ON EVE OF COLD WAR II, CAL REP’S “LEFTY” REMINDS US WHAT’S AT STAKEBy Greggory Moore
There’s a reason a preponderance of Western intellectuals in the first two-thirds of the 20th century had great hopes for communism. It’s not because they did not believe in or advocate for freedom[i] (these people have tended to be our greatest proponents of universal human rights—never mind that intellectual pursuits fare best with the free exchange of ideas, unbridled access to information, etc.), nor that they were unpatriotic. Rather, it’s that these people comprised the stratum of humanity best equipped to gather and process information sans the blinders of any particular nationalistic ideology, and thus they could not help but be aware of the verifiable evils that, at least during the second quarter of the 20th century, seemed unavoidable under capitalism.[ii]
“The more things change, the more they stay the same” does not seem the most out-of-place aphorism of the moment; the unchecked greed of our plutocracy and the myopic spending practices of a consumer class (trying always to have more for the sake of having more) has yielded disastrous results, throwing us into what is in many ways our worst post-Depression economic reality. And while many Americans have responded by focusing on immigration, preventing gay marriage and dictating where Muslims build cultural centers—in short, anywhere other than seriously looking at whether some of our nation’s basic operating principles might be flawed—others have wondered if truly tweaking American-style capitalism might have salubrious effects.
By my advanced mathematical calculations, we’ve got roughly two years until Sarah Palin and the Fox Newsillies bring the term “pinko” back into vogue as a description of anybody with seditious aims like healthcare as an American right. It seems the first shots of Cold War II are being fired, although this go-’round the weapons of choice are trained on our own. The battlefield of Cold War II is right here: in the American realm of ideas.
Cal Rep has obviously joined the battle by opening its 2010–2011 season with Waiting for Lefty: Seeing Red, a seamless conflation of Clifford Odets’ agitprop centering around his 1935 one-act Waiting for Lefty (itself a collection of vignettes centering around a New York cab-drivers’ union as they consider going on strike). And its production is a clear counteroffensive.
Christ, this is getting awfully political for a theatre review. I mean, where’s the actual review part, right? Well, skip down the page and you’ll find it. But political discussion here could not be more apropos. After all, Odets created Waiting for Lefty and certain other plays largely as a response to—and to elicit a response against—the capitalist system, which, unable to support the wanton and frivolous excess and profiteering that became rampant as the United States grew into an industrial behemoth, became a crushing weight on tens of millions. And then there’s Cal Rep, which has chosen to co-create and stage its current offering in response to these same concerns, concerns still painfully relevant in our own time.[iii]
Like just about every oppression-hating thinker of his time, Odets saw in communistic theory (which should not be run together with the totalitarian practices of the various national governments calling themselves communist states) a valuation of the human worth of the working class often entirely absent in American capitalism.
“If big business went sentimental over human life,” says industrialist Fayette in Waiting for Lefty as he attempts to convince lab assistant Miller to spy on a fellow chemist as the company gears up to produce nerve gas for the U.S. military,[iv] “there wouldn’t be big business of any sort!”
Miller refuses. “Rather dig ditches first,” he says.
“That’s a job for foreigners,” replies Fayette.
“Sneaking—and making poison gas—that’s for Americans?” Miller asks.
Odets saw that, according to the capitalist military-industrial complex of the time, it was indeed.[v]
Okay, there’s more to theatre than politics. And the dexterity of a production can almost always be considered outside of the content. But sometimes—as with this show—the content can be left out of that side of the review only partially. Because here director Kim Rubinstein has done what any good director should do when she has the chance: allow the content to inform the form.
Let’s start with the clear choice of primary color: red, as in the color of the Soviet flag (and more generally, communism).[vi] In Odets’ world, this does not stand for Stalinism and the later atrocities committed by the U.S.S.R., but rather evokes the nation that, in theory, first adopted the socialist hope that “to each according to his need,” [vii] and for keeping both the power and the fruits of labor equitably distributed into the hands of all the people, not concentrated above the near-tangible gap between the rich and the poor.
Then there are the bits of mise en scène I can best describe as moveable pairs of vertical bars. Throughout this play and its open and relatively minimalist set these bars serve various framing functions quite effectively, but we can’t help being reminded of jail cells (particularly during the finale), a parallel of the metaphorical gilded cage which is capitalism, a system that for all its good(s) has also produced We the People as prisoners of our own success.
