Rejection: The Workers' Musical of Agitation and Propaganda, 1928-1932
The decade of the nineteen thirties was a period of severe economic devastation and intense commitment by many to remedy the ills that were plaguing the social system. Because of the crisis brought about by the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent period of financial hardship enthusiastic efforts were made to improve, or in some cases change, the capitalist system. One of those efforts was the development of the workers' theatre movement influenced, in part, by doctrine of the International Communist party and, in part, by a social and political move to the left. In this chapter, I will outline the basic tenets of leftism in the thirties, both as a general trend and as reflected in the American Communist party. I will then discuss the growth of the concept of proletarian literature and drama in the United States and focus on workers' musicals of the late twenties and early thirties when the efforts of the workers' theatre movement emphasized agitprop theatre--theatre that would act as propaganda for the purpose of agitating audiences to take action.
Communism and Radicalism in the Thirties
Leftism in the late twenties and thirties was a mongrel breed of social commitment, anti-capitalism, class-consciousness, revolutionary optimism, antagonistic vilification, and conflicts between loosely vague and determinedly strict doctrine. The left-wing had its liberal element and its conservative element, those for Socialism or Communism and those not willing to be aligned with either. Left-wing liberals of the thirties were divided into three distinct groups: 1) party members or dependable fellow-travelers, who uncritically supported the Communist line emanating from Moscow; 2) Russian sympathizers, who were more impressed with the Russian "experiment" than with Russian doctrine, sympathetic but not uncritical toward Russia, without necessarily accepting the Communist line on other issues; 3) anti-Communist left-wing liberals highly critical of Russia and Communist doctrine and tactics, fundamentally in theoretical disagreement with Communism, but also dedicated to major change and willing on occasion to work with Communists toward shared ends. By the thirties, left-wing liberals had often some ties and influence in mainstream politics.
Part of the problem facing the left-wing liberal during the period was the shifting Communist Party line from Moscow. Johnpoll summarizes the major shifts in the party line from 1918 to the mid-thirties:
1) From 1918 to 1921 was the period of the party's gestation. Left-wing Socialists and Syndicalists prepared for the coming revolution. Small groups of radicals formed "soviets" and played at revolution.
2) From 1921 to 1928 was the period when it became apparent that the revolution would not come immediately. The U.S.S.R. was too much in dispute internally to become a world-wide influence, Germany had rejected Communism in favor of a "bourgeois" democracy, Poland had rejected the Russian army, and "normalcy" had returned under Harding. Apocalyptic rhetoric faded, syndicalism was abandoned, and dual unionism attempted unsuccessfully to be accepted into the mainstream. After Lenin's death and the ensuing power struggle which left Russia at the command of Stalin, Moscow shifted further left.
3) From 1928 to 1935 "was one of the most bizarre [periods] in American Communist history." It reflected events in Russia and Germany, but was irrelevant to America. Communists labeled Socialists and the AFL and trade unionists, generally, as "social fascists." Between 1933 and 1935, the New Deal was called a "tool of hunger, fascism, and imperialist war."
According to Johnpoll, membership in the Communist party had a high turnover, never reaching above 70,000 at any given time, with an average of 20,000 between 1930 and 1950. Approximately 500,000 Americans joined the party between 1930 and 1950, but the average length of membership was less than a year. Most who joined dropped out within a few months. Johnpoll claims that no more than one-fifth of one percent of Americans were Communists, while Earl Latham says fewer than one-tenth of one percent. Most party members were idealists when they first joined, but most found that "communism was at best a façade for bureaucratic power" that imposed great discipline: "Most found it unacceptable and soon dropped out of the movement."
Although not all those who were left-wing felt precisely the same way about all issues, much American radical thought has been composed of a synthesis of three diametrically opposed ideologies--socialism, syndicalism, and anarchism. The American character of each of these international movements is unique, however, developing a particularly American brand of radicalism. To the socialist, the state is the primary instrument that can cause change to occur. The state is thus a positive good, and its power and scope should be increased. Syndicalists feel that the state is irrelevant and that society will be repaired by the workers through their unions. The state could play no part in the revolution, but it could act in one of three ways, depending on the syndicalist's views about the state's role: 1) those who thought the state could play no part refused to involve themselves with partisan politics; 2) those who felt that the state could act as protection for the workers supported a socialist party but expected it merely to defend pro-labor gains and not to cause real social change; and 3) those who felt the state would defend the status quo felt much the same as the anarchists--the state is, by its nature, the enemy of the exploited working class. Finally, anarchists felt that the state was coercive and the root of all social evils. Those believing in these ideologies had much in common, however. They cooperated more often than not on specific issues; many people were socialists, syndicalists, and anarchists simultaneously, and all groups cooperated to combat the existing state of American society. The practical collaboration among these movements, though, does not deny the fact that they had theoretical differences, which often caused them to work at cross-purposes. Socialists favored social reforms or transformation in a democratic context. Syndicalists favored reform also, but they rejected the state as an instrument for improving conditions and instead suggested industrial action as a solution--the problems are, after all, industrial. Anarchists denigrated all attempts at social reform; the present society, because of its capitalist state, will render social reforms useless and retard the revolution.
Max Shachtman, one of the founders of the American International Trotskyist Movement and the editor of its press, states that three outstanding elements contributed to radicalism in the thirties: the Great Depression, which followed the crash of 1929; the changing shape of Russian society; and the consolidation of "Hitlerite" fascism. The Communists called anyone not directly connected with them "social fascists"--including socialists, anarchists, fascists, New Deal politicians, and anyone else who was not a Communist--the more "leftist" "social fascists" they were, the more they try to hide fascism under the pretense of radicalism. As a result of its hard line, the Communist party in America made "decidedly moderate" gains, especially in light of the growing disenchantment with a capitalist system unable to solve the problems of the Depression. The socialist party rose in the early thirties as it pushed to the left, but the Communists made little headway in labor before 1935, although some with the unemployed. The unemployed, however, were not a strong base on which to energize a movement. The Communists also made some headway with radical intellectuals, but the intellectuals were always more attracted to the anti-capitalism of the party than to anything else. Extreme action by Communists, in part, led to apostasy by many: in 1934 hundreds of Communists, armed and violent, raided and broke up a large meeting in Madison Square Garden that was paying tribute to fallen socialist leaders in Vienna. This incident caused many intellectuals to condemn the Communists in an open letter denouncing the Communists party's "culpability and shame." Within two years, many of these intellectuals, and many others, had broken with the Communist party.
From 1935 on, claims Shachtman, the Communists not only dominated American radicalism but dominated it "overwhelmingly." The "popular front" showed a real change from the party's early-thirties revolutionary rhetoric: "The change was breathtaking. So were the consequences." Earl Browder began to call Communism "Twentieth Century Americanism," partly because many political factors were so favorable to the Communists, each factor reinforcing the others. First, the New Deal, despite all its measures, had not wiped out unemployment and other problems. Reports from the USSR came into the U.S. of innovative industrial and agricultural revolutions, while US crops were being plowed under. The apparent advances of Russia and the growing disillusionment with US capitalism served to swing many Americans to the left. Secondly, the "all-inclusive unity" Communists offered to Americans made them seem "the most reasonable, practicable, and tolerant champion of unity against the menace of fascism." The Communist party would now work with anyone--non-Communists, non-socialists, even non-liberals. "It was vastly seductive." Thirdly, the fact that Russia was a growing power, which now favored the League of Nations, collective security, non-aggression pacts, and defense of democracy, as well as supplying arms to the Loyalists in Spain, made many Americans ask themselves, "What more could a reasonable person of good will ask for?" And fourth, the growth of the C.I.O. (Congress of Industrial Organizations) "executed an almost unexampled enthusiasm and support from all the radical and liberal forces." The CIO spread rapidly, swept millions in, and made itself "a tremendous force" in the labor movement. As a result, American Communism mushroomed into an overwhelming force in American radicalism, and Shachtman thinks it is not an exaggeration to claim that "ninety-five percent of the people who became radicals in that time became Communists or moved within the orbit of its leadership and influence." The first large breech between the pro-Communist intellectuals and the Communist party, however, came during and after the Moscow anti-Trotsky trials of 1936. It became "no longer possible to effect reconciliation between the Communist intellectuals, who were eventually reduced to a handful of unskilled and sterile writers, and the non-Communist intellectuals."
Roberta Ash does not agree with Shachtman's assessment of the extent to which intellectuals were involved with the Communist party, claiming that the involvement peaked during the "closed and aggressive years" of the early thirties and waned during the union organizing and Popular Front years. Disillusionment with Stalin, support for the New Deal, and disdain for cruder methods of appealing to the proletariat all helped to make the relationship between the political sentiments and the artworks of writers and artists unclear. As evidence of this tenuous relationship she notes that by the end of the thirties "eleven of the twenty-one former major contributors or editors to the New Masses were cited by the party as `enemies of the people.'"
Earl Browder, general secretary of the American Communist party for most of the thirties until 1945, when he was ousted from the party because of opposition to some of his policies, has contradicted himself on the subject of the Comintern's (Communist International) control over American Communist party policies. Johnpoll claims that in a 1963 interview, Norman Thomas, the head of the American Socialist party, told him that Browder had admitted to Thomas that he and the other party leaders were, in Johnpoll's words, "little more than delivery boys." Browder suggests, however, as late as 1965, that the "Comintern line" was not a fixed, homogeneous thing. Browder claims that he had the ability to change Comintern decisions as head of the American Communist party, and that any scholar who attempts to understand the radicalism of the thirties should understand that. But in 1939, according to Latham, Browder testified to the House Un-American Activities Committee that, in "its political essence," the American Communist party was in "the closest harmony" with the Comintern, while organizationally it was not so. Despite the apparent confusion, Johnpoll agrees with many other scholars who believe that the failure of the American Communist party to become relevant to the social, economic, and political life of the United States was due primarily to its slavish adherence to foreign control and to the changing doctrine of the USSR Klehr, as well, says that after the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, "no one could escape the conclusion that the Communists' domestic policy was hostage to Soviet foreign policy."
The goals of liberals and Communists often appeared to merge during the thirties: during the Fish Committee hearings and as an editor of New Republic, Edmund Wilson wrote in that magazine in January 1931 that liberals "must take Communism away from the Communists." Liberals must accept some Communist programs, but not necessarily cooperate with the Communist party the way it was set up. Liberal remedies--public ownership of utilities, nonrevolutionary labor organizations, and ineffective protests against oppression--were not adequate, and to solve social problems progressive liberals must have the same goal as the Communists: government ownership of the means of production and industrial, rather than regional, representation. However, in later years, the tables will turn on liberalism, as Communists emphasize their centrality in supporting democracy and liberalism.
Leftism in the Thirties
Communism appealed to many in the circumstances of the Great Depression and its influence on leftism of the thirties was real but also limited. Most artists, intellectuals, and workers were concerned with a more American brand of leftism. Latham suggests that the Fish Committee of 1930-1931 saw the party xenophobically, as did many Americans--as "an alien organization--not only metaphorically but literally." During the early thirties, leftism may have appeared radical and foreign, but as the decade progressed and Roosevelt's New Deal evolved, leftism became a more acceptable, indeed partly expected, way of American life.
A generally accepted consensus exists among historians of the period that to be "leftist" or "left-wing" during the thirties was to have a political orientation supportive of any principles designed to lessen capitalism's evils. As Levine states it, leftism refers to "the political orientation, aesthetic ideas, or artistic work of individuals affiliated with a radical political party, or supportive of any political program designed to replace capitalism with socialism, or subscribing to the principles of historical materialism." This is a rather broad definition, one that does not include some people who worked for social transformation short of socialism. During the thirties, many who considered themselves leftists organized unions, worked for unemployment insurance, or sought racial equality, some with a specific new system in mind and some with no specific solution to suggest.
