Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
Scene4 Magazine — Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas

Recently I had the opportunity to see a production of The Cradle Will Rock – the infamous banned WPA musical of the 1930s originally directed and produced by Orson Welles and John Houseman.  The performance started with a rapid re-telling of the period’s high (and low) points.  It struck me how much our America today resembles bits of the 1920s and 1930s.

Currently America is in a political season in which there’s much discussion about change. What is change?  What does it mean?  Who can make change?  The USA’s political life is in such disarray that even the president’s few remaining supporters are looking for a change.   

So, a longer piece than the usual.  A look at how America deals with change by looking at how we dealt with change in 1935.

“A Moderate Success”

On the evening of Dec. 9, 1935, actor Morris Carnovsky ended the Group Theater’s premiere of Paradise Lost with the following speech:

We dare to understand.  Truly, truly, the past was a dream.  But this is real!  To know from this that something must be done.  That is real.  We searched; we were confused!  But we searched, and now the search is ended. For the truth has found us. . . Heartbreak and terror are not the heritage of mankind!  The world is beautiful.  No fruit tree wears a lock and key.  Men will sing at their work, men will love.  Ohhh, darling, the world is in its morning . . . and  no man fights alone![1]

Playwright Clifford Odets concluded Paradise Lost and the year with a much more positive sentiment than he had early in 1935 with Waiting for Lefty.  The premiere of  ....Lefty ended with the audience spontaneously joining the cast in shouting, “STRIKE!”[2]  Other theatrical events in 1935 included the Theatre Union production of Die Mutter (The Mother), a blatantly communist play by the avowed German communist playwright Bertolt Brecht.  Later in 1935 Hallie Flanagan planned her first production, Ethiopia — the first of the Living Newspapers — as head of the government-funded Federal Theatre Project.[3]

On Jan. 4, 1935 President Roosevelt noted in his Annual Message to Congress:

    We find our population suffering from old inequalities, little changed by past sporadic remedies.  In spite of our efforts and in spite of our talk, we have not weeded out the overprivileged . . . We have ( . . . ) a clear mandate from the people, that Americans must forswear the conception of the acquisition of wealth which, through excessive profits, creates undue private power over private affairs and, to our misfortune, over public affairs as well.[4]

Roosevelt spoke to a Congress that numbered only 25 Republicans in the Senate and 103 Republicans in the House.  Over the course of the first part of 1935 the Congress passed the Social Security Act, the Wealth Tax Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and funded and extended the WPA program — all hallmarks of the Second New Deal.[5]

The United States was at a point of balance.  From a contemporary vantage point, any number of possible avenues could have been taken. The political and cultural possibilities of American society manifested themselves through government and theatre. Opportunities existed in both the theatre and the government to radicalize both the mode of operation and the content of their respective, particular functions.  Instead, neither institution radicalized to any great extent.  In the fall of 1935, Roosevelt replied in a letter to newspaper publisher Roy W. Howard that there was going to be a “breathing spell” from further legislative experimentation.[6]  The theatre likewise opted for a moderately liberal approach to its work.

American government and American theatre mutually reflected each other in 1935.  This article will examine this reflection and the contemporary criticism of politics and culture, as each institution was criticized and derided from both the Right and the Left.  Despite criticism from all sides, both institutions steered a path of comparatively moderate liberalism.  This path of comparatively moderate liberalism largely influenced both institutions to the present time.

An element of political and social instability created the chance for numerous possibilities in the UnitedState. The pain of the Depression prepared the nation to take large chances.  The total income of all individuals in 1932 was less than one-half of what it had been in 1929.[7]  Among the destitute were Rose Majewski, a Polish immigrant forced to raise her five children on $5 a week and a charitable box of food staples each month, and George Patterson, a Chicago steel-worker who was reduced to working one day a month.[8]  By 1932 an estimated 1 - 2 million men and boys roamed the country looking for work.[9]  Historian Caroline Bird wrote:

    In HarlanCounty [Kentucky] there were whole towns whose people had not a cent of income.  They lived on dandelions and blackberries. The women washed clothes in soapweed suds. Dysentery bloated the stomachs of starving babies.  Children were reported so famished that they were chewing up their own hands. . . On her first trip to the mountains, Eleanor Roosevelt saw a little boy trying to hide his pet rabbit.  “He thinks we are not going to eat it,” his sister told her, “but we are.”[10]

The nation’s situation intensified as Iowa farmers blocked milk trucks to prevent them from going to market in an effort to raise milk prices.  Farmers also rioted over mortgage foreclosures and evictions from farms. In the spring of 1932 some 15 - 20,000 World War I veterans marched on the nation’s capitol.  The House quickly passed relief legislation for the unemployed veterans, but the Senate defeated the bill.  By July 28 an attempt was made to evict the homeless men.  In the process two veterans were killed and a number were injured.  As a result, President Hoover ordered the Army to control its own veterans.[11]

Financially, the country was extremely weak.  By the fall of 1931 banks had seen the withdrawal of a billion dollars.  As a result of this financial crisis some Iowa towns issued scrip.  Wooden money was circulated in Washington state.  Knoxville, Alabama and Richmond, Virginia went so far to print city currency.[12]  Lizabeth Cohen outlines the death of neighborhood, ethnic banks in her study of Chicago workers during the Depression.  By the time of March 1933, 163 of 199 Chicago banks outside the Loop had closed.  Only thirty-three of the outlying banks survived the Depression.[13]

The country was ready for experiments.  Prior to the Democratic Convention of 1932, Franklin Roosevelt spoke at OglethorpeUniversity on the occasion of receiving an honorary degree.  In his speech, Roosevelt suggested that the government policy should be one of experimentation. Roosevelt asserted, “I believe that we are at the threshold of a fundamental change in our popular economic thought.”  Later in the speech Roosevelt added, “We need to correct, by drastic means if necessary, the faults in our economic system from which we now suffer.”[14]  Historian Basil Rauch comments, “To take the method of experiment out of the laboratory and offer it as a policy of government was revolutionary.”[15]

