Making Sense of Langston Hughes’ Unproduced Play Harvest
Introduction: Hughes the Unrecognized Playwright
In my studies, Langston Hughes has become synonymous with African-American intellectual and creative development in the 20th century. Yet we — as students, casual readers, enthusiasts of poetry and literature — are exposed to only a small portion of Hughes’ writings. His plays are significantly under appreciated (I admit that I hadn’t read one of them until this semester). Of his many plays, Harvest (1934) is one of the most obscure. Written and revised over the course of two years, Harvest follows the unfolding drama of the 1933 cotton pickers’ strike in California’s San Joaquin Valley. The story of this play’s development is intricately bound up in the context of US-Soviet relations, the aftermath of the Depression, and labor disputes. Hughes worked intensely on the script with author and friend Ella Winter. Yet the play failed to be produced; it was rejected by the Theatre Union in September 1934. It remained below the radar until it was published in 2000. No one has produced the play to date.
You may be asking yourself: So what? Why should I read the play if it wasn’t heralded as a masterpiece? Even though the play wasn’t realized in its day, it represents a successful attempt to push the boundaries of theater as a tool of social and political criticism. Harvest was at the vanguard of a theatrical movement which combined elements of different theatrical genres: workers’, agitprop, Living Newspaper, and what Brecht coined “epic” theatre. Harvest merits analysis by those interested in how theater reflects the time period in which it is written, but also anticipates future crises. Hughes’ exploration of Mexican workers’ resistance to poor working conditions in California resurfaces over thirty years later with Cesar Chavez and the Civil Rights movement. Only then are the socio-political goals outlined in Harvest fully realized. We can still appreciate the progressive nature of the play today, in a period of renewed struggle over fair treatment and equal rights for immigrants.
The Seeds are Sown for Harvest
Hughes and Winter began working on Harvest, which was given the working title Blood in the Fields, in 1933 soon after Hughes returned from a year long trip to the Soviet Union, Japan, and China. The two met through mutual connections in Carmel — where Hughes was staying at a friend’s beach house and Winter resided.
The source material for the play was collected by both Hughes and Winter — who made trips to the San Joaquin Valley to document the cotton picker strike that occurred in September. The Mexican pickers went on strike at the beginning of the season. They were aided by the Cannery and Agricultural Workers’ Industrial Union and demanded better working conditions and a pay increase. These interactions with the strikers and a collection of newspaper clippings were compiled into a chronology of the strike’s key dates and events:
Hughes explains to his agent and trusted friend Maxim Lieber that Harvest “follows the strike almost exactly. . . . The result ought to be a sound and provocative drama of the actual struggles of agricultural and migratory workers in California (and in a sense, all America) today.” The production notes called for the curtain to be made out of newspaper clippings — of which Hughes and Winter had collected plenty and were willing to make available — to make it visually clear that the play’s content was mined from real events. The final version of Harvest runs three acts long and calls for a cast of 52 characters. This marked a great reduction from previous drafts which featured four acts, up to a dozen scenes, and a cast numbering upwards of 125 characters. The large cast is meant, in large part, to illustrate the diversity and conflation of the inter- racial coalition of white, Black, and Mexican worker who unite successfully. The play’s main thrust is the challenge to this coalition by a group of white farm owners. Harvest highlights class struggle and the human needs and socialist ideologies that underpin it.
When The Communist Negro Was in Vogue: Black Intellectuals and Communism in the 1930’s
The play emerges out of a very particular context surrounding Hughes: the rise of Communist influence among American intellectuals and the theater community in particular. The Communist movement emerged in 1919 in the United States as part of the Soviet Union’s international agenda. By 1923, a Communist Party officially formed and claimed a membership of 15,000. While the Party itself struggled to recruit, its ideology began to influence other organizations and it began to ally itself with other movements: minority issues and anti-racist causes. Hughes became closely involved with these affiliate organizations in 1931, when he helped raise funds for the legal defense of nine Black teenage boys from Alabama accused of rape. The International Labor Defense (ILD), founded by an ex-Communist and with ties to the Party, led the defense. As a result, Communists made inroads with the larger Black community: “For the first time, Communist speakers were given platforms in Negro churches. Black newspapers began urging support of the ILD and the LSNR . . .” Hughes’ high level of personal and emotional involvement with the case also led him to write a one-act play Scottsboro, Limited (1931). In it, we see clear references to the Communist ideology, the most obvious being the singing of the Internationale and raising of the red flag as the curtain closes. Hughes’ leftist politics seemed to be finding reinforcement in the Communist ideology.
In 1934, Hughes became president of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights’ and frequented the John Reed Club in Carmel. Both of these organizations had close ties to the Communist Party. Hughes wasn’t an official member of the party, since: “Communist leaders, conscious of the prestige Hughes brought to the movement, allowed him to function as a symbolic leader and to devote himself to his writing without political interference.”
