UC Berkeley News


In Cradle Will Rock's scene 8, the heartless tycoon Mister Mister tries to recruit an academic willing to help put a good face on his union-busting effort; Professor Scoot, played by Leon Litwack, will have none of it. With him in rehearsal are (left to right) cast members Carl Holvick, Erin Maxon, Jeff Meanza (assistant director), and Cherie Rice. Sue-Ting Chene is at the piano.(Peg Skorpinski photo)

Leon Litwack Rocks
Too late to audition for Streetcar or Salesman, the eminent historian prepares to tread the Berkeley boards

| 14 September 2005

Last week the renowned historian Leon Litwack found himself, for once, somewhat at a loss for answers.

Bearer of the weighty moniker Alexander F. and May T. Morrison Professor of American History, Litwack had no sooner arrived in the bowels of Zellerbach Playhouse than undergrad Holly Chou, wielding a blue tape measure, closed in to ask him a string of personal questions: "Suit size?" ("Not sure.") "Height? ("Six foot - at one time, anyway.") "Shoe size?" ("Big.") "Could I bother you to take off your shoe?" ("The size is probably in there somewhere; let's see.")

The Cradle Will Rock opens Oct. 7 at Zellerbach Playhouse and runs through Oct. 16; the Oct. 8 performance will be followed by a panel discussion with the directors and designers. Tickets - at $10 for campus staff and faculty - may be purchased at Zellerbach Playhouse from 1 to 4 p.m. on Fridays, as well as online.

On Sept. 28, Leon Litwack will give a free lecture, "Take Back the Power: Bread, Roses, and Revolution," discussing the history of the U.S. labor movement, the artistic climate in which The Cradle Will Rock was created, and the extraordinary story of its first production. That event takes place at 4 p.m. in Zellerbach Playhouse.

On Oct. 12, also at Zellerbach Playhouse, an interdisciplinary panel of scholars and trade unionists will contextualize the play, in a discussion titled "Cradling the New Deal." Among the questions they'll address: "How have the concerns of organized labor changed since the Depression? What lessons can we learn about systems of organizing from the play? How is it relevant now?" Participants include Fred Glass of the California Federation of Teachers; Peter Glazer and Shannon Steen of the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies; and Kathleen Moran of American Studies.

For information on The Cradle Will Rock and associated events, see theater.berkeley.edu or call 642-9925.

The campus veteran - he graduated with a B.A. from Berkeley in 1951, earned his Ph.D. here as well, and has been on the faculty for decades - is about to make his live theatrical debut, alongside Chou and 24 other cast members, in the first show of the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies' 2005-06 season, the proletarian musical The Cradle Will Rock. Written in the mid-1930s by musician/composer Marc Blitzstein, it addresses (and was meant to aid and abet) the labor-movement struggles of its time while exploring themes still relevant today - war profiteering, attacks on labor, and religious demagoguery, to name a few.

Litwack plays a minor role as a pacifist professor, whose lines he delivers in rhythmic speech: "I don't like military training/Military training of any kind/I'm a Tolstoyan." In a cadence that comes more naturally, after 40-plus years in the classroom and lecture hall, Litwack will appear, as well, as a professor- type who begins to lecture on the era, only to become absorbed in the play.

Lura Dolas, a longtime campus lecturer and accomplished stage actress, hopes Litwack's prologue will "emphasize the play's historical context and point to modern resonances." Without some orientation, she thinks, "a number of people in our audience will be baffled." (Some, however, may recall the recent Tim Robbins movie, likewise titled The Cradle Will Rock, depicting the play's dramatic 1937 New York premiere, under the direction of the boy-genius Orson Welles, after authorities seized sets, props, and costumes and padlocked the advertised venue in an attempt to shut it down.)

Initially, Litwack's role in the campus production was strictly behind the scenes - consulting with Dolas on historical aspects of the play. He also shared with the student cast his "visual lecture" on the '30s - a collage of sounds and images from the era, its underemployed and out-of-work, its Dust Bowl refugees, and its popular-culture ephemera.

"I always incorporate into my lectures the voices of everyday people and people long excluded from the American narrative," Litwack says. This interest, to which he's devoted a lifetime of scholarship, has much to do with his own parents, working-class immigrants from Russia who ended up in Santa Barbara (his father worked as a gardener there). In the 1950s, Litwack was a union delegate with the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union while working as a mess boy on freighters shipping out of San Francisco.

Brando and Cobb can rest easy

Taking the man's measure: Holly Chou, an undergrad in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, fits Leon Litwack for headgear suited to one of his two roles in The Cradle Will Rock.(Peg Skorpinski)
His acting résumé is slimmer: non-speaking parts (both times as a redneck) in two documentary films, one on educator Booker T. Washington and the other on writer Ralph Ellison. Litwack, now 75, says he realized some years ago that it was too late for him to play Stanley Kowalski or Willy Loman.

But not too late for a cameo appearance on the campus stage. Dolas says that, his theatrical inexperience notwithstanding, she jumped at Litwack's offer to join the cast - both for his sake ("the inner workings of backstage is a world new to Leon; he spent hours at auditions, just soaking it in") and that of her students ("I'm so happy they'll be able be around Leon, to soak up whatever he wants to impart.")

Fortunately for Litwack, rehearsals are in the evening, permitting him to focus his energies, earlier in the day, on part three of his trilogy on the black South (volume one, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, won him a Pulitzer). And unlike the other cast members, he reports with relief, his parts require no singing - just a bit of memorization: In his role as narrator, Litwack holds forth for a good six minutes.

He's not worried, though. "I haven't memorized anything since high school. But I feel that even if I slip on a few lines," he says with a twinkle, "I should be fine - I know that period pretty well."

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