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AMERICAN COMPOSER Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 The Cradle Will Rock was a product of the Depression and yet it resonates with today’s less than tranquil times. Originally part of the government’s Works Progress Administration Federal Theatre Project, this musical production was a target of U.S. Congressional conservatives who blocked its debut by closing down the FTP entirely.
Nevertheless, in the Broadway tradition, “the show must go on.” And, in fact, its innovative production became itself a statement of protest. It’s quite the tale of arts confronting politics.
The Cradle Will Rock is an allegory of corporate greed, corruption, and the evolving strength of unions. It’s also the first original cast album ever to be recorded.
Setting the Stage. Labor unrest was not new to the U.S. in the 1930s. Wikipedia cites a 1969 study that claims the country had the most violent labor history of any industrial nation in the world. Wikipedia lists more than 100 deadly encounters between 1850 and 1959, 21 of them in 1935–1937 in which 44 workers perished at the hands of often overzealous police.
The Memorial Day Massacre, May 30, 1937, at South Chicago’s Republic Steel plant was especially murderous: Ten unarmed protestors lost their lives, several of whom were shot in the back; nine others were permanently disabled and another 28 had head injuries from police clubbings.
A Coroner’s Jury at the time ruled the killings “justifiable homicide.” According to the Christian Science Monitor, June 17, 1937, a Paramount film newsreel of the event demonstrated that the massacre was a police riot. The newsreel was suppressed to avoid mass hysteria. In 1997, this film was recognized as culturally significant by the U.S. Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Blitzstein, openly gay, knew controversy, both personal and political. He was caught up in the 1930s’ utopian claims of communism and the 1950s’ Red Scare. Blitzstein admitted his U.S. Communist Party membership ended in 1949, refused to cooperate further, and challenged the legitimacy of the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1964, he died on the island of Martinique, murdered by three sailors he had met in a bar.
Tomorrow, we’ll examine Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, its Federal Theatre Project production directed by Orson Welles, and the ensuing complications of arts encountering politics. In this instance, we learn, arts were to win. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018