Six Plays from the American Workers' Theatre
Edited by Lee Papa
With this anthology of six plays, Lee Papa reintroduces readers and performers to a largely forgotten American theatrical genre from the 1920s and 1930s, the workers' theatre movement. In an introduction that gives background on the workers' theatre movement and traces its influence on American drama, from David Mamet and August Wilson to the work of Anna Deavere Smith and Vermont's Bread and Puppet Theatre, Papa explains the criteria for his selection of plays. Papa's section introductions provide historical, cultural, and literary context for each of the plays.
The first two plays in the anthology—Processional by John Howard Lawson and Upton Sinclair's Singing Jailbirds—reflect the large-scale arrests of strikers and union organizers during and after World War I. The next two plays were produced at labor colleges. Bonchi Friedman's 1926 play, The Miners, combines expressionism and realism in a drama about a violent strike that has an unusual female union leader as its hero. In Mill Shadows by Tom Tippett, a town changes from a simple industrial village into a place of rebellion and eventually a union community.
The last two plays are representative of those produced by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. In contrast to Irwin Swerdlow's one-act agitprop In Union There Is Strength, the musical revue Pins and Needles—until Oklahoma the longest-running musical on Broadway—is a collection of satirical sketches that parodies workers' theatre while simultaneously taking on serious issues like the treatment of blue- and white-collar workers and the rise of fascism overseas.