Will Rock depicts a significant period in US history during
which organized labor was on the rise and radical social change
seemed possible. Many of the moral and political issues facing
the characters in the film are still relevant today. Should we
view artists as cultural workers whose labor can transform society?
To what degree do we all make compromises to survive? At what
point do these compromises become morally corrupting?
Cradle Will Rock begins
with the words "A mostly true story". The following
is some information concerning the historical events it draws
from. At the bottom of this page we've listed resources
if you'd like to find out more.
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Is this film really based on historical events?
Yes, the main story-lines of the film revolve
around actual events, and many of the characters are based upon
real people. However, the film draws on events which took place
in the early, mid, and late 1930s, and arranges them to occur
The Cradle Will Rock
was in fact prevented from opening by the "Cossacks of the
WPA" in its original venue in June of 1937. The actors were
also told by their union not to perform. Blitzstein, Welles &
Houseman did lead several hundred people across town to a new
theater where Blitzstein began to perform the play solo to a full
house. Olive Stanton was also a real person & was unemployed
and destitute before being hired through the Federal Theater Project.
On the night in question, she was the first to stand & sing
out her part, inspiring the rest of the actors, such as Howard
Da Silva, to do likewise. By all accounts it was a thrilling night.
wife had died in 1936 while he was writing the play, Bertolt Brecht
was very much alive & in direct contact with Blitzstein. Brecht's
advice ran along these lines: "To literal prostitution you
must add figurative prostitution--the sell-out of one's talent
and dignity to the powers that be," and "Why don't you
write a piece about all kinds of prostitution-the press, the church,
courts, the arts, the whole system?"
hearings at which Hallie Flanagan testified, the early incarnation
of the House Un-American Activities Committee, did not take place
until 1938. Thus, The Cradle Will Rock wasn't cancelled due to
Hazel Huffman's testimony. It is, however, quite true that during
Flanagan's testimony, US senators declared such personages as
Christopher Marlowe (from the time of Shakespeare) & Euripides
(of the ancient Greeks) to be "communists."
did commission Diego Rivera to create a mural for the newly built
Rockefeller Center. However, this happened in 1933.
was the mistress of Mussolini from 1913 to 1936. She was deeply
involved in the Italian art world and was, ironically, Jewish.
As Mussolini's publicist, Sarfatti wrote columns in the Hearst
newspapers trying to foster support for him in the US, and helped
to write Mussolini's speeches. However, by the time The Cradle
Will Rock was being produced in 1936, she had fallen out of favor
politically. In 1938 she was forced to flee to Argentina.
While William Randolph Hearst was a real person, & owned a
massive newspaper empire in the US, the steel magnate Mathers
and his theater-loving wife Countess LaGrange, along with the
vaudeville ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw, are all fictional characters.
Why did the WPA cut off funding
for The Cradle Will Rock?
The play was ostensibly
cancelled due to funding cuts. The last half of 1936 had seen
a brief surge in economic growth, despite the fact that millions
remained unemployed. Subsequently, there was a great deal of pressure
to phase out the federally funded WPA projects, which had always
been intended as a temporary measure to provide jobs and stimulate
the economy during the Great Depression. The arts projects were
considered the least essential and thus were cut first.
Given the political
context of the time, however, it is clear that the play was dropped
for its political content. After nearly fifty years of bloody
defeats & setbacks, organized labor was achieving great victories
against big business. The Flint sit-down strike, after a long
& often violent struggle during December and January of 1936-37,
had emerged victorious. The newly formed Congress of Industrial
Organizations was growing rapidly more powerful. Though ultimately
reformist in its aims, the CIO employed former IWW and Communist
Party organizers whose radical vision & militant tactics attracted
thousands of workers to the rank & file. Both business and
government feared the growing power of organized labor and the
influence of radical political ideas.
