‘The Cradle Will Rock’

Tuesday, September 12, 2000

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded Sept. 12, 2000, in New York.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about the First Amendment, the arts, and America. I’m Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center. Joining us today to discuss a show with a legendary history of censorship are Craig Smith and Elise Stone, two cast members from the Jean Cocteau Rep production of “The Cradle Will Rock” at the Bowery Lane Theater; and David Fuller, creative director of the production. Welcome.

All:Thank you.

Paulson: Now, this is a show that peaked in 1937. It was at the height of its power. Why are you doing it today?

David Fuller: It’s funny, you know. Some people say that the cradle never did rock, but I kind of disagree with that in some ways. And I think that a lot of what Blitzstein had to say back then is still relevant today, whether it’s in this country or also in other parts of the world. So that’s really why we decided to do the piece.

Paulson: Now, the two of you are acting. Elise, in this performance, what is this play about? Why, why is it different from other things you may have done?

Elise Stone: Ooh, well, see, for me, aside from that, the play is very interesting within its historical context. For me, I think that the play really speaks to me because it’s really about the big guy exploiting the little guy and the little guy kind of standing up and saying, “Hey, if we all get together, we don’t have to be exploited in this way.” And, um, I don’t think that that issue has died since 1937. I think it’s still as relevant today, and that makes it very exciting.

Paulson: Craig, you play the bad guy.

Craig Smith: That’s right.

Paulson: Do you play it broader? Do you play —

Smith: Yeah, you know, I mean, he lends himself to a very kind of broad openness, very big style, almost caricature. The thing that is the real challenge is trying to find a kind of humanity under there, underneath that character. And it was difficult to find it, but I think that we did in kind of giving Mister Mister a bit of a more of a dimension so that you can see that he’s not just a total, total villain, that there is actually some reasoning behind what he does. And he doesn’t know what he’s doing is bad.

Paulson: Now, for those who have not seen the play or even the Tim Robbins film, which was about the making of the, of the play, we ought to step back. The reason this is so different is, it’s basically propaganda. It’s, it’s a very powerful, anti-big business, pro-union play produced by the Federal Theater Project. And can you talk a little bit about what the role of the Federal Theater Project was back in the ’30s?

Fuller: Well, in 1937, I think it was a part of the Works Progress Administration’s effort to employ people who were — needed employment. And one way was to get out-of-work actors to make a living. And so, the Federal Theater Project was born. Project 891, which was the unit that Orson Welles and John Houseman were running here in New York City, was the producing entity that did “The Cradle Will Rock.” They had done a lot of other shows. They had done a, a fascist version of “Julius Caesar,” for instance, which got a lot of notoriety. And, and when Marc Blitzstein brought this project to Orson Welles and John Houseman, and — they, they really liked it a lot. And I think it was, for a young Welles, somewhat of a, of a, of a way to say something to the Capitalists and the government of the time and all.

Paulson: A very young Orson Welles, like, 22 or 23 years old.

Fuller: Yeah.

Paulson: And, and this play was funded and ran into trouble somewhere along the line. It was a time of tremendous union unrest in the country. And there began to be speculation that perhaps they wouldn’t allow it to be shown at all.

Fuller: Right, I mean, some of the viewers might not understand that back in the late ’30s, union unrest was not just a big deal. It was a life and death deal. People were murdered by big business owners who were frightened of organized labor.

Paulson: What happened at the production? It was well on its way, and suddenly —

Fuller: Orson had this great idea. He had these — he had this, this set that was this — these glass wagons with, um, neon lights underneath. And there was supposed to be this huge event that I think had absolutely nothing to do with the piece. But it was going to be some sort of a spectacle. And the, the — there was unrest, and there were rumors that they were not going to get the funding. And finally, the night of the first performance, the theater, the Maxine Elliot, where the play was going to be produced, was locked. They weren’t allowed in. They sort of snuck in so they could get back to their office which was in the dressing rooms downstairs. And then they were frantic to find a theater. And this is a — this, this story, which is told very eloquently in one of John Houseman’s books, one of his autobiographies — they were looking for a theater. They were determined to put the play on. Someone was sent to find a piano. Ultimately, they found the Venice Theater, which was allegedly a rat-infested theater 20 blocks north on Broadway, um, around 57th Street, I think, actually, on Broadway. And the audience literally marched up Broadway and went into the Venice Theater. And I don’t think the show started till about 11:00 p.m., with Marc Blitzstein on stage. And Marc Blitzstein was there with the piano. He was fully intending to play the entire piece for the audience because the actors were forbidden by the Actors’ Equity from performing in this piece. And then the rest of the cast, who were in the audience, stood up, and they, and they performed the piece from the house. But it was quite an electrifying evening. And we had some people from our, our audience who were actually, actually were attending the first performance.

