Once the insidious and malevolent corrupt buy their way into the halls of power, it seems impossible to oust or destroy them. However, The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein, directed and designed by John Doyle currently at CSC, reminds us that all is not hopeless. Indeed, corruption and those who revel in the money and preeminence it fosters must irrevocably crash to their doom as their sphere of influence which propagates great harm eventually is overthrown by the just. Indeed, there are always a glorious few who face great risk for the greater public good.
This sleek version of The Cradle Will Rock, Director Doyle fashions using the template of the original production which employed no elaborate spectacle (see this article about the original production). The actors are staged so that they move in toward the piano and outward and in the round (the CSC playing area which is actually a square surrounded by the audience). The pianists (I was impressed by their talent and the number of the cast some who play with exquisite grace.) also do double duty and sing beautifully as members of the ensemble.
The entire play is sung as a quasi opera, in a Bertolt Brecht style with ferocity and near didacticism. The subject matter of how dirty money is used to fuel predation and victimize the culture is worthy for this stylization. Cradle’s themes are mythic; its protagonists and antagonists timeless. The arc of development elevates the plot to the spiritual warfare of good vs. evil. We watch how the uncorrupted-awoke fight to bring truth and majestical courage to the souls of the unenlightened. This is done in the hope of empowering and freeing them of their subservience to power domination and demeaning cult worship of the “leader.”
The Brechtian music effected by the pianists and ensemble pounds out the plot and themes which clearly resonate for us today. In every corner of the world, we note representative Mr. Misters (the warlord of Steeltown) akin to dictators, autocrats, warlords.
In the setting of Steeltown, USA, the 1930s during the height of the depression, Mr. Mister, we learn from those whom he’s battered and destroyed (Harry the druggist-Tony Yazbeck) gained power and control through devious means. The action takes place over one night in a Steeltown jail during an action to unionize. When Moll (Lara Pulver) is thrown in jail rather than to give her favors to a corrupt cop (Eddie Cooper), she is befriended by Harry the druggist. In flashback scenes the ensemble enacts, we learn how Mr. Mister (David Garrison) surreptitiously grabbed power. Harry explains Mr. Mister’s machinations to the mistakenly jailed Liberty Committee (the ensemble). They are Mr. Mister’s fandom anti-union support group, who wait for Mr. Mister to bail them out; they are not as police thought part of the pro-union protest.
The flashbacks identify how any corrupt power broker operates…surreptitiously, without the light of truth being shined on their oppressive, coercive, fraudulent actions. Thus, the ensemble reveals the events of how Mr. Mister’s wife (Sally Ann Triplett) buys support and influence to solidify his power network corralling important institutions like the press (Editor Daily-Ken Barnett), the church (Reverend Salvation-Benjamin Eakeley) the factory and social organizations.
Harry points up the ruthlessness of Mr. Mister who killed a newly elected union leader and his family in a fire bombing and caused Harry to lose his business and drop into hopelessness and despair. Of course the irony is in not blowing the whistle on Mr. Mister and risking death for his testimony, Harry ends up being destroyed in a living death by Mr. Mister who coerces him into his own mewling self-destruction. Indeed, the revelatory theme is better to die a martyr in the hope of bringing down evil than sustain a living death while the corrupt grow and evolve like monsters engulfing all in their path to get what they want which never includes the public good.
Eventually, all of the prominent and influential members of Steeltown join Mr. Mister’s fandom Liberty Committee and this entrenched power structure runs roughshod over the “little people.” We learn for example that Mr. Mister bullies and commands others like President Prexey (Ken Barnett) to adhere to and foment his political policies. We also learn of cover-ups of accidents despite witnesses (Rema Webb) because of Mr. Mister’s negligence. His lack of accountability is legend which he keeps in the shadows buying off the press and threatening others with harm if they “spill the beans.”
The heroes of Cradle, Moll who is a conduit and listener of truth, Harry who knows the truth but waits too late to reveal it, Ella Hammer who witnessed a death and cover-up and courageous union leader Larry Foreman (Tony Yazbeck in an ironic choice for he also plays the devastated Harry). The union leader activist is arrested and brought to the jail for distributing leaflets. All of these individuals stand against the Liberty Committee whom they try to persuade against Mr. Mister.