By the spring of 1937,
the Depression was back in full force. Then on Memorial Day, during
a strike at Republic Steel in Chicago, company thugs beat &
shot more than fifty men, women & children, killing ten. All
of these events, coupled with the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia,
the civil war in Spain & the rise of fascism all over Europe,
made for an intensely charged political climate. If there was
ever a moment in US history when the capitalist system was teetering
on the brink of revolution, this may have been it. It is easy
to see how The Cradle Will Rock, with its themes of big business
conspiracies, militant union uprisings, government oppression,
& class struggle was seen by the government as more than a
Why did the union prevent the
actors and musicians from performing when the message of the musical
The union in question
was Actors' Equity, which espoused the politically conservative
and insular craft-oriented unionism of the American Federation
of Labor. The unionism championed in the play was the industrial
unionism of the CIO, which sought better conditions for all workers
including unskilled industrial workers, and which advocated cross-trade
solidarity. The technical reason for Equity's refusal to permit
performers to work was that the original employer with whom the
contract had been negotiated was the federal government, and that
Houseman and Welles constituted a new employer. A new contract
could not be negotiated with the new employer until the old employer
had given permission to release the play into the hands of Houseman
and Welles. Since this permission could not be obtained on short
notice-nor would it be likely to be granted at all-there could
be no contract and the artists couldn't perform. The play finally
ran commercially on Broadway for 13 weeks in 1938. However, the
musicians' local insisted that an orchestra be paid at full time
wages even though the only musician who played was Blitzstein
himself at the piano.
How long did the Federal Theater
The Federal Theater project
ran for four years, from 1935-1939, directed by Hallie Flanagan.
A year after its formation, there were 15,000 men and women on
the payroll, both professional actors, musicians and stage hands,
as well as unskilled workers who were hired simply because they
were unemployed. In four years, more than thirty million people
watched a wide variety of Federal Theater performances all over
the country. Audiences were not just the middle and upper classes
who had been the typical theater supporters. With the prices for
admission deliberately kept low enough for most people to afford,
the theater expanded its appeal to a wide range of audiences.
Plays were staged for unions, in community halls, in schools and
public parks, as well as in Broadway theaters. Two other plays
which are referred to in the movie, the performance of Macbeth
with an all-black cast, and Marlowe's Tragical History of Dr.
Faustus, were also WPA projects which Welles and Houseman worked
Did Mussolini really exchange
art for money from U.S. businessmen?
Whether Mussolini actually
traded classical artworks for money and supplies to aid his war
machine is not known for certain. However, during 1938-40 American
businessmen not only openly praised fascist endeavors in Europe,
but also sent large amounts of money and supplies to Mussolini,
as well as Hitler. These companies included Sears Roebuck, Quaker
Oats, Ford Motor Company, Texaco and many others. American business
interests also organized committees and organizations to help
support Mussolini and Hitler, such as the America First Committee.
High profile business leaders such as Henry Ford as well as Thomas
Watson of IBM received Nazi medals. Hearst's newspaper empire
syndicated Sarfatti's columns that sought to win public opinion
over to Mussolini's efforts to "build a new Rome," while
other businessmen wrote ultra-rightwing tracts, such as Henry
Ford's infamous "The International Jew" of which millions
of copies were printed & distributed.
Did Nelson Rockefeller really
destroy Rivera's mural?
The mural, entitled "Man at the Crossroads
Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and
Better Future," was begun in March 1933. Rockefeller was
furious at the heroic depiction of Lenin (not to mention the unflattering
portrait of capitalism) & demanded that it be removed. Rivera
refused, along with his assistants who threatened to strike if
the mural was changed. This was all through letters, not face
to face, by the way. Rivera stated "rather than mutilate
the conception, I should prefer the physical destruction of the
conception in its entirety, but preserving, at least, its integrity."
Rockefeller took his dare & fired Rivera, calling in the police
to expel him & his workmen from the Center. Demonstrations
soon followed. The mural was covered with canvas & finally
destroyed in February 1934. Rivera later re-painted a smaller
version of the mural at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico
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Are All Leaders: The Alternative Unionism of the Early
edited by Staughton
of Illinois, 1996)
the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated
History of Labor in the US
by Priscilla Murolo & A.B. Chitty
Decades: America in Prosperity & Depression, 1920-1941
by Michael E.
Rise & Fall of the New Deal Order
edited by Steve Fraser & Gary Gerstle
- Mark the Music:
the Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein
by Eric A. Gordon (St.
Martin's, 1989 - out
- Arena: The History
of the Federal Theater
by Hallie Flanagan (B.
Blom Press, 1965 - out
by John Houseman (Simon
& Schuster, 1972 - out
- Il Duce's Other
by Philip Cannistraro & Brian Sullivan
1993 - out
Art, My Life: An Autobiography
by Diego Rivera (Dover,
Some Interesting Websites:
Notice a historical
or factual error?
Know of a good book or website to add to the resources?