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K. Blatanis on I. Saal’s New Deal Theater

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1Saal, Ilka. New Deal Theater: The Vernacular Tradition in American Political Theater. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. 232. ISBN 1-4039-7801-8

2Ilka Saal discusses the particular qualities of a distinctive American model of political theater that she defines by the term “vernacular.” The author traces this vernacular tradition from the moments of its original conception and sufficient practice on New Deal stages, throughout the 1930s, to phases of interesting redefinition its dynamics underwent in the 1960s, when experimental theater groups attempted to “amalgamate” selective properties of it with those borrowed from the major and directly conflicting perception of political theater, no other than the Brechtian epic model. It is precisely against this massively influential theater practice that Saal attempts to outline the contours of the vernacular in American theater. The scholar’s investigations are triggered by the fruitless attempts of Theater Union to follow the principles of the epic tradition and collaborate with Bertolt Brecht and co-author Hanns Eisler for the production of The Mother in 1935. The answer to the direct question “what went wrong with Brecht on Broadway?” is given through a succinct yet clear account of the socio-economic and political factors active in the U.S. context in the 1930s that facilitated the establishment of an entirely different political theater practice. It is stressed that the vernacular practice was part of “a consistent cultural logic […] deeply embedded in the economic and political processes of the American 1930s” (15), for as the author points out “by 1935, the revolution was no longer on the agenda of the American left [which] sought to […] consolidate a Popular Front against fascism and war” (18).

3 Precisely because reform and redefinition rather than rejection of the system were recognized as primary goals, American theater artists deliberately invested in “transforming moments of alienation into moments of identification” (11), being convinced  that “empathy was indispensable to the successful political education of the audience” (2). In their terms, the political had to be made “pleasurable and palatable” (4). In sharp contrast to the epic tradition, New Deal theater artists validated acts of “vernacuralizing the political issues […] translating them into a language commensurate with the cultural experience of a broad public steeped in mass culture” (2). Saal borrows the term “vernacular” from Fredric Jameson and his highly influential insight into postmodern architecture, and explains that she resorts to such a loan, since the artists she focuses on speak the very language of “a commercial sign system […] using its lexicon and syntax” (37). In particular, along the parameters of the vernacular theater practice what is being employed is the very “customary lexicon of entertainment (melodrama, naturalism, revue, musical) and [the] conventional syntax of empathy, identification, and absorption” (37). Effectively enough, Saal addresses the richness and polysemy of the term she employs. Thus, the vernacular is also read as the manifestation and consequential materialization of an “indigenous mode […] drawing on the colloquial language of the ‘common man’ […] profoundly non-elitist, democratic and populist in form and politics” (37), an idiom “resonant with the experience of subjugated communities” (39). Yet, for all its attractive features the reader is informed, early on, that what is studied here is a form of political theater that, in essence, proves to be “reformist rather than revolutionary in its political agenda” (51).

4 In the first chapter, the author examines the early instances of the particular tradition and specifies her theoretical standpoint as well as her research goals. Being receptive and sensitive to critical schemes introduced by the main representatives of the Frankfurt School and their followers as well as the ones developed by thinkers associated with the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Saal is led to pose the question whether it is possible to locate “any positive value in forms of political theater that chose to cooperate with the dominant cultural apparatus using its very conventions, traditions, and venues” (22). She continues with a genealogy of political theater, in the second chapter, attempting to elaborate further on the differences between the vernacular and the epic. Thus, it is adequately stressed that these two models differ substantially both in their responses to the “naturalist legacy” (31) as well as their interaction with “mass culture” and the force field of the “commodity” (36). In her effort to elucidate the particular nature of the vernacular tradition in American political theater, she explains that the establishment of a process not of replacement but of expropriation and transformation of “bourgeois art” (40) was directly linked to the absence of the historical avant-garde in the U.S., the commercial concerns even of leftist artists (43) in combination with the “aesthetics of consumerism” (45), and the special make-up of the quintessentially “heterogeneous” theater public in America (47). This is indeed a challenging field of study, noted for its multiple possibilities and directions, some of which are only alluded to, in this book. Thus, for example, questions about the non-modernist or anti-modernist effacement of boundaries “between high and low, innovative and traditional, elitist and mass-culture” (40) that clearly anticipate postmodern positions, are raised but not rigorously hunted down. Attention could have been given to the ways in which conventional forms such as the revue or the musical were affected or redefined, once “visited” by the political. In other words, what could have been posed is the question whether it would be possible and productive to talk of a reciprocal interaction, in this case. Furthermore, intriguing points can be raised by enlarging one’s scope to include the issue that it was also in this period of the mid and late 1930s that the cinema, Hollywood in particular, established its cultural hegemony exploiting these same modes of empathy, identification, and mass appeal. Similarly, questions arise regarding the nature of the above mentioned mélange of antithetical tropes and whether this can be likened and compared to the postmodern pastiche, that the critic evokes via her recourse to Jameson’s reading of postmodernity. However, it is important to highlight that Saal’s decision to focus on specific and substantial points proves constructive. In a careful manner, she interrogates the very efficacy of the vernacular political theater practice. In simple terms, what the critic forcefully explores is the mode in which the political message per se is communicated and what the presented political issues as such entail, along the lines of this particular model. In addition, by means of a balanced and well-documented account, Saal brings to the surface and exposes adequately the limitations and contradictions of the tradition she studies.