This willingness to experiment followed Roosevelt into his first days at the White House.  The national banking crisis led the new president to invoke the Trading With the Enemy Act of 1917 and to suspend banking transactions starting Monday, March 6, 1932 through March 9.  Leading bankers were invited to Washington, D.C. to discuss possible solutions.  The bankers came to Washington willing to allow the administration to attempt a solution to the crisis. Rauch provides this analysis, “If the administration had been bent upon achieving radical reforms as a condition of recovery, it could have had them.  A drive for ‘socialism’ (. . . ) would have taken advantage of the discredited position and collapsed morale of the bankers to put through the nationalization of the country’s banks.  As it was, a conservative solution (. . . ) was decided upon.”

By 1934 Roosevelt had incurred fairly harsh opposition in some business and organized labor circles.[16]  However, due to his strong attacks on the effects of the Depression and political coalition building, Roosevelt received stronger Democratic majorities in both houses of congress. Sometime presidential advisor and historian Arthur Schlesinger noted, “The congressional elections of November 1934 appeared to vindicate the coalition concept.  A flood of Democratic votes gushing from traditionally non-Democratic sources washed the traditional Democratic Party into the discard.  In the new Congress, the Democratic party now stood forward as predominantly a northern and, to a new degree, an urban party.”[17]  Cohen noted the new entry of blacks into the new Democratic coalition.  The support ofChicago blacks for the Democratic Party more than doubled between 1932 and 1936, and in 1934 they sent the first black  Democratic congressman, Arthur Mitchell, to Washington.[18]  Democratic freshmen, like Mitchell from Chicago and Harry Truman from Missouri, came to Washington in 1935 pledged to assist Roosevelt.[19]

Roosevelt realized this[20] and began his first speech to the new congress by saying, “Throughout the world change is the order of the day . . . Thus, the American people do not stand alone in the world in their desire for change.”[21]  This desire for change led the president and congress to construct a slate of liberal legislation.  The legislative work of 1935 led one historian to write:

The passage of the Social Security Act, the WPA program, the Wealth Tax Act, laws subjecting public utility holding companies and new forms of transportation of federal regulation, and the National Labor Relations Act made the 1935 session of Congress perhaps the most important one in the field of domestic liberal-progressive reform in the nation’s history.[22]

Likewise conditions in the theatre industry had led to the possibility of radicalism in 1935.  The major modus operendi of theatre prior to the turn of the century was that of traveling companies.  The emergence of New York as the primary center of professional theatrical activity basically occurred during the 1890s.[23]  The emergence of New York as a center of theatrical production coupled with the emergence of expose¢ journalists who turned from investigating social wrongs to discussing them through the drama.  An early example of this was Eugene Walter who wrote Paid in Full (1908) and The Easiest Way (1909).  These were not social dramas in the modern sense, however they included economic and sexual problems that had not previously been part of the theatre.[24]

By the 1920s Broadway had the satiric talents of George Kaufman.  In 1924 Kaufman wrote Beggar on Horseback with Marc Connelly.  The play used techniques borrowed from German expressionism to tell the story of a composer who sells his soul and thereby loses his art.  However, the play was criticized for its content as much as for its form.  “Even as late as 1924 the theatre was apparently not considered a proper place to question the sacred aims and procedures of Big Business.”[25]

Surely there were some playwrights dealing with social issues and finding an audience.  In the main, though, the drama prior to the 1930s was marked by its ‘lightness.’  One historian of the drama wrote, “The writers were neither poets, nor prophets, nor experimenters;  they were for the most part the relatively young writers who wanted not only to say something about the people they knew, and say it more or less honestly, but write plays that should be well received by the public and earn money.”[26]

As the Great Depression created an atmosphere of governmental experimentation, so did it allow also for theatrical experimentation.  Certainly the Depression helped create actors and an audience more interested in economic, political, and moral questions.[27]  The early 1930s saw the rise of a number of non-commercial theatrical experiments which were liberal to radical in their mission.   This led the reviewer of the New York Times, Brooks Atkinson, to write, “In short the drama of the Left is becoming increasingly dynamic, and is no longer a skirmish on the fringe of the theatre.  For it has a coherent program, which the Broadway theatre has always lacked, and its is enflamed with the crusader’s zeal.  It knows where it intends to go;  it does not doubt its ability to get there.”[28]

Similarly theatrical conditions at mid-decade led Burns Mantle to write in review of the 1935 theater season, “It is quite generally admitted by those most familiar with the situation that this theatrical season has been the most exciting and the most satisfying of any New York has enjoyed since the years that preceded the crash of ‘29.  I see no particular reason we should stop at ‘29.”[29]  A telling event that presaged the chance of radical possibilities in the theatre in 1935 was the Group Theater’s production of Clifford Odets’ play Waiting for Lefty.  Yet, of the theatre considered to be part of the drama of the Left, the Group was probably the least radical.

Richard Pells critiques the Group and writes, “As with many other movements in the decade, the ‘collectivism’ of the Group Theater was more a matter of rhetoric, sentiment, and posture than an effort to fashion a coherent social or aesthetic theory.”[30]  In offering this critique, Pells fails to recognize that the Group’s mission was not to fashion social or aesthetic theory, but to create an artistic theatrical company.  For the Group, the task of making theatrical art was altogether different from establishing some sort of theory.

