Weavers of Dreams, Unite!

Weavers of Dreams, Unite!: Actors' Unionism in Early Twentieth-Century America

Sean P. Holmes
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Weavers of Dreams, Unite!
    Book Description:

    Published to coincide with the centenary of the founding of the Actors' Equity Association in 1913, Weavers of Dreams, Unite! explores the history of actors' unionism in the United States from the late nineteenth century to the onset of the Great Depression. Drawing upon hitherto untapped archival resources in New York and Los Angeles, Sean P. Holmes documents how American stage actors used trade unionism to construct for themselves an occupational identity that foregrounded both their artistry and their respectability. In the process, he paints a vivid picture of life on the theatrical shop floor in an era in which economic, cultural, and technological changes were transforming the nature of acting as work. The engaging study offers important insights into the nature of cultural production in the early twentieth century, the role of class in the construction of cultural hierarchy, and the special problems that unionization posed for workers in the commercial entertainment industry.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09468-2
    Subjects: Political Science, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Weavers of Dreams, Unite!
    (pp. 1-10)

    Until quite recently, the history of the American theater was a neglected scholarly field. Though there were some fine overviews of the development of theatrical entertainment in the United States, relatively few works existed that set out to tackle the wider significance of the theater as a cultural institution. In part, this was because theater history fell into an intellectual lacuna between theater arts programs, with their emphasis upon theater as performance, and literature programs, with their emphasis upon drama as written text. But there were other factors at work as well, not least a tendency on the part of...

  5. CHAPTER ONE The Great Text in Our Economy Today: The American Theater in an Age of Organization
    (pp. 11-32)

    “Nearly every trade, profession, and occupation has its organization,” actor Frank Gillmore observed in a speech to the small and exclusively male group of performers, playwrights, and producers in attendance at the inception of the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) in early 1913. “Indeed,” he went on, “‘organization’ might be called the great text in our economy today.” A self-appointed spokesperson for a section of the acting community that was both proud of its classlessness and inveterately class-conscious, Gillmore ignored the fundamental conflict of interests that divided organized labor from organized capital and, whether deliberately or not, glossed over the differences...

  6. CHAPTER TWO The Sock and Buskin or the Artisan’s Biretta: Reconciling Art and Labor in the Actors’ Equity Association, 1913–1919
    (pp. 33-57)

    “This is not a revolution but a renaissance,” actor Wilton Lackaye assured the theatrical community in March 1913 in a statement setting out the objectives of the recently founded Actors’ Equity Association. “We simply wish to return to the spirit that existed prior to about five years ago when the relation between actor and manager was one of cooperation.”¹ In terms of chronology at least, Lackaye’s analysis of labor-management relations in the American theater industry was deeply flawed. As even the most casual observer of the early twentieth-century theatrical scene was aware, the tensions that had come to characterize the...

  7. CHAPTER THREE All the World’s a Stage! The Actors’ Strike of 1919
    (pp. 58-86)

    For a group of workers whose sense of occupational distinctiveness hinged on their position in an increasingly unstable cultural hierarchy and who defined themselves in terms of a genteel individualism that was difficult to reconcile with collective action, the act of striking was fraught with problems. Unversed in the traditions of militant trade unionism, the men and women of the legitimate stage had neither the cultural nor the material resources that were available to other groups of skilled workers when they chose to withdraw their labor. Few contemporary commentators expected the Actors’ Equity Association to be able to force the...

  8. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  9. CHAPTER FOUR Protecting the High-Minded Actor and the High-Minded Manager in Equal Part: Occupational Unionism in the American Theater Industry, 1919–1929
    (pp. 87-118)

    On the rare occasions that scholars have turned their attention to the organizational impulse that animated the acting community in the early twentieth century, they have tended to assume that the actors’ strike of 1919 marked a point of closure—the moment when art was finally reconciled with labor.¹ As a consequence, actors’ unionism and its implications for acting as an occupation and for the American theater industry as a whole remain largely unexamined outside the pages of a handful of industrial relations studies, the most recent of which was published almost fifty years ago.² But as labor historians have...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE For the Dignity and Honor of the Theatrical Profession: Respectability and Unrespectability in the Actors’ Equity Association, 1919–1929
    (pp. 119-140)

    Though mediating the relationship between actors and their employers was central to the activities of the Actors’ Equity Association in its formative years, this was not its only function. Just as significant was its campaign to raise the status of acting as an occupation, a project that was entirely consonant with the principles of craft unionism and that played upon the anxieties of a group of workers who had long struggled to rid themselves of the taint of immorality. In pursuing their goal of collective uplift, Equity leaders focused much of their energy on challenging anti-theatrical sentiment in American culture...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Ain’t No Peace in the Family Now: The Actors’ Equity Association and the Movies, 1919–1929
    (pp. 141-172)

    In the view of cultural theorist Walter Benjamin, the social significance of film “is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspects, that is, the liquidation of the traditional cultural heritage.”¹ For the American acting community, the advent of moving pictures brought destruction and catharsis in equal measure. The new technology transformed patterns of employment among actors in the United States, opening up vast new areas of opportunity in what rapidly emerged as a centralized, capital-intensive, and highly mechanized new industry. In the process it destroyed the foundations of the old theatrical hierarchy, tearing the stars of the so-called legitimate stage down...

  12. Epilogue
    (pp. 173-178)

    In October 1929, less than two months after the rather undignified withdrawal of the Actors’ Equity Association from Hollywood, the Wall Street crash sounded the death knell for a theatrical economy that had already been fatally undermined by the cumulative effects of the decline of the road, overexpansion on Broadway, rising production costs, and competition from the talking pictures. The number of shows opening on Broadway slumped from an all-time peak of 264 in the 1927–1928 theatrical season to 187 in the 1930–1931 theatrical season. At the depths of the Depression, two-thirds of the playhouses in the nation’s...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 179-212)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 213-222)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 223-225)