Smith: That first performance, that’s right. They did the whole march up the street and everything.

Fuller: Yeah, it was really good.

Paulson: It’s extraordinary and one of the most electrifying nights in theater where the government is saying “You can’t put this on.” And the people go and put the show on themselves, and one of the — and, and the unions themselves, the great irony is that the unions said you can’t put on a pro-union show. And defied all that authority and bent the rules and managed to have this extraordinary evening of theater.

Fuller: And after, after this performance, this wonderful performance that — they did then do a, a very pared-down version, which ran for, I think, 100, 120 performances, where it was miss — just Marc this time, playing the piano on stage. They had the actors on stage with chairs. And they performed it very bare bones. And, and I think, since then, it got a lot of play, up until the McCarthy era, and then, um, it really had a time of really not being done for quite a while. And it was revived intermittently, really.

Paulson: Blitzstein was largely unknown for a good number of years, until “Threepenny Opera,” his adaptation of that. Of course, Bobby Darin brought him wealth with “Mack the Knife.” Extraordinary story he had as well. I’m curious, asking Elise and Craig, when Tim Robbins did the film story of this, he said, “You know, all through the years of, of acting school and art school, all my college education, I had never heard this story.” Were you familiar with the story?

Stone: I was not. I was not familiar with the story. And, um, and I find that rather shocking actually. You’d think it would be, particularly among theater training, that at least the stories would surface there. And no, I had never heard this story.

Smith: I had heard about it. I’m older than Elise, so that may be the reason. I think one of the curious things though is that, you know, that the legend of the opening night has almost overshadowed the play itself. Ah, you know, it’s, it’s more famous for that opening night than the play is actually — or the operetta or musical — is itself. So it’s very interesting to find — to take a look at the, at the piece itself, just by itself. So that was a — that was an interesting thing to come back to.

Paulson: That’s a great observation. So how good is the work? To what extent is it simply a curiosity?

Smith: It is really a good piece of work.

Stone: It’s good. It’s good. The music is very difficult and complex. And, um, and it’s very clear that Blitzstein’s heart and soul went into, um, making the music serve the lyrics, because what he is saying is very, very important to him. But just the music itself, as a composer, Blitzstein was a very good composer.

Smith: One of the things I said to David when we first went into rehearsal, you know, when we were listening to it and Charlie and David were talking about it, I said, “If we can find the angry passion that this piece came out of in 1937, if we can somehow touch on that, we will have found our way into this piece.” And that means that you can’t treat it as just a piece of history. You must not make fun of it. You must not make light of it. You must go right for the guts of it. And if you find that anger and you find that passion that that came out of, it frees everything. And that was the energy that Blitzstein put into that piece of theater. And if you go there for that, you can release that energy.

Stone: And he tells the story very well. He sets up these characters so that you get to see — in little snippets, because the scenes are very, very short —but Blitzstein gives you the world of Mister Mister and his family, Junior Mister and Sister Mister and Mrs. Mister. And then you see the people who have sold out in order to advance in the world of Mister Mister. And then you see those people who live, you know, below the margin line who are trying to survive. And the guy, like, who is Larry Foreman, who is the union organizer, who says he comes from propertied, middle class, intelligent people who have their eyes open and see what’s going on. And in these very small vignettes, he tells a story beautifully.

Paulson: When you do a new play and you’re uncomfortable with a line, it’s permissible to say, “You know, this might work better.” What do you do with a piece of work that’s, that’s almost, you know, 60-some years old?