However, when Mr. Mister comes to free the committee from jail, we understand that his fan base has neither the intelligence, the spiritual will, the courage, nor the understanding to recognize that a nefarious, demoralizing, psychotic sociopath is a danger to their own well being and freedom. The title of the Liberty Committee is a sardonic Orwellian touch for they are too blind to be free. Blitzstein’s work is one sardonic trope after another. As for the duped committee, they live trapped in their outer material selves, not in their souls or extended consciousness, mind, will.
Meanwhile, Mr. Mister also offers to bail out Larry Foreman. Accepting the bail money has a price: join Mr. Mister’s extended perfidious enterprise and work against the union, a work to enslave the community, not free it. Foreman rejects Mr. Mister’s offer. The Liberty Committee excoriates/ridicules him for his courage which they interpret as stupidity. But Foreman who takes the high road and remains in jail makes a sterling prophecy to himself and to us. With defiance he predicts that Mr. Mister’s oppressive, corrupt power over Steeltown will end.
Indeed, the implication is clear in every century, in every time and place. The warning for such infantile autocrats who must control all at their own whim like a petulant child is “The Cradle Will Rock!” And as surely as the wind blows with increasing strength, that cradle inevitably, will fall bringing down dictator baby.
This production certainly speaks for our time and we may take heart, if we wish, that Larry Foreman’s prophecy is an inevitability. I enjoyed the minimalism of props which the actors use seamlessly. And I enjoyed the use of greenbacks which dominate the scenes to illustrate how Mr. Mister’s wife, et. al buys his influence from those equally corrupt who take the money and support his rise in exchange for their freedom of choice to stop him.
The greenbacks which eventually end up in a big pile (the symbol of velvet destruction) in the center of the playing space, are left by the head of the Steelworker’s Union, Larry Foreman. He cannot be bought. The money is an appropriate symbol of what can make human beings like Mr. Mister and his minions in Steeltown pernicious, callous, hardened and wicked.
“Apparently” fewer in number, there are those like Moll, Harry the druggist, Ella Hammer and Larry Foreman who eschew the “love of money” to kill/defraud/lie/steal for it or be complicit with those who do. How many have the strength of purpose, unction and anointing to do follow their heroic example and create a better world? Many, though it appears to be easier to go the way of Mr. Mister’s Liberty Committee. By the conclusion it is to the unseen “many” of like minded individuals that Larry Foreman makes his prophecies. In them lies the hope of the fierce wind that will rock the cradle.
Blitzstein’s work initiated as a result of the debacle of The Great Depression, then and now highlights how economic inequality was and is a by-product of power elites who purchase institutions (religious, press, law enforcement, industry, social networks) to hold sway. In a time of economic prosperity it is impossible to corral people to do one’s bidding. Thus, the push for economic equality, the production reveals, encourages a strong and stable social system which discourages autocracy, plutocracy, dictatorship, “one-man rule.” Indeed, who pushes the culture in order to exacerbate economic inequality which is the lifeblood of instability and divisiveness? Who indeed!
This is a fine production thanks to these talented actors: Ken Barnett, Eddie Cooper, Benjamin Eakeley, David Garrison, Ian Lowe, Kara Mikula, Lara Pulver, Sally Ann Triplett, Rema Webb, Tony Yazbec. Doyle’s direction/staging/design is spot-on. And kudos go those creatives responsible for Costume Design (Ann Hould-Ward) Lighting (Jane Cox, Tesse James) Music Supervisor (Gregg Jarrett) Associate Scenic Design (David L. Arsenault) Associate Costume Design (Amy Price).
Here is a caveat for this production. The lyrics to the songs are gems. The voices of the actors, the gemcutters. The more precisely enunciated with authenticity, the more beautiful the overall piece of jewelry (the song). Indeed, we long for exquisite, priceless pieces. At times, the gemcutters in the production, were imprecise; the song lyrics were garbled. When the cutters were precision sharp and clear, the songs soared and thrilled. This is a potentially stunning production which fell a bit short for that reason and that alone.
