Exit, Stage Left

At the present moment of Democratic ascendancy and bitter economic tidings, one might expect organized labor to be riding higher in power and esteem than it has in many decades. But fair political winds, rising unemployment, and populist rage have yet to coalesce into action that levels the tilted playing field between corporations and unions. The most popular explanation is that unions don't pack the political punch they once did, and the numbers don't lie. Back in 1975, about 22.2 million Americans belonged to a union. More than three decades later, the number has tumbled to 15.6 million.

But it's fair to ask if a pronounced cultural shift away from unions helped accelerate that decline. Organized labor will always be outspent by its corporate opponents, but its force multiplier has always been its powerful narrative: pervasive economic injustice vanquished by collective action. It is a story rooted in anger -- but also in an optimism that history bends toward justice. In labor's best-case scenario, a free press and a popular media (songs, literature, movies, plays) attract and aggregate the individual injuries wrought upon workers and forge them into a powerful shared narrative.

That narrative has long been under assault. But for three decades, the other side has been winning so lopsidedly as to undermine all optimism. (Ronald Reagan's crushing of the 1981 air-traffic-controllers strike is the most pivotal episode in that legacy.) The media have transitioned from raking up muck about businesses to sucking up for access to corporate suites. And when the press does cast its eye on the unions, its gaze falls largely on corruption and squabbling.

Unions have taken a hit in popular media as well. What was the last great pop-culture moment for American labor? You'd have to look back before Reagan's election to the 1979 film Norma Rae, for which Sally Field won a best actress Oscar in her role as a heroic textile worker who organizes her factory. Norma Rae's raising of the "UNION" sign in her cacophonous workplace -- and her forcible ejection from the factory, kicking and screaming, into a police car -- is the last iconic union image we have in American popular media.

Would Norma Rae get the green light from corporate Hollywood today? The question seems almost laughable. The dismal present has prodded progressives -- artists and scholars, in particular -- to look back in hope (or sorrow or anger or nostalgia) to a moment when organized labor and American popular culture had more synergy. The current economic duress in this country only sharpens the curiosity: What did labor say when the cultural momentum was on its side and readily drew legions of artists to articulate its narrative?

The golden cultural moment of the late 1920s and 1930s is a reminder of the possibilities of a synergy between labor and art -- and a possible road map to the future. American theater in particular took up labor's cause with vigor and imagination in that era. Filmmaker and actor Tim Robbins captured that moment in his 1999 film, Cradle Will Rock, taking its (abridged) title from the confrontational labor musical written by Marc Blitzstein in 1937, which helped to hasten the demise of the Federal Theatre Project.

The project -- a branch of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration that put unemployed theatrical workers back on the stage -- was always a delicate balance between the dramatic freedoms of the stage and the political sensitivities of legislators. And the project's decision to produce Blitzstein's blunt, incendiary song cycle, set in a unionizing "Steeltown, U.S.A," with a hero named "Larry Foreman" and an industrial magnate villain named "Mr. Mister" provoked the federal government to strangle The Cradle Will Rock with red tape. But directors Orson Welles and John Houseman were determined that the controversial show must go on without the government's support, and they saved the musical.

That era's other iconic work was Clifford Odets' 1935 one-act play, Waiting for Lefty, a lusty, brawling, theatrical agitation on behalf of the unions. Odets' early plays were immensely popular and influential, though their loquacious sentimentality has not aged well. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, for instance, mercilessly mocked Odets' early work in their 1991 film, Barton Fink. But two generations of writers in theater, movies, and television dined out on Odets' slangy music. (Odets also crafted the comprehensive and pivotal rewrite of perhaps the greatest Hollywood script of the postwar era, 1957's Sweet Smell of Success.)

That music is in full voice in Lefty, which ping-pongs between a contentious meeting of cabbies considering a strike and stark dramatizations of the private despair that fuels collective action. One scene involves the sexual humiliation of a cabbie by his girlfriend. After he blames his boss for their piteous situation, she uses the excuse as a weapon: "I never saw him in my life, but he's putting ideas in my head a mile a minute. He's giving your kids that fancy disease called the rickets. He's making a jellyfish outta you and putting wrinkles on my face."