Fuller: Well, one of the things that — the Jean Cocteau Repertory is very — the playwright is, is paramount in terms of how we perform it at Cocteau. So whether we’re doing Shakespeare, Moliere, or a Greek tragedy or a modern play, we make sure that we do service to the playwright. So we really don’t want to mess around with his or her words. So, so really, at the Cocteau, we try to make it work, ‘cause that’s what the playwright wrote. Um, so the answer to that, probably, is, we would make it — the line work no matter what.

Smith: A lot of people have also, you know, wanted a — you’ve wanted to make it, you know, more contemporary relevant. And you know kind of updating it or something like that. And I don’t think that is the correct thing to do, because I don’t think the people really know the piece as it stands by itself and really going after what Blitzstein was after. In a way, that’s kind of an easy way out, is to make it relevant and make it all very contemporary.

Fuller: There’s a universality about the piece which I hope we’ve gotten, we’ve put across with our design, the concept of set design and the costume design. But in terms of the actual lines and lyrics themselves, um, we’ve stuck to Blitzstein even when there’s a point where Mrs. Mister is — visits the, the mission, and the narrator is saying, “In 1915, this happened. In 1916, this happened. And then 1917, this happened.” And clearly, that was World War I that they’re talking about. But it resonates to World War II. It resonates to every war that we’ve been involved in. So — and I think the audiences do get that resonance.

Smith: And it shortchanges your audience if you say that, you know, you have to explain the metaphor. You know, you just lay it out there. You know, they can, they can make the connection.

Fuller: We’re used to doing 400-year-old plays. And so, even when you, you can set Shakespeare anywhere, and you don’t have to mess around with Shakespeare, you know.

Paulson: Right. So this is sort of cutting-edge stuff for you if it’s only 63 years old.

Fuller: That’s true.

Paulson: Is there, um, is there a message that has carried through the years? I mean, it’s curious to see — interesting to see the — that it has almost been cyclical in the production of this, that for years it was sort of dormant, and then it came back. How, how did this kind of grow through the years so that it would have a life? Any sense of why this play has had continuity where others get forgotten shortly after they’re introduced in 1955?

Fuller: The — for me, the primary message of his play is — or this musical — is that your voice does matter, and you, and you can be heard. And, and, and more than one voice in aggregate is powerful. And change can result. And whether it’s forming a union or whether it’s voting for a particular person in office or whatever, it’s very important. So I think that kind of an issue is so part and parcel, um, a democracy, that it has to keep coming up, I think. It can’t help but, you know.

Paulson: Is there a difference between the performances you engage in and what you saw on paper? I mean, is it a more powerful work when performed, or is that universal that always happens?

Smith: I think that it, I think that it is, you know — we are — as a company, we’re not used to doing musicals, and so this was an unusual experience for us. I tend to think of it as — a lot of the scenes, the flashback scenes — as kind of a psychedelic cartoon musical, you know. And they kind of just pop up at you. And they’re larger than life. And they’ve got this kind of, you know, kind of thing, pizzazz, kind of going for them. And when you go for that kind of presentational entertainment — now we have done a lot of Brecht in the past. And in fact, our theater is rather well-known for doing Brecht. So that — I think — kind of gave us a leg up on that kind of thing, a very presentational, ah, ah, way of going about it.

Paulson: Did the Brecht connection tie you to this?

Fuller: Yeah, you know, you can’t help but stage it, in some ways, like a Brechtian play, because, well, Blitzstein was, um — he dedicated the piece to Brecht. So — and there’s an awful lot of it in there, so yeah, it is very presentational in a lot of its —

Smith: When Blitzstein — he had — he did the first — the song “A Nickel Under Your Foot” for Brecht, right?

Stone: And then — right.

Fuller: He played “Nickel Under Your Foot” at a party. This is another apocryphal story, probably, but he played “Nickel Under Your Foot” for — at a — I believe, at a party for Brecht. And Brecht said, “That’s really great, you know, but there are other prostitutes besides prostitutes. You ought to write a musical about that.” Which basically is what got him going, made him write this, this musical.

Paulson: I’m sure a good number of our viewers and Americans in general first heard about “The Cradle Will Rock” after having seen the Tim Robbins film. I’m curious, have you seen the film? What’s your reaction to that?

Stone: Yeah, we did, actually, when we knew we were doing this play, went out and, and saw the film, which I had wanted to see anyway.

Paulson: Did it help at all?

