Cradle 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 simultaneously.

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.

While Blitzstein's 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?"

The congressional 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."

Nelson Rockefeller did commission Diego Rivera to create a mural for the newly built Rockefeller Center. However, this happened in 1933.

Margherita Sarfatti 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 little dangerous.


Why did the union prevent the actors and musicians from performing when the message of the musical was pro-union?
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 project last?
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 on together.


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 City .


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Further Resources


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