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MARC BLITZSTEIN wrote The Cradle Will Rock in 1937 as a radical "play in music" rather than a musical. The play is a theatrical examination of who controls American society. Since the American power structure hasn't changed much in 30 years, the current production at the Loeb Ex is still a relevant and exciting piece of theatre.
The play takes place in a night court in Steeltown. U.S.A Flashbacks by the prisoners depict the iron grip which Mister, evil capitalist owner of the steel mill, has over every aspect of the town.
Along with Mister, Blitzstein indicts the men who prostitute their integrity for his benediction, favors, and, primarily, his money. These include the local preacher. the local newspaper editor, the president and faculty members of the university and even the artists and musicians.
The play is dated only by the use of labor unionism as a controversial topic. The rest of the play is surprisingly timely.
In fact. one of the major weaknesses of the current production is the attempt to modernize a piece which is already so applicable to the present. In Blitzstein's original. Mister. "Number-one-home-snatcher," builds a swimming pool, a park. and a library to justify some shady real estate dealings. In the Loeb production. the swimming pool and the park become a research hospital and a gymnasium. One feels insulted. It's like having the punch line of a joke explained.
A song in the original entitled "Croon-Spoon" becomes "Moon. . ." Director Leonard Lehrman sacrifices a certain amount of cohesiveness in trying to tell us that the play hasn't lost its relevance. The moon reference puts a date on a play which shouldn't be dated.
Paula Hajar as the streetwalker and Peter Cignetti (in two roles) as the cop and as a phys. ed. professor give outstanding performances. but some of the other acting jobs reminded me of high school variety show productions. Lehrman did, however, use the relatively sparse facilities of the Ex effectively.
I KNOW this is a radical thing to say, and you're not supposed to say radical things, but who runs the city of Boston? Is it the tenants or the landlords? Who decides what happens to the air in every city in America? The people who breathe it or the gas companies and the owners of Standard Oil? Somehow, on the critical matters, the men of wealth and power and privilege in America make the decisions of life and death for everyone else. The program notes reprinted this quote from Howard Zinn's Moratorium Day speech and the play gives the answer.
Yes, the cradle will rock and hopefully the bough will break, explains Larry Foreman, a union organizer in the play. But Blitzstein never quite answers that question we've all been wondering about: how do we break the bough?
Corporations buy off the newspapers and the universities and the arts need private money to sustain themselves and the church needs those contributions and the people who have the money are screwing those who don't and you're convinced. Now all you need is direction for the fight and Blitzstein doesn't provide that. He just makes you angry.
WHEN THIS PLAY was first written as part of a government-funded WPA program to support artists, the Washington powers-that-be cut off funds for the performance. The theatre scheduled for the opening night performance was sealed to the audience and actors. While the audience stood outside the theatre, a member of the cast found another unoccupied theatre and the play was presented there.
The Cradle Will Rock was a hard play to kill. The need still exists for people to wrest control of their lives from the governments and businesses and the men who pander themselves to money and power. This Saturday, the memory of men like Blitzstein will be honored. "One day when everybody gets together" says Larry Foreman in the final scene.
President Prexy sounds just like Pusey and Kirk and Johnson. The newspaper editor talks just like the established liberal newspapers we're all getting sick of reading. And the cops and the courts are the same cops and courts who are producing the circuses in Chicago and Cambridge.
The current production's attempts at updating the play do at times make the comparisons seem a little forced, but Blitzstein's original is too strong for this to be a serious drawback.
PART OF THE attraction of rock music is hearing what we feel said in a mass way and in a different way. Hearing it sung out makes it stronger and more universal. Songs always strengthen movements.
When Larry Foreman refuses to sell out. he sings about how we're going to get together and rock the cradle.
The last time The Cradle Will Rock was produced at Harvard in 1938, and Leonard Bernstein directed it. After the 30's, radical theatre in America was dormant until very recently. A revival of this fine piece serves to remind us how politically powerful good theatre can be.
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