Stage for Action
U.S. Social Activist Theatre in the 1940s
Publication Year: 2016
Exploring the intersection between performance and politics and the direct impact of the arts on social activism, Dail argues Stage for Action is a theatrical reflection of progressivism and the pro-working-class theatrical aesthetic of the 1940s. The theatre group, which used performance to encourage direct action and personal responsibility for change, eventually would function as the theatrical voice of the United States Progressive Party in the failed presidential campaign of former vice president Henry A. Wallace.
Calling into question the widely held belief that U.S. theatre in the early years of the Cold War was indifferent to activism, Stage for Action offers historians a new interpretation of social activist performance at midcentury.
Published by: Southern Illinois University Press
List of Illustrations
Archives are the loci of discovery for theatre historians. Some archives are available for public consumption and others are accessible solely to those “in the know,” demanding the historian engage a combination of analytical and at times seemingly numinous skills. I spent countless hours searching finding aids and combing through other scholars’ sources for possible leads while researching this book. I also admit to embarking upon trips to unprocessed collections on a hunch because nothing quite compares to the hand-trembling, heart-palpitating, breath-stopping moment when you realize you have unveiled a crucial artifact. This unparalleled process combining equal parts assiduousness and intuition reminds me of a quote by psychologist Joan Mowat Erikson: “Vital lives are about action. You can’t feel warmth unless you create it, can’t feel delight until you play, can’t know serendipity unless you risk.”...
“Art is a weapon!” announced playwright Friedrich Wolf before the Workers’ Theatre League of Germany in 1928.1 This militant slogan echoed across time and nations, delivered by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Charles Seeger, Paul Robeson, and Nina Simone. Although the phrase “Art is a weapon” is inextricably linked to Marxism, its core significance is not restricted to any one theoretical or political system but is grounded in the philosophical perspective that art is an exemplary tool for addressing social problems. Since theatre is a union of the arts and operates as a means by which culture reflects on itself, it is not surprising that Wolf, a theatre practitioner, sounded a call to action that invoked performance as an instrument for radical change...
1. Theatre as a Weapon
Marxist theatre critics dubbed Arthur Miller a talented playwright three years before the commercial world acknowledged his prowess. Harry Taylor of the New Masses and the Daily Worker’s Samuel Sillen recognized Stage for Action’s first play, Miller’s That They May Win, as “the sturdiest” in the group’s repertory and noted that “after a year, it is still going strong.”1 Sillen went so far as to admit that Miller’s piece and his subsequent offering to SFA, You’re Next!, were successful examples of how the group was moving progressive theatre away from the type of social activist performance produced during the 1930s. Reflecting on SFA’s three-year existence in the summer of 1946, Sillen wrote, “While Stage for Action wants to hit hard at major themes, it wants to avoid being an agit-prop theater in the old sense. The audiences are not satisfied with crude presentations, and the actors in turn want scripts that will give them a creative opportunity.”2 Sillen was correct in his assessment of SFA....
2. Progressive Insurgency
Immediately following the end of World War II and in preparation for the 1946 election season, liberals began changing their rhetoric when articulating the purpose of theatre. Much of this change was driven by increased factionalism in the Democratic Party between pro- and anticommunist progressives, groups that political historian Mark L. Kleinman delineates as Cold War and Popular Front liberals.1 In order to drive particular policies to the center of political debate—such as full employment, racial equality, Soviet-American friendship, and an end to all nuclear warfare—Popular Front liberals joined forces with labor unions. Although Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) union leadership during and immediately following the war shared many of the same political and social goals of Popular Front liberals, their collaboration increased in late 1946 and early 1947 when rallying support against the much-maligned Taft-Hartley Act. This act, arguably the strongest political action of the Eightieth Congress, was designed to significantly amend the Wagner Act and break down other...
3. You’ve Still Got a Voice
Stage for Action performances covered a wide range of topics, from advocating for childcare to promoting antinuclear war policies. Each performance directly challenged a societal injustice, and although many of the plays were originally inspired by specific regional grievances, scripts written in New York after 1946 often made their way to other SFA branches, thus becoming more national in tone and scope. The societal issue that SFA concerned itself with most consistently during its five-year existence, and one the Progressive Party campaigned on, was the struggle for civil rights. As newspaper columnist and SFA supporter Louis Untermeyer wrote in 1948, “I will vote for Wallace because I believe with him... that our country can’t be considered a true Democracy until all men, regardless of color, creed, or race, can live and work together without intimidation or discrimination.”1 SFA, in accordance with Progressives, responded directly to post–World War II race conflicts in order to bolster civil rights activism. The insufferable treatment of black citizens was by...
4. The People’s Voice Must Sound Louder
Stage for Action entered 1948 by channeling all of its dramaturgical force into an unrelenting wave of plays intent on exposing the flagrant civil liberties violations practiced by the House Un-American Activities Committee. However, government intimidation in the wake of Henry Wallace’s election loss and the continuing efforts by the HUAC against members of SFA hushed the group’s antifascist thunder, which ultimately faded away in 1948. The militant leftist consciousness that had permeated the political ether since the 1930s slowly dissipated over the course of the year, washed away by a rising conservatism. But despite this conservative backlash, the radical Progressives of the immediate postwar era continued their struggle into the fifties and beyond, providing the structure for the mystical militants of the 1960s New Left....
5. A People’s Theatre in Every Sense
Marxist theorist Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov argued that works of art reflect the psychology of the class or ideology the artist represents. Stage for Action reflected a post–World War II progressive ideology, inclusive of all its political and class contradictions, yet endeavored collectively for a world in which peace and equality were guiding spirits. But it was operating during the 1940s, which historian Chester Eisinger refers to as containing an inner reality of “fear, terror, uncertainty, and violence, mingled with sad satisfactions and a sense of relief at victory.”1 He concludes that “fear encouraged silence and acquiescence; it discouraged dissent. The strained inner face of the forties revealed a yearning for withdrawal from this unmanageable and hellish world.”2 SFA existed in conflict with Eisinger’s appraisal of the 1940s through its open support of racial equality, position on the necessity for federally funded early childcare, demands for nationally mandated fair employment and voting...
About the Author
Theater in the Americas
Other Books in the Theater in the Americas Series
Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2016
OCLC Number: 962756601
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Stage for Action