Chris Hedges’ wonderful book, The Death of the Liberal Class, reminds me of the political potential of great theater. What follows is mostly but not entirely word for word from the book. I don’t love typing, but it’s better to type what Hedges has to say than to read (and watch) the repackaged talking points pour out of political campaigns, government agencies and corporate public relations offices. Here’s Hedges:
During the New Deal, the Works Project Administration (WPA) established the Federal Theater Project. By the time the project was shut down four years after it began, its productions had played to more than 30 million people. Ticket prices were low. Money went to salaries for the actors, directors, designers…
It was perhaps the last potent counterweight to the propaganda state. They produced high quality works that spoke to ordinary lives and the misery that had engulfed the country… New plays, classical drama, modern drama, radio drama, puppet plays, Yiddish, Spanish, Italian, and German language theater, children’s theater, dance drama, musicals, religious drama, vaudeville, and circuses—hundreds of productions in every state of the union poured out of the project, It was the high point of American theater.
The productions—which took on factory owners, bankers, coal mine owners, government bureaucrats and industrialists—led to howls of protest from the power elite.
Orson Welles and John Houseman, who directed the Negro Theater Unit of the Federal Theater Project in Harlem, mounted a production called The Cradle Will Rock, a musical written by Marc Blitzstein—who would be blacklisted in the 1950s—set in “Steeltown, USA.” The musical followed the efforts of a worker, Larry Foreman, to unionize steel workers. His nemesis is the heartless industrialist Mr. Mister, who controlled the press, the church, the arts, the local university, politics, the community’s social organizations, and even the local doctor.
The Cradle Will Rock spared no one, from Mr. Mister’s philanthropic wife and spoiled children to Reverend Salvation, who used religion to bless war and capitalism, to the corrupt editor of the local paper, Editor Daily…
The Cradle Will Rock, like much of the popular work that came out of the Federal Theater Project, addressed the concerns of the working class rather than those of the power elite. It excoriated greed, corruption, the folly of war, the complicity of liberal institutions in protecting the power elite, and the abuses of capitalism. Mr. Mister ran the town like a private plantation.
The Cradle Will Rock needs reviving. How about Call Me Mike?
If you’re wondering about this image of Al Sharpton at the Wailing Wall, just take a look at this link to Mike! Wall Street’s Mayor: It really happened. As he did with so many others, Mike answered Sharpton’s prayer.
On the day Mike announced he would sign the bill overturning term limits, Sharpton’s National Action Network received $50,000 from a pot of money controlled by Joel Klein, then New York City School Chancellor. Sharpton told the New York Times, “I’m leaning toward those who advocate in favor of making changes in the law through a referendum. But I haven’t come to any final determination yet.”
A few days later, another $60,000 came in over the transom. Sharpton stopped leaning and said no more about term limits. Later, Sharpton said he never got any of Mike’s money: “not that I know of.
NOTE: Sharpton’s organization received seven-figure payments earlier in Mike’s mayoralty. The circumstances surrounding those payments–traced by good investigative reporters to Mike and his hedge fund colleagies–are described elsewhere in the book.