other sources for information. I have placed available fragments of scripts or lyrics for those shows in Appendix II.
I have placed a detailed description of each show and all available lyrics to the musicals that I examine, depending on the availability of the material, in Appendices II-V after the body of this study. Some of the descriptions are quite detailed, but I feel that the length of the descriptions is justified. Many of the scripts are not easily available--only one copy of the typescripts exists in some cases, and in others the script may be available at only one location. In some cases, I have had to reconstruct the script and the production from other sources, which means that the script or script fragments exist nowhere in writing but in the appendices to this work. I believe the ability to refer back to the appendices for information about the scripts also justifies the detailed descriptions.
Many problems attend my study. Finding available scripts has been difficult. McDermott points out that of thirty-eight scripts attributed to the Workers' Laboratory Theatre and the Prolet-Buehne named in various sources, only nineteen by the Workers' Laboratory Theatre and five by the Prolet-Buehne still survive. I have been able to find scripts at the Library of Congress, the New York City Public Library at Lincoln Center, the library of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union in New York, and at New York University's Tamiment Collection of Bobst Library. In any case, finding music for the scripts has been close to impossible, since scores were even less likely to survive than scripts; my focus in this study, however, will be on librettos--scripts and lyrics--rather than on music. I have been able to find music for We Beg to Differ at the New York City Public Library Special Music Collection at Lincoln Center, published copies of some songs for Pins and Needles, and music for some songs from The Cradle Will Rock, which are included in the complete published script. Short of finding scripts or scores, I must put together an idea of what productions were like through personal records, records of producing organizations, and, if available, personal interviews. Much primary information may therefore be scanty and piecemeal.
Out of some 53 workers' musicals mentioned in various sources, I have been able to find only thirteen that are complete except for music and only five for which I have incomplete material. Those musicals for which I have full or incomplete scripts and lyrics and that will be examined in this study are listed in Appendix I.
Some clear problems present themselves with the paucity of available scripts. For instance, I question whether these scripts are really representative of the workers' musical of the thirties. A few of the scripts are quite short (most notably, Art is a Weapon, Middleman, and Big Boycott), and I fear that the other shows for which only skits are available will show such little material as to be of limited usefulness. I also have found some testimony to the active use of music in the early thirties workers' theatre. I have located full scripts for only two surviving workers' musicals, The International and Art is a Weapon, that come from the late twenties or early thirties, the first period of the development of the workers' theatre. The next earliest available musical of the American Workers' Theatre Movement for which I have obtained a complete script, Parade, dates from 1935. A number of musicals apparently were performed earlier than that date, but I have been unable to find copies of the scripts, although I have much information from secondary sources, and for three musicals before 1935 I have partial scripts.
The lack of available scripts, and the fact that most of them that are extant come from the latter half of the thirties, may suggest that there were fewer musicals done in the early part of the decade. Or it may suggest that music, though an important part of the early workers' theatre, was not really considered by many as something to write down, copyright, and preserve for later generations, as it became more so in the later thirties when the workers' theatre had pretensions to Broadway.
The study will be structured so that I can place the workers' musical within the confines of its time and its prevailing political and artistic context. The workers' theatre movement from 1928 to 1941 can be divided into three periods of development, each of which will be covered in individual chapters:
Chapter 2: 1928-1932--Rejection: The Workers' Musical of Agitation
A. Communism and Radicalism in the Thirties
B. Leftism in the Thirties
C. Background to Workers' Theatre in the Thirties
D. Proletarian Art / Proletarian Drama
E. Production History and Analysis of Musical Scripts
Chapter 3: 1933-1935--Rapprochement: The Workers' Musical of the
A. Background to the Workers' Musical During the Great
B. Production History and Analysis of Musical Scripts
Chapter 4: 1936-1937--Realization: The Workers' Musical of the
Popular Front--Part I
A. Leftism During the Popular Front
B. Production History and Analysis of Musical Scripts
Chapter 5: 1938-1941--Regression: The Workers' Musical of the
Popular Front--Part II
A. Background to the Decline of the Workers' Musical
B. Production History and Analysis of Musical Scripts
Chapter 6: Conclusions
With these materials available, and with other references to musicals I cannot find, I intend to illustrate the manner in which an American social movement used the musical theatre form as a tool of propaganda.
Gerald Bordman, The American Musical Comedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 150; Bordman, American Musical Theatre (New York: Oxford, 1978, 503; Ethan Mordden, Better Foot Forward: A History of American Musical Theatre (New York: Grossman, 1976), 164; Cecil Smith and Glenn Litton, Musical Comedy in America (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1981), 165.
