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The Cradle Will Rock
Welles and Houseman in 1937
Hallie Flanagan

"The most exciting evening of theatre this New York generation has seen."

In January 1936, Bertolt Brecht was in New York to discuss translations of his work with, amongst others, Blitzstein's wife Eva. One evening at a party, Blitzstein played Brecht a short scena that he had written about a prostitute, call Nickel under the Foot. After hearing it, Brecht said, "Why don't you write a piece about all kinds of prostitution - the press, the church, the courts, the arts, the whole system?"

The idea stayed with Blitzstein but it was not until the summer following the death of his wife, that he acted on it. Blitzstein completed The Cradle Will Rock after a period of five weeks furious activity on September 2nd 1936, dedicating it "to Bert Brecht: first because I think him the most admirable theatre-writer of our time; secondly because an extended conversation with him was partly responsible for writing the piece."

Finding a company who would perform the piece, however, proved more problematic. Several companies considered the material, but, given the charged political atmosphere of the times, found it too sensitive a subject on which to risk a production.

Some months later, the twenty-one year old Orson Welles, who had already been approached to direct the piece, was working as director of Project 891, one of the Works Progress Adminstration’s Federal Theatre Project outlets, and considered programming The Cradle Will Rock. He had already achieved some success with an all black production of Macbeth in Harlem and Doctor Faustus, but wanted to turn his hand to something more contemporary. He had Blitzstein play it for his producer John Houseman, who immediately decided that this was an ideal project for the company, and put the piece into production almost immediately.

The Federal Theatre Project, and its director, Hallie Flanagan, were, by then, under attack by right-wing Congressmen for the nature of some productions. The House Committee on Un-American Activities were particularly critical of what they perceived as left-wing stances taken within a welfare system provided by the Government for artists. One outraged Congressman had even enquired as to whether Christopher Marlowe was a Communist. It seemed that cuts in the WPA Federal Theatre programme were inevitable.