Some, however, were artists, writers, playwrights, performers, and intellectuals who wished to propagate their ideas to the American people and to educate the American audience about possible problems of and possible solutions to its plight. These were the leftist artists of the thirties, who Klehr suggests found in Communism some of the answers they sought:
Few of them were as yet prepared to become Communists. However much they admired the Party's courage in tackling formidable foes, willingness to fight for the deprived, and eagerness to identify with the oppressed, most intellectuals still shied away from the Party's discipline, rhetoric, and identification with Russia. Many, however, were moving to the left. Some had discovered Marxism. Others had discovered Russia. And a few were yearning for some kind of radical change. Despite its inhospitable behavior, the Communist party was very nearly the only game in town.
Similarly, Granville Hicks comments on the character of these people as being temperamentally disinclined towards moderation: "They [artists] are, for better or worse, more likely to demand that something fundamental be done and be done here and now." Many writers in the crisis of the early thirties seemed to feel that socialism was "too mild and ineffectual" and that nothing seemed more fundamental than the programs of the Communist party. Many writers, during the summer of 1932, signed a manifesto supporting Communist candidates in the upcoming elections; some may have been Communists, others were not (Dos Passos called himself a "campfollower," according to Hicks), but all of them seemed to see something in Communist party activities and policies that would help America solve some of its problems. However, despite the influence Communism had on many artists and writers of the thirties, Hicks claims that "the influence of the Communist party on particular writers was in almost every instance short-lived."
Leftism in the theatre was not necessarily Communism, although Communism was influential, and often the factors distinguishing the Communist from the liberal were unclear. There seems to be a consensus by many that, as Zuck suggests, "political leftism in the 1930s simply became a common framework in which the American intelligentsia expressed their idealism and humanitarianism"; she adds that "social purpose penetrated even the relatively shallow ground of American musical comedy." Vaughn agrees that distinguishing mainstream conservatism and liberalism from left- and right-wing extremism during the thirties is difficult and that, except for the Theatre Union, which Vaughn feels was overtly Communist, "the social theatre was beset by a more covert and less definable subversion." After 1935, the difficulty becomes even greater: Johnpoll claims that Communists became much harder to differentiate from liberals and many tried to hide their true affiliations. John Gassner suggests, moreover, that in the nineteen-thirties the term "leftism" was benign and vaguely complimentary when used by proponents of liberalism and that it applied to the entire serious-minded stage. Levine concurs: while the principles of communism were germane to the dramatic thought of left-wing theorists and practitioners, he states, their theory was more the result of an urgent and practical attempt to use the theatre in the contemporary class struggle than a result of refined aesthetic and philosophical deliberation.
Jay Williams, a member of the Workers' Laboratory Theatre, writes that the various amateur groups making up the workers' theatre movement "arose largely as a political response to the economic troubles of the day"; some were Communists, some Socialists, but many had no particular political affiliation, although most were sympathetic to the left. All were united, however, "in seeing the theatre, like other arts, as an implement for spreading the message that present-day society was decadent and that only in some profound change could an answer be found." The conclusion that the workers' theatre movement was a plot of the Communists is superficial, he claims:
The truth is more complex, and rests in much larger part on the need young artists often feel to put their art to some social purpose. . . . Marxism seemed to provide a satisfactory answer to most of the evils and in one form or another attracted followers in all the arts.
Background -- Workers' Theatre In America
Scholars of American theatre of the Great Depression tend to divide the period's theatre into distinct stages based on certain characteristics. For instance, Stuart Cosgrove, in one of his many studies of workers' theatre, details the development of workers' theatre in the United States and suggests that the history of the workers' theatre movement can be separated into three distinct stages:
1925 to 1932: Establishment and growth
1932 to 1935: Consolidation and gradual anti-fascism
1935 to 1941: Decline of workers' theatre movement
Similarly, R.C. Reynolds proposes that the stages of development of the American mainstream and social theatre of the thirties are as follows:
1929 to 1933: Attempts at "hard-line" Marxist dramas fail, while social comedies succeed. Mild lampooning of mores and conventions changes to biting political satire.
1933 to 1936: Social critics write for the stage as Marxist and Communist didacticians who synthesize elements of agit-prop with more acceptable forms of Broadway to exhort, declaim, and inform, but also entertain. The synthesis continues through such groups as the Federal Theatre Project.
1937 to 1939: A softening of the "hard line" occurs. Attempts to synthesize political and social activism with the well-made play all combine social comedy with social criticism to emphasize the need for unity and understanding of all.
Finally, Sherr examines satire in the American musical of the thirties and divides the decade into three periods of development:
1930 to 1934-35: the main subjects of Broadway musicals involve the Depression, the Presidency, and Hoover. Touching on graft trials in New York, campus Communism, and other miscellaneous political matters, the early-thirties musicals, whether book shows or revues, deal with contemporary events and names in their librettos, and have dialog marked by clever repartee. But the stories dart about, touching on "newsy" things the audience could vicariously share in.
1934 to 1938: political satire darkens and resorts to "invective, accusation, and indictment." Most are reactions to Roosevelt and his New Deal, to Communism and fascism, and, although "musical comedy and revue [are] still in use as forms, [they] submit to modification and become productions hard to categorize," becoming, perhaps, mixtures of musical comedy, revue, and operetta. The subjects are no longer hunger or want, but rather Roosevelt and his means to alleviate them, hatred of war, the labor movement, and individuals within the movement. The attacks on political or social evils have sardonic humor, if they have any humor at all.
1938 to 1939: a return to the first period. Musical comedy and revue become more recognizable as forms, the subject matter is lighter, satire picks up interest in Russia and Germany, and the quarrels between the haves and have-nots seem to show the haves almost boasting. However, the tone of the satire has changed: "biting satire" has been replaced with "satirical humor."
Reynolds's division of the mainstream social theatre and Sherr's of the Broadway musical into three parts parallel Cosgrove's division of the workers' theatre; this may perhaps suggest that the mainstream and non-mainstream theatre of the late twenties and thirties went through similar periods of development. In this study I will be dealing with the workers' musical using the divisions suggested by Cosgrove. Although not a perfect division, the leftist musicals of the time seem also to fall into those general periods of historical development.
Leftism and radicalism naturally found their way into the theatre of the thirties, perhaps inevitably. As the loudest, most vocal, and most visual of art forms, and also the most immediate, the theatre seemed to be able to direct a message to an audience clearly, sharply, intellectually, and emotionally. Previous attempts had been made to form a theatre for the working-class, but until the devastation brought about by the depression, the theatre's appeal had not been so politically immediate nor so apparently necessary. Determining how much direct influence the Communist party had on the Workers' Theatre Movement is difficult. For instance, although the Workers' Laboratory Theatre was originally sponsored by an organ of the party, Earl Robinson, who joined the Workers' Laboratory Theatre/Theatre of Action in 1934, says that most of the members of the group were members of the party but that they did not think of the group as a Communist theatre. Similarly, Perry Bruskin, another member of the group, felt he was involved in a worldwide movement of poor people helping poor people: going to a bakers' union meeting and helping them to believe they could get a better contract made him feel that the Workers' Laboratory Theatre had helped give the union strength. In order to realize some influences acting upon the workers' theatre of the late twenties and thirties, an examination of "workers' theatre" attempts before the first stage of the period is necessary. American workers' theatre had some important ancestors.
Proletarian Art / Proletarian Drama
The notion of a class-oriented drama coming from the workers themselves, according to Levine, had little impact during the twenties in the US, in part because nothing written by the "proletarian" literature's major theorists had been yet translated and published in English. Further, many knew of Trotsky's denial of the possibility of proletarian art in his widely-read Literature and Art, and many left-wing artists felt that the idea of a "worker-artist" was a contradiction in terms. In the twenties, attempts to promote the idea of proletarian literature in the US were largely the result of the writings of Michael Gold, the productions of foreign-language theatre groups, and productions of the Workers' Drama League.
Gold's call for working class art in the US came as early as 1921, when, writing under his real name, Irwin Granich, he published in The Liberator an article called "Towards Proletarian Art." He claimed that capitalist art had declined after the First World War and the rise of socialism in Russia; the old art had been created by isolates from the general populace and from the populace's creative roots. Gold predicted a new art, born of the "tenement," and new artists to focus on the experience of poverty and exploitation as the basis of their expression. Instead of abstract truth and beauty, as was worshipped by bourgeois artists, the new proletarian art would convey reality for the common man. The common man absorbed strength from his solidarity with others in his class, and the worker's art would express the idea that life was best when lived as part of a collectivity. "Masses go on--they are the eternal truth," says Gold. "Masses are simple, strong, and sure." As Gold saw it, external rather than internal life was to be the focus of the new tenement artist, who will portray the conditions of the masses crying out for revolutionary change in the social fabric and who will portray the actions that need to be taken to facilitate that change. Working men must create this art. Proletarians have an instinctive urge to create, and if a proletarian art were created, centuries of suppressive social and economic barriers would be overcome.
Gold went to Russia, where he saw mass recitations and wrote what Levine calls "the first native example, in English, of this ensemble form," a form that would develop in the US in the early thirties in some short agitprop plays of the Workers' Laboratory Theatre, the Prolet-Buehne, and others. In 1926, Gold published his play Strike! in New Masses, calling the mass recitation "a group art," and one that should have no "outcropping of individualism." He felt that it was "one of the most powerful and original forms developed in the struggle for proletarian culture. It is art that has grown out of the workers' life and needs; it is useful art." Although Gold wanted the lines to be "chanted, not spoken," he also notes in the stage directions that some of the allegorical characters could be accompanied by music as they enter. Individual characterization is minimal; ensemble techniques are used; the play is almost "a group lament" with occasional dialog in stichomythia between the chorus and individual workers; group movement emphasizes the play's rhythms. Choral antiphony concludes the play, as the male chorus chants "Strike, Strike," and the female chorus sings "The Internationale," then the "whole audience rises, and the male part of the chorus starts singing the beginning of `The Internationale'." Levine feels that Gold considered the play to be proletarian because it was group art and because it represented a revolutionary theme by focusing on the conflict between two economic classes. Furthermore, he had designed the play so that it could be performed by amateurs--only an amateur could deliver a mass recitation, claimed Gold, because a professional would look ludicrous doing so.
In the next issue of New Masses, Harbor Allen (who later wrote and was more well-known under the name of Paul Peters) reviewed Huntly Carter's The New Theatre and Cinema of Soviet Russia. In his review, he continued Gold's call for a working-man's theatre, saying that "the trouble with American drama is that it has too many manners (most of them questionable, to be sure) and not enough blood." He contrasted American theatre with "a theatre of, for, and by the people": American theatre has only "1) A theatre of, by, and for the intelligentsia; intelligent, but arty, pathological, supercilious; and; 2) A theatre of, for, and by the butter-and-egg population: lavish, frivolous, smutty."
Proletarian drama did not arrive in the twenties in the US, however, until the later part of the decade, despite calls for its creation. Although the subject was discussed at length in the leftist press during the first half of the thirties, Goldstein suggests that the concept of "proletarian" literature was so ill-defined as to make its very existence questionable:
Did it mean only literature created by workers in their hours away from the factory, the mine, or the construction job? If so, was it literature aimed only at other workers? Or was it literature about them, but written by professional literary men and intended for consumption by all classes? As the Depression ground on, the body of short and long works described as proletarian by the Communist press piled ever higher, but not all of it was written by laborers, and little of it seemed to have been written with a readership of such men and women in mind.
