The Cradle Will Rock

A Film by Tim Robbins



Diego Rivera: You're a piece of work. A Jewish fascist!

Margherita Sarfatti: And you, a wealthy communist!


Congressman Starnes: You are quoting from this Marlowe. Is he a Communist?

Hallie Flanagan: I am very sorry. I was quoting from Christopher Marlowe.


Bertolt Brecht: But where are the artists? Artists are the worst whores of all!





The decade of 1930 is well-known as one of the bloodiest eras of the entire world history. In this period, Hitler came to the post of chancellor in Germany and started the genocide of the so-called “inferior races”, particularly Jews. The totalitarian movements begin to hatch also in other European countries, with Mussolini in Italy, Salazar in Portugal, Francisco Franco in Spain and Stalin in the Soviet Union. And in Brazil, Getúlio Vargas’s ‘coup d'etat’ provoked reactions that led to the Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932.


In the United States, Franklin Roosevelt begins a plan for economic recovery after the fall of the New York Stock Exchange, in 1929. The negative effects of the Great Depression reached its peak in 1933, when Roosevelt approved a series of measures known as New Deal, as theorized by John Maynard Keynes three years later. However, there is still much debate whether the New Deal actually helped the U.S. to recover or not. But the fact is that, after the end of the Great Depression, many of the most severely affected countries began to provide a greater social and economic assistance to the needy, through various measurements known as the Welfare State.


Nevertheless, before any trial of the 30s and their characters, we should beware of prejudices that can lead to ideologically simplistic Manichaeism between left and right, having in mind the complexity of those years. Anyway, it is a fact that a model of voracious capitalist production, certain lack of regulation policies and uncontrolled corruption are characteristics of the Jazz Era and contributed to lead to the Great Depression.


But until today, there is still no consensus about the reasons behind the crisis: the United Kingdom also signaled that the gold standard could be reestablished in 1925, causing massive deflation. And, at the same time, new ruling acts concerning international trade would increase taxes over 20.000 products sold in Britain. In this meanwhile, a monetary policy catastrophically planned by the United States authorities would destabilize the balance between production, consumption and credit, in an unsuccessful attempt to reduce an alleged inflation, which, in fact, only contributed to aggravate the main problem in the U.S. economy at the time: not inflation but deflation.


At the same time, in the political field, the ideals were divided between ‘communism’, ‘anarchism’, ‘labourism’, ‘capitalism’, ‘fascism’ and ‘liberalism’, in an era in which “being progressive” could have quite varied definitions, from an ideology more in tune with the proletariat to a concept more related to the liberalism, as seen in Roosevelt’s initial acts, when he created the Federal Theater project, allowing Orson Welles to plan the staging of his Cradle Will Rock, a kind of Brechtian allegory of corruption and corporate greed that certainly unsatisfied many powerful bureaucrats resulting in the cancellation of all subsidies involved in that production.


However, the analysis of the 30s – and specifically the context of this Welles’ Cradle Will Rock – as proposed by Iná Camargo Costa (in “Panorama of the Red River”) seems to be slightly exaggerated, especially when she reads historical facts by saying things like “the way found by the 'Establishment' to continue in control was the New Deal” (p.91). Obviously, this is a time of social extremism and art reflected this. One example is the “Agit Prop”, so in vogue in the American theater, and that brought with it a whole questioning concerning the mode of production and distribution for the economic wealth after the disaster of 1929. And, obviously, after that catastrophic crisis, it would actually be impossible not to make the theatre a powerful vehicle for questioning the establishment.


But, at the same time, a certain historical distance makes necessary, as we were on the eve of World War II, and, thus, in times of strong agitation in the international political and economic scenario, and when neither John Keynes nor Michal Kalecki had already prepared their economic formulations, giving a well-defined profiles to the two post-war blocks. However, it is perfectly appropriate to emphasize the circumstances which allowed capitalism to be reconstructed from the USA and its consequences in our modern world as the rise of a consumerist middle-class. The strategy of considering everything as a maneuver of the ‘establishment’, not historically contextualizing facts, seems to be an efficient way to encourage the most reactionary discourse, allowing conservative wings to even disqualify her point of view, due to all its simplification.



The ingenuity of her analysis finds no echo, for example, in Stanley Aronowitz’s analysis (“The Death of the Left”), who noticed that “many intellectuals were obsessed with the ‘Russian’ question”, separating the issue of the rights for a Welfare State from the constitution of communist parties in Europe and the throughout the world, after the end of the war. In his essay, Aronowitz made clear his political understandings, but much beyond a mere adherence to a past revolutionary spirit, preserving, thus, a necessary critical distance for the benefit of a final analysis.


Moreover, Welles would be more linked to a certain anarchically creative liberalism than, properly, to an engaged left, a fact evidenced not only in some passages of the film but, also, in his own biography. And all this would be far from ‘under meriting’ his genius. Robbins also deals prudently with this issue, achieving the effect of densely discuss it, but without falling into ideological traps that would allow the most conservative wings of the American public to easily disqualify the film. On the contrary, he is subtle, especially in the final take, when the Times Square of the 30s transforms itself in the entrance of the Broadway in the 80, as he wanted to tell us something like: “all that became this”!


The effect derived from this final scene is consistent and full of verisimilitude, even for either the most engaged revolutionary or the most convinced supporter of the “invisible hand”, as proposed by Keynes. It is an evidence of the maturity of his approach to the film’s main subject, which also included the incidents involving Rivera and Rockefeller, apparently out of the central thematic, but allowing his to also question about the artist’s role and art expression in the capitalist world.


Finally, it is interesting to highlight the long scene of the play’s first performance, despite of its suspension and the fears of all actors in working on it. The Brechtians components involved in this scene go far beyond the simple format of a opera, making explicit the most remarkable epic component proposed by Bertolt Brecht: the “alienation” (or ‘verfremdungseffeckt’) through which actors should not unconditionally incarnate their characters, as actors should always be actors and characters, nothing more than mere characters.


This new proposed aesthetics served to Brecht’s dialectics, causing a strong, magical influence in the audience, surprising and greatly contributing to the dissemination of a critical rationalism. For the German dramaturge, the purely emotional identification with the characters was something almost ‘indecent’: “For how long time will our souls be obliged to leave our 'course' bodies hidden by the darkness in order to incorporate those figures of dreams on stage, so as to share their transport with us, which would be denied otherwise?” (BRECHT, B. Kleines Organon für das Theater, 1948, par. 26, Versuche 12, p.119).


We realize again Tim Robbins’ genius when we consider the his allegory of ‘Alienation’, ‘Verfremdungseffeckt’ or ‘Estrangement’: we sometimes forget that the all the actors representing their characters from the audience (the frustrated characters of that improvised debut) are also characters of other real actors on the screen, in a continuum that shows an imbroglio for the audience, since it provides an intelligent game between illusion and reality.




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