Stone: Yes, actually, it did. The historical context of the events around the play, I think, I think certainly elevated the experience of doing the play. In a way, you feel more — even more privileged to be able to put something on stage that was banned from the stage. That’s actually happened to me a couple of times in my career, where I’ve been able to do a play that was banned in its own time, in its own country. And it actually — there’s a kind of honor and responsibility about bringing forward the work of a deceased artist who was not allowed to see the fullness of their work in their own time with that kind of censorship.

Paulson: It was a message in the film that you rarely see in film, I thought, in terms of the need to protect against censorship. Did you have a reaction to the film?

Smith: Absolutely, I thought the, I thought the — well, I — one, I just really admired the film, just as a piece of filmmaking. It’s the same way that I admire the play as a piece of, as a piece of artistry, you know. We get so hung up on relevancy, you know, you know. “Is everything relevant,” you know? I think that we get hung up with this play that way. And you know, just on its pure artistic merits alone, “The Cradle Will Rock” is a wonderful piece. And I think that Tim Robbins made a great movie, you know, and a movie about a very special time in theater and labor and, and very important to the citizens in this country.

Fuller: I had a very strong positive reaction to the movie, but I know the play, the music so well that I wasn’t sure if I had such a positive reaction because I knew it so well. ‘Cause I was getting all of the innuendos and all of this — all of the little things that he was putting in about this is how Blitzstein thought about writing about this song or whatever. This is the image that he saw in New York, maybe, that got him to write this or whatever. So, you know, it was fascinating to me, and I did really enjoy it.

Smith: I’m really looking forward to going back and looking at the movie again after now being really familiar with the piece.

Fuller: Yeah.

Paulson: The performers in that original production, um, had to make the ultimate choice. They’re, they’re standing in the audience and trying to decide whether to defy the unions, in effect to defy their government. Several participants from that night, as I understand it, later suffered some form of blacklisting, um, either directly from that evening or because of their affiliation with other people and with an entire movement. Have you, in your own experiences, ever had to make a tough choice or ever faced a situation where you felt your own creativity was being censored in some way?

Fuller: You know, I gotta say, for me, personally, I just have been fortunate. I’ll knock on this table. ‘Cause I haven’t had to, no, not yet.

Paulson: Any experiences?

Smith: I don’t — no, I don’t, I don’t believe so. We, a few years ago, we had a relationship with Edvard Radzinsky, the playwright from Russia. And this was before Perestroika. And he came over at that time, and he was, like, one of the — it was one of the first times that one of the popular playwrights of the Soviet Union was allowed out to come over to see one of his plays. And he came over here at this point — at that point. And we were get — taking some rather interesting telephone calls at that time, you know, and — from, like, the State Department and all kinds of things like that. And we had some rather interesting people show up at the theater for performances. And that was, that was a very interesting time. But no, I must say that as an artist myself, no, I have not felt a censorship that I have been aware of.

Stone: I do think, from time to time, we’ve run into individual donors, because we’re nonprofit theater, who maybe do not like the kind of work that, you know, that we might be selecting at a certain time, who might voice an opinion about whether they would choose to fund us, you know, with any amount of money the next time around. But I, I think the theater has always taken the stand of — that, you know, we will — we’re going to produce those works which excite us and hopefully our audiences and that continue to be thought-provoking because that is — that’s always been sort of a hallmark of the work at the Cocteau. So we want people to leave the theater asking questions and having interesting discussions about what they’ve seen and how it’s affected them.

Smith: “The Cradle Will Rock” addresses that question.

Stone: Yes.

Smith: Art for art’s sake, who’s going to pay for it, that kind of thing.

Paulson: While we’re on the topic of the audience, tell me how the audience responds to this production.

Fuller: Well, we’ve had some, we’ve had some wonderful experiences, because we also do symposiums or talk-backs after a lot of our performances. We’ve had some reactions from our audiences. In, in particular, from left wing to right wing to one woman who stood up, and she, quite courageously, I must say, stood up, because she was clearly in the, in the major minority. And she said, “This is wrong. You should not be doing this piece. I mean, I don’t agree with any of it. It’s just going to, it’s just going to make people get out and do something.” She actually said that.

Paulson: It was during the performance?

