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The Cradle Will Rock

Part I: Theatres of Necessity

Cripple Creek Theater has begun a new-ish dramatic series titled the Civilian Theatre Project. It’s a socio-political blend of theatre that takes its cue from the Great Depression.


What’s the Great Depression have to do with theater? A lot. The thirties were, first of all, an incubator for the dramatic, from the world theater of fascists and Nazis to the dystopian shantytowns that sprung up on Seattle’s tidal flats, in an empty reservoir in Central Park, and all along the Mississippi. In New Orleans, according to author Rich Cohen, the Hoovervilles were “structures were made of driftwood that came down the river. Hoboes fished out the scrap and lashed it into shelters. It grew by accretion, a monument of ingenuity, a chaos of rafts and skiffs that lined the river from Thalia Street all the way to Carrollton.”


But besides the real-life drama, President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration decided that the theater would be a good tool to fight unemployment. The WPA created the Federal Theatre Project, which employed around 12,700 people at its height  It was a height that fostered edgy productions on shoestring budgets that turned millions of Americans into theatregoers and eventually gained the unwanted attention of Congress.


As Cripple Creek prepares its August showing one of the most controversial Federal Theatre plays, The Cradle Will Rock, we’ll have a look at the tragic circumstances that informed the play, as well as the paranoia and politics that led to the company’s headline-grabbing eviction from their 39th Street theatre in 1937.


As Cripple Creek co-founder Andrew Vaught wrote in a previous edition of this series, Cradle is “a satirical comic opera” that “explores the notion of prostitution from the street to the pulpit to the paper.” Set in Steeltown, USA, a cast of complacent middle-class characters watches as steel workers attempt to organize against the tyrannical company owner, Mister Mister.


While the original play was being rehearsed and Orson Welles designed his elaborate, mechanical glass-bottomed cradle (which would allow the entire stage to rock back and forth), real-life labor struggles swept across America.  “There were more strikes in 1937 than in any previous year in American history,” writes Susan Quinn in her chronicle of The Federal Theatre, Furious Improvisation. Many of them turned violent.


On May 26 of that year, a wrestler, two boxers, and a ganglord associated with the Ford Motor Company beat nine men and seven women who had been passing out union handbills at the gates of the Ford Rouge Plant in Detroit.


A day later, 7,000 actors from the Federal Theatre Project, including the entire cast of The Cradle Will Rock, stopped work to protest news of WPA budget cuts that would drop 1,701 workers from the rolls.


And on May 30th, 78 years ago tomorrow, more than a thousand strikers and their families marched across a grassy field towards the gates of Republic Steel in South Chicago to establish a picket line. A photographer captured the ensuing violence as hundreds of Chicago Police stood in the way of the demonstrators, and a projectile was thrown from the mob. The police fired tear gas, followed by the live bullets, which killed ten protesters. Some were shot in the back; one hundred more were injured in what has come to be known as the Memorial Day Massacre. Police suffered 40 injuries.


In the midst of these social explosions, The Cradle Will Rock team feared government censorship at the hands of their WPA administrators. An increasingly conservative Congress had been looking for reasons to tighten the government’s purse strings. The Federal Theatre Project was a very visible target, and Cradle was shaping up to become a lightning rod.


Cripple Creek probably won’t have such a storm of labor controversy to fan the flames of their late-summer production at the Marigny Opera House. Large work stoppages have declined to some of their lowest levels on record. But in February of this year,  workers in Norco and Convent joined the largest nationwide oil refinery strike in 30+ years.  They picketed for close to a month with the United Steelworkers union - formed in 1936 and the exact subject of the 1937 drama in Chicago and The Cradle Will Rock -  demanding reforms to improve safety. They won an agreement in March that USW says will improve chronic understaffing that causes accidents.


Stay tuned to Nola Defender to find out the eventual fate of The Cradle Will Rock and the Federal Theatre Project in Part II of this article. 

This article is part of a series exploring the depression and the arts develope as part of Cripple Creek Theatre Company’s Civilian Theatre Project.

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Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Alexis Manrodt, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde


Art Director

Michael Weber, B.A.


Listings Editor

Linzi Falk

Editor Emeritus

Alexis Manrodt

B. E. Mintz

Stephen Babcock

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