The above-mentioned openness of scene facilitates Cal Rep to skip effortlessly between Odets’ plays, selecting a variety of vignettes which totalize as a tapestry[viii] of Depression-era experience that sends a clear message: the American dream should be a dream of a better life for all, not just the privileged few, and we should band together to get it. As Norma Rae concisely put it, “UNION.”[ix]
I wouldn’t know how to single out any member of a cast of an ensemble piece in which some actors play three roles and every actor is perfect throughout, so I’ll leave it at that. It’s also hard to single out for praise any scene in a series of perfect scenes.
Deserving of special mention, though, is the sequence that is obviously the most crafted by Cal Rep itself: a 1932 live radio broadcast. Constructed as a literalized metaphor of how capitalism prompts members of the working class to subject themselves and each other to the most abject suffering in the desperate pursuit of financial gain, we watch poor working stiffs agonize through a marathon dance contest, a “Wonder Bread Derby” (literally fighting themselves and each other to get the bread), and embarrassing themselves (for the amusement of the upper class at home) by trying their exhausted hands at a dramatic reading of a scene in Odets’ own Golden Boy. It is, to put it simply, inspired.
Perhaps Rubinstein’s only misstep is the play’s opening. A Babel of dialog (presumably from several Odets plays at once) smoothly gives way to a chorale of Savage Garden’s “I’ll Be Your Fantasy,” a contemporary tag that probably sets the wrong tone for what’s to come. Sure, the audience applauded in response—not really appropriate, as this isn’t really meant as a set piece (more of an epigraph)—but it put the audience in a modern mindset, which resulted in totally inappropriate laughter at the first lines of the decipherable dialog—a response, I presume, to the incongruity of suddenly hearing a ’30s effect delivering Odets’ compelling conversational stylings (because surely there’s nothing funny in corrupt union head Harry Fatt’s diatribe on the futility of strike tactics.)
But however questionable the opening, the closing is even more rousingly dead-on. Labor leader Lefty has been found with a bullet in his head—capitalism can eat its own every bit as well as communism—and the assembled “stormbirds of the working class” finally band together in a general call for a strike. The manner in which they do so is full of anger, determination and power, and we can’t help but glimpse the possibility of change. Together. If only we transcend the propaganda of the power structure and act on the courage of our convictions.
If only. What are we waiting for?
WAITING FOR LEFTY: SEEING RED CALIFORNIA REPERTORY CO. • THE ROYAL THEATRE ABOARD THE QUEEN MARY (1126 QUEENS HWY) • LONG BEACH 90802 • 562.985.5526 CALREP.ORG • TUES-SAT 8PM, EXCEPT ON OCT 1–2, 8–9, 15–16, WHICH BEGIN AT 6 PM • $15–$20 (PARKING $6–$8—BUT YOU CAN TAKE THE PASSPORT FREE) • THROUGH OCT 16
[i] A prime example is Jean-Paul Sartre, who certainly would have said that freedom is at the very core of human nature, had be been less aversive to essentialist talk.
[ii] Remember that once upon a time communism was untested in practice. By the late 20th century the various experiments in communism around the globe had, for various reasons (some perhaps inherent to communism, some certainly not), failed spectacularly by most metrics. Hindsight is relatively 20/20, of course, so it’s not like these same intellectuals (and their successors) continue(d) to consider communism a possible savior (Sartre, for example, denounced the Soviet Union and more or less renounced communism after the Soviets’ 1956 invasion of Hungary), even as they/we suggest that certain socialist policies and ideals, hybridized into capitalism (capitalism being a market system from which you probably can never free yourself in a free society), may hold great promise for improving our social and economic milieu.
[iv] Wait, you thought only Saddam and the Nazis had ever done such things?
[v] Ironically, when brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, Odets complied with the committee by identifying American communists.
[vi] Of course, “seeing red” also means being angry, which is very much in play here, too.
[vii] I.e., “in theory” because what happened in practice turned out rather differently. The quote is Marx.
[viii] In terms of the cumulative effect, don’t think Short Cuts, Robert Altman’s quasi-random culling of Raymond Carver short stories; this is more along the lines John Sayles’s City of Hope, a tale of society and people (i.e., more than persons).
[ix] For those who don’t recognize the reference, it comes from the eponymous, pro-unionization film that garnered Sally Field (post-Flying Nun, pre-Forrest’s mom) her first Oscar.