3. THE “RUNAWAY OPERA”

The turmoil of the year before had lingered in the memories of conservatives. When the New York arts units took to the streets with strikes and protests against the pending job cuts in 1937, it had hardened the conviction that those projects had to go. The obvious sin was that they were radical hotbeds that flaunted their radicalism under the protection of the Congress itself, in the form of the rule—ironically designed mainly to ensure that Republicans had access to WPA jobs—that said no one could be barred from working for the WPA because of political affiliation. They also exemplified the ever-present dilemma confronting publicly funded arts: the tension between creative free expression and political sensibilities.

This tension had been present in one form or another in the theater and writing projects, and to a lesser extent in the art project, since their beginning. Hallie Flanagan had learned early on of the Federal Theatre’s vulnerability to oversight when she was forced to cancel the Living Newspaper Ethiopia over its depiction of Mussolini. But Flanagan was the least likely of WPA administrators to shrink from a fight. The “wild little woman” described by producer John Houseman was unafraid to stand foursquare behind her conviction that the theater might become a force for social change in the public interest. She was “a fanatic,” Houseman wrote, meaning it kindly. Under Flanagan, the project had continued to produce plays and Living Newspapers that saw the issues of the day through a lens of New Deal social activism and reform.

The Living Newspapers seemed especially designed to provoke conservatives by their choice of subjects, if not their very titles. Power told the story of the TVA, presented as a case of government aiding consumers in a region ignored by private power companies. “Some people will say it’s propaganda,” Harry Hopkins enthused after seeing it. “Well, I say what of it? It’s propaganda to educate the consumer…'It’s about time.” Injunction Granted reported on the American labor movement in pro-labor terms that even Flanagan objected to, sending its writer and director a letter saying, “I will not have the Federal Theatre used politically.” Still, she called for no changes in the script. One-Third of a Nation looked scathingly at slum life, deploying its actors on a stage overhung by fire escapes and battered garbage cans in a mute statement of what it meant to be, as the president had put it in his 1937 inaugural address, “ill-housed.” Spirochete, a production of the theater project in Chicago, told the story of syphilis and the fight, in those days before the availability of penicillin, to bring the deadly venereal disease under control.

Social reactionaries were not the only ones who bridled at these treatments, although some of the responses could not have been foreseen. Spirochete, for which Surgeon General Thomas Parran and noted Microbe Hunters author Paul de Kruif had helped supervise the research, was supported by doctors, public health systems, and the press everywhere it opened. But the Knights of Columbus chapter in Philadelphia protested the play’s mentioning the introduction of syphilis to Europe by Christopher Columbus’s crewmen returning from America, and lobbied successfully to have his name omitted.

It was the musical The Cradle Will Rock, however, that so inflamed conservatives against the arts programs that it brought to a head the ongoing war between the WPA’s creative workers and its politically wary administrators. In the process it also provided one of the singular moments in the theatrical history of the United States.

The play was the story of a steel strike. It was as current as any of the Living Newspapers, and so were the passions it stirred up. Marc Blitzstein had written it in 1936, but the following winter and spring had brought an uncanny reality to his imaginings. In March 1937, when U.S. Steel recognized the steelworkers union, smaller steel producers had continued to fight the union with strikebreakers, private police, and guns. The United Auto Workers had unionized General Motors with its six-week sit-down strike, and strikes had also shut down the Chrysler and Hudson auto factories. Union sentiment was at a high, but so was the outrage of conservatives over the sit-downs, plant takeovers that they viewed as crimes against property. Blitzstein’s play took the union view. His none-too-subtle characters included a grasping steel baron named Mr. Mister; a poor steel-town woman, Moll, forced by hunger into prostitution; and a labor hero, Larry Foreman. Houseman and Orson Welles, who had moved from the Negro theater to the classical theater in the New York project, decided that same March that The Cradle Will Rock would be their next production and cast it.