Nevertheless, it is a must-see as a trenchant allegory for our time. The Cradle Will Rock runs with no intermission about 90 minutes. The show closes on 19 May. You can purchase tickets at their website by CLICKING HERE.
Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, directed by John Doyle and currently at Classic Stage, presents the quintessential diagram of how authoritarianism may evolve and devour all in its path. Brecht’s ironic verse shows that the road most despots take escalates demagoguery through fear, intimidation, public acceptance of blatant criminality, and government acquiescence via malfeasance.
Using George Tabori’s translation, Doyle explores with startling clarity how the political tactics of scapegoating, smear campaigns, and bullying terror can anesthetize the public into submission. Doyle’s clear-eyed rendering and Raúl Esparza’s performance mesmerize and appall with Brechtian truths. Huge plaudits go to Esparza’s authentic, brilliantly charged Chicago gangster, Arturo Ui. Everyone who sees this triumph by Doyle and cast will be galvanized. Whether to insure that every citizen’s vote counts or to speak out and redress civil rights abuses, this work encourages the audience to actively participate and strengthen their democracy against invidious government rule by thuggery.
Seminally, Doyle’s production reveals that the core of social and cultural depravity lies in the will of the people. The director conveys this through expert shepherding of the actors. And thematically he threads it throughout the sets, staging, and costumes. As the production underscores, the people hold the power. And they must “resist.” Their participation in upholding the moral and social good remains paramount.
Surely, Arturo Ui’s (a satirical caricature of Hitler) rise could have been prevented. The production signals the obvious turning points where the people faltered and allowed malfeasance to spread its rot, even in such a benign business as the cauliflower trade. When individuals in power cave to amorality, they promote a climate where calumny promoted by the media, political malfeasance, and chicanery infect the society and gain a foothold. With the avid assistance of sycophants, toadies, and other compromised, morally vacant human beings, a Hitler, an Arturo Ui, a Vladimir Putin, a Donald Trump gains power. Otherwise, the culture and its supporting tentacles (media, charitable institutions, businesses, non-profits, etc.), would take a stand. Grounded in principles of honor, they would repudiate political, dictatorial criminality with civil rights measures.
Brecht’s play and Doyle’s iteration of it reveal what happens if oppressors ascend to the top of the political pyramid, compromising the “incorruptible” (in the play Dogsborough represents German Chancellor Hindenberg) and gaining control. Unless people are willing to fight hard and sometimes die to push back against such treason to the nation-state, removal of the despot becomes impossible. In Doyle’s precisely executed Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui we see the interplay among corporations, criminals, and political parties. Often, they meld into one. When each collapses from inner decay, ethics dissolves for the body politic. Right becomes wrong, up becomes down, left becomes right. Then the autocrat, whether it be an Ui, a Hitler, or a Trump defines what “ethical,” “legal” and “legitimate” mean.
Ever the self-dealer, Ui pounces when news leaks that the honorable Dogsborough (the excellent Christopher Gurr) can be compromised. Because Dogsborough allows himself to be tricked, he disintegrates everything moral and noble within. When he vouches for the Cauliflower Trust in a loan deal gone sour, Ui capitalizes. And he makes “the deal” into a stepping stone to seize power.
Ui’s scandalous story of lies and smears about Dogsborough caves in a once viable business network. Through a reign of terror and murder, which the courts overlook and a corrupted law enforcement upholds, Ui takes over the Trust. Eventually, the town of Cicero succumbs to his regime as he moves to seize all in his path. Parallel to Ui’s rants, Brecht/Doyle describes how Hitler invades Austria. Both legitimize their actions as a common good. How can folks take these despots at their word? Indeed, how?