Ira A. Levine, Left-Wing Dramatic Theory in the American Theatre (Ann Arbor, Michigan: U.M.I. Research Press, 1985); Howard Burman and Joseph Hanreddy, "The Activist Theatre of the Thirties," Theatre Studies, no. 18 (1971/1972): 55-64; Stuart Cosgrove, "Cabaret and Counter-Culture: The Anti-Fascist Theatre in New York." Theatre Quarterly 10, no. 40 (Autumn-Winter 1981): 49-60; Cosgrove, "From Shock Troupe to Group Theatre," Raphael Samuel, Ewan MacColl, and Stuart Cosgrove, eds., Theatres of the Left, 1880-1935: Workers' Theatre Movements in Britain and America (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), 259-279; Cosgrove, "Prolet Buehne: Agit-Prop in America," David Bradby, Louis James, and Bernard Sharratt, eds., Performance and Politics in Popular Drama (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 201-212; Daniel Friedman, "A Brief Description of the Workers' Theatre Movement of the Thirties," Bruce McConachie and Daniel Friedman, eds., Theatre for Working-Class Audiences in the United States, 1830-1980 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985), 202-12; Daniel Howard Friedman, "The Prolet-Buehne: America's First Agit-Prop Theatre," (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1979); Harry Goldman and Mel Gordon, "Workers' Theatre in America: A Survey 1913-1938," Journal of American Culture 1, no. 1 (Spring 1978): 169-181; Douglas McDermott, "Agitprop: Production Practice in the Workers' Theatre, 1932-1942." Theatre Survey 7, no. 2 (November 1966): 115-124; McDermott, "New Theatre School, 1932-1942." Speech Teacher 14, no. 4 (November 1965): 278-285; McDermott, "The Odyssey of John Bonn: A Note on German Theatre in America." German Quarterly 28, no. 3 (May 1965): 325-334; McDermott, "Propaganda and Art: Dramatic Theory and the American Depression." Modern Drama 11, no. 1 (May 1968): 73-81; McDermott, "The Theatre Nobody Knows: Workers' Theatre in America, 1926-1942." Theatre Survey 1, no. 1 (May 1965): 65-82; McDermott, "The Workers' Laboratory Theatre: Archetype and Example," in McConachie and Friedman, 121-154; George Phillipson, "Workers' Theatre: Forms and Techniques," Modern Drama 22, no. 4 (December 1979): 383-89.
Paul Sporn, "Working-Class Theatre on the Auto Picket Line," in McConachie and Friedman, 155-170; Richard J. Altenbaugh, "Proletarian Drama: An Educational Tool of the American Labor College Movement," Theatre Journal 34, no. 2 (May 1982): 197-210.
Morgan Y. Himelstein, Drama Was a Weapon (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1963); Malcolm Goldstein, The Political Stage (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974); Karen Malpede Taylor, People's Theatre in Amerika, (New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1972); Sam Smiley, The Drama of Attack: Didactic Plays of the American Depression (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1972); Jay Williams, Stage Left (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974).
Ben W. Brown, Theatre on the Left (Providence, R.I.: Bear Press, 1938); Huntly Carter, The New Theatre and Cinema of Soviet Russia (New York: International Publishers, 1925); Nikolai A. Gorchakov, The Theatre in Soviet Russia, trans. Edgar Lehrman (New York: Columbia Press, 1975); Richard Stourac and Kathleen McCreery, Theatre as a Weapon: Workers' Theatre in the Soviet Union, Germany, and Britain, 1917-1934 (New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
David Lee Jorns, "Manifestations of Theory and Technique from Three European Political Theatre Forms on the American Stage Between the World Wars," (Ph.D. dissertation, U.C.L.A., 1973); Paul Clinton Sherr, "Political Satire in the American Musical Theatre of the 1930's," (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1965); Harry J. Elam, Jr., "Theatre for Social Change: The Artistic and Social Vision in Revolutionary Theatre in America, 1930-1970," (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California--Berkeley, 1984); Felicia Nina Liss Frank, "The Magazines Workers Theatre, New Theatre and New Theatre and Film as Documents of the American Left-wing Theatre Movement of the Nineteen-Thirties," (Ph.D. dissertation, City University of New York, 1976).
For instance, Sherr considers the subject of democracy as satirized in Pins and Needles, The Cradle Will Rock, and Parade; Williams discusses the origins of these four musicals and particular production aspects of each, and he touches on some less well-known musicals of the thirties; Goldstein and Himelstein treat the four most famous musicals as products of leftist influence in the thirties.
Harry Merton Goldman, "Pins and Needles: A White House Command Performance," Educational Theatre Journal 30, no. 1 (March 1978): 90-101; Harry Goldman, "When Social Significance Came to Broadway: Pins and Needles in Production," Theatre Quarterly 12, no. 28 (Winter 1977-78): 25-42; John O. Hunter, "Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock as a Document of America, 1937," American Quarterly 18 (Summer 1966): 227-33.
Workers Theatre 2, no. 2 (May 1932), 3, 14. Goldstein, p. 35, says the staff of the magazine argued about whether or not to use the apostrophe in the title and usually omitted it; I will omit the apostrophe.
Sherr, p. 9, discusses the difficulty he had in finding surviving scripts even of Broadway musicals. He cites a letter written to him by Richard Maney, producer of many Broadway shows, who claims that when authors and producers see they have a failure on their hands, they seldom copyright or publish the work unless it has potential for films.
David Hirst, "The American Musical and the American Dream," New Theatre Quarterly 1, no. 1 (February 1985), 30, says that the musical of the thirties was able to link "social and socialistic satire to a more positive, even chauvinistic approach" in such shows as Pins and Needles.
Workers' Songbook, (New York, 1934); from People's Songs Library Collection; found in Robbie Lieberman, "My Song is My Weapon": People's Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930-1950 (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois, 1989), 28; Lieberman, "`My Song is my Weapon': People's Songs and the Politics of Culture, 1946-1949," (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1984), 23.
New Theatre News 1, no. 2 (December 1938): 9; two other musical skits were performed in Detroit: Million Dollar Babies and Hoodwinked (the latter also by Arthur Clifford) and performed by the Detroit Contemporary Theatre, according to Sporn, 164, 166.
A.P. Foulkes, Literature and Propaganda (New York: Methuen, 1983), 105; Eric Bentley, "The Theatre of Commitment," The Theatre of Commitment and Other Essays (New York: Atheneum, 1967), 203, has stated that even "the most apolitical of writers . . . can become political in given political circumstances"; Szanto, 7-8, has claimed that an audience's perception of an artwork creates its importance and that the meanings audiences place on artworks change as the audience changes; and Qualter, 110, has said that the effects of propaganda arise from the interaction of the communication and the audience, through a specific medium, in a cultural and ideological context, at a particular time and place.
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