If Cradle dramatized the labor-management divide, the WPA itself was being torn by similar issues. The job cuts brought on by the mirage of an improving economy and the ensuing protests had galvanized the ever-busy Communists. Already represented in the leadership of the Workers Alliance, where Communist Herbert Benjamin was the secretary-treasurer, they now used the fear of pink slips to step up recruiting for both the party and the union. In fact, president David Lasser was fighting a losing battle against the Communists’ growing influence on the union’s executive board. The May 27 one-day strike of arts project and white-collar workers in New York idled not only actors, writers, artists, musicians, and dancers, but also architects, engineers, and teachers, a total of some 10,000 workers. Individual performance units conducted their own sporadic strikes, which often morphed into all-night sit-downs in the company of their sympathetic audiences. The dance unit of the theater project concluded a recital at the Nora Bayes Theatre on West 44th Street by occupying the theater overnight and mingling with audience members in the seats and on the stage, while other arts workers and supporters picketed outside, forcing police to close the street. Flanagan told the American Theatre Council that the project workers were “striking for what was once described as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Actions like these drew press coverage that helped to paint WPA workers as ingrates who were not sufficiently thankful for their public jobs. People who never liked the arts programs to begin with now saw their dislike vindicated. Meanwhile, Houseman and Welles speeded up the pace of their rehearsals.

As May ended and June began, tensions on the labor front escalated further. On Memorial Day 1937, the Chicago police shot striking workers at the Republic Steel plant in South Chicago. (Ten would die, and the La Follette committee hearings would reveal that seven of them had been shot in the back.) Five thousand protesters shut down the business district of Lansing, Michigan, over the arrests of union pickets. Johnstown, Ohio, was placed under martial law after a night of riots. Akron, Ohio, and Pontiac, Michigan, had already experienced labor riots. In those days before the passage of the wage-and-hours law, both sides were battling not only for a stake in the economic recovery that appeared to be at hand but also for their starkly different versions of what was best for the country. And as they fought, rumors began to circulate in Washington that Cradle was a dangerous play.

In the second week of June, cuts caused by the new lower WPA appropriation were announced. The arts projects across the nation were taking a 30 percent hit that would eliminate entirely the theater components in Delaware, Rhode Island, Nebraska, and Texas. Seventeen hundred New York theater project workers received pink slips. In Harlem, a Lafayette Theatre audience joined the cast and crew of a Negro Theatre production in an all-night sit-in. A Brahms concert at the Federal Theatre of Music, put on by the music project, ended similarly. Houseman and Welles redoubled their efforts to finish their production, assuming that if they were able to open before the end of June, they would be spending this fiscal year’s money, so would not be affected by the cuts. They set June 16 for the first of two weeks of public previews, with the official opening two weeks later, on July 2. The official opening would trigger reviews, but in all other respects the performances would be the same.

On June 12, after more than 14,000 tickets had been sold, an announcement from Washington stunned all the arts projects. Citing the budget cuts and ensuing reorganization, it barred “any new play, musical performance, or art gallery” from opening before July 1. The ban included Cradle’s previews.

Flanagan viewed this as “obviously censorship in a different guise.” Indeed, she said, it was “more than a case of censorship. It marked a changing point of view in Washington,” and one that she feared would prove disastrous.

Cradle had by then absorbed a large investment in rehearsal time and in the construction of Welles’s elaborate sets. Flanagan appealed for an exception, but to no avail. Houseman opened the Maxine Elliott Theatre on June 14 and rounded up an audience for the final rehearsal. The next day WPA guards sent by Colonel Brehon Somervell, the New York administrator, moved in and cordoned off the theater. This was followed by a flurry of regulations, from both the administration and unfriendly unions, that seemed designed specifically to keep Cradle from being seen.