5 The author pursues her goals focusing on selective cases that proved particularly popular on the stages of the New Deal era. In chapter three, she reviews briefly the outcome of amateur and semi-professional ventures attempted by workers’ theater groups and proceeds to examine how their practices affected directly Clifford Odets’ mode of handling the political, in his monumental work Waiting for Lefty. In Saal’s terms, these theater groups combined agitprop techniques with “key tenets of bourgeois sentimental drama” (60) and exerted great influence on Odets’ play that “pleaded its case in decidedly emotional terms” (68). The critic attempts no rigorous application of the theoretical schemes coming from the two different schools of cultural criticism she briefly resorts to, in the first two chapters. Rather, she attempts to ground her own argument by studying closely the plays and offering a detailed historical account of the reception of productions of them, examining reactions coming both from the critics as well as the public. However, what is interesting about her tactics and also proves her sensitivity to diverse models of cultural critique is the fact that she often concludes on points similar to those voiced by critics who may easily dismiss these works as apolitical or inadequately committed. Saal, though, reaches such conclusions, only after she has explained thoroughly, and in most cases quite convincingly, what is valuable and essential about the plays. Thus, she makes clear that in the case of Waiting for Lefty, “the play’s revolutionary thrust was far from militant,” since the strike was cast not “as an appeal for intervention but primarily as a metaphor for personal decision-making and conversion” (72). At the end of the chapter, it is not possible for the reader to dismiss the play simply as apolitical, since the critic has spent considerable time clarifying the ways in which the work decisively contributed to turning “the professional American stage [into] a public sphere in which contemporary problems could be addressed and discussed” (75), even if the artists’ aim was to reaffirm trust in the reforming possibilities of the system itself.

6Similarly, in her study of Theatre Union’s productions of Peace on Earth, Stevedore, Black Pit—recognized as typical cases of proletarian melodrama—Saal stresses how ambivalent their stance towards socio-political matters was, noting that these types of works “anchor the political in the personal” (88), “appealing to the better nature of American capitalism to save itself from itself” (89). Once again, inevitably, the questions that arise concern the genuine political nature of these endeavors. This is exactly the reason why Saal strives to make sure her reader understands that in the New Deal environment these attempts were “linked to an underlying project of national reconstruction” (89). Reflecting other contemporary cultural ventures, these works were “indicative of the American left’s attempt to adjust its politics to larger political changes” (106); however, this “new populism [was purchased] at the price of a loss of radicalism” (106). If there is anything substantially political in these cases, according to Saal, it is the direction towards instances of aligning “labor interests with New Deal policy” (108), thanks to the works’ “reconciliatory political stance” (109), established once they had “forfeited their claim to radical intervention” (108). The critic is fully aware that the very definition of the term “political” is at stake here and it is precisely in this vein that in her study of Labor Musicals, such as the labor revue Pins and Needles and the Living Newspapers of the Federal Theater, in the fourth chapter, she stresses that these were attempts that “served to secure rather than undermine the status quo” (111), meant to “elicit wide popular support for Roosevelt’s NewDeal” (133), “attack[ing] the corporate system but not capitalism itself” (134). She is thus led to the most important questions pertaining to her explorations, as she rigorously examines the types of changes these artists were really interested in (148). What she finds redeeming about the musicals, for example, is the successful manner in which these works restated vehemently the fact that “the collective power of labor culture [is required] to secure [the system’s] democratic foundations” (149). Saal argues that the works she discusses are significant for being in accordance with the time’s general thrust of leftist cultural critique that defended liberal democracy against fascism, a momentum in which theater proved an active agent. All in all, despite the fact that she often feels compelled to defend the tradition she discusses, Saal does not disregard the serious drawbacks of this particular theater practice.

7 Thus, the scholar’s eagerness to locate and explore occasions of theater practice that prove effective in communicating adequately the political can be easily explained. It is no surprise that in conclusion, Saal turns to the 1960s and examines the experimental work of two street theater troupes, Bread and Puppet and El Teatro Campesino, as distinct cases in which Brechtian modes and techniques were innovatively integrated with features of the vernacular tradition. The author stresses that these practices were now possible, since by the late 1950s not only the American left had changed its attitude towards Brecht but also the entire trajectory of the epic tradition had already started being recognized and established as a major agent of influence throughout Western drama. In Schumann’s Bread and Puppet theater, the employment of the vernacular is detected in occurrences of alienation which are decisively reformed thanks to “a sensibility of the heart […] fueled by moral conviction and intense emotional concern [that] can trigger if not immediate political action then at least ethical responsibility” (159). Saal examines carefully Schumann’s efforts to exploit “the productive incongruity and indeterminacy [of] a ritual that is both cleansing and community building” (162). In particular, what is being invested is the artistic expression of “a counter-community […] that opposes dominant modes of production and consumption” (162). While, in the case of El Teatro Campesino, attention is given to “the vernacular language of Chicano working-class culture, the appeal to the cultural and political expertise of the farm worker, and the verisimilitude of the acto in the amateur character of the presentation—combined to tease out and enhance the spectator’s identification with the political, an identification that is at once pleasurable and critical” (170). As a result, Saal reaches areas where political positions are sufficiently attained. In the critic’s own words, “the new folk vernacular of the 1960s was meant to radically undermine and unsettle the status quo of American society, particularly its definitions of class and taste” (175).

8 Ilka Saal’s study proves important and successful mainly in two ways. On the one hand, what is offered is an unbiased and adequately documented insight into outstanding cases of American political theater of the New Deal era. Attention is given to valuable traits and redeeming features of a practice noted mostly for its ambivalent stance. On the other hand, significantly enough, Saal’s work interrogates the very notion of the political in theater. The critic shows why and how the political is indeed challenging on stage, highlighting that this is a category in need of constant reassessment and rigorous reclaiming, since limits and boundaries can be productively transcended but also, on some occasions, precariously defied.

  Konstantinos Blatanis, University of Athens

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« K. Blatanis on I. Saal’s New Deal Theater », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2009, document 5, Online since 12 March 2009, connection on 15 December 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/7517

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