Nevertheless, some type of "proletarian" drama developed gradually during the twenties, in various forms, primarily through foreign-language cultural groups. Friedman outlines radical theatre groups in America before the popularity of the Prolet-Buehne and the Workers' Laboratory Theatre, and traces American workers' theatre back to 1877, based on an announcement in the German-language Arbeiter Stimme, a New York newspaper. He claims that a form of workers' theatre was also found in variations of the English Mummer's play performed in the southeast US and the southern Appalachians, and in variations of Spanish religious dramas performed by Chicanos of the isolated southwest. But most of these were not truly workers' plays, he claims, because they were performed by farmers, not wage-earners. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was formed in 1905 as an organization dedicated to the formation of One Big Union of Workers to overthrow capitalism, and maintained migratory workers, blacklisted miners, lumberjacks, cowboys, and construction workers as its core. Plays were often performed in hobo camps for IWW workers, and leaders of strikes often encouraged shows and entertainments for the workers. Although a rich culture of songs and stories developed around the camps, Friedman says that no playscripts exist in the IWW Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, and that only one document of theatrical performance, a program for an "Entertainment" dated December 17, 1917, can be found. He also mentions the Patterson Strike Pageant, a form of propagandist entertainment for workers that was imitated in many larger cities around the country, and by other organizations as well, but that by 1931 the pageant or mass spectacle had given way to the shorter agit-prop play. Friedman suggests, though, that foreign-language groups had a more continuous use of the theatre than did English-speaking groups. Most foreign-language groups were connected to social and fraternal organizations (the Prolet-Buehne, for instance, was originally part of the Arbeiterbund, or Workers' Club) that attempted to preserve national language and culture and to bring culture to the masses who spoke their language. Many were vaguely leftist, claims Friedman, and some even associated themselves with the Workers' (Communist) party in the twenties, although most groups did not think of their theatrical functions as any different from traditional theatre, politically or aesthetically. Although many of the plays may have been oriented toward social themes, they were not clearly defined, and most of them had an elaborate and traditional approach to staging: Bernard Reines of the Workers' Laboratory Theatre claimed that they were "heavily painted, obvious realism," and Blake noted the "bourgeois" nature of the productions. Many foreign-language groups thrived, however: the Finnish Dramatic League; the Lithuanian Federation of Proletarian Art; the Scandinavian Workers' Clubs; the Arbeiter Teater Farband (The Jewish Workers' Theatre, later shortened to Artef); and Russian immigrant workers' theatre, the latter isolated but demonstrating the first known attempts to use agit-prop techniques in America.
Not only did foreign-language workers' groups perform dramas, but performances were also presented by groups of left-wing intellectuals. Friedman discusses the Progressive Stage Society, formed by Julius Hopp in 1905 to present radical plays written in English, which failed but by 1917 was re-established; the Wage Earners Theatre, also formed by Hopp; the Telegraph Hill Players of San Francisco, which formed in 1924 and did at least two productions; and benefit performances for the Labor Defense Council. Other instances of what Friedman calls a "cross-fertilization" between workers' groups and left-wing intellectuals occurred: the Patterson Strike Pageant, which Cosgrove calls the first significant workers' theatre event in the United States, and proletarian drama that Altenbaugh finds was performed in labor colleges in the twenties and thirties.
However, in spite of radical theatre productions in the Soviet Union and in much of Europe, and despite the existence of various ethnic theatres, not until 1926 did a short-lived amateur militant troupe, Workers' Theatre, form in New York. It was created by established playwrights who would soon form the Workers' Drama League, the first "sustained attempt to promote organized Workers' Theatre in New York." The Workers' Drama League, according to Levine, was "the only indigenous English-speaking proletarian theatre to have functioned during the twenties." John Howard Lawson, Michael Gold, Jasper Deeter, and Ida Ruah formed the League, intended to bring the works of the Russian and German cultural progress to American workers, but it folded in 1928. Little else is known about the Workers' Drama League: Ben Blake, an early historian of the workers' theatre movement, claims that its most successful production was of Karl Wittfogel's satire, The Biggest Boob in the World, but very little other information about the group has been discovered, and Blake claims that by 1935 the group was forgotten. The Workers' Drama League may have been influenced by European political theatre, as may the only other major leftist theatre of the twenties, the New Playwrights' Theatre.
The New Playwrights' Theatre was formed in 1927 and ran for three seasons, picking up where the Workers' Drama League had left off. Formed by Lawson, Gold, John DOS Passos, Francis Farragoh, and Em Jo Basshe, the New Playwrights' wanted to present plays of relevance to labor audiences. They were the first to show concern with industrial and economic themes and were the first theatre group to have an unreserved sympathy for the labor movement, according to Blake, but their productions, characterized by constructivist and expressionist staging, mass groupings, singing, and musical scoring, were "vague and blurred" in their portrayal of social forces and pessimistic in their outlook for labor. This helped lead to the failure of their venture; but the chief cause of their failure, according to Blake, was the lack of a vital, organized audience. They had performed plays written by Upton Sinclair, Gold, Lawson, and others, and perhaps they were destined to fail as a workers' theatre, claims Levine: the founders of the group were middle-class and aspired to professionalism--departing from the proletarian ideal.
Only one musical by the New Playwrights' was produced during the period under examination in this study and is available in print: I have been unable to locate a copy of the show that had the longest run of any production of the New Playwrights', Upton Sinclair's Singing Jailbirds (1928). With a "smooth blend of music and dialogue," including "thumping Wobbly tunes," according to Goldstein, the play told the story of a Joe Hill-like I.W.W. leader named Red Adams who is arrested while organizing a strike of marine transport workers in Southern California. Goldstein claims that the greatest service the songs played was to provide relief from the "mystical dialogue between Red and his dead wife." The script was published in Pasadena by the author, so I am not even sure if any copies are available. John Howard Lawson's The International (1928), published by Macaulay Press of New York. Lawson makes very clear in the "Production Footnotes" to the play that music is necessary, and he calls for a chorus of sixteen women who combine "jazz treatment with the dignified narrative strophe and antistrophe of Greek drama." "The Internationale," "The Birth of the Blues," and other well-known tunes are to be woven in with the original music (written by Edward A. Ziman), and battle noises and shooting sounds are to be considered part of the formal musical structure. Examination of this "workers'" musical later in this chapter will reveal that Lawson's play was, as Goldstein puts it, baffling and distressing to his audience, and coupled with this and other early workers' theatres' lack of a unified audience, undercut workers' theatre in the twenties.
By 1928, however, two other American theatre groups arose and captured a small audience of workers and, after the stock market crash of 1929, captivated that audience with their anti-capitalist, pro-Communist message. The Prolet-Buehne (Proletarian Stage) had been active in New York City presenting theatre in the German language since 1925, and in 1928 or 1929 became fully agit-prop, adopting a strong labor stance, and basing much of its theatrical technique on the agit-prop theatres of Germany and Soviet Russia. Almost simultaneously, apparently unaware of the Prolet-Buehne, the Workers' Laboratory Theatre was organized by some of the founders of the Workers' Drama League and sponsored by the Communist Workers International Relief, an organ of the Communist party. Jack and Hiam Shapiro, from the Workers' Drama League, called their group the Pro-Lab; they merged with a group with no formal name headed by Al Saxe, to form the Workers' Laboratory Theatre. By 1930, the Prolet-Buehne was performing outside of the German-speaking community in New York, and their performance style had immediate impact. When the Workers' Laboratory Theatre saw the Prolet-Buehne, they immediately started adopting the German troupe's style and performing their plays in English translation. Furthermore, by 1928 a number of workers' theatres around the country had been formed, usually in association with established workers' cultural groups such as the John Reed Clubs: the Solidarity Players of Chicago, Vanguard Players (Dramatic Group) of Philadelphia, and the Blue Blouses of Chicago. By 1929, functioning radical workers' groups in New York, mostly foreign-language-speaking, formed a loose alliance, the Workers Dramatic Council of New York, and by summer of 1931, the Prolet-Buehne and the Workers' Laboratory Theatre had allied to form the Dramatic Bureau of the New York Cultural Federation. They held a meeting July 1, 1931, to which nine groups came; less than a year later, in April 1932, 350 theatre groups around the country were associated with the Dramatic Bureau.
Furthermore, the Workers' Laboratory Theatre also originated the magazine Workers Theatre; its first issue of April 1931 was a mimeographed journal with a run of only two hundred, but circulation tripled by the next year. The secretary of the "socialist" Rand School organization wrote to Workers Theatre to protest the Workers' Laboratory Theatre's use of their name on the magazine, and the editors, according to Goldstein, denounced the Rand School's group as a creation of socialists and made it clear that they would use whatever name they wished. That year, 1932, the Prolet-Buehne joined the editorship of the journal. After the Dramatic Bureau formed itself into the League of Workers' Theatres (LOWT) at the First National Workers' Theatre Spartakiade and Conference in New York on April 16 and 17, 1932, it became a national organization; it distributed plays to theatres who needed them, held competitions, and established schools to teach agit-prop techniques. The consolidation of the movement into a central organization, and the publication of Workers Theatre, led to a communication network among theatres and a forum for theoretical and technical ideas. Goldstein claims that after the formation of the League of Workers' Theatres and the joint publication of Workers Theatre, "a slow but quite perceptible change" took place in the character of the movement: "Little by little, and possibly at the urging of their superiors in the Party, the magazine's writers were adopting the view that appeals to the mass could be effective even if low-voiced, and that didactic drama could work for social betterment without clamoring for a revolution."
Find dates when Bruskin and Robinson joined WLT.Both Earl Robinson and Perry Bruskin, former members of the Workers' Laboratory Theatre, have told me that musical entertainment played an integral part of their performances. Every time the Workers' Laboratory Theatre performed one of its plays, the members would also sing songs--sometimes songs that were well-known and popular with leftist audiences, some that were written by the group ("Flying Squadron," for instance, with music by Robinson and lyrics by various members of the Workers' Laboratory Theatre). However, Robinson and Bruskin did not join the Workers' Laboratory Theatre until 1934, after the first period of workers' theatre in America; therefore, the amount of music that the early workers' theatre used, at least the Workers' Laboratory Theatre, cannot be definitely determined. The only musical still available from that period is an English translation of the Prolet-Buehne's Art is a Weapon, a short agit-prop piece from 1931 which uses a chorus of workers, entering from the aisles to interrupt a capitalist with singing. Even Charity (1932) although performed as a staple by the Workers' Laboratory Theatre within six months of the 1932 Spartakiade, did not originally have music until some was added and its named changed to Sweet Charity; but at what time the Workers' Laboratory Theatre began performing the musical version is not known. I will be examining the show in this chapter, as being in the first period of workers' theatre, because the original script was first performed in 1932.
The musical form seems to have been an accepted one in some early workers' theatres: at Brookwood Labor College, for instance, an original musical was performed as early as 1926; Martin Mattila stated in a 1929 letter to New Masses that comedies and especially "musical comedies draw larger audiences" at productions of the Finnish theatre group of Superior, Wisconsin; H. Thomas of the Hackney Group--Workers' Theatre Movement in London claimed that his group was working on a program of parodies of popular songs, slapstick, choruses, and other forms in a "propaganda equivalent of the familiar music-hall or vaudeville show; Ed Falkowski wrote of the revue form used in Germany, with songs written "by the proletarians themselves after a hard day's work"; and Paul Peters (the pseudonym of Harbor Allen), while working in a steel mill in Pittsburgh in 1929, said in a letter, "If I'm not stuck with a job that makes me dog-tired I'll write again. . .a little one-act play and a funny little musical comedy for workers' groups: a burlesque on cops, judges, etc.--not much plot, mostly a series of funny songs."
Readers of Workers Theatre had also seen in the April 1931 issue a letter from the Blue Blouses of Russia, in which they were told of the importance of worker-performers being able to sing, dance, act, and be politically educated, and of the fact that "music plays a tremendous role in our work," an aspect that the writer promises to write a whole letter about later. Similarly, they read about the Artef's production of Water Boy, a full-length production in which solos and choruses were sung. However, despite these few references to musicals in the early workers' theatre, the editorial board and writers of Workers Theatre, the spokesmen for the American workers' theatre, did not seem to address the musical in earnest until a few years later.