Harold Clurman clearly stated:

    The whole bent of our theatre, I reiterated time and again, would be to combine a study of theatre craft with a creative content which that craft was to express.  To put it another way, our interest in the life of our times must lead us to the discovery of those methods that would most truly convey this life through the theatre.[31]

To reach the Group’s goal, co-director Lee Strasberg developed the Method, a system of acting that has since become an integral part of American acting.  Clurman noted, “The aim of the system is to enable the actor to use himself more consciously as an instrument for the attainment of truth on the stage.”[32]

This notion of personal exposure through acting was not an entirely new idea.  Its implementation by the Group, however, allowed for a type of ensemble performance that was unusual in the United States. This type of acting differed from the style of performance that was the norm in the reviews, comedies, and melodramas that made up commercial fare.  ‘Commercial’ acting possessed a large amount of the oratorical/histrionic grand-style acting of the previous century in which the actor had no need to personally identify with the character being portrayed.  This personalized acting style also differed from the style favored by the truly radical theatre that will be discussed below.

Clurman repeatedly emphasized that the Group Theater did not have any organized political orientation. Clurman notes, “Of radicalism there wasn’t a spark.”[33]  In relating a visit to a conference at the John Reed Club, Clurman wrote, “I was thrown of balance just before I began to speak because the chairman introduced as middle-of-the-roaders as compared with the Right of the Theatre Guild and the Left of certain workers’ groups that apparently were then in the making.  I did not know what it meant to be a middle-of-the-roader in this connection.”[34]  In regard to the visitors and the amount of political talk that went on among various Group members while rehearsing outside New York over the summer, Clurman confessed, “Some people were troubled because Strasberg and I (. . . ) refused to commit ourselves very definitely.”[35]  Clurman summed up, “. . . we did have a real point of view, it did not coincide with the narrow interpretation then put upon such bloodless designations as ‘Left Theatre.’”[36]

It was all the more surprising, then, that the Group produced an agitational play when mounting Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty.  Brooks Atkinson saw the Sunday night premiere performance of the play.  Atkinson wrote of Waiting for Lefty that it  “ . . . is clearly one of the most thorough, trenchant jobs in the school of revolutionary drama.  It argues the case for a strike against labor racketeering and the capitalist state by using the auditorium as the hall where the taxi union is meeting.”[37]

The production of . . . Lefty was part of an active year for the so-called Theatre of the Left. A loose federation of workers’ theatrical groups re-organized in January 1935 into the National Theatre League. The League contained more than 200 active workers’ groups in cities, towns, and rural areas.  These people were workers that had been caught in the catastrophe of the Depression as well as revolutionary theatre artists frustrated with the narrowness of commercial theatre.[38]  “Although the National Theatre League has no direct affiliation with the Communist Party — or any party, as such — most of its members hold to Marxist principles and look toward the development of a society in which some economic system other than capitalism will prevail.”[39]

Odets’ play and the Group’s tumultuous premiere provided a premium text for these workers’ theatrical groups.  The Group appropriately borrowed staging techniques from the agitprop theatre. The opening stage direction was, “As the curtain goes up we see a bare stage.”[40]  Then the script indicated the first character, Fatt, speaks directly to the audience.  The play ended with a man “who dashed up the center aisle from the back of the house.”[41]  The man announced that the unseen Lefty has been found shot in the head which incites the assembly to shout, “STRIKE!”

Obviously this style of performance was well suited to a workers’ group working in variable space with limited access to scenery.  Also, the effect of direct address to the audience and the entrance of the man from the audience aided the agitational aspects of the show.  The local producing group could easily plant rehearsed members in the audiences to help support the call to strike — or whatever union policy was chosen.

So it was that groups across the country chose to mount performances of Waiting for Lefty. A fairly typical example happened August 9, 1935.  The selectmen of Provincetown, Massachusetts forbade an anti-war meeting and performance of . . . Lefty.  The local Masons refused to rent their hall to the group fearing that Communists were somehow involved.  Playwright Susan Glaspell spoke at the selectmen’s meeting, “We are going back instead of ahead.  What are they afraid of?”[42]

Odets wrote an anti-fascist play called Till the Day I Die.  The Group added the new play to . . . Lefty to make a double bill for the New York production that premiered at the Longacre Theatre the evening of Tuesday, March 26.  The new bill was praised by Atkinson, “People who want to understand the time through which they are living can scarcely afford to ignore it.”[43]  To Atkinson, the agitational nature of the performance was proper for the desperation of the time.  This view, however, was not held by everyone.

Critic George John Nathan approached the play from a more conservative viewpoint — politically and theatrically.  Nathan observed that Odets had talent as a playwright, but was extremely obvious in his work.  Thus, for Nathan, Odets was unsuccessful in his attempt at propaganda.  Nathan wrote:

I am perfectly will to be converted to Communism if need be, or to Fascism, Nudism, or even the Hay diet, but the job can’t be accomplished by Odets’ boys who argue that Stalin is the only true redeemer and that everyone else is cheese because New York taxi drivers aren’t paid enough by their villainous capitalistic bosses to buy even one evening shirt, much less a top hat, at Brooks Brothers . . .[44]

The Group was so classified with the Left.

The production of . . . Lefty helped popularize other theatrical groups that were more radical in their intent.  Crowther wrote about these groups:

    who are advancing with true Marxist fervor toward the establishment of a Theatre of the Left.  Informed particularly by the recent professional offerings of the Group Theatre [emphasis added], the commercial theatre’s custodians have lifted their eyes from the ledgers and discovered pretty close to their doorstep a lustily kicking youngster. . .[45]

Both Crowther and Atkinson took the Group’s production of . . . Lefty to herald radical theatre, certainly in content, if not in style.

