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The Cradle Will Rock

Part II: The Show Must Go On

In 1937, the Great Depression raged and unions began to rise. Amdist an atmosphere of anxiety and unrest, The Cradle Will Rock was rehearsed. Part I of this series expains that background. In this installment, we pick up after the Memorial Day Massacre.

When a telegram from Washington came on June 11, the company assumed their fears had come true. Bureaucrats ordered that the show - and all other openings for Federal Theatre Project performances - be postponed until the new fiscal year. The WPA hired guards to lock the doors of the Maxine Elliott Theatre on 39th street. Costume, props, and Orson Welles’ scenery were also guarded. Cradle’s opening had been set for June 16, and the company was livid.


They met in a basement powder room of the Elliott and ultimately decided to rent another run-down theatre and host a stripped-down version of the play, trumped up for the press as a renegade performance against government censorship. But, Susan Quinn writes in her account of the debacle, “Ironically enough, the second major obstacle to an unauthorized opening came from the unions.” Neither the musicians’ union nor the actors’ union would allow a performance that could violate the agreement they had reached with the federal government.


The resulting move was to the trashy Venice theater with a single piano on stage, a spotlight on the balcony, and a faded backdrop of The Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius erupting in the distance. Word got around, and people filled the seats and spilled into the aisles, a mild chaos as the run-down theater lacked ticket-takers and ushers. Notably, the first two rows had been reserved for the actors, who would hopefully stand up in slight defiance of their unions and recite their lines from their seats.


No one knew which actors would show, so Marc Blitzstein, who’d written the opera, sat alone at the piano on stage, “looking pale and worried,” hoping to God that he wouldn’t have to perform the whole musical on his own.


But from somewhere high up in the balconies, the sound of an accordion echoed down and joined his piano. Ultimately, all but a few actors popped up from various places in the massive theater to deliver their lines. “The audience seethed with excitement,” Blitztein wrote afterwards, because they wondered which actors would show and from where they would appear in the theater.


“The next morning,” Quinn writes, “a huge headline in the Times announced that the mayor of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was asking Roosevelt to intervene in the steel strike and ‘remove the murderous element.’  A third of the way down the front page, another headline announced: STEEL STRIKE OPERA IS PUT OFF BY WPA: MANY AMONG 600 GATHERED FOR PREVIEW CHARGE CENSORSHIP.”


The Cradle Will Rock was experimental theater pushed to strange new forms by the agony of the times and the boldness to look at it head on. It was wildly successful, as were many of the performances of the Federal Theatre Project, which brought theatre to 30 million spectators in 40 states, some for the first time ever. 


The Cradle Will Rock was one of many performances that helped land the Project in the hot seat with Congress. After the infamous circus known of the House Un-American Committee, the Project was deemed “a cesspool of un-Americanism” for using the Lord’s name in vain, race-mixing, bias, and communist-incubating.


Hallie Flanagan, director of the Federal Theatre Project, later wrote “[Congressmen] were afraid of the Federal Theatre because it was educating the people of its vast new audience to know more about government and politics and such vital issues of the day as housing, power, agriculture, and labor. They were afraid, and rightly so, of thinking people.”


There may no longer be a driftwood shantytown snaking the banks of the Mississippi, but depression-esque tent cities still line the underpasses, and the neutral grounds have worn to dirt under the feet of the homeless. With the Civilian Theater Project, Cripple Creek Theatre wants to use these images to make more thinking people in New Orleans. The company has raised enough money to produce The Cradle Will Rock in August for no admission costs to audience members.


This Tuesday, June 2, Another free showing in the Project’s series comes with a “Living Newspaper” performance, a form pioneered by the Federal Theatre Project. Cripple Creek has partnered with the Greater New Orleans Foundation to show The Cost of Being Poor. “Our actors have created a play that captures the plight of the working poor,” said Andrew Vaught. They’ll share the stage Tuesday with Gary Rivlin, author of Broke USA, who will highlight the poverty economics of payday lenders, subprime creditors, and other predatory markets that are “collecting tens of millions of dollars a year off the exorbitant fees and interest rates they’re charging people living on the economic edge,” says Rivlin. “Never has it cost so much to live below the poverty line.”

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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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