By 1932, the workers' theatre had realized and was discussing the potential of the musical for propaganda, but its attitude was still unclear: Alfred Saxe, head of the Workers' Laboratory Theatre, wrote in a review of Of Thee I Sing that it was "propaganda for indifference to politics," but that all the show would need to do to add "a constructive point of view" to its humor would be to substitute the song-and-dance routines with some agit-prop choruses. With the success of Charity, by Jack Shapiro of the Workers' Laboratory Theatre, and John Bonn's Fifteen-Minute Red Revue, which won for the Prolet-Buehne first prize at the National Spartakiade of Workers' Theatres in 1932, workers' theatre began to encourage musical forms in earnest. For instance, Workers Theatre's "Comrade" Pullman announced that the Workers' Cultural Federation had recently formed an organization of vaudeville workers to prepare a vaudeville show. As theatre is a weapon in the struggle for the worker, he claimed, the vaudeville stage is "one of the most effective of these weapons." And even though Bonn's Fifteen-Minute Red Revue had been honored by other workers' theatres, he changed his views about working with techniques of the bourgeois theatre when he realized he needed them. Buchwald had complained that Bonn's Red Revue, similar to most other proletarian plays, lacked variety, drama, and dramaturgical form. Bonn must have come to the same realization. While he felt in May 1932 that entertainment value cannot be enhanced by simply adding a song, a dance, or a special stage effect but must come from the propaganda itself, by July of that year he declared it a task of workers' theatres to develop stationary performance groups as well as mobile agit-prop troupes. By August, Bonn suggested that "our future plays will have more variety in form and content"; he thus modified his views about using techniques from the "bourgeois" theatre. However, in a call for proletarian scripts by J. Shapiro, author of Charity and chairman of the Repertory Committee for the League of Workers' Theatres (LOWT), the major criterion for proletarian plays was still that they be "short and concise."
The workers' theatre had changed its attitude toward using theatrical forms from the mainstream theatre because it now had something it had not had earlier in the twenties: a sense of urgency that led it to explore various means to deliver its message. Unemployment, hunger, sickness, and homelessness came within a year of Black Thursday, the stock market crash of October 24, 1929, and the national income sank from $81 billion in 1929 to $49 billion in 1932. In 1931, New York City alone had eighty-two breadlines serving more than 82,000 meals per day. By 1932, hunger marchers descended on Washington in mobs. In his dissertation, Elam claims that all theatre for social change needs three elements working together in order to survive--ritual and collective consciousness, urgency, and an agitational propagandist message--and that when one of those three elements is absent or used ineffectively, social-change theatre declines. At the end of the twenties and beginning of the thirties, many saw the need for urgent action to solve social ills. A core of workers and intellectuals disenchanted with America's inability to repair the damage of the Depression arose as an audience ready-made for a theatre advocating social change, and the two major workers' theatres, the Prolet-Buehne and the Workers' Laboratory Theatre, experimented with the agit-prop form to deliver their message. The earlier attempts to form workers' theatres, the Workers' Drama League and the New Playwrights' Theatre, did not survive in part because they had no vital, organized mass audience and because they did not exist in an economic and political climate where such an audience could be developed. The New Playwrights' Theatre was formed nine months before the stock market crash and one year before the Prolet-Buehne came to the attention of the radical workers' movement. Mordecai Gorelik asserts that its demise signaled the beginning of a period when workers' theatres would be led by workers instead of intellectuals. Pageants, dramas performed by foreign-language groups, and performances of the Workers' Drama League and New Playwrights' Theatre contained embryonic elements and attitudes that would be "extended and crystallized in the agit-prop movement of the thirties."
The three workers' musicals I have found available from this period, a period during which the workers' theatre movement tried to agitate its audiences with propaganda, vary from the exotic and vague to the direct and humorless to the bright and satiric. Performed at a time when the workers' theatre movement was ambivalent about the use of musical theatre, each show dealt with themes that were significant to the leftist movement at the time, and each opened a musical path that the workers' theatre would follow later in the decade.
Production History and Analysis
The Workers' Musical of Agitation and Propaganda, 1928-1932
January 12, 1928
John Howard Lawson
N.Y.: Macaulay Company, 1927.
While John Howard Lawson's The International cannot really be considered part of the Workers' Theatre Movement nor an agit-prop musical, as a production of the New Playwrights' Theatre it holds an important place as a precursor to the workers' musicals to follow. Copyrighted in 1927 but not performed until January 12, 1928, The International epitomizes much of both the strengths and weaknesses of workers' musicals of the thirties.
Goldstein claims that in The International, "Lawson found new ways to baffle and distress the public." Its action is simultaneously "fantastic and topical, schematic and opaque," according to Goldstein, and difficult to follow. According to Taylor, however, Lawson's play "mocks plot by creating a wholly fantastic adventure story" that includes components of the modern world. Taylor describes the play as follows:
[It] is not a serious play with some funny parts. It is a tragedy of defeated revolution--written just as Chang Kai Shek was murdering Communists in the streets and the U.S. and England joined reactionary forces to put down a workers' strike in Shanghai--and it is a farce.
Taylor suggests that the chaotic production (which Lawson decided to direct himself) emphasized every deficiency in the play. That fact, combined with bourgeois hostility to the New Playwrights' Theatre and with the Communists' disagreement about Lawson's politics, kept people from confronting the script, which may have been part of the reason the show ran for only 27 performances, not the shortest run but also not the longest of the New Playwrights' productions. The New York Times felt that Lawson was not quite sure where he was going in the story and that there was "no clarity of aim to bind the whole together." Even Sender Garlin of the Communist Daily Worker objected to the minimizing of the workers' roles, to the fact that the "hero" of the play was the son of a millionaire, and to having a Communist's firing of a cannon start a global revolution, which he felt was historically inaccurate and placed a bad image on the Soviet Union. While calling it "the first Communist play to be produced in an American Theatre," he felt that the play demonstrated "the intellectual confusion characteristic of most liberal minds."
In production footnotes printed in the published script, Lawson makes clear that music is to play throughout the show, resembling "a formalized pattern or symphony." Even the noises of battle are to be "entirely formal and part of the musical structure." Chants and rhythmic machine noises by two choruses are also included. The first chorus of eight women should be able to sing and dance, resembling the chorus of a musical show; the second chorus is primarily for singing. The choruses, during the course of the play, act as "stenographers, or Communists, or whatever they happen to be at the time," and inform the audience of "the theme of the moment [which] is reduced to lyric and sung. . ." Original music composed by Edward A. Ziman was coupled with well-known tunes, such as "The Birth of the Blues" and "The International" (once even sung in Italian).
The play is quite long--four acts, 270 printed pages in the published version--and has numerous occurrences that span the globe. Unlike the agitprop play that would soon become so popular with the workers' theatre, which is usually shorter than fifteen minutes and reduces characters, situations, and actions to something simple and easy to understand, The International adds layers of complexity to events and characters and themes, thus demonstrating Lawson's intricate, some may say confused, perceptions of world revolution. Michael Gold, one of Lawson's fellow New Playwrights and editor of New Masses, the Communist literary monthly, claimed in 1927 that all of the New Playwrights' Theatre's productions were "mass plays" and that they all "convey the spirit of workers' revolt," but many critics and audience members were confused about the meaning of The International. While John dos Passos, another of the New Playwrights, hailed the show as "a new type of theatre," it appears that neither the mainstream nor the left-wing critics appreciated it.
Description of The International was cut from here and moved to the appendix.
Lawson's The International is organized causally, thematically, and ritualistically, but, unlike later workers' musicals, leans toward complexity rather than simplicity, which might be part of the reason that audiences, critics, and readers found the show perplexing. On one hand, the show has a plot that is organized causally--events appear to have been caused and appear to cause other events. Some extended conceits stretch the logic of the plot, however: the ruthlessness of Henley and the other capitalists, who feel that a war would bring in more money; the naïveté and romanticism of David, who joins the revolution out of a vague anti-capitalism but fights because of his love of Alise; the almost spiritual devotion of Alise, who claims that she is not Russian but "International"; the sophistication of the Lama, who mocks the fear of the Westerners; and the nonchalance of Karneski, who will willingly return to Russia to be decapitated. The fact that Karneski starts the war that leads to revolution, that David and Alise end up fighting in New York, and that Spunk dies at the hands of an exploited black prostitute all bend the plot so that its twists and turns seem improbable, although possible.
Thematically, Lawson's play forecasts some standard themes of the workers' theatre movement--war and revolution, communism versus capitalism--but confuses matters by focusing also on the theme of mysticism versus practicality. In its attempts to explore the spiritual side of the pragmatics of communism and capitalism, with the combination of thematic and ritualistic treatment that results, Lawson's play could be seen as an attack on capitalist greed without a whole-hearted commitment to Communism. For instance, while Henley and Spunk insist that they should go to Thibet if there is money to be made, they display an almost religious fervor about draining the world through capitalist expansion: the "blood of the earth" will inevitably hear the "prayer of the machines" (45). A similar sense of spiritualism affects the characters of Alise and David: Alise hears voices that tell her to fight in the revolution and is obsessed with reaching America; David, who at first ridicules spiritualism in the form of the Lama's crystal ball, succumbs to a trance near the mystic lake of Koko Nor and at the end of the play, out of love for Alise, dies fighting for a cause he does not understand.
Ritualistically, The International attempts to draw an emotional connection between the Communist revolution and spiritualism, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, between capitalism and decadence, devil worship, witchcraft, and prostitution. Each of the characters seems driven to act, but for different reasons according to his or her goals or desires. For instance, Alise seems to place the revolution on a spiritual or mystical plane: she tells David that the mountains near the sky are a good place to die, and that the revolution "will walk like a tractor across the earth" (83). Spunk, as the supreme decadent capitalist, seems to find a similar solace in his love of money and corruption: while Gussie dances for him, chanting, "I can hurt you new ways,/ I can love you true ways. . .," Spunk declares that he cannot stand her lack of "civilization" (143). As he dies at the end of the play, David declares the spiritual commitment he has to revolutionary goals: Alise tells him that he "must lie on the breasts of guns, your arms be the wings that flank the coming machines," and David calls his death "a kind of fulfillment" (273).
The characters in The International are all stereotypes, each representing a class or sub-section of a class. For instance, Tim is the degraded and contemptible lumpenproletarian who admires Mussolini and hates Communists, Alise the revolutionary born to fulfill a great purpose, David the born-again revolutionary who attempts to reject his capitalist past by embracing revolutionary goals, Karneski the dutiful but unthinking soldier for the cause who would submit his head for execution if ordered, Spunk the degraded and prostituted capitalist, Henley the capitalist workhorse counterpart to Karneski who will risk his life because "business is business," and Fitch the deluded and confused capitalist who dallies with liberal convictions while permitting the commission of atrocities for his own benefit. None of the characters is completely one-sided, however, thus making unclear to the audience the effects of the play's events on the characters--a quality necessary and desirable for fine drama but inappropriate and ineffective, according to the workers' theatre that would develop, for theatre with a specific message. For instance, Alise and Karneski show that they have a sense of humor: they joke with David that the Tartars will merely skin them alive because decapitation is against their religion, and Karneski answers Alise's query about why the natives are after him by saying that the tartars are "not class-conscious" (73). The other major characters display similarly complex characteristics, thus diminishing the directness of the play's message. For instance, Fitch, the capitalist, seems concerned that he and others like him have responsibilities to society that they need to live up to, Henley realizes at his death that his imperialistic ideals have led to destruction, Spunk finds poor solace through his sensual pleasures, and even Tim, ignorant and bigoted, shows bravery and determination as he takes up arms.