The Theatre Union was deliberately radical.  Agitprop theatre had been done sporadically in the late ‘20s.  The Theatre Union, however, was the “first and only professional American Marxist theatre.”[46]  The Union’s slogan was, “Theatre is a weapon.”  The Union was the most evident attempt of Marxism to enter the American mainstream.[47]  The actors involved in the Union were actively political.   On a Saturday afternoon in February, the Union left a matinee audience waiting for a performance of Sailors of Cattaro. Five members of the cast, the stage manager, and two Union associates were arrested for being part of a demonstration at Ohrbach’s Affiliated Stores.  A group of 39 picketers protested Ohrbach’s for being “unfair to union labor.”  The group of protesters was met by a squad of 20 police (2 mounted).  While not an official activity of the Theatre Union, the protest was supported actively by the group.  When the news of the arrest reached the waiting audience at the auditorium, the audience voiced their support as well and said they’d come back to watch the show when the actors were available.[48]

Unsurprisingly the audience of Theatre Union was comprised of labor and radical organizations. People from these organizations subscribed to Union shows.  This allowed the Union to continue runs as well as mount new plays.[49]  The Union was a radical group intentionally performing for radicals.

In 1935 Theatre Union mounted a production of Bertolt Brecht’s play Die Mutter (The Mother).  Brecht, an avowed German communist, had only recently been converted to class warfare.  Consequently he adapted a propaganda novel by the Russian revolutionary writer Maxim Gorky. The story is basically about the transformation of the mother of an agitator into a political for the communist cause.

The play was strident and obvious in its intent.  An example was Masha’s song entitled, “The Song of What to Do:”

                        If you have an empty plate
                        how do you expect to sup?
                        It’s up to you to take the state
                        and turn it over, bottoms up,

                        till you have filled your plate.
                        Help yourself — no need to wait!

                        [Last verse]

                        Do they laugh and call you weak?
                        Don’t waste time — start your promotion!
                        Bring the plan for action to the meek,
                        See that they have got in motion.
                        Soon their time will come to speak.
                        Laughter then will ring among the weak.                            (Scene 2)[50]

This tone continued through the play.  The play concluded with the Mother carrying a red flag at the head of a demonstration. The final dialogue of the play was:

    HOUSEMAID.  A woman sixty years old carried our flag.  We said to her,  “Isn’t the flag too heavy for you?  Give us the flag!”  But she said:

    THE MOTHER.  No;  when I am tired, then I’ll give it to you and you’ll carry it.

    FIRST WORKER.  And so she marched on with us, tirelessly, from morning into the afternoon
                                                                          (Scene 15)[51]

As the text indicates, in this moment the actress playing the Mother was expected to speak of herself in the third person.  This was not intended to be personalized, realistic theatre.  For example, in the production notes Brecht wrote, “. . . the stage was meant to simulate an actual locality.”  In creation of the characters he noted, “No attempt is made to achieve ‘accidental, ‘lifelike,’ or ‘unplanned’ groupings;  the stage does not mirror the ‘natural’ disorder of things.” And Brecht praised actress Helene Weigel, “. . . the actress spoke her lines as though they actually had been in the third person.  Thus she avoided counterfeiting that she really was Mrs. Vlassova or thought she was and was so speaking the lines in all reality . . .”[52]

In his introduction to his translation of Die Mutter, Lee Baxandall noted that agitprop theatre proved efficacious because it relies on few actors who may be amateurs because of its style of caricatures and types.  Also the agitprop theatre needs few props or bits of scenery, making the agitprop play extremely mobile.  “Subtlety? Not desired, anymore than the primitive people strive for fine nuance in a fertility dance or a warpath rite.”[53]

In producing the play, Theatre Union found money to bring the playwright to assist in rehearsals. Upon watching the rehearsals, Brecht literally called the work of the Union ‘crap’ and ‘shit.’  The cast rejected the stark political statements Brecht wanted made.  The cast said it needed to be theatre first and propaganda second.  Consequently Brecht complained to Marxist intellectual Sidney Hook that American communists were ‘lousy.’[54]

Brecht and the director negotiated a truce while rehearsals continued, but Brecht hoped he could continue rehearsals once the show opened for the public.  However, the Union could not afford to pay actors for a second rehearsal period.  Brecht’s anger at the production led to a memo from himself and composer Hans Eisler that ended, “The theatre’s behavior is no different from that of any theatre on Broadway, which treats a play simply as a piece of merchandise, or as raw material for an easily salable piece of merchandise.”[55]

It is telling that an avowed European communist should complain of the watered-down beliefs of his American brethren.  And despite the radical organization of the Union’s audience, they were radical only in American terms.  As Brecht biographer Klaus Volker pointed out:

Although the performances were intended for working people, the great part of the audience was middle-class.  The company’s continued existence depended on the financial success of each production.  This was the main reason why left-wing American writers and directors, who worked for the Theatre Union in the nineteen-thirties were reluctant to embark on experiments.[56]

An audience accustomed to the light comedies and musicals of the 1920s were unprepared to make a whole-hearted leap into truly radical theatre regardless of the new interest in social/political drama.[57]

Even among theatre professionals, the desire to embrace new theatrical techniques was cautious at best, as exemplified in the largely uninfluential publication of New Theatres for Old.  The author, Mordecai Gorelick, had been heavily influenced by Brecht and Brecht’s designer, Caspar Neher while working on Die Mutter.[58]  And there was the appearance of hypocrisy among the radicals evident to conservative critics.  George John Nathan wrote:

    It is, for example, pretty hard to reconcile the eloquently expressed conviction of the young radical playwright, John Howard Lawson, that the one thing that will save the world is a strict practice of the doctrines of Karl Marx with Mr. Lawson’s own apparently happy and vastly contented surrender to the money moguls of Hollywood, to whom he is perfectly willing to dedicate himself as a fat and comfortable salary.[59]

Thus, the radical possibilities of the theatre were somewhat tempered.  The true American radicals were only radical in American terms. Even by that definition, there seemed to be some contradictions.

