‘Scenes From the Living Theatre: San Francisco, 1934’ by Philip Sterling from New Theatre. Vol. 1 No. 8. September, 1934.
THE Workers’ Theatre and the Film and Photo League of San Francisco, quartered in the Ruthenberg House at 121 Haight Street, did not escape the Fascist fury during the bloody week of terror against the organizations which were giving their best men and efforts to the General Strike. They did not escape but they survived.
It is difficult to write a report of what happened to the Workers’ Theatre of San Francisco. It’s like writing of what happened to an eagle during a hurricane. Read the papers, talk to people who lived through the General Strike, dig through the magazines, and still you can hardly begin to reconstruct the magnitude of the event. Still you cannot plumb the depths to which it shook the American working class and all its roots and branches.
For a week the newspapers of the entire country cried out against the “menace.” Editorials, news pictures, news dispatches, cartoons, conjured famine, violence, pestilence and chaos as the four horsemen of a new Apocalypse called down by the embattled workers of San Francisco and the Bay counties. Radio and cinema joined in the holy crusade against the “disaster.” At this date the reason for the nationally concerted cry of hunger, disease, violence and disorder is obvious. It was the necessary prelude for the violence of the governmental forces which broke the strike. Without the barrage of horror cries it would not have been possible to smash workers’ headquarters, to jail 300 or more of the most important supporters of the strike.
The general strike offered the best demonstration since the war days, of capitalist controlled popular cultural agencies in action. Not since the war has so much money and organizational effort been expended by the ruling class in a drive to poison the minds of workers against the working class.
Now the Workers’ Theatre and Film and Photo League in common with other West Coast organizations are taking up where they left off, every cultural agency of the revolutionary movement must look with new understanding and determination on its role as working class fighters against ruling class terror.
NOT so long ago, workers’ theatre and film groups which felt the completeness of their bonds with the struggles of the workers had a difficult time getting themselves taken seriously. Those days are gone. One need not point to the illegal Blue Blouse groups and the Agit-Prop theatres of Japan, which appear suddenly at a street corner and present their dramatic message before the police can interfere. Just look at San Francisco.
The actual circumstances of the raids and the history of the Workers’ Theatre just before the raids present an instructive picture of what a workers’ theatre means.
During the first days of the general strike, NEW THEATRE received a letter reporting on the progress of the Workers’ Theatre there.
“On May 1” he said, “We had our first anniversary affair, for which we produced five short plays, The New Road, Charity, For Christ and Constitution, Cell No. 8 and The Bulls See Red.
Without having seen any of these save Charity, one gets the feeling that at least three of the remaining titles were prophetic of the theatre’s experiences two months later.
“Looking backward to the day when we started,” the letter continues, “it is pleasing to see the progress we have made. Our first plays were…short and very crude…However we worked hard and our members increased until we could afford to put on The Follies and Blunders of 1933 in May. This was quite a success but instead of doing us good it had the opposite effect because we had no organization ….Things went from bad to worse until we had only two members left, a girl of 14 and myself. We decided to reorganize.” There follows a detailed description of the slow and painful process of correcting the organizational mistakes which nearly cost the life of the group. New quarters were taken in Ruthenberg House, a stage was built, modest production ventures were successfully undertaken, round table discussions organized.
In the next paragraph: “. . . the Blue Blouse group was doing very well until two weeks ago …. They went down to the waterfront here to put on Recruit. The police attacked and severely dubbed them. Peter Maccharini organizer of the Workers’ Theatre got a fractured skull. Little hope was held for his recovery. However, he has improved a little and it is thought that the danger is over.”
THAT’S the way it stood until NEW THEATRE received another letter two weeks ago. This letter from the organizer who has replaced Maccharini describes the raids which wrecked the Workers’ Theatre as well as the other working class organization offices quartered in the Ruthenberg house.
The new organizer writes:
“The Ruthenberg House was raided three times. The first two times the vigilantes were repulsed by David Merrihew who, to quote the bourgeois press, “brandished a sword like a character out of Dumas ….
“During the first raid the hired thugs, masquerading as union men, succeeded in breaking nearly all the windows, in upsetting furniture on the first floor, and they got up on the stage and ripped the front curtain on which the symbol of the International Union of Revolutionary Theatres was painted.
“But not until Merrihew was safe in jail and his sword confiscated by police did the vandals dare to venture further into the interior of the building …This time furniture was broken, cameras were smashed, stair-rails were chopped into, kindling.
“Again the Workers’ Theatre stage was a mark for the thugs,” the letter reports. ” … they ripped flats, broke frames, tore the curtain into shreds and smashed props. The meeting room was broken into and there a complete file of NEW THEATRE along with a bundle of the current issue was taken from a locked cabinet and destroyed.
“Peter Maccharini was up for trial July 23. The jury stood eleven to one for conviction so another trial will be set. The day after the trial his home was raided by police…”
There is no note of defeat in the letter. “As a result of the fascist terror there is an excellent possibility of drawing into the membership of the Workers’ Theatre a large group of workers … ” the letter declares. “At present, the stationery theatre and the Blue Blouse groups are joining so that mass chants and short plays can be given at street meetings and demonstrations.”
Increasing numbers of workers and intellectuals realize that the only hope for a culture of continued vitality, capable of reaching higher levels lies in the culture which the revolutionary movement is using as a social weapon. To those who have not yet realized it, the fascist onslaughts against workers’ theatres, film and photo leagues, book stores, libraries, writers and artists groups help to make this clear. The attack on theatres and bookshops are not merely incidental. The fury with which a vigilante tears a fistful of revolutionary pamphlets grows from his realization that he cannot ever shed enough blood to drown the ideas embodied in the print he is destroying.
There is no middle road. San Francisco brought into clear relief the implacable opposition of one culture against another.
The San Francisco and other West Coast theatres and cultural organizations are continuing to build where they left off when they bowed without breaking before government-made terror. The rest of the nation’s revolutionary cultural front must built with them.
Workers Theatre began in New York City in 1931 as the publication of The Workers Laboratory Theater collective, an agitprop group associated with Workers International Relief, becoming the League of Workers Theaters, section of the International Union of Revolutionary Theater of the Comintern. The rough production values of the first years were replaced by a color magazine as it became primarily associated with the New Theater. It contains a wealth of left cultural history and ideas. Published roughly monthly were Workers Theater from April 1931-July/Aug 1933, New Theater from Sept/Oct 1933-November 1937, New Theater and Film from April and March of 1937, (only two issues).
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/workers-theatre/v1n08-sep-1934-New-Theatre.pdf