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The Critic, the Worker, and the Business Model (Part II)

Can bosses be people?

This is part II of Michael Feingold's latest "Thinking About Theater" column.
Click here to read part I.

Poor girl desperate for a nickel: Anika Noni Rose as Moll in The Cradle Will Rock
(© Joan Marcus)
The implicit belief, on the management side of today's giant corporations, that the individual worker's fate doesn't matter — apparently on the assumption that overpopulation has made any underling instantly replaceable — doesn't dehumanize the worker. On the contrary, when huge industrial disasters occur, like the recent collapse in Bangladesh of the Rana Plaza factory building, public attention focuses on the workers' lives lost, and the horror that a neglectful management has visited on them. There's no empathy for the owners and managers who allowed the disaster to happen. (An image flashes into my mind: Eric Bogosian, in one of his sardonic solo pieces, playing the cokehead Hollywood producer who tries to package Union Carbide's disaster in Bhopal as "the tragic story of a misunderstood multinational.") European firms that do business with Bangladesh's giant garment industry, more conscious of their public image than ours, have mostly signed a pledge to enforce stricter safety precautions; most of their American equivalents have not.

The unpleasant image which that disparity projects of American executive thinking today seems to hold true through increasingly frequent news stories about corporate outrages against workers: Apple's subcontractors in China; Amazon's striking warehousemen in Germany; bribery allegations against Wal-Mart in Mexico. The list isn't short. It makes the bosses whose decisions affect most of our lives ever harder to view as human beings like ourselves. Instead they begin to resemble Mr. Mister, the cartoonishly abstract boss of Steeltown, USA in Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, who is faced with a strike by workers determined to unionize. We see Mr. Mister fretting, as any ordinary person might, over his health and the vagaries of his children's behavior, but we also see him flip, instantly, into utter ruthlessness, stooping to libel, blackmail, and even (through underlings) bomb-throwing to gain his ends. Like him, today's big bosses may seem pleasant enough at home, but at the office, engaging in fiscal maneuvers that regularly bring disaster on hundreds of employees, they can't help seeming slightly subhuman: unfeeling bipeds from whom the ability to empathize with others — the ability at the core of human consciousness — has somehow been removed.

The human gift — to comprehend that you and your desires are not alone in the world, that other people can affect you and you them, also sits, of course, at the theater's core. And the new way our world is being operated, which has made 1930s plays about labor-management antagonism suddenly seem real and relevant again, has also made it strikingly difficult to imagine bosses as human. Blitzstein, sculpting what's essentially a political cartoon in song, had less of a struggle with the problem: Mr. Mister (played wryly at the City Center Encores! concert by Danny Burstein) could air his personal woes touchingly one minute and then turn vicious, unhesitatingly, like a two-dimensional cutout flipped over to show its darker side. That's the sort of depiction that makes knee-jerk right-wingers shout "Class war!" (They're right, of course: A class war is going on, now as in the '30s. But the workers weren't the ones who started it.)

As ReGroup Theatre's benefit reading showed, Odets in The Silent Partner — a vast, unwieldy mess of a script, dotted with startling gems of prose, found a subtler solution: His pivotal character is Mr. Gracie (read with asperity by George Bartenieff), a small boss caught between bankers and strikers. Heir to a small-town New England factory, Gracie knows his striking workers personally and sympathizes with their aims. But 51% of his business belongs to a faceless board of directors in New York, with very different ideas about competitive wages, profit, and workers' rights. Their approach involves truckloads of scabs, with armed guards to protect them, plus a few trained provocateurs and a PR man, to make sure that any violence the provocation brings can be blamed on "Reds" among the strikers.

Gracie, unable to prevent the impending violence, drinks himself into a stupor. Thus ended humane, responsible management, in the days before unions took a hand and FDR's "progressive" legislation wove the social safety net. After World War II, the story was different: The enormous economic boom of the Eisenhower Era was created by management and labor treating each other with respect, working together to evolve contracts that would serve their mutual interests. Only in Reagan's time did capitalism, with renewed arrogance, begin a systematic assault on this balance of powers. (The economist Jeff Madrick's fascinating book, The Age of Greed, locates one root cause of capitalism's suddenly renewed pugnacity in the unremitting hatred that post-Reagan right-wingers' parents had harbored for FDR's social legislation. You've got to be carefully taught.)

It's probably no coincidence that the pre-Depression absolutist attitude of management towards the work force has made its comeback arm in arm with the new, disorienting world of our virtual existence. (In a telling linguistic hint, it happened around the time the department that corporations formerly called "Personnel" began to get renamed "Human Resources": Workers were no longer persons, but objects of measurable value, like the amount of oil in a given well. When the oil's pumped out, cap the well, write off the closing costs, and walk away.) The employee, coping simultaneously with the blank wall of management obduracy and the high-speed relocation that can move his job to wherever labor works most cheaply, is under the gun. So, in a different way, is the critic, whose sustained audience the Internet has scattered, along with the ad revenue that allowed newspapers to hire him.

And yet, there may be hope. The labor unrest in so many parts of the world indicates that unfeeling managements will not have everything their own way. Internet moguls have begun, in small ways, to show an interest in keeping in-depth journalism alive, though theater criticism has not yet crept into their conversation. (When Jeff Bezos of Amazon recently acquired The Washington Post, his message to the staff, listing areas the Post would continue to cover, mentioned "restaurant openings" but said nothing about arts coverage.)

I spent a pleasant week last month, as I have every July for decades, teaching young and aspiring theater journalists in the National Critics Institute of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. For the first time in those many decades, I was uncertain what to tell them. I can talk about clarity of expression and knowing a work's historical sources; I am less good at showing them how to sum up their experience of a play in a single Tweet. They, game souls, are learning to adapt to this disheartening time, when only instant reaction is craved, and the full-time job that would empower the critic to think beyond the instant no longer exists. Will that change? Will the future hold opportunities for them to have an effect, as critics once did, on the culture as a whole? The portents, thus far, are not good. Bezos' Amazon once offered reviews by its editorial department; When statistics showed that they weren't being read, the practice stopped and much of the editorial staff was let go. Now Amazon carries only reader reviews, which might for all one knows be by the authors' mothers, their resentful ex-spouses, or anybody.

Bezos probably won't turn the Post's art section wholly over to readers' opinions, though: The journalistic tradition — which weds strong reporting to sharp-eyed criticism — is too strong, and signs (lately noted in The New York Times) show that at least a few Internet tycoons have begun to show concern about preserving that tradition's values. Maybe, in that altered context, our management class would begin to do more theatergoing. If they did, they might learn to empathize. And they would learn the value of critics in whose taste they can place their trust. For the moment, though, the critic is like Odets' Mr. Gracie, watching humanity head toward a disaster that he sees but has no power to prevent.

Rich lady and her pet artists: Anika Noni Rose as Mrs. Mister, with Henry Stram as Dauber and Martin Moran as Yasha in The Cradle Will Rock.
(© Joan Marcus)
Michael Feingold's next two-part "Thinking About Theater" column will appear on consecutive Fridays September 13 and September 20.