The political atmosphere of the country also seemed to moderate by late summer.  Walter Lippmann wrote on Aug. 20, “The people gave Mr. Roosevelt a sword to lead them in a particular battle is over, and that sword should now be returned to its scabbard.”[60]  In fact the course of the New Deal had shifted.  Schlesinger pointed out, “[The New Deal] had renounced the dream of national planning through national unity and had become a coalition of the nonbusiness groups, mobilized to prevent the domination of the country by the business community.”[61]  This shift in course was mentioned by Roosevelt in a speech via radio to a group of Young Democrats holding their annual convention in Milwaukee. Roosevelt said:

Any paternalistic system that tries to provide for security for every one from above only calls for an impossible task and a regimentation utterly uncongenial to the spirit of our people.  But government cooperation to help make the free enterprise system work (. . . ) — that kind of government cooperation is entirely consistent with the best tradition of America.[62]

By the time of October 2 Roosevelt said,  “The task of government is that of application and encouragement.  He concluded, “As the burden [of Depression woes] lifts, the Federal Government can and will greatly divest itself of its emergency responsibility.”[63]

The country and the government entered the “breathing spell” that Roosevelt had mentioned in his letter to Roy Howard.  It was in this period that the Group rehearsed and produced Paradise Lost, a play by . . . Lefty playwright Clifford Odets.  Unlike the earlier play, Paradise Lost was a family drama with little political comment.

The play centers on Leo Gordon and his family.  Leo worked as a designer of women’s handbags.  His business partner absconds with much of the business’ money, leaving Leo and his family in growing debt until they’re finally evicted from the apartment.

Leo is largely apolitical in perspective.  Early in the play he forbids his wife to keep a German parakeet.  However, Leo later admits, “In my honest opinion, one side is as bad as the other.  That’s why I don’t vote.”[64]  This is Leo’s last political comment in the play.

The play’s politics come from a Gordon family friend named Pike.  Pike is introduced as someone with political opinions.  In his discussion of poverty early in Act I, Pike comments, “It is notnatural for men to starve while means to produce food are close at hand.”[65]  However, minutes later a character charges that he’s among a “nest of Reds.”  Pike retorts, “(coldly) We happen to be Americans.”[66]

The only other overt political statement in the play comes from a character named Kewpie.  In Act III Kewpie tells Leo, “I done something to help myself.  You Don’t! Well, take a lesson from little Kewpie — if you don’t like the Constitution, make it over!”[67]  However, it’s unlikely that Kewpie is meant to be an agitational character.  In the action of the story Kewpie has a prolonged affair with Leo’s daughter-in-law and is largely responsible for the shooting death of Leo’s son Ben.  Furthermore, Kewpie is presented as little more than a low-life gangster.  Kewpie, as a political agitating character, is a far distance from the martyr Lefty and the hard-working taxi-drivers.

With the production of Paradise Lost, the Group was closer to its mission than it had been with the production of Waiting for Lefty.  Barret Clark noted that, “Paradise Lost is essentially a pretty effective character study, an exposition of humanity rather than a commentary of criticism.”[68]  Paradise Lost represented a step backward from radicalism for the Group. For radicals, Paradise Lost articulates the problems inherent in middle-class capitalism without showing the absolute need for committed action.[69]  The radicals criticized the Roosevelt administration in the same way.

The vocal, radical Left argued that the nation needed to decide if it wanted more confusion and misery with under-regulated capitalism or switch to the peace and balance of a socialist order.[70]  As example of this thinking was in the radical reaction to the Wagner-Lewis and Townsend proposals to provide old age pensions.  For the radicals, the problem with both plans was that both plans ignored the fundamental injustice in society bred by capitalism.  Instead of stop-gap measures, the country needed to develop a more stable society — via Marxist principles.[71]

Abraham Epstein, secretary for the American Association for Social Security, criticized Roosevelt’s proposal by pointing out that the cost of the pensions was borne by the youngest workers and employers.  Thus, the cost of the measure would be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher prices that would inflate the currency.  Epstein also predicted that the pensions would become a political football. And Epstein pointed out that the pension system ignored workers of 55 - 65 whom lost the competition in the job market to younger men, but still too young themselves to benefit from the government pension[72]

Radical thinkers Stolberg and Vinton summarized the Left’s attitude toward the New Deal when they wrote:

There is nothing the New Deal has done so far that could not have been done better by an earthquake.  A first-rate earthquake, from coast to coast, could have reestablished scarcity much more effectively, and put all the survivors to work for the glory of Big Business — with far more speed and far less noise than the New Deal.[73]

 The critics from the political Right were no less vocal in their protests against both the theatre of the Left and the government.  In a letter to the New York Times, Louis Rodenbach complained, “. . . I, as one interested in the theatre, and as virtually interested in Americanism as the Left group is in communism, would certainly like to see a Right theatre become established in New York City and challenge the Left theatre for its leadership in political propaganda.”[74]  In the last two sentences of his letter, Rodenbach uses ‘American’ (or its derivatives) eight times.

