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The Federal Theater Project's The Cradle Will Rock

At the height of the Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt creates the Works Progress Administration, a relief organization designed to put American workers back on the job. Responding to unemployment in the cultural arena, the WPA institutes Federal Music, Art, Writers, and Theater Projects, employing 40,000 people in units across the country.

The New York theater unit hosts a remarkable company of writers, actors, directors, and crew, led by producer John Houseman and his protégé director, 21-year-old Orson Welles. Although their initial productions have been classic works, in 1937 Welles and Houseman choose Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, a contemporary folk opera set against the backdrop of a steel strike. Characters in the left-leaning work include fat-cat capitalists, brutal policemen, heroic union organizers, and a warm-hearted prostitute.

While the play is going through rehearsal, violent labor action spreads throughout parts of United States. Simultaneously, conservative members of Congress attack WPA director Henry Hopkins and his liberal idelogy, attempting to cut funding. Fearing The Cradle Will Rock's pro-labor message will cause further damage to the WPA, on the eve of opening night, federal authorities shut the production down.

Welles travels to Washington to plead for a reversal -- there are 14,000 seats sold for the run of the play. Failing, he rushes back to New York, as an audience of 600 mill about the Federal Theater wondering if the show will indeed go on. Welles and Houseman telephone frantically to secure an alternate venue, and the cast and audience march 20 blocks across town to another theater. Blitzstein sits at a piano alone on stage; union rules prohibit Equity performers playing in what is now a non-union house. One by one, however, most of the actors voice their parts from their seats, to the applause and cheers of a delighted crowd. This break with the WPA gives birth to the Mercury Theater, which in various incarnations produces some of the most memorable productions of the '30s.

In 1937, The Cradle Will Rock was shut out of its government-supported theater because its pro-labor sentiment. Read an excerpt?

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