The Cradle Will Rock is one of American Theater’s most storied legacies. Its 1937 debut was a controversial and sensational event that galvanized the New Yorktheater community, made national headlines and was a crucial event in the rapidly growing legend of its director 22-year-old Orson Welles.
The political climate that year, fueled by the Great Depression, was tumultuous. It was a period of intense labor strife in the battle for worker unionization. Steel strikes in many U.S.cities had resulted in violent confrontations with police and strikers involving many deaths.
Marc Blitzstein’s opera which champions the radical labor movement and unionization was virtually “torn from today’s headlines.” This made it a daring choice for Project 891—a producing company of the Federal Theater Project (FTP).
The FTP, funded by the U.S.government as a part of the WPA, a cornerstone of FDR’s New Deal, remains the closest the U.S.has ever been to having a National Theater. Thousands of theater artists were employed nationwide to bring exciting entertaining productions to the masses at bargain prices.
Two of the most illustrious beneficiaries of the FTP were the producing-directing team of John Houseman and Welles.
Cradle was to be the fourth production for Project 891 with a well-designed and extravagant set for a grand scale production.
As the opening night of June 16 drew nearer WashingtonD.C.began to get nervous. The volatile labor situation, coupled with the show’s theme caused the FTP leaders to issue a memo on June 12 sent to all project heads prohibiting, for budgetary reasons, the opening of any cultural event before July.
Although not specifically directed at 891, Welles and Houseman felt they had been the impetus for this sudden shift and refused to obey the edict. Plans for the show’s opening continued.
On June 15 federal officers padlocked the theater and confiscated costumes and scenery. The musicians union affiliated with the AFL regarded Cradle as CIO propaganda and would not permit its members to work the show. The actors were enjoined by Equity from appearing on stage in this production.
Opening night was already a sellout and in direct defiance of these obstacles Houseman promised there would be a performance. After a frantic search for an available theater the Venicewas secured.
Welles led the audience in a procession of nearly 1,000 audience members the 20 blocks through the city of New Yorkto the Venice. The edict forbade them to perform on the stage so Welles directed the actors to do so from the aisles, the balcony, boxes and orchestra seats.
Blitzstein who was prepared to do the entire show himself sitting at his piano was joined by Olive Stanton at her cue to sing. The rest of the cast joined her and the show was an overwhelming triumph.
In subsequent performances Welles abandoned his original set design and the actors performed seated on chairs oratorio-style with no musical accompaniment other than Blitzstein and his piano.
The Blank Theatre Company presents a new production of The Cradle Will Rock beginning Saturday, February 12, 2011.
References: Free Adult Uncensored (1978), The Theater of Orson Welles (1977), Orson Welles The Road to Xanadu (1995) Caltech Q&A with John Houseman 1983, Dan Bullard.
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