But Houseman and Welles were determined to mount the play regardless of the consequences. They sneaked past the WPA “cossacks” guarding the Maxine Elliott and set up a war room in a downstairs powder room. From there, using the still-open phone lines, they tried to find another theater while reassuring the theater clubs and others who had purchased tickets that they would open somewhere. Meanwhile, another bombshell dropped. Actors’ Equity, the theatrical union, ruled that a company that had rehearsed a play for one producer could not take the stage for another producer without permission from the first. Houseman and Welles were the new producers by default; the Federal Theatre had been the old one and was not likely to grant permission, effectively keeping the cast of Cradle off the stage. The ruling said nothing, however, about the actors singing or speaking from elsewhere in the theater. The powder room war council decided this meant they could perform as long as they did not take the stage.

On the afternoon of June 16, the audience gathered outside the theater, along with reporters and the simply curious, and everyone waited. Houseman gave an assistant $10 and sent her out to rent a piano and find a truck to bring it to a destination that had yet to be determined.

Alternative venues fell through one by one. All seemed lost until, at 7:40, twenty minutes before curtain time, the distraught group in the powder room finally focused on a theatrical real estate agent they had been ignoring. He had been trying to offer them the Venice Theatre, twenty-one blocks north on Broadway. Houseman snapped it up for $100 for the night, and the troupe, the audience, and the growing crowd of curiosity seekers began making their way north by cab, the subway, and on foot.

At the Venice, the piano arrived, the curtain time was pushed back to nine o’clock, and monumental exercises in improvisation began. The lead actors—Will Geer as Mr. Mister and Howard da Silva as Larry Foreman—were part of the small non-relief contingent who didn’t need their jobs in order to eat. Houseman had told the cast members who were on relief that he would understand if they took the safe course and chose not to perform their parts, even though they were technically within their rights as long as they weren’t onstage. At a little after nine, before a standing-room-only crowd, the performance began.

Blitzstein sat at the piano on an otherwise bare stage. He was prepared to be the entire show, playing and singing and reading the stage directions. But as he laid down the first bars of the opening number and started to sing, the audience gradually realized with a shock and a thrill that he was not singing by himself. The spotlight moved into the audience and settled on a frightened redhead wearing a green dress. It was Olive Stanton, the young relief worker playing Moll, standing at her seat. Houseman recalled that she was “glassy-eyed, stiff with fear, only half audible at first in the huge theatre but gathering strength with every note.” When Blitzstein caught on, he shut up and let her sing. Her bravery braced her fellow actors. The audience applauded the end of her number and Blitzstein had uttered only the next stage cue before Stanton’s partner in the next scene rose and spoke his part from ninety feet away. From that uncertain opening the momentum gathered, with actors rising in the orchestra, the balcony, the boxes. Blitzstein still had to speak some parts, and some actors filled in for others, but the chorus sang, and even the union accordionist, who had been part of the orchestra now barred from performing, began to play along with Blitzstein while staying carefully out of sight. At the end, with Larry Foreman’s triumph over the corrupt and frightened Mr. Mister lingering in the fading strains of the title song, the curtain fell. For a beat: dead silence. Then the crowd, 2,000 strong, went wild.

The standing, cheering ovation might have been expected. In the pro-labor audience, Blitzstein had in effect been preaching to the choir. But the crowd was applauding more than the experience of seeing its own convictions brought to life. The play’s renegade performance had transcended its content to become an event in itself, with the supreme irony that it also exposed conflicts between management and labor.

The “runaway opera” made all the city’s front pages the next day. The publicity allowed Houseman and Welles to stage a two-week run of Cradle privately, performed by the same WPA actors on the maximum two-week leave they were allowed before they lost their relief status. Later, Houseman and Welles mounted the production successfully at their new Mercury Theatre, formed after Welles resigned from the FTP and Houseman was fired under a new rule which said that only American citizens could work for the WPA. (Art Project painter Willem de Kooning, who had arrived in the United States as a stowaway from Holland, was forced to resign as a result of the same rule.)

But the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity did not hold true for the Theatre Project and the WPA’s other arts programs, because Cradle and the drama surrounding it caused conservatives to train their guns more squarely on these projects.

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