Local Heroes

Crude Can Be Good—If It’s Subtle Enough

Hard to guess which is more significant, the lineage or the ironies. But let's do the lineage first—the ironies will tumble out anyway. In late 1935, while Bertolt Brecht was in New York for the Theatre Union's production of his Gorky adaptation, The Mother, he met the young composer Marc Blitzstein, who played him a newly composed song, "The Nickel Under the Foot," the economic plaint of a prostitute during the Depression. Praising the song, Brecht suggested that Blitzstein expand it into a theater piece showing the many varieties of economic prostitution of those above the streetwalker in status. The result was The Cradle Will Rock, which Blitzstein dedicated to Brecht.

To Brecht and not to Weill, for the first irony is that the work's highly Weillian score came from a composer who had initially been dubious about Weill's musical tactics. (Seeing the original production of Threepenny Opera in Berlin, Blitzstein had given the score a mixed review—unaware that he would ultimately be better known as its translator than as a composer in his own right.) But all artists understand that what annoys you is often what most influences you: By 1938, a decade after being troubled by Threepenny, Blitzstein had thoroughly absorbed its qualities. (He had also—another irony—become friendly with the newly emigrated Weills: One of Lotte Lenya's first American jobs was in Blitzstein's radio opera, I've Got the Tune.) The score of The Cradle Will Rock uses classical-music strategies to give American pop genres a "Brechtian" self-awareness, very much in the vein of Weill's German theater music—an approach that Weill himself, in a further ironic twist, mostly abandoned in his own American scores, in favor of what might be called transcendence from within.

In Cradle and other works of its period, Blitzstein put his classical tactics at the service of a "democratizing" radical-left politics. Completely accessible to an untrained audience, and occasionally even a little crude, The Cradle Will Rock is at the same time a complex web of subtleties; the dynamic tension between simple results and complex means is what gives it the strength to survive. It always has a fresh ring, while most of the political art of its time—including some of Brecht's—seems increasingly chintzy and quaint. The work's nominal subject, for instance, is unionizing. It's a piece of propaganda in favor of unions (closed-shop unions, at that), written when big corporations, many of them still run by individual millionaire owners, tended to view all labor organizing as a socialist encroachment on their property, battling it with company unions, smear campaigns, lockouts, scabs, hired thugs, and rifles, the last sometimes provided by police or National Guard regiments when the owners had the local government's ear.

Angela Madden (Mrs. Mister) and Jolie L. Garrett (Dauber) in Cradle Will Rock: unpatronizing art
photo: Gerry Goodstein
Angela Madden (Mrs. Mister) and Jolie L. Garrett (Dauber) in Cradle Will Rock: unpatronizing art

If you omit the rifles, the whole list came back with the Reaganite union-busting of the 1980s, and is still with us, as stories in the front section of this paper testify with dismaying regularity. Blitzstein's libretto, which chronicles the struggle of "Larry Foreman" and his fellow workers to start a union in "Steeltown, U.S.A.," covers them all, and few spectators with any experience of work or management would deny their truth. They're not what we see onstage, however: Blitzstein answered Brecht's request with a piece that describes, instead, why a sympathetic and intelligent professional middle class would prostitute itself to anti-unionism. In his caustic metaphor, capitalism is the omnipowerful "Mr. Mister," a cartoon figure who owns everything in Steeltown, and doesn't propose to give his employees any reasonable share thereof.

As part of the respectable smoke screen concealing his nastier anti-union activities (like having workers who lead the organizing shoved into ladles of molten steel), Mr. Mister commandeers prominent figures in the arts and professions to join his "Liberty Committee," to issue public declarations about the deleterious effect of labor unions on the community. Sardonically, Blitzstein imagines these haughty folk getting mistaken for workers and arrested, so that they end up together in the night court where his drama takes place—along with the chief union organizer, one unlucky hooker, and the town drunk. While the unionizing action takes place offstage, where the town square is flooded with waiting steelworkers and their families, the muck-a-mucks are trapped in court till Mr. Mister comes to bail them out. Meantime, their stories get played out one by one in flashback for the benefit of the streetwalker, who's new in town, with the drunk (a respectable shopkeeper before he, too, got caught up in anti-union activity) and Larry Foreman emceeing the entertainment. Each is shown to be dependent on Mr. Mister's money, always accompanied by pressure to do something that particularly humiliates the recipient.

All of which would be crude, however true, if Blitzstein didn't marshal an astonishing—and astonishingly witty—variety of musical means for dramatizing the same old story a dozen different ways. Each scene is based on a different popular song form, each form is employed to make a different kind of comment on the action. Sometimes the song form subverts the scene, as when the newspaper editor is compelled to get Mr. Mister's kids out of trouble to an inane fake-Hawaiian number; sometimes the form itself is subverted. For instance, Reverend Salvation is shown preaching three sermons during World War I, changing his view of the war each time for the sake of the steel trust, at the behest of Mrs. Mister's increasingly large contributions. His three sermons are variations on a Bach chorale: the first, against all war, simple and serene; the second, advocating an uncomfortable neutrality with an anti-German tilt, chromatically convoluted and manic; the third, pro-war, a manic Turkey Trot, in which the Reverend's function is usurped by Mrs. Mister. (The chapter on Blitzstein in Wilfred Mellers's Music in a New Found Land describes more of Cradle's musicological ploys.) Even the one all-spoken scene (cut in some productions), in which University President Prexy and his faculty grovel to Mr. Mister's demand for extended military training, is a backhanded musical joke: These dry-as-dust characters have no music in them, an absence pointed up by their entrance and exit music, a quodlibet of the rousing college songs whose spirit they've betrayed.

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