You’ve probably heard the story, or maybe you saw the Tim Robbins movie. In 1937, the WPA shut down the Federal Theatre Project’s new “play in music” four days before opening, fearing that its radicalism and pro-union message were just too incendiary. John Houseman (producer), Orson Welles (director), and Marc Blitzstein (author ) were determined to put it on somehow. On opening night, forbidden from using the designated theater and lacking an orchestra, they sent an actor out to find a piano. The audience was marched 21 blocks to another, vacant theater somebody else had found. Not allowed to appear onstage, the actors performed from the house, with Blitzstein, the only nonunion performer, playing the score from the stage. The effect was electrifying, and The Cradle Will Rock went on to find other backing and enjoy a successful, conventionally staged run.
Dead Poets Society, a new play written by Tom Schulman, the screenwriter for the 1989 film that starred Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard, is a deft, engaging stage version superbly directed by John Doyle for his first production as the artistic director of Classic Stage Company. The story, set in 1959 in a boys’ prep school, Welton Academy, follows a half dozen young men whose lives are affected by John Keating, an English professor. Keating is the kind of teacher who believably inspires his students and urges them to think for themselves rather than unquestioningly follow the rules adults have set out. In its way, Dead Poets Society is a veiled attack on the dangers of fascism that resonates particularly since the election.