The settings of The International also reflect Lawson's concerns, which will not be concerns addressed by the workers' theatre movement until later in the thirties. The play takes place in lands of the East and the West--Moscow and Thibet represent the East, New York City and Paris represent the West. The play's locations range world-wide, giving an impression that the events are not unique to America but are indeed international. Only two of the workers' musicals examined in this study take place anywhere other than in the United States, Johnny Johnson and Who Fights This Battle?, only the latter exclusively; some of the workers' musicals of the later thirties contain sketches that depict conditions in other countries. However, none of the other workers' musicals range so freely around various parts of the world.
Taylor says that Lawson, while "trying to abolish Broadway narrative values," fell "into the giant trap of romanticism." He knew the play could not be judged by realistic standards, but felt himself in a contradictory position. The production techniques employed in The International reflect that contradiction. Despite Lawson's use of various presentational devices--a set formed with huge blocks and a tower, two choruses who were to combine jazz and Greek tragedy, dances choreographed by Don Oscar Becque--the plot outweighs them all, according to Goldstein. Many of the scenes in the play appear to require a realistic performance style in order to relate its events but are often combined with farcical, romantic, and vaudeville techniques. The contradiction between representational and presentational performance styles in The International reflects what many saw as Lawson's confusion about techniques to use for theatre for workers.
The workers' theatre movement was only in its early stages in 1928, a small non-institutionalized social movement that had not yet amassed much of a following; The International could do little to encourage the movement forward, but it did even less than it could have. For instance, Karneski starts the war that leads to revolution, which upset and confused the critic of Daily Worker; and the only true worker in the play is Tim, the lumpenproletarian who feels little for the plight of the working class and would just as soon hang a Wobbly as "a nigger or a yellow man" (117). Furthermore, the revolution seems an inevitable result of spiritual endeavor. And group participation is not a conscious choice for the characters but rather a commanded or unconsciously driven action. Miau mentions the coming revolution to Spunk: "Don't you feel it in your bones, don't you shiver at night waiting for it?" (139). There is no enemy to construct as powerful or vulnerable, nor is there commitment born of the urgency to act against great political or social wrongs. Therefore, The International fails as an effective propagandist message but succeeds in illustrating the confusion and lack of coalescence of the workers' theatre movement during its very early period.
Ritualistically, The International shows a "rite of passage" of David Fitch--a pattern characterized by "the separation of participants from their previous environment, frequently through sensory deprivation; an action that symbolizes a change in their nature, and their physical integration into a new group," according to Christopher Innes in Holy Theatre, his study of ritual and the avant garde. Ritual scholar Victor Turner referred to these three phases of the rite of passage as the separation phase, the marginal or liminal phase, and the aggregation phase. The first and last phases speak for themselves, he says, but the middle stage, liminality (from the Latin, limen, or "threshold") holds the most challenging implications. In the liminal phase, individuals are neither here nor there, they possess indeterminate characteristics, and they have no status or role to play in society. Among themselves, they acknowledge humility and combine it with "intense comradeship and egalitarianism." He contrasts the liminal with what he calls "liminoid," or liminal-like (by analogy with ovoid for "egg-like" or asteroid for "star-like"): liminoid phenomena are more secularized than liminal phenomena; while akin to liminality, which is integrated into the total social sphere, liminoid phenomena develop more characteristically outside the essential social and political processes. Collectivity characterizes liminality, whereas liminoid phenomena are more characteristically produced and consumed by individuals. Liminal phenomena are concerned with crises in social processes, whereas liminoid phenomena can be separated from social concerns by being placed in the sphere of leisure. Those undergoing liminality--"liminaries"--lie between established social states. As Elam puts it, since the liminal stage belongs to neither the former nor the soon-to-be-established state, the potential for innovation and change is great. However, theatre's potential for influencing social change loses strength if both the theatre and the society do not experience liminality at the same time. Society and theatre must both be liminal, integrally related to the social process of a particular group, for theatre of social change to be present.
This concept is similar to the idea expressed by playwright Michael Blankfort in 1934 regarding the "pendulum play." Blankfort held that most revolutionary plays until 1934 had a pendulum, or conversion, structure--in which the main character "swings" from being conservative to a realization that he must organize with or join other workers. If the audience member identifies with the hero who turns left, the audience member will also turn left. Blankfort considered this structure to be most effective for stimulating both militant and unconverted audiences. Perhaps Lawson wanted his audience members to experience a quasi-mystical therapy similar to the Shamanistic dance, to fall into a state of mystical hallucination as they began to participate in the performance. However, if Lawson wanted to convert his audience into assuming a militant class position, the play's obtrusive expressionist techniques had the effect of making the intention of the play unclear. As Innes says of expressionist theatre, "the means overshadowed the meaning, and consequently the style has dated badly because it seems artificial." Furthermore, David I. Kertzer suggests that revolutionary movements place great importance on rituals because of ritual's ability to arouse powerful emotions to mobilize the people; rituals affect not only the emotional view of political reality but also the cognitive, because the emotions thus aroused also have an impact on beliefs. The repetitiveness of ritual action serves as an important factor in "channeling emotion, guiding cognition, and organizing social groups. . . . Through ritual, beliefs about the universe come to be acquired, reinforced, and eventually changed."
Lawson's play did not stabilize or revitalize the workers' theatre movement or the leftist movement in general; rather, it confused the issues. No feeling of communitas is achieved, no understanding that we all have a common humanity. Furthermore, the symbols used by Lawson--exemplified by the romanticism of David and Alise, the map of the world which is there to conquer, the visionary dedication of Alise, the apathy and common cruelty of Tim, the lurid and frantic dances of Gussie, the spirituality of the lyrics, and David's death fighting in a revolution he does not understand--are so vague as to be meaningless. Whereas the very ambiguity of symbols used in ritual action can make ritual "useful in fostering solidarity without consensus," the lack of the required feeling of communitas makes Lawson's symbols too confusing even to influence solidarity. Finally, American society had not yet reached a liminal phase--the Depression had not yet begun, with its concomitant sense of urgency that would help bind members of the working classes together.Fix this--expand, clarify.
The type of propaganda in The International appears to be integrative--to get the audience to accept the idea of world-wide revolution--but its message is unclear. Lawson did not yet have an audience to write for. The workers' movement had only begun to develop, so there were neither members of the movement nor followers of the movement to consider as an audience. Without a movement to urge audiences to join or members of that movement to urge to fight, any propaganda must necessarily be flaccid and vague. A Russian Communist starts the war; the American revolutionary, the lumpenproletarian, the prostitute, and the corrupt capitalist die; the revolution fails: what was an audience to make of all that confusion?
The lyrics to the songs of The International are set to both old and original tunes. Primarily serious, somber, and abstract, the lyrics deal with few recent events or topical concerns and reflect personal rather than social or political concerns. "Drain the World," sung by Fitch, Spunk, and Henley, and the first chorus, as stenographers, comes just before "Lonesome Blue." The first is a satiric lyric about the quasi-religious fervor capitalists have toward material things and the callousness they feel about the pillage of foreign lands:
Henley: There's a billion dollars worth in a very
Spunk: So expand! Why not expand!
. . . . .
Ethel: Hear the prayer of the machines!
. . . . .
Chorus: Geyser rising green,
The East shall stir to serve
The prayer of the machine. . . (46)
The second chorus enters and chants "Lonesome Blue," a plaintive meditation about creation using terms familiar to Eastern religious thought; its spirituality and mysticism show a sharp contrast to the capitalists' song:
On the lotus of creation,
. . . . .
Thoughts rise Beyond the hour
. . . . .
Blue perfectly blue. . . (46-47)
This first song interlude, consisting of two "songs" of different moods, styles, and content, indicate the cacophony of materials with which Lawson wished to make harmony. The "songs" comment on the action and the theme more than they help tell the story, and they quite clearly and obviously come out of nowhere--there is no attempt to give the audience the illusion of reality--and this is to conclude a scene of realism.
The song at the end of the first act epitomizes the dissonance created by the various musical materials in the show. While the chorus sings and chants of "holy fear," Alise urges everyone to fight with "blood and oil,/ Deep in the old soil" of Asia, and Tim and the other men sing "The Birth of the Blues" (109-110).
The songs of Gussie and the prostitutes at Madame Miau's also form a strange combination: Gussie taunts Spunk for his inability to feel fulfilled, while Miau and the chorus sing in counterpoint of a "serpent" eating at their hearts because they must wait patiently while men plot wars (145-146). This motif is continued throughout the play, as when the chorus sings for the French in combat to "spare our sons" (187). In act three, the women finally become mobilized: the stenographers sing of being liberated from their jobs, from getting fired for lateness, and from taking dictation, and even Gussie joins them and Alise in singing "The Internationale."
As a reflection of and stimulus to the leftist movement in general, The International shows much of the growing concern with the ultimate deterioration of capitalist society and the impending revolution. For instance, Alise and Karneski believe, like Marx, that the revolution will happen inevitably, even if they do not do anything to help it along. David is fearful of the consequences of revolution, but believes that capitalist society must be combatted. Tim ends the play wanting a good fight, but does not seem to care whom it is against. The play seems to condemn capitalist war and imperialism, but has little to offer as a solution--the revolution, after all, has failed in New York, and the hero of the play dies as a result. Even the innocent drunken lummox, Tim, dies in the end. The pro-Communist stance in the play is vaguely stated, thus promoting audiences' confusion.
As a reflection of and stimulus to the workers' theatre movement, Lawson's play may have helped lead the movement into a direction away from the obvious realism, blatant romanticism, and disjointed expressionism that would come from the 1920s. Lawson's play points both backward and forward. Its content, while primarily topical, had elements of romantic and exotic drama--touring foreign lands and cultures, a throwback to the twenties. However, in its political and social comment, some of it quite biting, the show looks forward. In its structure the show also looks in both directions. Its attempt to integrate American forms of music, dance, jazz, and vaudeville humor into a serious dramatic work prefigures the development of the American musical theatre of the thirties and beyond; but its patchwork design--dance, song, and vaudeville seem to have been placed upon the structure rather than being really integrated into it--makes the show not one of a piece, and therefore resembles more the musicals of the twenties than the more sophisticated shows to come later.
Perhaps the greatest significance of The International was the fact that it was perceived as a "mass play" by Michael Gold, one of the New Playwrights who, as editor of the Communist literary magazine New Masses, would continue to call for the formation of active workers' theatres. The play also foreshadowed many of the theatrical forms and techniques that the workers' theatre movement would explore in the next decade. In its treatment of the contrast between American capitalism and international Communism, The International, as a left-wing yet commercial production, introduced into the New York theatre a subject heretofore considered unapproachable. How closely Lawson approached the subject and how much his coverage affected his audiences must remain the assessment of those who saw the production. The next musical in this study, coming in the next decade, will be as simple as Lawson's play was complex and as straightforward as Lawson's was roundabout.
Art is a Weapon
English version printed in Workers Theatre, June 1931, pp. 15-17; reprinted in Samuel, pp. 301-5.
Art is a Weapon was performed on June 13, 1931 at a New York convention of workers' cultural societies, according to Hallie Flanagan, writing in Theatre Arts Monthly, and was also printed in English in that month's Workers Theatre magazine. Flanagan called the production "a combination of American vaudeville and Russian Blue Blouse technique" and gives no indication whether the show was performed in English, but Friedman claims the show was originated in German by the Prolet-Buehne. No matter who originally constructed the show, the Workers' Laboratory Theatre undoubtedly performed it as well, since in 1930 and 1931 the group was translating, adapting, and performing the Prolet-Buehne's agitprop material. And since both the Prolet-Buehne and the Workers' Laboratory Theatre are mentioned in the printed script, the Workers' Laboratory Theatre was almost certainly performing the show by June 1931, when the script was printed in Workers Theatre.