The conservatives attacked Roosevelt for ruining the nation’s economy and for depriving the country of liberty. At the 59th Annual Lincoln Day dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria on the evening of Feb. 12, 1935, ex-president Herbert Hoover charged that the New Deal was responsible for the eventual destruction of the nation because “. . . whatever violates, infringes or abrogates fundamentals American liberty violates the life principles of America as a nation.”[75]  At another occasion the Liberty League bluntly stated, “The New Deal has prostituted the taxing power under the Constitution to accomplish social and economic ends remote from the raising of revenue. . . “[76]

By September, Mrs. Robert Bacon, the vice-chair of the Republican State Committee of New York, listed six cabinet and cabinet-level members of the Roosevelt administration as “. . . contributors to one or more communistic or socialistic groups.”[77]  Late in 1935, conservative Howard Kershner gave the cleanest attack on Roosevelt and the New Deal. Kershner concluded 132 pages of raw vitriol with these words:

    By his persistent advocacy of :socialistic” experiments, his extravagant waste of money, his reckless expansion of public credit, his policy of inflation and tinkering with the currency, his bureaucracy, his catering to class hatred, his repudiation of promises and the loss of faith in government which his policies have caused — by all this and more, Mr. Roosevelt has endangered our entire heritage of political and economic freedom.  Such is THE MENACE OF ROOSEVELT AND HIS POLICIES.[78]

 The Roosevelt administration and the Group Theatre were out of favor with both the radicals and the conservatives because of a preferred course of moderation.  By the end of 1935, moderation had become viable again because the country had stabilized in many ways.  In the period between April 1935 and July 1936, employment and payrolls grew, industrial prices evened out, and there was a gain in the prices the farmers were able to get for their crops.[79]  The desire for vast experimentation decayed under improved circumstances.

The legacies of the New Deal and the Group Theatre found their way to the present day.  For example, Social Security has become a pillar of American society.  It has been considered political death to even tamper with that system.  The fundamental notion that the government should help provide regular services for social welfare is at the basis of the HeadStart program and MediCare and MedicAid.

The legacy of the Group lies in its members.  The Group found a method of performance that has influenced every American actor since the ‘30s.  Lee Strasberg’s work as a teacher has informed all actor training in this country. Strasberg, Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, Stella Adler, Bobby Lewis, and Sanford Meisner were the seminal American theatre teachers and directors in the 20th century.  To list the actors trained in the Group’s method — like Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward — is to list some of the more popular actors of the century.[80]

The lasting legacy and popularity of the Roosevelt administration and of the Group Theatre testifies to the popularity of moderation.  To be sure, the New Deal introduced new elements into American society, but these additions were only modestly liberal in nature.  The Roosevelt administration might have taken control of the banks and other major enterprises (the government had done so during war), but this did not happen. Likewise the Group Theatre could have used Waiting for Lefty as a platform with which to explore the boundaries of truly revolutionary drama in both form and content.  This did not happen either.

Government and theatre not only reflect the societies in which they exist, but lead and provoke those societies.  Governments are expected to provide leadership, particularly in times of crisis. Theatre has long been looked at as a means of education for adults, and therefore, at least, a molder of public opinion.  Yet even in these roles, the amount of leadership and agitation exists within the context of the society.  It is unlikely that a generally moderate society would countenance truly radical breaks with expected norms, even when being led.

America has experimented, but those experiments existed with an American framework that limited the extent to which the experiment could be taken.  The nation’s institutional framework was built to be essentially moderate — or to moderate extreme positions.  The diversity of opinion on all sides and the free expression of that opinion tends to bring the general society to the middle.

It has been recognized that democratic institutions provide the flexibility to ably deal with emergencies, by-passing self-destruction.  An example of this was the farmer unrest of ‘33.  Normally conservative forces could be turned revolutionary.  The flexibility of democracy, however, allowed the country to weather the storm. “In other countries where the distress was more acute and the democratic tradition less established, similar and often-repeated revolts have led to far more far-reaching changes, political as well as economic.”[81]

The checks and balances in the Constitution provide extra ballast for government to stay essentially moderate.  During 1935 the Supreme Court began to rule against some of the provisions of the New Deal. (This eventually led to Roosevelt’s “court packing” scheme in 1936.)  Elements like the Supreme Court and the conservative Democrats in the House and Senate balanced out more radical New Dealers.  An editorial in the New York Times recognized the moderating influences of checks and balances, “We have had within the past year several instances of the judicial power restraining and correcting the executive and legislative branches of the Government.”[82]

Along with Constitutional factors, often individuals were essentially trying to improve existing forms, not destroy or replace.  In his Annual Message to Congress on Jan. 4, 1935, Franklin Roosevelt spoke against excessive acquisition of wealth and implied an attack on the profit motive. He was aware of this implied attack, because he added, “No wise man has any intention of destroying what is known as the profit motive:  because by the profit motive we mean the right by work to earn a decent livelihood for ourselves and for our families.”[83]  Likewise, Clurman was quick to point out that the primary mission of the Group was artistic in nature.  Even within that art they would not venture into abstract experiments like Expressionism or Constructivism.  They modeled themselves on the moderate, stable MoscowArtTheatre.

In many instances the conflicts over the New Deal were brought upon by a general belief in democracy. Friction arose from a difference of the means to democracy in an increasingly industrial society.  James Rogers set the issue, but did not address it with quotes from the Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and labor leader John J. Lewis.  Ickes asked, in regard to New Deal opposition from the moneyed class, “Is the America that we shall pass on to our children to be an economic feudalism with the powerful liege lords of finance in control of our resources?”  And Lewis spoke about the complaints from the captains of industry about outside interference through regulation.  Lewis asked if the elected representatives of men who gave their lives making steel could be outsiders.  Or were the money men the outsiders?[84]

Lewis and Ickes gave voice to a tension present in American society down to the present.  The Founding Fathers established a government to organize the affairs of a largely agrarian society.  However, the growth of huge employer industrial conglomerates encroached on the say the worker had in his everyday life.  The industrial employers believed the New Deal regulations, taxes, and policies eroded their freedom to act as they chose.  The workers believed that employers had too much control over their everyday lives as well as the consumer products on which they depended.  Consequently labor expected government to curtail the abuses of big business.  Both groups expect freedom and liberty, but differ in the implication of their definitions and about the consequences of protecting those freedoms for themselves.

These conflicting notions about freedom also provided tension that helped moderate the Roosevelt administration.  Roosevelt had to protect employees and consumers from the excesses of big business, but without hindering the productive capacity of those businesses.

