Marc Blitzstein

"The Cradle Will Rock" rehersal, photo from George Mason Univ. SC&A
Elwes, Azaria, MacFadyen
Federal Theatre stagehands, photo from George Mason Univ. SC&A

Marc Blitzstein's "The Cradle Will Rock" was a strike play influenced by Clifford Odets ("Waiting for Lefty") and Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. He performed the play for Hallie Flanagan in early 1937 at a New York dinner party hosted by the composer Virgil Thomson, with guests John Houseman, who codirected Thomson's recent play "Four Saints in Three Acts" written by Gertrude Stein, and Orson Welles, and the actor Howard da Silva. Flanagan agreed to sponsor the play, Houseman to produce it, Welles to direct it. According to Welles concept, there would be a 28-piece orchestra and a 44-member chrorus and glass carts to move sets from scene to scene. On June 12, 1937, Flanagan was instructed by the Roosevelt administration that "because of cuts and re-organization, any new production scheduled to open before July 1, 1937, must be postponed." (Gustaitis p. 18) It was also a politically tense summer for the New Deal, with the successful sit-down strike against GM in the spring coordingated by the UAW and the CIO, and conservatives in Congress increasingly hostile to the New Deal. On June 14, Welles conducted a dress rehersal at the Maxine Elliot Theater in New York, the only time the play would ever be seen by anyone as it was originally intended. According to Houseman, ""After they had left, the lights were turned out and the doors of the theatre were locked. For us, they never reopened." Armed guards outside the theater prevented the 14,000 ticket-holders from entereing on the day of the scheduled premier, June 16. The Actors Equity union prohibited any union member from defying the order of the WPA closing the play.

What happened on July 16, 1937, was one of the most dramatic stories in theater history. Welles and Houseman found another theater 21 blocks uptown, the Venice, rented it for $100, and at 7:20 pm sent the truck circling the Maxine Elliott with a piano to the new venue where Marc Blitzstein would perform his play alone on a bare stage, if necessary. Together with cast and crew, the audience joined the trek to 59th and Seventh Avenue where at 9:00 pm Welles and Houseman stood on the stage to introduce the play, the curtains rose to reveal Marc Blitzstein in his shirtsleeves at his piano, illuminated by a single spotlight operated by Abe Feder. Blitzstein wrote later that "I could hear an enormous buzz of talk in the theater and when the curtains opened and I looked, I saw the place was jammed to the rafters. The side aisles were lined with cameramen and recorders. And there was I, alone on a bare stage, perched before the naked piano in my shirt sleeves, it being a hot night; myself, produced by John Houseman, directed by Orson Welles, lit by Abe Feder, and conducted by Lehman Engel, who had rushed home, got his winter overcoat, and returned to smuggle my orchestra score out of one theater and into another." When he began to play his first song, Olive Stanton began to sing her role as Moll from her seat in the audience. Houseman wrote, "It was almost impossible, at this distance in time, to convey the throat-catching, sickeningly exciting quality of that moment. There was no audience. There was instead a roomful of men and women as eager in the play as any actor. As singers rose in one part and another of the auditorium, the faces of these men and women made new and changing circles around them." (Gustaitis p. 20) Welles and Houseman would later claim that they told the cast to participate and thus create the illusion of spontaneity. The FTP decided to release the play as it was performed that night, and it played for two more weeks at the Venice to sold-out crowds. It went on a national tour, played on Broadway for 13 weeks starting in Jan. 1938, and became the first original-cast Broadway musical play to be recorded as a complete production, still available on a CD from the Pearl label. Blitzstein's work inspired a young Leonard Berstein to produce the play at Harvard.

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History Department | Filmnotes | revised 1/22/2000 by Schoenherr