- Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World by Howard Pollack
The place of composer and lyricist Marc Blitz-stein in US theatre history rests primarily on the infamous Federal Theatre Project production of The Cradle Will Rock (1937). Musical aficionados might also make note of Regina (1949), his operatic adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, or his successful translation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (1954), but his contributions to the American stage remain largely at the margins. Howard Pollack’s ambitious and meticulously researched new biography, however, makes a persuasive case for embracing Blitzstein’s career as fully representative of the modern innovation and social consciousness that enlivened New York’s musical stages during the early and mid-twentieth century. From Blitzstein’s youthful travels through Europe to his mature years as an artist before his untimely death at age 58, Pollack situates the composer’s biography in a modern cultural history that explicates the broader artistic shift from the bourgeois avant-garde to the more politically conscious cultural front. Written in clear, evocative language, the biography invites a broad readership to discover Blitzstein’s work—from concert stages to musical productions—in connection with his ethnic identity as a Jew with Russian heritage, a gay man navigating various socioeconomic landscapes, and a leftist artist with proletarian sympathies.
Pollack’s accessible narrative style mirrors his subject’s own inclinations toward a popular audience and further reinforces his characterization of Blitzstein as a composer caught between the worlds of art music and popular entertainment. Blitzstein rose to prominence with The Cradle Will Rock, but his largely experimental compositions defied easy classification. More importantly, the biographer argues, Blitzstein’s predilection for biting political satire kept him from building a large following during America’s shift from peace to wartime sensibilities. Pollack alternates between a close analysis of Blitzstein’s music and a chronology that moves back and forth, documenting key moments in his personal life and the development of each major composition. He divides his discussion of Cradle, for example, into two chapters: the first outlining and critiquing the text, and the second reconstructing its production history. His deft combination of archival resources—working notes, personal correspondence, interviews—with secondary biographies and journalistic reviews provides readers with vivid impressions of Blitzstein’s personal relationships, professional collaborations, and the public’s reception of his artistry.
Pollack understandably concentrates his biography on the specific individuals and productions that shaped Blitzstein’s music career, rather than devote many pages to the modern theories and stage aesthetics that anchor most US theatre histories. He writes from the perspective of a music historian, but firmly connects Blitzstein to significant theatrical [End Page 619] events, organizations, and movements through key collaborators like Brecht and Lotte Lenya, Hellman and Cheryl Crawford, and Orson Welles and John Houseman. Theatre scholars will likely find interest in early chapters that detail Blitzstein’s influences in the experimental “art music” of Igor Stravinsky and political compositions by Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, as well as his involvement in the 1920s Greenwich Village social scene. Pollack’s evocative description of Blitzstein’s early work—for example, Percussion Music, a three-movement piano piece in which the soloist occasionally slams shut the keyboard lid for theatrical and percussive effect—sets the stage for the composer’s later rebellions against established forms and public expectations. Pollack includes a chapter on Blitzstein’s critical writings, recognizing his work as a prominent intellectual in addition to his musical compositions, while also providing a theoretical foundation for subsequent chapters that detail his most recognized work of the 1930s and ’40s. Blitzstein demonstrated his razor-sharp wit in early comedic operas like Triple-Sec (featured in the 1930 Garrick Gaieties) and The Harpies (1931), satirizing the pretentions of modern artists and their (also his) social circles before later turning his critical gaze toward capitalist corruption.
Pollack employs many of the same primary resources as other theatre scholars to reconstruct his account of the legendary opening performance of The Cradle Will Rock, which...