Art is a Weapon represents the epitome of the agitprop: its action attempts to arouse the workers to a pitch of political awareness, it occurs in one short episode, and the language is a mixture of formal rhetorical slogans and idiomatically representational speech, which are major characteristics of agitprop, according to McDermott. Himelstein suggests that agitprops had stylized productions, were episodic, had satiric cartoons instead of characters, had actors speak directly to the audience, and called on the audience to participate in the show. And John Gassner characterizes the agitprop play as one in which the conflict is clearly drawn, the viewpoint stated baldly, the lesson given with caricature, the rhythms "insinuating," and the acting broad. Art is a Weapon possesses many of those characteristics.
Called a mass recitation, Art is a Weapon differs from most other agitprops of the period, the most common form being the skit or sketch combining a mass chant with interaction among individual types. Rather than having lines chanted, perhaps to musical or rhythmic accompaniment, this agitprop contains a song--clearly labeled as such in the script. The show opens with a Capitalist--a cartoon character talking directly to the audience "quite confidentially"--saying that art is a weapon in the fight for his interests and that facts can be distorted in any manner necessary. He then talks of the tens of thousands of various forms of art--"all non-political"--presented to various people, which "hammer and hammer away" the idea that the laws of the United States benefit workers, "that the workers must fight and die for their country,/ That every worker not born here is inferior and suspicious,/ That every worker not born white is inferior and despicable."
A mass of workers march on singing. Flanagan claims that at the production she saw "a score of workers marched up the aisle singing, and argued with another worker whose silk topper and over-refined accent proclaimed him to be a capitalist." The stage directions indicate that "the song `Left' is heard off stage and a mass of workers march on singing,"
We'll answer the call to unite.
We're marching hand in hand with the mass,
We dramatize the fight of the classes
With powerful melody.
. . . . .
PROLETARIANS, Let's get ready!
RED FRONT! RED FRONT!
The Capitalist asks who they are, and the workers respond:
United Workers' Theatres of New York;
Workers' Laboratory Theatre, New York;
Prolet Buehne, New York;
Agit-Prop troupes in New York.
The Capitalist asks them what agitprop is and is told that agitprop is agitation and propaganda for the class struggle against him, and the workers point to him. The Capitalist says that a misunderstanding has developed: "First you introduce yourselves as a theatre group. . . and now you talk about political propaganda. These are two distinctly different subjects. Art has nothing to do with politics. Art is free. Art for art's sake." The workers respond that art and theatre are weapons in the class struggle.
The Capitalist then spouts the standard capitalist line about the value of art; it is the expression of our desire for beauty and is above politics. The workers agree that art is the expression of a desire, but for workers that desire is not for beauty but for the "yearning of slaves (for) freedom," for bread, for shelter, for rest, for work, for justice, for equality, for a classless society. They end this chant by reaffirming that "theatre is a weapon in the class struggle."
The Capitalist declares their ideas false: art belongs to everyone, is impartial, and makes us forget. The workers again take what the Capitalist says and modify it for their own view: art makes workers forget that capitalists are their oppressors and exploiters, that the workers starve while capitalists thrive, that workers labor while capitalists enjoy their pleasures. Capitalist art makes workers forget that they can fight to gain their freedom.
When the capitalist says that their conception contradicts the age-old definition of art, a worker declares: "This conception of ours contradicts the age-old definition of BOURGEOIS art." The Capitalist says that this means the destruction of culture, but the worker claims that it means "the destruction of a decayed culture of oppression and exploitation." The Capitalist asks if the workers want destruction by means of the theatre, and the worker says that they want "destruction by all weapons--including theatre." The Capitalist calls it revolution, and the workers end the piece with a call for the workers to join in organized action with a theatre of revolution.
Art is a Weapon draws the line clearly between the honesty of workers' art and the duplicity of capitalist art and, thereby, of capitalism in general. For instance, when the Capitalist says that art and politics are two distinctly different things, he contradicts what he said earlier (and "in confidence" to the audience) that art is a weapon in the fight for his interests because it can inculcate attitudes and ideas to quell the masses' urges toward action. On the one hand he recites the "bourgeois" slogan of "art for art's sake"--which left-wing dramatic theorists and practitioners rejected because the approach neglected the economic and social world affecting the worker--but on the other hand acknowledges the power of art to act as what Szanto would call integrative propaganda, which "is a self-producing propaganda that seeks to obtain stable behaviour, to adapt the individual to his everyday life, to reshape his thoughts and behaviour in terms of the permanent social setting," to encourage people to feel that "that's the way it is" and they must be satisfied with the status quo.
Art is a Weapon is organized both thematically and ritualistically. The theme of art used as a weapon for both the capitalist society and for the growing leftist movement is one that the movement would focus on throughout the thirties. Although drawn clearly, the thematic organization would be less effective were it not for the ritualistic structure of the piece. The chanting, in unison, of refrains that would soon become familiar to those participating in the movement served to provide a sense of urgency and commitment to the movement's goals and to argue for individual participation in this group event. This non-institutionalized social movement used orthodox means in an unorthodox manner: by first pointing out the discrepancy between the capitalists' and the Communists' use of art to propagate ideas and ideologies, Art is a Weapon makes the use of propaganda overt and thus recognizable to the audience. The use of direct address, by the Capitalist and the Worker, serves to place audience members clearly on the side of the workers by revealing the duplicity of capitalism and the forthrightness of Communism.
All the characters are stereotypes--no individuals exist in this play, simply members of a particular class of people. The Capitalist could be distinguished by the "silk topper and over-refined accent" that Flanagan describes he wore, while the workers, judging from photos of productions of the Prolet-Buehne, probably wore similar black shirts and pants. Similar to the liminal entities Turner describes, such as neophytes in initiation or puberty rites, who are represented as possessing nothing--no insignia, no secular clothing indicating rank or stature, nothing distinguishing them from their fellows--the performers in Art is a Weapon reinforce the homogeneity that is required from workers in this liminal phase of ritual activity, thus achieving a spirit of communitas among the audience members and the players. The play further emphasizes, through its setting, the "generalized social bond that has ceased to be and has simultaneously yet to be fragmented into a multiplicity of social ties" that represents the liminal phase of a rite of passage, further uniting the audience through a feeling of communitas. The setting had little importance to the play--it could have taken place anywhere, and the implication is that this revolution in artistic purpose was occurring everywhere--and that fact made the play even more effective in moving its audience because of its immediacy. The only reference to a specific place comes with the mention of the New York workers' theatres; had the play been performed somewhere else, the names of the specific workers' theatres would likely have been changed. The League of Workers' Theatres placed Art is a Weapon in its list of plays in Workers Theatre, available in either English or German, at least as early as the summer of 1932; for ten cents per copy and requiring only six to ten players, the play should have been popular with workers' theatres in places other than New York. I have found no evidence that the show was performed by any groups other than the Workers' Laboratory Theatre and the Prolet-Buehne, however.
Although Flanagan thought the performance of the show was "rather childish," the argumentative and physical victory of the workers over the Capitalist apparently delighted the audience. The chanting and singing and apparent mass movement seems to have been effective but perhaps characterized by over-enthusiasm and lack of dramatic skill.
The propaganda in Art is a Weapon could be considered agitational were it performed for an audience not already committed to the movement. Its performance for a convention of workers' cultural groups, however, may have been more integrative than agitational--in other words, it may have converted few but reinforced many. The purpose of the propaganda was to accuse bourgeois society of perverting art for its own purposes, to censure those artists and audience members who fail to realize that fact, and to exhort the audience to use art for the purpose of organizing the mass of workers to action.
One of the major propaganda devices used by the Communist party throughout its history, according to Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O'Donnell, was the concept of the imminent threat or plot. Art is a Weapon touches on that theme--bourgeois art will conquer us unless we counter-attack. By the summer of 1931, the Depression was very deep, although not yet in its most devastating stages, and Art is a Weapon had as its major purpose to prepare the worker audience for theatre used as a weapon against all the ills of capitalist society. The play reflects the miscellany of concerns held by the left wing: xenophobia, racism, exploitation, the military, unemployment, poverty. And unity, federation, and mass action are offered as the solutions. A sense of urgency did not yet exist in the minds of the audience, and Art is a Weapon attempted to instill that sense of urgency.
As a reflection and stimulus to the leftist movement in general, Art is a Weapon clarified for the audience the distinction between bourgeois and proletarian art in terms of purpose and content--it brings up the oppressed working class, the unemployed, Negroes, foreigners, and the separation of laborers who produce goods from the capitalists who reap the profits from those goods. In this sense, the show is pro-Communist and anti-capitalist.
As a reflection of and stimulus to the workers' theatre movement, the show clarifies for the audience the proper form of workers' plays--nothing from the bourgeois theatre will be helpful to the cause of leftist theatre, a point that was argued about incessantly during the first period of the workers' theatre movement but which was encouraged by the international Communist party until around 1932. The Party line, announced by John Bonn of the Prolet-Buehne in Workers Theatre magazine, held that mobile agitprop would be the preferred form for workers' theatre, but that realistic plays by stationary groups were permitted if they were as high in political content as the agitprops. By 1932 the Party's attitude also changed about the use of bourgeois forms of theatre--in 1931 it held that the bourgeois stage was not related at all to the workers' theatre, but by 1932 carried a combative attitude against a form of art that it saw as a reflection of the decay of capitalism. The next American workers' musical continues to deal with the same themes as Art is a Weapon but begins also to explore the musical comedy form more actively as a means of delivering a message.
As a reflection and stimulus to the development of the American musical theatre, Art is a Weapon shows little except in its content. Although a unified piece, the show makes no attempt to integrate the song into a plot--rather, the song is used, as are the chants and the other comments by the workers, as a method of acknowledging the performers as workers presenting a show, rather than as characters. Not only is the plot non-existent, so is satire. The satirical humor that would play so much a part of later American musicals, and of later workers' musicals, had not yet made its way into this workers' musical.
April 12, 1932
Book and lyrics by Jack Shapiro; music and additional lyrics by Ruth Burke.
The script for this show does not exist. I have partially reconstructed this show, using contemporaneous secondary materials, including references in magazines and reviews of the show, and from contemporary testimony from one of the show's participants, Earl Robinson.
Charity by Jack Shapiro won the second prize at the 1932 Spartakiade (after the Prolet-Buehne's 15 Minute Red Revue), as performed by the Jack London Club of Newark, N.J., a center of railroad, electrical, and chemical industries. Nathaniel Buchwald of the Artef reviewed the play, the available lyrics of which can be found in Appendix II. It had "only five players to conjure up before the audience a grotesquely satirical picture of capitalist philanthropy," particularly the charity fraud in New York City; the characters were the Salvation Army Lass, Gifford Committee, Red Cross, Boss, and Workers. They spoke mostly in rhymes, some of which were "very amusing and heighten the satirical effect of the lines."
The play ended--in a "forced" conclusion, according to Buchwald--with a call to support the Workers' International Relief and its activity on behalf of the strikers, "losing sight entirely of the revolutionary struggle of the unemployed--the workers' answer to the bosses' charity." This shift of mood did not interest the audience in the Workers' International Relief and dissipated the mood the audience was to have about the "charity-fakers." The Jack London group "wisely changed the version of the play and substituted an appropriate end--appropriate ideologically." But the satirical mood, says Buchwald, apparently of the belief that audiences were not to feel emotions if they were to think, gave way to group recitation. It was "challenging and defiant," which, for well or ill, thrilled the audience and which therefore made them lose the thread of the play proper. It did not, as it often does, seem forced and perfunctory--this "shift of mood from satire to sloganized fervor"--because of the "vehemence and ringing sincerity of delivery" of the performers.