From the costumes to the sets Doyle emphasizes the play’s themes. Brecht aligns each juncture of Ui’s takeover with the historic rise of Hitler. First, Hitler attacks German democratic institutions. Opportunistically, he co-opts German Chancellor Hindenburg the year before the old man died. Hindenburg allowed Hitler to seize the government after political infighting insured that Hitler’s Nazi attack dog Ernest Roehm would be ousted/killed. By the end of the play, Hitler annexes Austria with Austrians’ help. In Brecht’s parallel, Cicero’s terrified citizens (like Austria’s) overwhelmingly align with Ui. Gangsterdom emboldened by the whitewash of citizen support casts the usurpation as legitimate.
Arturo Ui’s rise to power from Chicago mobster to elected political “hero” parallels Hitler’s takeover of Germany without the full majority of the German people’s support. Interestingly, we recollect that Trump lost the popular vote. Sadly, almost one-third of the nation neglected to participate in the voting process. Indeed, Trump’s was a minority win. So was Hitler’s! So is Ui’s. Nevertheless, it is this win which opens the floodgates for world domination as the despots ignite mayhem, murder, terror, and genocide.
Kudos to Doyle and the ensemble whose staging clarifies a difficult verse play full of ironic Shakespearean allusions. Doyle’s set encompasses a large wire fence reminiscent of a prison setting, or a detention camp. Interestingly, this fence provides the wire “curtain” or barrier walling in from out, the playing area. Actors also use the area behind the fence for announcements and as a visible holding pen before their entrances. From behind this fence-like curtain, they narrate the prelude of Brecht’s play. A gate in the middle allows ingress and egress. And the central action/paradigm occurs in the inner sanctum (playing area), adjacent to it.
Sadly, the more powerful the recognition of the analogies that Doyle sets up to our own period of challenged civil liberties in the U.S., the more horrifically ludicrous Arturo Ui and his willing henchmen appear. Indeed, Ui’s and his goons’ caged-in, bound-up souls turn maniacal by Ui’s concluding speech.
The actors perform their roles with precision. Esparza’s weak-minded, Trumpian, whining criminal with mannerisms like Hitler’s brings humor and reality to a role often played as a caricature. His Ui is inimically real and dimensional. His superbly rendered arias justify corruption as legal, enthrall, and hypnotize. His speech about faith and loyalty magnificently, humorously, and hypocritically shows the demagogue’s urges to devour the minds and souls of his followers. Ui imagines himself the savior of the people, calling for them to believe him for he is trustworthy.
Where have we heard this before? Doyle underscores this point when at the conclusion we hear chants of “Lock her up,” and see Ui wearing a long red tie. The parallel sickens because it hits so close to home. And then come the last lines to the effect that, yes, the world powers overthrew Hitler, but this brings no assurances. For the “bitch that bore him is in heat again.” As we consider all the dictators and warlords around the globe who glory in terror, murder, and oppression, Brecht’s truths solidify. Did the populace uphold and understand the vital purpose of the social contract to a healthy government? Do we?
In a moral, self-sustaining world of plenty, those in power would rebuff Ui in the fictional Cicero. But in an economic depression when resources become scarce, ethics collapse with individuals’ desperation. Economic deprivations create despots who promise to return the society to safety, “greatness,” and prosperity. With the effects of climate change daily narrowing the resources (viable land, food, water) humans rely on to live and prosper, the rise of the thug dictator class threatens more than ever.
This production and the play remain a guiding watchtower for our times, for all times. By revealing what has happened, they guide us as to what citizens must not do. Notably, they must not resort to resignation and disengagement. They must speak out, demand redress, and vilify corruption, even to the point of sacrifice and death. Laissez-faire approaches perpetrate oppression for all, for despots expect no reaction to their appalling behavior. But legitimized bullying cannot abide when citizens resist it. Save for the social contract between citizens and government officials, which strengthens the bonds between our rights and responsibilities and enforcement of government accountability, we are lost.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui directed and designed by John Doyle runs at CSC until 22 December. The cast includes George Abud, Eddie Cooper, Elizabeth A. Davis, Thom Sesma, Omozé Idehenre, Mahira Kakkar, and Christopher Gurr. Kudos go to Ann Hould-Ward (Costume Design), Jane Cox and Tess James (Lighting Design), and Matt Stine (Sound Design). For tickets visit CSC’s website.