Workers' Theatre and the American Labor MovementCollette A. Hyman
In the thirties, those on the political left, Socialists, Communists, artists and writers, educators, and labor movement activists, shared the belief that leisure activities should reflect and promote the interests of working people. Cultural activities should be used to educate workers in bringing about radical social and political changes and to draw people together around shared interests. Workers' theater became a successful vehicle for political education and for involving the audience in the labor movement.
Such plays as "Let Freedom Ring" and "Waiting for Lefty" depicted experiences that paralleled the audiences' own, that entertained and absorbed them, and that showed them the personal, social, economic, and political changes that could be achieved through the struggles of the labor movement.
In clear and moving prose, Hyman traces the history of workers' theater from its grassroots origins to the Federal Theater Project of the WPA under Roosevelt and into unions' recreational programs. Even today, the tradition of workers' theater endures in local and regional productions that reflect current worker concerns or revive significant workers' plays of the Depression period. Hyman shows that the significance of workers' theater lies not only in the plays produced but also in the audiences' experience, in coming together out of common concerns to achieve a solidarity that emphasizes the effectiveness of collective action.
"This book offers a new and most interesting perspective on radical artists of the 1930s and their efforts to promote a progressive political agenda. Theater activists sought to write and perform plays that focused on the values and experiences of ordinary workers; moreover, they chose dramatic styles such as melodrama, slapstick, and musical comedy, known for their broad appeal. The result, Hyman convincingly argues, were plays that compellingly portrayed the lives of working-class Americans but also reproduced common patterns of racism and sexism. While Hyman laments these plays' role in perpetuating prejudice, she admires their astute and creative use of popular culture. She situates both these judgments in thoughtful and subtle analyses that deepen our understanding of the possibilities and limitations of politically inspired 1930s art." Gary Gerstle, Associate Professor of History, Catholic University of America