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.
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.
Betrayal, in fact, is Cradle’s actual subject: overt in its climax, where Mr. Mister offers Larry Foreman a massive bribe to sell out the union; covert in the stories of the working professionals, each of whom gets the opportunity to resist Mr. Mister’s pressure, and doesn’t take it. Even Mr. Mister, in the scene with his doctor (who receives a plummy research grant for serving as the Liberty Committee’s chairman), gets a moment in which he can reject his soul-crushing ways and become his own best self. Though a Communist, Blitzstein was a knottily troubled one, like his inspirer Brecht, and no fool about the need for tension in drama. If capitalism had no chance to save itself, Cradle would be no play. Because the system always profits by the better impulse and follows the worse, it’s something like a musical tragedy instead: Larry Foreman’s imagined revolution never happens; instead we go through alternate phases of cushioning workers into the middle class, and then, when there’s a downturn, pulling the cushion away. The striking MOMA workers, who probably once thought of themselves as higher in status than the immigrant Chinese women locked in sweatshops, would recognize a lot of their compeers in The Cradle Will Rock, while the Chinese women—and any number of other exploited immigrant groups—could tell you all about Mr. Mister’s dubious transactions with Larry Foreman, who isn’t always so heroic in real life.
That Cradle should be produced by a non-Equity theater like the Jean Cocteau is quite in keeping with its paradoxical tradition: After all, its original staging at a government-subsidized theater was famously shut down under pressure from a right-wing Congress (has anything changed since 1938?); the work was rescued at the last minute by small-enterprise capitalism—of which the Cocteau, sustaining a permanent repertory company at subsistence level, is a contemporary equivalent. Thanks particularly to Charles Berigan’s strong musical direction, and stronger pianism, they catch the work’s gritty spirit, though David Fuller’s clodhopper staging lacks both clarity and cartoon panache, and some of the vocal execution is more like the death row kind. Among those exempted from that last category are Jolie L. Garrett’s Dauber, Tim Deak’s Editor Daily, Jason Crowl’s Larry Foreman, and—to my surprise—company doyen Craig Smith, whose lucidly acted Mr. Mister has an appealing cheese-grater sort of singing voice. I would have praised Elise Stone’s singing, too, in the two key roles of Moll and Ella Hammer, if I weren’t so put off by her obvious pleasure at having the show’s two hit songs, which seems to have erased from her mind any concern for their emotional content.