by James Blaszko

Marc Blitzstein was a fervent critic of the music and politics of his time, often taking to paper his dissatisfaction with the “privileged society” he felt domineered the creative impulses of his colleagues. As he wrote in 1936, “the unconscious (sometimes not so unconscious) prostitution of composers in today’s world is one of the sorry sights,” warning that “music in society, with us these many years, is dying of acute anachronism; and that a fresh idea, overwhelming in its implications and promise, is taking hold.” Prostitution, the exchange of one’s body for payment, became an important symbol for Blitzstein during the interwar period—a brash allegory for capitalism’s influence over (and failure of) the working class throughout the Great Depression. A number of songs and “sketches” he composed turned to popular and protest music to best encapsulate the anger of “the great new public,” 25% of which were unemployed before the introduction of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and many more who suffered from dangerous working conditions in mills and factories across rural America.

These sketches would soon lay the groundwork for The Cradle Will Rock, a subversive “play in music” of ten scenes that careen from genre to genre with a violence directly mirroring the political insurgence of Blistzetin’s time–globally of which swung from the Spanish Revolution to the establishment of Hitler Youth. Composing over a five-week period shortly after the death of his wife, Blitzstein confronted the trappings of the free market in America from all angles with a transparency so naked that it was deemed “agitprop” theatre, a term literally combining “agitation” and “propaganda.” Characters conceived with autocrats of the time in mind (evangelist Billy Sunday, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and the Du Pont family to name a few) are presented as bold archetypes, exposing their misdeeds with a universality that is shockingly apparent now eighty-two years after its premiere. It is no wonder that Blitzstein dedicated the work to the most famous practitioner of such political, epic theatre: Bertolt Brecht.

Fitting to its dedicatee’s signature style, The Cradle Will Rock saw twenty-seven performers, thirty-two chorus members, and a thirty-two piece orchestra curtailed to a single piano on an empty stage on its opening night. The original sets, costumes, lights, and orchestrations remained locked behind the doors of the Maxine Elliott’s Theatre, as ordered by the Federal Theatre Project: a program of the WPA struck by dramatic budgetary cuts. In defiance of what Blitzstein and his collaborators maintained was obvious censorship of their piece, the troupe marched twenty blocks north to open in another theatre rented just for the night. As Blitzstein himself played through the score onstage, cast members delivered their lines scattered about an audience of over one thousand in their everyday dress. The feat, proposed just hours before by 21-year-old director Orson Welles, remains an iconic moment in American theatre history.