All: It was at — after the show,

Paulson: Which is a better place than in the middle of a performance.

Fuller: Right, really.

Paulson: Would have been inappropriate.

Fuller: So there, that’s the, the, may I say, the conservative viewpoint. And then, on this past Saturday night, we had an incredibly thrilling thing happen. The actors do their, their curtain call. And then they exit through the house and out the, the — into the front lobby. And as the actors exited, somebody stood up — we had a — I knew we had a group of people there, but I didn’t know what the group was. One member of the group stood up and said, “I would like you — to invite you all now to join me in singing ‘The Internationale’.” And then about a third of the audience, the audience is still all there. Everybody stood up, and a third of the audience sang “The Internationale” in its entirety. And the actors then came up to, to sort of peek in the door.

Smith: We didn’t know what was going on.

Fuller: It had to be one of the most electrifying moments that I have ever experienced in the theater. And it was one of those things that you’ll, just, will always remember.

Stone: Very fittingly, very fittingly it was the day of the Labor Day parade. Of course, so —

Paulson: You didn’t pass out weapons though or anything like that?

Fuller: No, but that’s exactly the thing that that lady was afraid of, I think.

Stone: And I believe that is exactly what Blitzstein wanted.

Fuller: Yeah.

Stone: Is that, you know, this feeling that his play would get people to stand up, and, you know, I think his words were that, you know, just seeing his play would make people start the revolution, that it would, it would move them. So it was an extraordinary evening in theater for, for the actors. I mean, it’s one of those theatrical events that was, maybe, close to what happened during the first performance.

Fuller: Yeah.

Smith: We had a performance this morning at 10:00 for high school kids. This is the first high school kid — performance for the high school kids that we had done. And we have a symposium afterwards. And the first question was, “Is art diminished because it’s political?” I went, “Whoa.”

Paulson: And how long was your answer?

Smith: We basically said all art is political on some level.

Paulson: And they bought that?

Smith: Yeah.

Paulson: That’s good. And was the reaction from a younger audience different from a more adult audience?

Stone: You know, I think that, I think that, um, the reactions are different. But I think that the reactions are different in — between different ages even in older audiences, because we have had a few people who were there on the original opening night, and, and that audience has a completely different reaction than, say, a middle-aged audience does today, so —

Smith: Yeah, somebody who lived in 1937 is going to have such an immediacy with, with this, with this play that somebody who was born in 1987 is not going to. It’s just a different reaction. But it still does not take away from the power of the piece just by itself.

Paulson: It’s amazing the people that say they were in the audience that night, roughly the same number of people who saw Bobby Thompson’s home run in another venue. Is this the most powerful play you’ve been affiliated with?

Stone: It is among the most powerful plays, I think, that I’ve done.

Smith: There is so little American political theater that is — that, that doesn’t homogenize the culprit, you know. This play really stands up and says, “You, Mr. Capitalist, are the one who’s wrong.” And points a finger. And it doesn’t say, “Oh, there’s a problem with society.” You know, he — it’s very ballsy. I mean, he really points a finger and says, “This is what’s wrong. We must do something.”

Stone: And what really — what strikes me most about it is that, you know, that anyone would think that it wasn’t — it didn’t still have great resonance and relevance today. You know, there’s a 12-year-old boy in Canada who’s been working for the last two years to help children around the world who are living in slavery and child labor. And, um, that, very often, I think, we forget. We turn our, our eyes away from what’s happening in our own country. And we’re certainly not looking at the rest of the world. And I think a lot of the press sometimes keeps us from looking at what’s going on in the rest of the world.

Paulson: Let’s not, let’s not bash the free press. Let’s not go bashing free press. That’s one of the five freedoms.

Stone: Absolutely.

Paulson: And this is a play that, even if you don’t buy the politics, you have to applaud the passion.

All: Absolutely.

Paulson: That’s very important. Orson Welles once called “The Cradle Will Rock” indestructible. And in your good hands, you’ve proven that once again. Thank you for joining us today.

All: Thank you.

Paulson: Our guests have been David Fuller, Elise Stone, and Craig Smith from the production of “The Cradle Will Rock.” I’m Ken Paulson, back next week with another conversation about the First Amendment, the arts, and America. I hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”