American Labor On Stage: Dramatic Interpretations of the Steel and Textile Industries in the 1930s
American Labor On Stage: Dramatic Interpretations of the Steel and Textile Industries in the 1930s, by Susan Duffy. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996. 156 pp. Bibliography, index. $55. 00.
THIS BOOK ANALYZES FOUR CONTROVERSIAL “political” or “propaganda plays” on the left that the author, a specialist in speech communication, believes have “been too long overlooked” (p. 5). The violent Gastonia textile strike of 1929 inspired two of the plays: Loretta Carroll Bailey’s Strike Song (performed by the University of North Carolina’s renowned Carolina Players), and William Dorsey Blake’s Strike (adapted from the novel by labor journalist Mary Heaton Vorse, initially for the Provincetown Players). Thomas Hall Rogers’s Altars of Steel (sponsored by the Federal Theater Project and first performed in Atlanta) and John Wexley’s Steel (produced by the ILGWU’s Labor Stage) provide unflattering glimpses of labormanagement strife in that industry. All four plays illustrate “a common skein of political militancy in the theater of the 1930s,” and in presenting issues affecting textiles and steel, “two industries not regularly depicted on the stage,” they are “unique artistically and sociologically,” the author believes (p. 6).
The methodology seems impressive. A detailed description using the historical/critical approach explores, among other things, the historical background both of play and playwright, and assesses the motivation of the sponsors. A comparative and textual analysis of each play script, finely structured around twenty-five questions, provides a basis for the author’s critiques. When available, contemporary reviews helped in assessing the plays’ successes. Space limitations forbid a review of the book’s detailed analysis of each play. In Duffy’s opinion the plays, neglected because of Dies Committee and McCarthy witchhunts, have merit and deserve a reevaluation that “may lead theater historians and researchers” to seek out other “forgotten political plays of this era” (p. 9).
The four plays had many features in common. All the play scripts idealized “rural life” and looked to “an agrarian past” for salvation “from industrialization” (p. 12). While the two textile plays stressed the exploitation of the workers by industry, the steel plays featured victimization of the family. Indeed, the steel mill became an “anthropomorphized” character “devouring labor” like a “cannibalistic tyrant.” The Southern textile mill, on the other hand, remained more distant, a “castle on the hill. . . fort-like and impregnable” (p. 13). The plays were all compelling because of their documentary nature, which, in the author’s view, “makes them worthy of study” (p. 14). In this context, the play scripts alluded to earlier industrial conflicts such as the Haymarket affair and the steel strike of 1919, taking advantage of the audience’s familiarity with earlier labor conflicts to foster identification and sympathy. The textile plays, particularly, relied heavily on documentary detail, much of it based upon Bailey’s and Vorse’s eyewitness observations. These two plays also emphasized the role of women. In Strike Song, “women led the strikes, men led the unions” (p. 42). Strike placed even “greater emphasis” on the dominant role of the woman, “as activist [rather] than as abandoned domestic” (p. 66). On the other hand, the steel plays featured men who dominated the labor force in that industry.
Evaluating the author’s analysis of the plays’ scripts is best left to her professional peers. As history, however, the work seems well-organized and researched. Although in the 1930s these plays attracted attention and controversy primarily for their political content, the author finds them interesting because of their “moral exhortations…. In their respect for the worker, the laborer, the common man and woman, they transcend the modern political movements that spawned them” (p. 137) . She might have pointed out other themes in the plays that have a contemporary ring, such as concerns over corporate takeovers, the loss of local control, and downsizing.
Perhaps this book’s most original contribution is its “revisionist” rejection of European theatrical influences during this period. Indeed, as the author sees it, the “`new theatre’ was not a complete assimilation and Americanization of modern European techniques but a reconstitution and modernization of an American theatrical staple-the melodrama,” a development that gives the plays “a unique American perspective on industrialization, labor, and the working classes in several industries.” The author believes that “subsequent studies are likely to reveal material supporting” this viewpoint, and that “there were women writing labor plays, women whose works have languished unnoticed in labor archives and theater collections” (p. 144).
American Labor On Stage is an important contribution that scholars in communications and historians of the theater undoubtedly will be evaluating for some time. Stronger editorial support, however, could have avoided errors such as the “International [Industrial] Workers of the World” (p. 67) and occasional failures in proofreading. Worse, in the 1930s the AFL and the CIO experienced failure, not success, in organizing the Southern textile mills, as the book states (p. 42), and the HUAC hearings were not conducted by Joseph McCarthy (p. 135).
Georgia State University
Copyright Mississippi Quarterly Winter 1997/1998
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