Charity was also performed June 24 and 25, 1932, for a dramatic night sponsored by the Philadelphia Dramatic Council. The mainstream press and the leftist press advertised tickets for thirty-five cents, and the play was presented by the John Reed Drama Group along with other popular workers' plays ("Yoo-hooey" and "Mr. God is Not In" by the John Reed Drama Group, "Hooray for the Bolshies" by the Pioneers Drama Group, "Excession" by the Prolet-Drama Group [Yiddish], and "Scotsboro" by the West Philadelphia Cultural Center). The script was also available in Yugoslavian, according to a list of plays in Workers Theatre magazine, was performed by the Harlem Progressive Youth Club as early as 1932, by 1933 was performed also by the Yorkville Youth Players and by members of the John Reed Club and Cleveland section of the League of Workers' Theatres on the Ohio relief march in Conshocton, and as late as 1935 was in production by the Albuquerque Workers' Theatre. In the Conshocton performance, the players left the first part of Charity as written but changed the ending: "We carried the individual worker to a pessimistic conclusion, after he had depended on the beneficence of capitalist charity; then we smashed in on his pessimism and indicated concretely the fighting way out of his misery, the way of mass action, the way of the Unemployed Councils."
Although the play dealt with serious matters--handouts by emergency relief committees and workers' self-help--it was performed, according to Jay Williams, "lightly, with jiggling humorous verses and touches of comedy." However, the Workers' Laboratory Theatre (of which Jack Shapiro was a member) did not perform Charity for the Spartakiade. The Workers' Laboratory Theatre apparently felt it to be too funny and casual. Shapiro commented that "it was like being a pious churchgoer. . . . If it hurt you a little, you could serve God better. Having fun was no good." However, after the festival, the Workers' Laboratory Theatre changed its mind, and Charity became, within another six months, one of its staple productions, along with another some dozen playlets.
But the Workers' Laboratory Theatre apparently did not leave Charity alone: the group turned it into a "mini musical comedy" with music and some additional lyrics by Ruth Burke, and retitled it Sweet Charity. Williams claims that the musical show was very successful, with mimeographed libretti going for ten cents each and selling out not only to other groups but also to audience members after performances. The rousing, militant finale was hummed by audience members as they left the theatre:
Do you want milk for your hungry babies
. . . . .
Do you share with us our firm belief
That the unemployed should get relief?
Join the militant workers!
The musical version of Charity, called Sweet Charity, may have been performed as early as 1932 by the Workers' Laboratory Theatre. However, an announcement in the New York Times suggests that it was not performed as a musical until May 26, 1933; the Times announced the premiere of Charity to be given by the "dramatic chorus" of the Workers' Laboratory Theatre at the New School, along with Newsboy.
Earl Robinson, who joined the Workers' Laboratory Theatre/Theatre of Action upon arriving in New York in 1934 and who had held classes in singing as part of the expanded course of instruction at the Workers' Laboratory Theatre, played the musical accompaniments on piano for Sweet Charity, Newsboy, and other playlets--apparently using a guitar at open-air performances or performances in strike halls, losing one at a picket line.
In two telephone interviews with me on May 28 and June 4, 1989, Robinson said that Ruth Burke, who wrote the music for Sweet Charity, had been the accompanist for the Workers' Laboratory Theatre before he came, and that he played piano for the show and coached the performers in their singing. Robinson feels that "the satire was the best thing about it," in many of the Workers' Laboratory Theatre shows. In Sweet Charity, characters were so stereotypical that "the workers tended to stand around and be noble" instead of being full of action, except in the ending song, "Join the Militant Workers," which, says Robinson, was done in a minor key and "was not a very good song." The best songs, he says, were the satirical ones, such as "Song of Charity," that the Salvation Army Lass sings to the workers urging them not to go on strike:
Oh Mr. Worker, this is very sad
To add a strike to all our troubles.
That indeed is bad.
It isn't nice or Christian-like
For a working man to go on strike.
The boss, you know, is a noble fellow
And his heart is very mellow
So why not let him cut your pay?
. . . . .
A strike is not, indeed it's not
An act of God.
The plot of the show has the workers about to go out on strike, and the others (the nurse had a song but Robinson could not remember it) try to get the workers to stop being so militant. Each character shows the leftist attitude about the Red Cross and charity workers by parodying the way they side with the bosses rather than the workers.
In 1935, after the opening and closing of Parade, the leftist revue produced by the Theatre Guild, two writers in New Theatre magazine commented on the possible influence of Sweet Charity for the workers' theatre. Mark Marvin, an editor of the magazine, noted that Charity was one of the attempts to assimilate "native vaudeville and humor" into the workers' theatre, but that more needed to be done. Jerome Moross, who wrote most of the music for Parade, claimed that Charity and Strike Me Red (a musical for children), were musical revues that were immature, "too preoccupied with recreating a workers' musical theatre to rise above well-worn formulae"; but each show, he claimed with the hopefulness characteristic of many radical theatre theorists, blazed a trail for the musical in revolutionary theatre.
As a reflection of and stimulus to the left-wing movement of the thirties, Sweet Charity was most effective in its anti-capitalist stance and its emphasis on unemployment and the duplicity of capitalist institutions, such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. That the original play ended with a call to support the Workers International Relief, a Communist organization, supports the pro-Communist propaganda of the piece; however, the ending was changed, both by the Newark group and by the performers on the Ohio relief march, from advocating support for the W.I.R. and its activities in behalf of strikers to advocating mass action through such organizations as the Unemployed Councils, still Communist-led organizations but affecting more immediately the needs of the unemployed by working for unemployment insurance and government relief. Sweet Charity shows similar concerns as Sherr says were subjects of some Broadway musicals in the first part of the thirties: hunger, poverty, and unemployment.
As a reflection of and stimulus to the workers' theatre movement, Sweet Charity shows characteristics of a typical play of agitation and propaganda; cartoon-like characters, short episodes alternating between dialog and verse, addressing of the audience, and a strong call to action at the end. In its original version, the show had humor and satire--elements about which the theoreticians of the workers' theatre had disagreements not yet resolved--which were later to become staples of the movement's musical theatre.
As a reflection of and stimulus to the American musical theatre, Sweet Charity showed that serious subjects could be treated seriously, with humor in the midst of biting comment. However, as a true musical revue, Sweet Charity seems to have been a precursor to the musicals that would follow. The finale was apparently chanted when the play was performed in 1932, and perhaps also on the Ohio relief march, but by the time Charity was turned into Sweet Charity, the finale was sung in a minor key. Sources tend to refer to Charity and Sweet Charity both as Charity: for instance, Moross called Charity a musical; therefore, when the show had music added cannot be determined conclusively. However, since music was not originally included but added later to the show, Charity reflects the workers' theatre's attitudes about the use of mainstream theatre techniques in its work. The modification of the show into a musical suggests that the Workers' Laboratory Theatre was continuing its experiments in assimilating mainstream theatre techniques into its work. Harry Elion remarked in 1933 that, in the early stages of the movement, "we paid no attention to the problem of adding music and dance to the Workers' Theatre, and our groups are in poor position to do revues, musical comedies, and vaudeville," but that the few attempts by the Workers' Laboratory Theatre--including Charity--have moved in that direction and have shown how effective these popular forms could be. By 1932, the musical form was still not considered appropriate or even feasible for workers' theatres; shortly afterward, the musical form was used more extensively.
Sweet Charity, or Charity, seems to have been organized thematically, as far as I can determine from the scant information I have about the show. The major theme revolves around the insensitivity of capitalist philanthropy to the poor; if business is bad, says the boss, he must cut the workers' pay, and if they object, they are Communists. To apply for relief is to be subjected to humiliating questions and accusations. To strike defies all Christian decency. Have pity on the boss and the philanthropists, the capitalists say, for they are doing their best in trying circumstances. The parody of the Salvation Army Lass in "Song of Charity" points out a lack of confidence in religion to solve the problems of the unemployed. The rousing finale suggests the only path toward attaining relief with respect: organize. However, Shapiro's original ending, which urged the audience to support the strike activities of the Workers' International Relief, was changed by the Jack London group and by other groups to urge support for the unemployed councils. Perhaps, as Elia Kazan later suggested, some writers of the Workers' Laboratory Theatre were strongly influenced by Communist party doctrine, which at that time focused more on strike activities than on unemployment relief. If so, that may explain why Shapiro stressed the WIR and may also indicate that leftist theatre groups were willing, to a certain extent, to go against the dictates of the party.
The characters are all stereotypes, typical of early agitprop plays, but the performers themselves play a number of different characters, according to Robinson. This tendency toward a presentational style of performing rather than a representational style seems to characterize early agitprops, in a conscious attempt to defy the standards of realism. Buchwald points out that, at the performance he saw, the actors were placed among the audience "with splendid effect." In two of the performances Buchwald had seen by the Jack London group, no scenery, props, or make-up was used, and only the simplest elements of costume identified the characters. The group's performances are certainly not "theatrical," he says, but they have "spirit, zest and emotional fervor [that] electrifies the audience."
The play apparently takes place wherever it is performed, in order to appeal to its specific audience. Perhaps the author, Jack Shapiro, had originally intended the play to take place in New York City, as Buchwald claims that charity fraud in New York City was the show's particular focus, but nothing I have found available from the script limits the events of the play to that location and the show was first presented by a group from Newark. Most likely, the location of the play was changed to adapt to wherever it was being performed--a play set in New York City would have limited effectiveness to an audience in Albuquerque.
Characteristics of a social movement appear also in Sweet Charity. The enemy--capitalism and its relief organizations--are ridiculed and parodied. Unlike other agitprops of the period, Sweet Charity does not vilify its enemies, but rather it mocks them. A sense of urgency and commitment develops from the insensitivity of the charity workers, the business-is-business attitude of the boss, and the Salvation Army's pseudo-Christianity. The show argues for group participation in workers' organizations--"Join the Militant Workers"--but different versions could not agree on exactly what organizations workers were to support.
Sweet Charity contains ritualistic elements only peripherally. The mocking of the capitalists could be seen as a sort of Feast of Fools of the Depression era, a necessary ritual that served, in Medieval times, to reinforce adherence to Christian dogma but, in the early stages of the Depression and performed by leftists for other leftists, may have served a stabilizing and revitalizing function for members of the movement, thus establishing a spirit of communitas. Recent history and current events are reconstructed with biting humor and bitterness, the political aspect of capitalist Christianity is brought forth for the audience to examine, and the finale suggests a change in the social order that can be achieved by collective displays of power and purpose. Finally, the symbols used in Sweet Charity--the charitable Christian Salvation Army, the democratic government relief, the nice-guy boss who wants the best for his business and thus for his workers--are all converted from representations of kindness to symbols of oppression, duplicity, and cruelty.
Of the three workers' musicals from this early period of the workers' theatre movement--from 1928 to 1932--Sweet Charity shows the most extensive use of vaudeville and musical comedy techniques for the purpose of satirizing the capitalist system and shows that the workers' theatre movement was beginning to value the musical theatre form. However, the bitterness of its satire and its use of a rousing finale that calls for the audience to join with militant workers places Sweet Charity clearly within the period of agitation and propaganda. All three musicals reflect the concerns that drove the movement to use theatre as a form of propaganda and begin to recognize the power of the musical theatre form as a means to deliver a message. The use of vaudeville techniques and humor can be seen in The International; and while Art is a Weapon uses no vaudeville and certainly no humor--the message was, after all, too serious for humor--it does begin to experiment with the use of song and musical theatre techniques.
It would not be until the next period, 1933 to 1935, which I will discuss in Chapter Three, that the workers' theatre's use of the musical form will become more extensive, to include a Broadway production that will mark a gradual and partial rapprochement with the techniques of commercial theatre. However, much of the early period's bitterness will remain in most of the workers' musicals between 1933 and 1935, suggesting that the workers' theatre movement adopted techniques of the mainstream theatre begrudgingly, using only what was necessary in order to deliver its message in a manner that would appeal to its audiences.