It may be concluded that the majority of people in the United States are essentially, in the main, moderate.  Certainly options have been available for the country to pursue actively. For example, Rauch pointed out that the United States stood alone in the early ‘30s as the only industrialized country in which there was not a strong fascist youth movement.[85]  In 1935-36, Alfred M. Bingham and the American Commonwealth Political Federation (a group of non-Marxist radicals) were unable to gather support for a third, more radical party to participate in the ‘36 elections.[86]

A democratic society literally votes for its preferred government.  A capitalist society with freedom of expression chooses its entertainments by buying tickets.  A government, by virtue of its length of term, may do unpopular things and weather the storm of antagonistic opinion.  Theatre is much more ephemeral and generally lives on a day-to-day basis. Thus the theater (and its related forms) is a good indicator of today’s thought — today’s society.  They are the “brief and abstract chronicles of the time.”  Harold Clurman thus stated the mission of the Group “. . . our interest in the life of our times must lead us to the discovery of those methods that would most truly convey this life through the theatre.”[87]

The work of Lee Strasberg with the Group led to his work at Actor’s Studio.  Paul Newman said a few years ago that the Actor’s Studio gave American actors a basic form.[88]  That form is an individualized, personalized portrayal of an actor as a character. This is the hallmark of the American character.  Americans are marked by a desire for individual independence, freely expressing their feelings as part of a larger society.  Social tension arises out of the implications and consequences of those desires.

The United States has long wrestled with the tension between liberty and freedom of expression and responsibility to larger society.  In the course of wrestling with that tension, a wide array of opinion is expressed.  The radical elements on both sides of an issue may go to great lengths to express themselves — including physical violence.  However, in the end, the general society tends toward a path of moderation.  Because of their essential moderation, the New Deal and the Group have left an indelible mark on American society.

[1] Clifford Odets, “Paradise Lost,” Six Plays of Clifford Odets (New York:  Random House, 1963), p. 230.

[2] Harold Clurman, The Fervent Years (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975), p. 148.

[3] Hallie Flanagan, Arena:  The History of the Federal Theatre Project (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965), p. 65.

[4] Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Text of the President’s Speech to Congress,” New York Times 5 Jan. 1935, late ed.: p. 2.

[5] Basil Rauch, The History of the New Deal 1933-1938 (New York: Capricorn Books, 1944), p. 190.

[6] Franklin D. Roosevelt, The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt:  Volume IV (New York:  Random House, 1938), p. 357.

[7] Rauch, p. 8.

[8] Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal:  Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 215 - 16. More anecdotal evidence is presented throughout pp. 214 - 17.

[9] William E. Leuchtenburg, The Perils of Prosperity 1914-1932 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 252.

[10] Caroline Bird, “The Nation Confronts the Great Depression,”  The Social Fabric:  American Life from the Civil War to the Present, ed. John H. Cary and Julius Weiberg (Boston:  Little, Brown and Company, 1981), p. 247.

[11] Leuchtenburg, pp. 259 - 60.

[12] Leuchtenburg, pp. 254, 257.

[13] Cohen, p. 230.  For the full account see pp. 230-34.

[14] Franklin D. Roosevelt, The Public and Personal Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt:  Volume I (New York:  Random House, 1938), pp. 645 - 46.

[15] Rauch, p. 36.

[16] Rauch, p. 38.

[17] Arthur Schlesinger, The Age of Roosevelt:  The Politics of Upheaval (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1960), p. 422.  The whole story of the election is told in pp. 409-23.

[18] Cohen, p. 260.

[19] A contemporary commentator crowed, “Then came the overwhelming, unprecedented endorsement of the administration in an election . . . — a majority greater than any party had had for decades. Here, if ever, was a popular mandate to a President to carry forward his program and to insist upon its fulfillment by his party.”  Anon.  Guilty!  The Confession of Franklin D. Roosevelt (New York:  Doubleday, 1936), p. 57.

[20] F.D.R. in a letter to John Nance Garner dated Nov. 13, 1934.  Franklin D. Roosevelt, F.D.R.:  His Personal Letters 1928-1945.  ed. Elliot Roosevelt (New York:  Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1950), p. 430.

[21] Roosevelt, “Text/Message,” p. 2.

[22] Rauch, p. 190.

[23] The lengthy story of the decline of ‘road’ shows and the emergence of New York as the center of production is detailed in Jack Poggi, Theater in America:  The Impact of Economic Forces.  1870-1967 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968).  The particular reference here is from p. 11.

[24] Barrett H. Clark, and George Freedley, eds., A History of Modern Drama (New York:  D. Appleton - Century, 1947), p. 668.

[25] Clark and Freedley, p. 733.

[26] Clark and Freedley, pp. 713 - 14.

[27] Clark and Freedley, p. 720.

[28] Brooks Atkinson, “Fiddling at Old Tunes,” New York Times 17 March 1935, late ed., sec. 8: p.1.

[29] Burns Mantle, ed., The Best Plays of 1935-36 and the Yearbook of the Drama in America (New York:  Dodd, Mead and Company, 1936), p. 3.

[30] Richard H. Pells, Radical Visions and American Dreams:  Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years (New York:  Harper and Row, 1973), p. 258.

[31] Clurman, p. 34.

[32] Clurman, p. 43.

[33] Clurman, p. 50.

[34] Clurman, p. 65.

[35] Clurman, p. 93.

[36] Clurman, p. 176.

[37] Brooks Atkinson, “‘Waiting for Lefty’ and a Program of Sketches and Improvisations by the Group Theatre,” New York Times 11 Feb. 1935, late ed.: p. 14.

[38] Bosley Crowther, “Theatre of the Left,”  New York Times 14 Apr. 1935, late ed., sec 9: p. 1.

[39] Crowther, p. 1.

