Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Waiting For Lefty (1935)

Brian Pedaci was Harry Fatt

Life imitates art.

So now, after consuming several Federal Theater Project agit-prop "Living Newspapers" I finally turn to the grandfather of all labor agitation plays, Clifford Odet's Waiting for Lefty. Caught part of the Charenton Theater production, presented in a urine-scented alley as part of the Ingenuity Festival in 2005, but only the last few scenes.

Odet's play was first presented by the Group Theatre in March 1935. Harold Clurman famously described it as "the birth cry of the thirties." Framed by a Union Hall meeting, the play is a parade of brief vignettes, presenting numerous cases of injustice, or the Little Guy kept down by the Big Guy. Outrage is heaped upon outrage - marriages fall apart, relationships are abandoned, underlings are urged to spy on their co-workers, the well-connected are moved ahead, and there's even some examples of racism - against Jews, the only Black in the play is a lowly errand boy referred to by the 'n-word' who is never actually seen.

Surprising to me is how this play, which pre-dates all the others I have so far read (not itself a Federal Theater Project production) provides the template for those which follows. I understand that Odets did not create this form of drama, the episodic panorama on a common theme, but I did not expect it to resemble a Living Newspaper so closely.

In addition, events presented in this play, produced in early 1935, set the stage for the real-life events of late 1935 and 1936 in during the Akron Rubber Strikes. Lefty begins with Harry Fatt, porcine, cigar-chomping union boss, telling his constituents to sit still, forget about going on strike, that the union was looking out for them and that everything was going to be fine. This is what the national union organizers kept telling the rubber workers of Akron.

Even more hilarious; every time someone in the crowd speaks up, to question Fatt's call for calm and order, and reassurances that Roosevelt would take care of everything, Fatt immediately roars that the interlocutor is a Communist, a dirty red, and demands they be thrown from the hall. This was the same technique used by the union bosses in Akron.

This is not to suggest that substance followed form, or that Odet's was some kind of awesome prognosticator. No, it provdies me the education that these things were happening, this was the times. The only prophetic aspect of the production is the very end, when ordinary taxi driver Agate Keller takes the stage to speak, others rise to hold Fatt and his cronies at bay, and Keller stages a worker led call to STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE!

And so it finally happened in Akron - almost a year later - that the rubber workers stopped waiting for Lefty, refused to wait another day, and began the modern labor movement without a leader, and did it themselves.

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