So here we are today, over a month out from November 8 and the electors were not as faithless as many of us had hoped. And in this time I’ve rehearsed, teched, opened, and closed Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 operetta The Cradle Will Rock. I’ve confronted the questions I think many of us have wondered in these last few weeks about the direction our theatre may be headed and what our responsibilities are as artists. Personally I have struggled to remained focused in the rehearsal room as my anxieties about our country’s future overwhelmed me and I have not found the work has not been the productive outlet for me that I might have hoped it would be. My own experience aside, there’s a moment in the text that stood out to me that I would like to call attention to:
Yasha: Cora, we’re artists.
In this scene, two artists — a musician and a painter — relinquish their own artistic integrity and compromise their dignity in the hopes of appealing to a wealthy woman who would support them financially. The two artists compete for her attentions and her money and are threatened by each other since they both must rely on her to survive. This scene is unfortunately timeless in its own way, but I think what is most notable is the statement Blitzstein makes with only these two short lines. The two artists easily “sell out,” dismissing the political implications of doing so because they are artists, going on to say they only love “art for art’s sake” — rather than for the sake of making any sort of political statement. I believe that Blitzstein’s choice to make these two artists be a painter and a musician rather than a theatre artist is telling. As a close admirer of Brecht, Blitzstein wrote the operetta with the country’s contemporary politics at the forefront of his mind, and indeed today the show is more widely known for being censored and performed anyway than for its actual content. I see Blitzstein as proposing that while other art forms might shy away from politics or be too self-referential, the theatre cannot be.
At this political moment, to me art solely made for art’s sake is selfish and petty. I believe our art right now should at least be doing something if we are going to be devoting any amount of time, effort, or money to it. At least that’s the art that I can stomach doing right now.