Odets shamelessly ups the ante: snitches, anti-Semites, Red-baiters, an industrialist trying to lure a worker into a career making poison gas. By the time Lefty arrives at its closing crescendo, there's murder and a storming of the stage by the cabbies. The stage directions call for the audience to join in the hacks' cry of "STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE!!!"

Blow the surface of these most memorable collaborations between labor and the theater, however, is a teeming mass of lesser-known plays that proudly wore the union label. Lee Papa, an assistant professor of English at the College of Staten Island/CUNY, has just edited a new collection of drama from the era, Staged Action: Six Plays from the American Workers' Theatre (Cornell University Press). Papa deliberately excludes Waiting for Lefty from his collection, as well as The Cradle Will Rock and labor-related plays associated with the Federal Theatre Project. Rather, his aim is to excavate plays long out of print or trapped in archives, with a particular emphasis on works that straddle and subvert traditional notions of race and gender -- particularly the pivotal role of women in labor -- or works whose pedagogical functions in labor colleges and unions were at least as important as their appearance on traditional stages.

Taken together, the plays in Staged Action are a reminder of the high stakes of labor organizing in an era when the violent suppression of unions was commonplace. Five of the six plays are haunted by death and guns. The Ku Klux Klan shows up in some of these works, too, as menace or as grotesque comic relief or both. The plays are also full of song; it is the glue that binds together the communities represented onstage and instills hope in the characters that inhabit them.

In many cases, that music is whistling past the graveyard. The courage of organizing in the face of violence is at the forefront of many of these plays, often uncomfortably so. Contemporary sensibilities -- laser-focused on moral ambiguities and conflicted impulses -- are apt to recoil at the West Virginia mine town imagined by Russian immigrant Bonchi Friedman in her 1926 play, The Miners, or the California prison cells depicted in Upton Sinclair's 1928 play, Singing Jailbirds. These are spaces where heartstrings are never plucked for their own sake, and deaths are bloody martyrdoms that inspire further organizing.

Papa's collection includes two plays that do not traffic in bruising and fatal rabble-rousing, and despite their political incorrectness and dated references, these less-serious works feel the most familiar. One of them, Pins and Needles, is a satirical musical revue staged in 1937 by the International Ladies Garments Workers Union. This cycle of songs is a left-wing take on the current events of its era (labor, fascism, banking, feminism) and was so popular that it settled in for a more than three-year run on the Broadway stage with songs like "Doing the Reactionary" and "Vassar Girl Finds a Job." The other play, John Howard Lawson's Processional, demonstrates how labor's narrative could forge new directions on the stage. Written in 1925, Processional is a flawed but ebullient mash-up of jazz, burlesque, and broad social caricature set in West Virginia in the 1920s. Imagine Matewan -- John Sayles' classic 1987 tale of labor violence in that state's mines -- as done by the Marx Brothers, and then veer left and right simultaneously. Wildly innovative in its time, Processional is relentlessly vulgar, well intentioned, and ridiculous, though at moments such as this one, early in the play, a few lines of dialogue between a Polish worker and a black worker induce goose bumps of shame and prophecy all at once:

PSINSKI: You black fellers is always afraid.
RASTUS: I dunno; it just comes on.
PSINSKI: Guess it's in the blood; I can see your ancestors.
RASTUS: (Trembling.) Where? Where?
PSINSKI: A people that ain't had a fair chance, black --
RASTUS: Hush yo' mouth, someday we git a chance.
PSINSKI: Sure you will, the whole future belongs to you.
RASTUS: A black future: mebbe the coons'll be kings, mebbe yet you see a black President a' the United States --
PSINSKI: Sure ... sure ...
RASTUS: A cultured nigger wid a good speakin' and singin' voice!

This snippet of dialogue traces the vast distance between our own moment and the age that Papa mines for his collection -- and closes it with a startling flash. Staged Action may not contain many practical lessons for the playwrights and writers of today, but it does rescue a valuable part of the cultural history of the left. It suggests that when our writers and artists with a popular audience do wake once again -- after this three-decade slumber -- to the dramas of labor and its struggles to organize in the face of powerful force, there are resources from which they may draw inspiration.