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Ilka Saal. New Deal Theater: The Vernacular Tradition in American Political Theater.

Ilka Saal. New Deal Theater: The Vernacular Tradition in American Political Theater. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. 232. $69.95.

Ilka Saal begins her book New Deal Theater with a story about the 1935 Theatre Union production of Bertolt Brecht's The Mother. Rather than utilizing Brecht's art of alienation, the company chose to adapt the play into one which would invite the audience to identify with the characters. By sentimentalizing the political nature of the play, the Union, in Brecht's opinion, destroyed his work. For the Theatre Union, however, the play had been made to fit the New Deal reformist climate of the times. When a heterogeneous audience could empathize with the human concerns at the heart of political issues, they felt, change could result. In spite of their best efforts to attract a broad audience, the play lasted only thirty-six performances.

With this example, Saal establishes the theme of her study, "that the leftist stages of the New Deal solved the dilemma of form and public by persistently vernacularizing the political issues at hand--that is, by translating them into a language commensurate with the cultural experience of a broad public steeped in mass culture" (2). Saal bases the rest of her work on her belief that during the New Deal era from 1932 to 1939, playwrights were influenced by the reformist nature of President Franklin Roosevelt's depression politics and, in fact, became self-designated tools to enforce the president's political agenda. She states that in order to support the liberal thrust of the New Deal, leftist theater, under the guise of cultural nationalism and the cult of the common person, tried to appeal to consumers of all classes. Because of this, the agitprop and alienist techniques used by European playwrights morphed into a more naturalistic, emotional drama that tugged at the heart strings rather than encourage viewers to lift their fists in protest and revolution.

In order to plot out her conception of the vernacular theater, Saal includes an excellent discussion of the origins of "political" theater, a term coined in the 1920s to describe the theater of the left. Meant to support a way of thinking and living, the purpose of political theater was originally to have a radical impact on the audience and then on reality itself. Saal explains how theater historians usually frame their discussions of political theater around Bertolt Brecht, Erwin Piscator, and other modernist playwrights without considering how mass culture eventually impacted the form as seen through the work of several playwrights. Because what Saal terms as "vernacular" theater has had little attention paid to it, her intention in the book is to develop both a theory and terminology for it, especially as it appeared in the United States.

Saal's building blocks for vernacular theater include the ability for plays to use the language of the established commercial culture such as melodrama, naturalism, revues, and musicals; for that language to utilize empathy, identification, and absorption, and for the entertainments to reach out to a broad, heterogeneous public who were the eager consumers of such an art form. In this way, Saal claims, "the political becomes pleasurable and that pleasure is channeled into political activism" (39).

Within the context of the 1930s, three crucial cultural developments enabled the vernacular character of New Deal theater to take shape. The first, according to Saal, was that no real avant-garde theater existed in the United States until after World War II. Audiences and artists were simply not interested in rebelling against the existing bourgeois art institutions. The second was that U.S. theater, even the leftist groups, wanted to make money and were, therefore, always commercially oriented. The third development was that of the great expansion of consumer culture in the 1920s that attracted hordes of middle-class audience members. During the Great Depression, numbers of these citizens were thrown into the working class. Their change in status did not dampen their fervor for entertainment, so, according to Saal, in response, leftist theater moved to a more moderate political position. In addition, frightened by the forces of fascism sweeping through Europe, the theater turned away from revolutionary political messages to more reformist messages, many of them expressing an aversion to war and a desire to improve conditions on the domestic front.

Saal supports her theories by investigating various forms of New Deal theater which brought new audiences to an awareness of relevant issues of their times. For example, Clifford Odets's 1935 Waiting for Lefty, seen through this vernacular theater lens, marks the transition from agitprop political propaganda to a realistic story palatable to the middle classes. Audiences were attracted to the play because it was not militant, but rather a humanist appeal to those who were out of work or facing impoverishment for the first time. For Saal, the play's popularity was a result of the fall of the middle-class professionals into the role of labor. The same year that Waiting for Lefty appeared, other plays also turned away from agitprop sketches to more full-length realist plays. The Theatre Union itself utilized melodramatic techniques to influence its audiences. The stock virtuous maiden and ruthless villain became the virtuous worker and the ruthless boss. Moral objectives were replaced with political ones, and at the end of each production, there was some mention of a revolutionary prophecy through a speech or tableau or something of that nature.

Saal also gives much attention to the labor musicals and Living Newspapers of the Federal Theatre Project, pointing out that the popular, The Cradle Will Rock, while leftist in plot actually reaffirmed the New Deal reformist agenda and the theater's new middle-class identity with consumerism and cultural nationalism. The play, she claims, was designed to secure the status quo, not to undermine it. Unionization was the way to end labor strife; an alliance between the middle class and organized labor would result in some control over capitalism so that it would no longer be "unfettered" (117). In support of her viewpoint, Saal points out that Marc Blitzstein, the creator of the show, noted that it was aimed at the middle class.

Saal also presents the Living Newspapers as having been designed for the average person who above all else valued patriotism and the democratic principles of the nation's founders. This very popular art form, she says, was created "to illuminate the various social and economic forces that determine people's lives" (124). Hallie Flanagan and her Federal Theater Project wanted to show how conditions could be improved for the average person. Plays such as One-Third a Nation and Power, both based on fact and experience, were, Saal claims, "safe propaganda," because they dealt with consumer issues and did not negate the existing political system. The former play saw its solution in shifting military spending to housing; the latter to bridle greedy capitalists so that the people could have affordable energy.

Saal concludes her work with a chapter on three political theater groups of the 1960s that merged the Brechtian alienation techniques with New Deal outreach based on cultural commonalities. The San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Bread and Puppet Theatre, and the Teatro Campesino, she reveals, all differed only in that they were less interested in reform than in offering countercultural alternatives to social and economic problems.

Saal's book is most interesting and valuable, but its one important weakness is the lack of a fuller historical context for both the 1930s and the 1960s. Saal presents the New Deal and the Vietnam era in a sketchy manner with little detail to help readers understand the connection between the plays' content and political programs of the day. She assumes that others will know the facts and can therefore give depth to her analysis on their own. The result will be a limited and puzzled audience for the book. More serious is her lack of knowledge of the antiwar sentiment of the interwar years as illustrated in her comment that the Albert Maltz and George Sklar 1933 play Peace on Earth was "oddly displaced" because it fell between two world wars but not during any (87). In fact, that and other antiwar plays exactly reflected the largest show of popular support against war in this nation's history, surpassing even the Vietnam War. A greater understanding of the history of the period would have significantly enhanced this otherwise fascinating work.


The City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center
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Author:Alonso, Harriet Hyman
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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