Saturday, April 25, 2009

Labor and Theater: Wha'ppen?

The article I wrote for The American Prospect on labor and theater in America -- and the overall lack of cultural juice that unions have had over the past 30 years -- is finally up on the magazine's website.

I got the idea to write from a new selection of plays published this month by Cornell University Press called Staged Action: Six Plays from the American Workers' Theatre. The collection is edited by Lee Papa, an assistant professor of drama studies at College of Staten Island/CUNY, and it really is a terrific window into an often ignored corner of America's artistic life.

As I note in the article, Papa opted not to include better known labor plays such as Waiting for Lefty and The Cradle Will Rock (which served as the focal point of Tim Robbins' 1999 film of almost the same name), preferring instead to excavate two plays from college labor movement, two plays from the International Ladies Garments Workers Union (including the phenomenally satiric and successful Broadway revue, Pins and Needles -- which a few colleagues have pointed out was recorded in 1962 after a Broadway revival with a cast including Barbra Streisand) and two plays from the stormy discontent of the 1920s labor movement, including a long dream play about a hunger striking labor organizer by Upton Sinclair.

The limits of word count did not let me unpack these plays as much as I would have liked, but I do think that the book is definitely worth picking up -- especially for John Howard Lawson's 1925 play Processional (poster on left from LOC). While the poster hypes the works as "The First Modern American Play" (and Eugene O'Neill might beg to differ with that), Processional is an astonishingly audacious but curious piece of work that stretches out a broad American canvas of labor, flappers, the Klan, jazz, big business, journalism and every ethnic stereotype in the book and let then lets those forces slug it out . (Genre also takes a beating, as the play veers wildly from slapstick to tragedy to romance to agitprop.)

As I say in the Prospect article, Processional is undeniably flawed. But it clearly provided a bevy of ideas that have been worked into American theatre since that moment. It may not be the first "Modern American Play," but it definitely accelerated the tempo of modernity on the American stage -- and yoked low comedy and stark social critique in a way that hadn't happened before it.

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