Capturing the Zeitgeist

The Cradle Will Rock

Original play and music by Marc Blitzstein. Adapted by J. K. Fowler. Produced and directed by Sean Elias. Musical direction by Jason Wirth. Choreography by Shannon Stowe. Theatre 80, New York City, March 31 - April 2, 2011

 

In a time of high unemployment, declining labor unions, legislative assaults on workers’ rights, and the concentration of economic power in large corporations, revisiting Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, written in 1937, could be an exercise in nostalgia. However, J. K. Fowler’s adaptation and Sean Elias’s direction shape a production that is neither an exercise in nostalgia nor a period piece revival. Fowler1 has adapted Blitzstein’s play and music in a manner that updates the story while retaining the energy and artistry of the original.

In this production, Steeltown has become Stocktown, thus acknowledging the transformation of the economy from one defined by manufacturing to one defined by financialization. The name of the protagonist is no longer Larry Foreman, but Larry Admin (played by Max Lockie), thus acknowledging the shift of the U.S. economy from the production of goods to the provision of services. Similarly, when Admin names those groups that are gathering in support of “the hive,” they include service workers and freelancers. And as the workers gather (offstage) to assert themselves through the hive and with the support of other workers, we hear the words, “This isn’t Libya. This is Stocktown, USA,” thus acknowledging that the rest of the world has also changed.

All this serves the Brechtian and agitprop intent of the original author and the author of the adaptation: to engage audience in the consciousness of the actors and the issues of the day. The Cradle Will Rock—both in 1937 and in 2011—asserts a political point of view. This play is clearly on the side of those workers who are ill served by the capitalist system. With a clarity missing from much propaganda of the right and the left, the small business owner is as much a victim as the line worker in a factory or call center. As has been the case with so many small, locally owned businesses in twenty-first century America, when Harry Druggist (Jim Anderson) is no longer useful to Mr. Mister (Mitchell Travis Diehr), he loses his lease and a bank branch occupies the space that formerly housed his pharmacy.

One thing that is not immediately clear is what is meant by “the Hive.” While the Hive might be a more powerful image today than the union would be—given the weakened state of organized labor—the image of the drones foraging for honey and living short lives of constant labor is not itself inspiring. “The union” was an inspiration to generations of workers. Yet there is a brilliant word play here: the Hive is the opposite of the Freedom Committee, a front composed of many of Stocktown’s leading citizens and organized by Mr. Mister to support his continued dominance. It is ironic that its members are arrested when the police mistake them for the agitators supporting the Hive. The Freedom Committee, then, is not free. Inside or outside the jail, they are imprisoned by their loyalty to Stocktown’s monopolist. The members and supporters of the much larger hive—always offstage—are much freer in organizing against the owners than are the members of the freedom committee. Even the university’s President Prexy takes her orders from Mr. Mister and the artists Dauber (Erika Lee) and Yasha (Bethany Geraghty) are happy to practice art for art’s sake on the payroll of Mrs. Mister (Selena Lopez). The supporters of the hive, on the other hand, reject the role of drone and make themselves free.

This production of The Cradle Will Rock is well paced and well acted. The staging and choreography use the aisles and rear of the auditorium, as well as the stage. Several of the actors play multiple roles. Not all character shifts are sufficiently matched by costume changes, however, but oversights do not dwarf the actors’ capabilities. The casting also mirrors the diversity of present-day civil society and work places. Blitzstein’s music and play in Fowler’s adaptation stand up well. The company succeeds in planting this classic story of labor and freedom in the present century.

The Cradle Will Rock is the first production of the Intercollegiate Collaborative Arts Project of the New School University, which draws talent from throughout the university, not just the drama and music schools. One looks forward to future productions.

 

April 7, 2011

frontispiece and image above: United Autoworkers on a sit-down strike at the General Motors, Flint, Michigan plant in 1937.

1. Readers should note that J.K. Fowler is the author of the “Passages on the Verge” blog on The Mantle.

Anthony P. (Tony) Johnson is a preacher, activist, organizer, and writer. As a minister and consultant, he works with congregations, community organizations, and multifaith alliances on issues of racial and economic justice. Based at the Community Church of New York Unitarian Universalist, he also works with congregations in Meriden, Connecticut and Englewood, New Jersey. His intellectual work is at the intersection of theology, sociology, poetry, and the street.