[40] Odets, Clifford, “Waiting for Lefty,” Six Plays of Clifford Odets (New York:  Random House, 1963), p. 5.

[41] Odets, “Lefty,” p. 31.

[42] “Author Protests Play Ban,” New York Times 10 Aug. 1935, late ed.: p. 15.

[43] Brooks Atkinson, “‘Waiting for Lefty’ and ‘Till the Day I Die,’ a Double Bill by Clifford Odets,” New York Times 27 March 1935, late ed.: p. 24.

[44] George John Nathan, The Theatre of the Moment: A Journalistic Commentary (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936), p. 226.

[45] Crowther, p. 1.

[46] Harry Goldman, and Mel Gordon, “A Worker’s Theatre in America:  A Survey 1913 - 1978,” Journal of American Culture 1 (1979): pp. 171 - 73.

[47] Goldman, and Gordon, pp. 171 - 73.

[48] “Actors Arrested in Store Picketing,” New York Times 10 Feb. 1935, late ed.: 17.

[49] Burns Mantle, ed., The Best Plays of 1934-35 and the Yearbook of the Drama in America (New York:  Dodd, Mead and Company, 1935), pp. 15 - 6.

[50] Bertolt Brecht, Die Mutter (The Mother), Trans. Lee Baxandall, (New York: Grove Press, 1965), pp. 42 - 43.

[51]Brecht, Mutter, p. 131.

[52] Brecht,Mutter, pp. 133, 137, 138-9.

[53] Lee Baxandall, Introduction, Die Mutter (New York:  Grove Press, 1965), pp. 30 - 31.

[54] Klaus Volker, Brecht:  A Biography, Trans. John Nowell (New York:  Seabury Press, 1978), p. 218.

[55] Volker, p. 219.  The story is corroborated in James K. Lyon, Bertolt Brecht in America (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1982), pp. 8 - 12.  See particularly p. 10.

[56] Volker, pp. 216 - 17.

[57] Pells adds the criticism that Workers’ Theatre assumed that the audience had the intelligence of a 12-year old. (p. 254) This is not entirely true.  Pells, hardly an authority in dramatic or theatre history, does not take into account that the agitprop theatre of the ‘30s largely descended from German expressionism and Russian constructivism, both of which are ‘stripped-down’ forms.  Consequently, agitprop may seem childish instead of simple, as intended.

[58] Lyon, pp. 12 - 14.  Pells writes at some length about this document in pp. 254 - 256.

[59] Nathan, p. 274.

[60] Walter Lippmann, Interpretations 1933 - 35 (New York:  Macmillan, 1936), p. 295.

[61] Schlesinger, p. 443.

[62] Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Text of Roosevelt’s Call to Young Democrats for New Deal,” New York Times 25 Aug. 1935, late ed.:  p. 30.

[63] Roosevelt, Public . . . Volume IV, pp. 406, 409.

[64] Odets, “Paradise Lost,” p. 167.

[65] Odets, “Paradise Lost,” p. 166.

[66] Odets, “Paradise Lost,” p. 168.

[67] Odets, “Paradise Lost,” p. 223.

[68] Clark, p. 726.

[69] Karen Malpede Taylor, People’s Theater in Amerika (New York:  Drama Book, 1972), p. 129.

[70] Henry W. Laidler, A Program for Modern America (New York:  Thomas Y. Crowell, 1936), p. 418.

[71] Laidler, p. 111.

[72] Laidler, pp. 104-05.

[73] Stolberg, Benjamin, and Warren Jay Vinton, The Economic New Deal (New York:  Harcourt, Brace, 1935), p. 85.  The notion of destroying all the old society is a regular feature of radical thought. Earl Browder, chairman of the American Communist Party begins his article on a glimpse at Soviet America with the death of the old way of life.  Earl Browder, “What Is Communism?  A Glimpse at Soviet America,”  New Masses 16 (July 9, 1935):  p. 9.

[74] Louis Rodenbach, Letter, New York Times 24 March 1935, late ed., sec. 8: p.2.

[75] “Hoover Denounces Curbs on Liberty,” New York Times 13 Feb. 1935, late ed.: p. 1.

[76] James Harvey Rogers, Capitalism in Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1938).

[77] “Women Open Drive to Rout New Deal,” New York Times 17 Sept. 1935, late ed.: p. 18.

[78] Howard Eldred Kershner, The Menace of Roosevelt and His Policies (New York: Greenberg, 1936), p. 132.

[79] Rauch, p. 207.

[80] The full details of the influence of the Actor’s Studio can be found in Foster Hirsch, A Method to Their Madness, (New York, De Capo, 1984).

[81] Rogers, p. 5.

[82] “Overdoing It,” New York Times 18 Sept. 1935, late ed.: p. 22.

[83] Roosevelt, “Speech to Congress,” p. 2.

[84] Rogers, pp. 106, 111.

[85] Rauch, p. 170.

[86] Donald Miller, The New American Radicalism (Port Washington, NY.: Kennikat Press, 1979), pp. 127-32.

[87] Clurman, p. 34.

[88] “The Actor’s Studio,” narr. Paul Newman, American Masters, PBS, New York, 8 July 1991.


©2008 Nathan Thomas
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a senior writer and columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


Scene4 Magazine-inView

february 2008

Scene4 Magazine-International Magazine of Arts and Media
This Issue
Cover | This Issue | inFocus | inView | reView | inSight | Blogs | New Tech | Links | Masthead Submissions | Advertising | Special Issues | Subscribe | Privacy | Terms | Contact | Archives

Search This Issue Email This Page

RSS FeedRSS Feed

Scene4 (ISSN 1932-3603), published monthly by Scene4 Magazine - International Magazine of Arts and Media. Copyright © 2000-2008 AVIAR-DKA LTD - AVIAR MEDIA LLC. All rights reserved.