In 2017, Sweat won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Playwright Lynn Nottage based her play on interviews with steelworkers in Reading, Pennsylvania, conducted
in 2011, at a time when the U.S. Census Bureau officially ranked Reading as one of the poorest cities in America. Nottage cast her factory worker characters against a background of job cuts, poverty and downsizing.
Other major dramatists have centered their plays on the lives of working-class characters: Clifford Odets (Awake and Sing; Waiting for Lefty) Arthur Miller (A View from the Bridge) and Lillian Hellman. In 1936, on the heels of her first major success, The Children’s Hour, Hellman’s play, Days to Come, opened on Broadway. The play focused on labor strife in a small Midwestern town. As the Spectrum strike drags on toward its one-year anniversary (March 28), we asked the historian Alice Kessler-Harris, author of a major study on Hellman (A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman) to share her thoughts about the themes of the play. Though at the time, Days to Come was a critical and box office failure, the play is interesting for what it has to tell us about labor-management relations in a different time.
“Days to Come starts in the middle of a long-running strike, and the very first scene reveals the household servants of the factory owners’ family supporting the strikers with both money and loyal support. The critique of the servants foreshadows the criticism of the townspeople who do not understand why the owners will not settle the strike. Within the family, the son, who has run the factory since his father died, wants to settle, while the daughter, concerned for profits, takes a harder line. The widowed mother, in contrast, worries that the town folk will isolate her. These intra-familial divisions provide the dynamism that move the play forward.”
“The great mystery to me, is why the play was a failure. It ran for only 3 days, and then closed. And yet Hellman was responding to an all-too-common ethical dilemma that persists down to today. Her own sympathies lay with the striking workers. The family divisions (and the loss of happiness when the daughter falls for a union leader) are for her a byproduct of mismanaged personnel relations. When manufacturers placed their search for profits above solidarity with their workers and their families, they destroyed the class solidarity that had made them successful in the first place. Hellman fully understood that social institutions like churches and schools were all part of a mosaic that, together, could create prosperity. In Days to Come, the mosaic shatters when family members cease to understand the centrality of community. In this respect, the play foreshadows the shift in corporate responsibility from community to profits that is the mark of the 1950s’ corporate culture.”
“I think that the play not only predicts how conservative the labor movement was to become, but also predicts the trajectory of American corporate life. I suppose that is an inevitable consequence of juxtaposing the interests of the corporation against those of the workers. Workers required trade unions that had sufficient power to confront their bosses. These increasingly bureaucratized unions faced employers who earlier might have aligned their interests with those of their workers. By the 1950s, even the courts began to declare that corporations had an obligation to place the interests of their stockholders ahead of their responsibilities to the communities in which they were located. In some sense, Hellman predicted the unfortunate consequence of placing profits above cooperation.”
“In my view, this great play falls apart, not because it is wrong-headed, but because to make her point, Hellman adopted a melodramatic style that was unconvincing in 1935. I would love to have seen how Hellman might have played out the themes she develops here in a play located in the 1970s. That’s the decade in which corporations replaced strike-breaking with a tactic of simply moving manufacturing overseas. The tactic left workers without resources—helpless to object—and unable to protest effectively. Community after community was thus destroyed by the simple abdication by corporations of any responsibility to the communities that had supported their growth. Hellman might have written a great play about that process.”