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Theatre and Social Justice (January 2020): Theatre of the Left, Workers’ Theatre, Labor Theatre

by Martha Schmoyer LoMonaco

Theatre of the Left, Workers’ Theatre, Labor Theatre

The books discussed in this section demonstrate the dynamic interplay of leftist politics, working-class theatre, and organized labor. Raphael Samuel, Ewan MacColl, and Stuart Cosgrove’s Theatres of the Left 1880–1935: Workers’ Theatre Movements in Britain and America and Theatre for Working-Class Audiences in the United States, 1830–1980, ed. by Bruce A. McConachie and Daniel Friedman, root their argument in nineteenth-century antecedents. In his introduction to Theatres of the Left, Raphael Samuel describes the history of Leftist theatre as “a succession of moments separated from each other by rupture” rather than a continuous tradition. He and coauthors Ewan MacColl and Stuart Cosgrove explain the foundational politics behind the plays and include the text of many plays and detailed discussions on how the plays were written and performed. Theatre for Working-Class Audiences in the United States, 1830–1980 is a compendium of essays profiling well-documented theatre projects—the Workers’ Theatre Movement of the 1930s; Yiddish theatre, which reached its Golden Age in the 1920s; and the Federal Theatre Project (part of the New Deal)—and projects not as well historicized (German American Socialist Workers’ Theatre, the industrial drama movement of 1910 to 1929, and workers’ theatre in Michigan). This book also includes an essay on El Teatro Campesino, the Chicano farmworkers’ theatre, an alternative theatre that grew out of the Leftist ferment in the 1960s.

In Drama Was a Weapon: The Left-Wing Theatre in New York, 1929–1941, Morgan Himelstein charts the Communist Party of America’s failed attempt to wrest control over commercial theatre as a tool of political dogma. He also recounts the histories of the New Theatre League and Theatre Union, along with early plays of Clifford Odets, the Federal Theatre Project’s Living Newspapers productions, the hit musical revue Pins and Needles, and Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock.

In Staging Strikes: Workers’ Theatre and the American Labor Movement, Colette Hyman asserts that “‘good’ workers theatre teaches about activism, animates participants with a vision of social change, and … is optimistic and imbued with a sense of possibility in working for social justice.” Hyman concentrates on labor plays that emerged from the burgeoning labor movement of the 1930s, plays that taught explicit lessons about unions and movement building while creating empowering images of working-class people. Mary McAvoy’s Rehearsing Revolutions: The Labor Drama Experiment and Radical Activism in the Early Twentieth Century documents the brief but vibrant history of labor drama—a means of teaching labor activism via dramatic techniques—which flourished at workers’ education institutions in the United States between the two world wars. “Theatre as a weapon” was the philosophy behind Stage for Action, a short-lived but highly influential theatre group of the mid-1940s. In Stage for Action: U.S. Social Activist Theatre in the 1940s, Chrystyna Dail argues that Stage for Action served as a bridge between the workers’ theatres of the 1930s and the activist theatres of the 1960s. The company was remarkable for its time in taking on social justice subjects, among them Puerto Rican rights, child care for working mothers, and the cessation of nuclear warfare