By Chris Hedges
Orson Welles and John Houseman were preparing to mount a production in June 1937 in New York City called “The Cradle Will Rock,” a musical written by Marc Blitzstein and set in “Steeltown USA.” The musical followed the efforts of a worker, Larry Foreman, as he attempted to unionize steelworkers. His nemesis was the heartless industrialist Mister Mister, who owned the steel mill and controlled the press, the church, local civic groups, politicians, the arts and the local university, where, as a trustee, Mister Mister made sure the pliant college president fired professors who did not laud the manly arts of war and capitalism. “The Cradle Will Rock” spared no one, from Mister Mister’s philanthropic wife and spoiled children to Reverend Salvation, who preached war in the name of Jesus, to feckless artists who devoted themselves to the cult of art. At one point the artists, along with Mister Mister’s wife, sing:
And we love Art for Art’s sake,
It’s smart, for Art’s sake,
To Part, for Art’s sake,
With your heart, for Art’s sake,
And your mind, for Art’s sake,
Be Blind, for Art’s sake
And Deaf for Art’s sake,
And dumb, for Art’s sake,
They kill, for Art’s sake,
All the Art for Art’s sake.
The show was scheduled to open at the Maxine Elliott Theatre with an elaborate set and a 28-piece orchestra. But Washington, bowing to complaints, at the last minute announced that no new shows would be funded by the theater project until after the fiscal year. The theater was surrounded by armed guards since, the government argued, props and costumes inside were government property. Welles, Houseman and Blitzstein—who would later be blacklisted—rented the Venice Theater and a piano. They met the audience outside the shuttered Maxine Elliott Theatre and marched the theatergoers and the cast 20 blocks to the Venice. They invited onlookers to join them and filled the 1,742-seat house. Actor’s Equity had forbidden the cast to perform the piece “onstage” so the actors stood in the audience singing across the seats. The poet Archibald MacLeish, who attended, thought it was one of the most moving theatrical experiences of his life.
“This was censorship by another form,” the head of the Federal Theater Project, Hallie Flanagan, noted acidly at the time. By 1939 the Federal Theater Project was killed. It was the first of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects to be dismantled, “a reminder,” the playwright Karen Malpede said, “of the power of the theater.”
The corporate and government censorship—practiced in the name of sponsorship—that was imposed on “The Cradle Will Rock” is the censorship that has decimated the arts, the universities, the press and the church and destroyed the theater. These liberal institutions have been bought off. Corporate money, grants and government support reward those who stay on script, who do not challenge the cruel structures of American imperialism, our permanent war economy and unfettered capitalism. And those productions that break the rules are tossed aside. It is this kind of insidious censorship that takes cutting-edge productions, such as Malpede’s fierce new anti-war play, “Prophecy,” running at the Fourth Street Theater in the East Village in New York City until June 20, and relegates them to obscurity.
“Prophecy,” which has a superb cast including veteran stage actors Kathleen Chalfant and George Bartenieff, as well as the versatile Najla Said, examines the hollowness of our own imperial virtues. It explores the psychic and physical pain of war. Malpede’s play is perhaps too ambitious in its sweep, encompassing Vietnam, the wars in Lebanon and the occupied territories in Israel and Iraq. The writer in me would edit it down to focus on the war-tossed relationship between Hala, a Muslim woman; her former lover, Alan; Alan’s wife, Sarah; and Alan and Hala’s daughter, Mariam. But “Prophecy” goes to places most modern theater productions will not. It has a conscience. And “Prophecy” keeps alive the tenuous link with productions, including “The Cradle Will Rock,” that prize truth. It speaks in the unfamiliar language of justice.
“What happened?” Malpede asked when we spoke. “The Vietnam War finally ended, but the peace movement persisted in large numbers through the dirty wars in South America and the growing anti-nuclear movement. Yet, it became more and more difficult to produce socially conscious, poetic theater. The old dogma of the 1950s reasserted itself: Art and politics don’t mix. When Ronald Reagan was elected [as president] in 1980, he immediately ordered National Endowment of the Arts grants to small—read leftist—theaters be abolished. Reaganism eroded the public perception that a great democracy deserves great art.”
“Without government support for funding innovation and the non-commercial, the theater began to institutionalize and to censor itself,” Malpede went on. “The growing network of regional theaters became ever more reliant upon planning subscription seasons which would not offend any of their local donors, and the institutional theaters began to function more and more as social clubs for the wealthy and philanthropic. Sometimes, there was a breakthrough. ‘Angels in America’ was one—the result, too, of an aggressive gay activist movement. But to a large degree, the theater no longer wanted to shake people up. The institutional theaters began to ‘develop’ plays—a process geared to securing grants from the few foundations which still, in our age of austerity, fund the arts. Development means that most new plays receive a series of readings and workshops during which all sorts of dramaturges, literary managers, directors and artistic directors give their ‘input,’ most often thoroughly confusing especially young playwrights and frequently damaging whatever was authentic to begin with. Fewer and fewer of these plays ever reach production. As the economy worsens, fewer and fewer risks are taken. Some subjects are out of bounds altogether, including strong critiques of capitalism or American foreign policy; in other words, anything that might cause individual donors to stop donating.”
Theater, once again unplugged from what gave it vitality, withered. It became increasingly mediocre, produced as spectacle or driven by the presence of Hollywood celebrities. Audience numbers have dwindled and aged. Critical debate on stage is largely banished. Theater criticism, as much of a curse as a blessing given the orthodoxy imposed by newspapers such as The New York Times, is vanishing with the death of newspapers. And when the dinosaurs do bellow, as they did when The New York Times reviewed “Prophecy,” they often hold up the artistic ideal parodied in “The Cradle Will Rock.”
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More on Karen Malpede's Prophecy:
Stage Voices: Karen Malpede Prophecy