Frank A. Warren III, Liberals and Communism: The Red Decade Revisited (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966), 5; Joseph R. Gusfield, editor of Protest, Reform, and Revolt: A Reader in Social Movements (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1970), p. 456, points out a similar level of membership in all social movements: professional, hard-core activists, rank and file members, and fellow-travelers.
Bernard K. Johnpoll with Lillian Johnpoll, The Impossible Dream: The Rise and Demise of the American Left (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981), ix-x, 324-25.
Johnpoll, 332; Earl Latham, however, in The Communist Controversy in Washington: From the New Deal to McCarthy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), 11, claims the number is closer to 100,000.
Latham, p. 61, cites two studies that estimate the average length of membership to range from two or three to seven years.
Max Shachtman, "Radicalism in the Thirties: The Trotskyist View," in Simon, 9-45; references to Shachtman are from this article.
Earl Browder, "The American Communist Party in the Thirties," in Simon, 216-253; unless otherwise noted, references to Browder are from this article.
Johnpoll, 333; he cites Philip K. Jaffee's The Rise and Fall of American Communism (New York; Horizon Press, 1975), 40-47, which apparently used secret, official party records of Browder that confirm the use of coded radio signals from Russia to American Communists.
Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 409.
Edmund Wilson, "An Appeal to Progressives," New Republic, January 1931, 234-238, at p. 238; cited in Latham, 33, and Warren, 25-26.
Granville Hicks, "Writers in the Thirties," in Rita James Simon, ed., As We Saw the Thirties: Essays on Social and Political Movements of a Decade (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1967), 76-101; all references to Hicks are from this article, 84-89.
Barbara A. Zuck, A History of Musical Americanism (Ann Arbor, Mich.: U.M.I. Research Press, 1980), 107-8.
Robert Vaughn, Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting (New York: Putnam, 1972), 22, 43.
R.C. Reynolds, Stage Left: The Development of American Social Drama in the Thirties (Troy, N.Y.: Whitson Publishing Company, 1986), xxvi-xxvii.
Bernard Reines, Workers Theatre 2, no. 6 (September-October 1932): 3; Blake, 10-11; both found in Friedman, 10-11 and 180-81.
According to J. Naly, "Lithuanian Art Federation," New Masses 6, no. 6 (November 1930): 20, the Lithuanian Federation of Proletarian Art had been formed by 1923 as an outgrowth of an Alliance of Singing Societies organized in 1912, had a membership of approximately 2000, and had recently published or were in the process of publishing two workers' operettas.
According to Harry Nilsson, "Scandinavian Workers Clubs," New Masses 6, no. 4, (September 1930): 21, this group had organized a small drama group during the winter of 1929-30 and were now going to make it a permanent part of their organization.
The first significant American workers' theatre event occurred on June 7, 1913. John Reed's Pageant of the Paterson Strike, performed by actual strikers at Madison Square Garden, was an tremendous mass spectacle chronicling the last three months of the conflict between the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the owners of the silk factories. An audience of over 15,000 saw a workers' drama that got generally favorable coverage even from newspapers not agreeing with its point of view; Cosgrove, "From Shock Troupe to Group Theatre," 265; Goldman and Gordon, 169.
This group should not be confused with a Socialist group of the same name formed in 1930 or 1931; New York Times, 2 March 1931, p. 19.
John Howard Lawson, "Production Footnotes," The International (New York: Macaulay Company, 1927), 7; although published in 1927, the play did not see production until 1928.
Blake, 17; Daniel Friedman, "A Brief Description of the Workers' Theatre Movement of the Thirties," in McConachie and Friedman, 119, however, suggests that the exact time of the Prolet-Buehne's turn to agitprop can be variously dated from between the end of 1929 to the beginning of 1930.
Williams, 38-40; Goldman and Gordon, 171; when the Workers' Laboratory Theatre was founded is unclear: Ben Blake dates its founding in 1929, but a member of the group, L.A. De Santes, in "Letter," New Masses 5 (October 1929), p. 29, dates the group from 1928.
Friedman, in McConachie and Friedman, 113-15; exactly when the Workers' Laboratory Theatre began performing agitprop is unclear: Friedman says 1930, and McDermott says 1931, but Deutchman of the Workers' Laboratory Theatre, in "The Workers Theatre and the Boss System," Workers Theatre 1, no. 2 (May 1931), p. 5, says that the Workers' Laboratory Theatre had by May 1931 worked only as a cultural organization and would soon begin working as an agitprop troupe performing on the streets.
Although the New York John Reed Club was apparently not formed until 1929, according to Michael Gold, "A New Program for Writers," New Masses 5, no. 8 (January 1930): 21.
Friedman, in McConachie and Friedman, 114. It seems worth noting that the only workers' theatre group recognized by the New York Times during the early thirties (up to the late thirties, as far as I am able to tell from the Times index) was an apparently conservative socialist group, the Workers' Theatre, not to be confused with the earlier Workers' Theatre formed in 1926 that soon became the Workers' Drama League. This later Workers' Theatre was formed in 1930 or 1931 with seven dramatic organizations by the Rand School of Social Science, according to the New York Times, 2 March 1931, p. 19. The Rand School of Social Science was formed in 1906 as a Socialist institution not officially connected with the Socialist party; classes were scheduled to meet the needs of the working people; the school closed in 1955. The record of the First National Workers Theatre Conference of 1932 claimed that an earlier workers' theatre conference was announced in "the bourgeois press," and had an attendance of only nine people, "of whom some were paid functionaries of the Socialist Party Rand School"; Workers Theatre, May 1932, p. 5, found in Samuel, 281.
Goldstein, 37; Himelstein, 19, 23. The term "Spartakiade" may have come in honor of the league of Spartakus (the pen name of Karl Leibknecht, the league's co-founder with Rosa Luxemburg), a radical political group founded in 1916 in Germany that advocated extreme socialistic doctrines; the Spartacus party was officially transformed into the German Communist party in 1918.
Williams, 78; he says the National Festival of Workers' Theatre groups, or Spartakiade, was held in May 1932; Goldstein, 37, says it was held in April; Himelstein, 12, says April 12; and Levine, 100, says April 16 and 17.
Altenbaugh, 204; The Tailor Shop was a one-act musical written, arranged, choreographed, and performed by students of Brookwood Labor College in 1926.
C. Scherson, "Letter from Blue Blouses of Russia to the Workers' Laboratory Theatre," Workers Theatre 1, no. 1 (April 1931): 8.
Esther Porter, "Five Workers Theatres and One Dance Group," Workers Theatre 2, no. 2 (April 1932): 25.
Alfred Saxe, "A Play with Propaganda and Three Without," Workers Theatre 2, no. 5 (August 1932): 7-8; also in Goldstein, 38.
Nathaniel Buchwald, "Prize-Winners of the Spartakiade," Workers Theatre 2, no. 3 (June-July 1932): 10.
"Comrade" Pullman, "Workers' Cultural Federation of New York," Workers Theatre 2, no. 2 (May 1932): 13; italics are the author's.
John Bonn, "Dram Buro Report," Workers Theatre 2, no. 2 (May 1932): 10; John Bonn, "Situation and Tasks of the Workers' Theatres in the U.S.A." Workers Theatre 2, no. 3 (June-July 1932): 8; Bonn, "Situation and Tasks," Workers Theatre 2, no. 5 (August 1932): 11.
J. Shapiro, "Building a Repertory for the Workers' Theatre," Workers Theatre 2, no. 3 (June-July 1932): 7.
Gassner, "The One-Act Play in the Revolutionary Theatre," 250; Blake, 12; Friedman, "The Prolet-Buehne," 204.
Karen Malpede Taylor, Peoples' Theatre in Amerika (New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1972), 21, 26.
Goldstein, "The New Playwrights: Theatrical Insurgency in Pre-Depression America," Theatre Survey 2 (1961): 43.
The title of this song is variously spelled as "The International" and "The Internationale." Taylor, for instance, spells it both ways at different times, pp. 42 and 47.
Goldstein, "The New Playwrights: Theatrical Insurgency in Pre-Depression America," Theatre Survey 2 (1961): 43.
Gusfield, "Some Contingencies of Collective Action," 497, describes the process of movement institutionalization: first, the movement becomes regularized and routinized; second, the movement becomes part of the social order.
Christopher Innes, Holy Theatre: Ritual and the Avant Garde (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 11.
Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1969), 94; "Variations on a Theme of Liminality," Secular Ritual, ed. Sally F. Moore and Barbara G. Meyerhoff (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Van Gorcum, Assen, 1977), 36; he borrows the concept of liminality from Belgian folklorist Arnold Van Gennep, and in the later essay refers to the third phase as "re-aggregation."
David I. Kertzer, Ritual, Politics, and Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 9, 14, 73.
Hallie Flanagan, Theatre Arts Monthly 15, no. 11, November 1931, 909; however, Michael Gold claims that the convention was held on June 14, in "Toward a Revolutionary Culture," New Masses 7, no. 2 (July 1931): 13.
Workers Theatre (June 1931): 15-17; the play has been recently reprinted in Samuel, MacColl, and Cosgrove, 301-305.
This may have been one of the only early agitprop plays to contain music, as Gold, p. 13, commented on the convention by complaining that no new workers' songs or music were being written.
Flanagan, 910, quotes Michael Gold at the conference as declaring that "It is not enough that we are doing a new thing. We must do it in a new way and we must do it well." She thinks his comment is appropriate in view of the amateurish performance, but does not say whether Gold said this before or after the performance.
Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O'Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion (Beverly Hills, Ca.: Sage Publications, 1986), 134.
Nathaniel Buchwald, "The Prize-Winners of the Spartakiade, Workers Theatre 2, no. 3 (June-July 1932): 10, 23.
Workers Theatre 2, no. 3 (June-July 1932): 2; the list says that the "agit-prop" play is for five to eight players.
Dave Hilberman and Henry Mitchell, "Creative Drama on the Ohio Relief March," New Theatre (September-October, 1933): 11.
Williams, 155; Robinson says he acted in some of the plays reluctantly, and even wrote a few lyrics, but felt his strong point was music, so he coached the performers on their vocal parts. But he began soon to compose songs and then teach classes and direct the company's musical numbers. Some of those who wrote lyrics for his music were Oscar Saul, Lou Lantz, and Peter Martin, and several songs were written, including words mostly by Martin for "Flying Squadron":
The Flying Squadron's coming through,
The seamen and longshoremen, too,
Make way--for the flying squad!
We'll tie the city fore and aft,
They'll have to ship their freight by raft,
Make way--for the flying squad! (Found in Williams, 155)
Jack Shapiro and Ruth Burke, "Song of Charity," from Sweet Charity; Earl Robinson, interview, May 28, 1989.
Sherr mentions a number of Broadway musicals of the early thirties that dealt in some measure, although with markedly different tone, with important issues of the depression: Strike up the Band (1930), Free for All (1931), Of Thee I Sing (1931), Face the Music (1932), Let 'Em Eat Cake, (1933), and Hold Your Horses (1933); Bordman, in The American Musical Theatre, also mentions Strike Me Pink (1933), Three's a Crowd (1930), Americana (1930), and As Thousands Cheer (1933).
For instance, A. Prentis, in "Dos Passos on the Theatre," Workers Theatre 1, no. 3 (June 1931), p. 9, questions whether, as Dos Passos claimed in the April 1 issue of New Republic, real American theatre lay in musical comedy, revues, vaudeville, night-club entertainments, and burlesque, which are for businessmen and may not have the mass appeal to form a basis for mass theatre; while Samuel G. Poozner (?) of the Solidarity Players of Los Angeles, in a letter from the same issue of Workers Theatre, claims that his group does "a synthesis of all the American vaudeville and Russian Blue-Blouse technique" to create their own forms of drama.
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