Monday, October 15, 2012

Off Off Broadway: 1931-

Eighty years ago, the very talented and very left-leaning Group Theatre (its avowed mission was to express "propaganda for a better life" and its members included Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and Clifford Odets) staged the play 1931 – , a one-dimensional cartoonish depiction of the unemployed during the Great Depression.  Written by Claire and Paul Sifton, the play wasn’t very good and ran for only twelve performances, which may explain why no one ever thought to revive it until now.

The relatively new ReGroup Theatre Company (formed less than three years ago) has now taken it upon itself to revive 1931- at The Living Theatre on Clinton Street in downtown Manhattan, as part of its mission to re-publish and re-produce “lost” Group Theatre plays. Given that 1931- wasn’t a very good play to begin with, ReGroup Theatre should be commended for what it has managed to pull off. With 13 actors playing more than 65 different roles and weaving in and out onstage, the play is not so much directed as choreographed. But it is all accomplished relatively seamlessly and Allie Mulholland, the director, deserves credit for a tough job well done.

The play's plot is a simple one. Adam (Stephen Dexter), having been fired from his warehouse job over a minor squabble with his boss, strives relentlessly to find another job. But in 1931, that is no easy task. Millions of others are out of work as well and Adam’s life spins out of control. He loses his home, his health deteriorates, he risks losing the girl he loves. He resorts to begging, joins breadlines, sleeps in parks, even contemplates crime. And he is but a symbol of the millions of others who are in the same predicament. It is all to no avail. By the end of the play, it seems that revolution is the only solution.

Dexter plays his role with considerable passion but there is nothing he can do about the limitations of the role itself, the shallowness of the play, and the playwrights’ failure to provide any real character development. The play’s other actors have even rougher rows to hoe, with even less to work with and, considering how little they have been provided, do a more than adequate job of communicating their cliché-driven, redundant messages.

One finalfinal aside: the play 1931– glorifies the struggling unemployed masses who suffered during the Great Depression and that is a noble, understandable and commendable sentiment. But some have compared the plight of those proud and independent Great Depression casualties with today’s Occupy Wall Streeters and assorted protesters and that is not merely wrong-headed but an insult to the memories of those who suffered so during the 1930s. The unemployed workers featured in 1931- sought only one thing: jobs of any kind so that they might earn money with dignity, avoid the government dole, raise their families with pride in their own abilities, and take responsibility for their own lives. To that end, they left New York and travelled all over the country seeking work. By contrast, today’s Occupiers, the self-proclaimed 99%, aren’t seeking jobs so much as government handouts; they don’t protest over lack of work but over lack of longer unemployment benefits; they leave jobs elsewhere in the country in order to travel to New York to sit in and protest, not the other way around; they want others’ wealth redistributed to them because it’s just not “fair” that they don’t have as much as others even if they never earned it; and their sense of victimized entitlement has replaced their sense of independent self-esteem. We have made enormous economic strides since 1931 but the direction our moral principles (regarding individualism, independence, property rights, redistribution of wealth, and self-esteem) since then is open to much greater question.

1 comment:

  1. I think Mr. Miller misunderstands the point of Occupy Wall Street. The point is NOT handouts but to change laws which will curb greed in such matters as speed trading, Goldman Sachs ability to trade behind its own customers' backs, etc.