Using its growing network of influential intellectuals, the Communist Party worked its way into the cultural life of places like Harlem. In particular, the Party was able to influence New Deal agencies, specifically art projects such as the Writers’ Project and Theater Project. Communism was in vogue in 1934, just like the Negro was during the Harlem Renaissance: “‘Many people didn’t take the political stuff too seriously,’ [Black writer and close confidante of Hughes] Louise Thompson [Patterson] admitted, ‘It was fashionable at the time and we enjoyed it.’” And Hughes was, again, in the middle of it all.
Harvest Within the 1930’s Theatre Scene: A Hybrid
An analysis of Hughes’ influences — workers’ theater, agitprop, and Living Newspapers — allow us to fully understand Harvest ’s unique style. In a post-Depression era, American workers were more frustrated with the capitalist system of labor than ever before. In 1932, the Workers’ Theater Movement hosted their first national conference in the U.S. and defined their collective mission: “to spread the idea of class struggle, to participate actively in class struggle . . . and especially to arouse the workers for the defense of the Soviet Union, against the Imperialist attack.” By 1934 there were 400 Workers Theatre groups in the U.S.
Hughes saw the worker’s theater in action while he was abroad in Soviet Russia and China in 1932 and 1933. He attended the 1933 Moscow Theater Festival, and returned to the U.S. with a English version of a playbill for a Vsevolod Ivanov play titled The Armoured Train and the festival’s program.
One can infer from the action of Harvest that it was inspired by the workers’ theatre. The signs and banners touted by the characters throughout the play use rhetoric typical of the genre: “DON’T SCAB. SOLIDARITY WINS! . . . UNITE & FIGHT! ONE BIG UNION” and in the final scene “BLACK AND WHITE UNITE TO FIGHT.” The verb “to fight” implies a class struggle, and a potential violent or transformative process. At the heart of the play is a mass of workers rising up against a capitalist system that was beating them down.
The Workers’ Theater prominently featured plays that functioned as agitprop, shortened for “agitation and propaganda.” This genre is defined by Morgan Himelstein as “stylized productions” consisting of loosely constructed episodes, “satiric cartoons instead of characters,” “actors speak directly to the audience” and calls for audience participation. Because it avoided all attempts at naturalism — i.e. the perfect portrayal of reality — the proponents of agitprop claimed that it had the effect of disrupting the illusions at the surface of reality to reveal the deeper, perverse nature of capitalist society. The ultimate hope was to incite revolution among the workers who watched the play through direct appeal to their class identity.
Hughes’ play pulls from the tradition of agitprop by way of its stylized portrayal of greedy capitalists — the farm owners — and the ruthless agents of capitalism — the sheriff and police officers. There is no doubt that the intention of this play is to spark a revolution; this is perfectly in sync with other agitprop of the 1930’s. However, Hughes doesn’t paint all capitalists as evil; there is nuance, and this complicates the radical narrative. One example is Hughes’ nuanced treatment of the small farm owners, who voice sympathy for their workers but are too strained economically to give into their demands. At another point, one of the farm owners refuses to sign the declaration of war against the strikers and removes himself from the mob. We can see from Hughes’ process that he struggled with stereotyping individual traits — likely because he wanted to illustrate the diversity of a group.
Traditionally agitprop heightened the differences between proletariat and capitalists, but Hughes’ brand of agitprop — despite clearly siding with the workers — offers glimpses of the capitalist’s humanity.
Harvest is also an early example of American “living newspaper” theatre. This genre — which focused more on a theatrical interpretation of news as it developed, a precursor to the Daily Show with a Communist bent — was used extensively by communist revolutionaries in the Soviet Union to educate the illiterate masses on current events. It became established in the U.S. when the WPA-funded Federal Theatre Project created a Living Newspaper Unit in 1935, headed by Hallie Flanagan. The Unit produced plays which dealt with both historical and topical events: including the General Strike of 1934 in Injunction Granted (1936) and the Wagner- Connery Act in 1935 (1936).
The Living Newspaper Unit of the Federal Theater was disbanded in 1939 amid controversy; the organization was accused of using federal funds to push a Communist agenda.
Due to its topical nature, Harvest reads like a Living Newspaper play. Its production also follows the central defining elements of the genre: “huge casts, spectacular sets . . . and agitprop techniques to depict contemporary political and social issues in theatrical terms.” But unlike other Living Newspapers produced by the Federal Theatre Project in later years, the character of the “Living Newspaper” — whose lines are pulled from the headlines and news columns — is missing and the real names and places involved in the strike are changed. Hughes amplifies the meaning of the play and transcends the events of that year in favor of a more broad critique of labor issues. Even more controversial was his portrayal of the inferior status of minorities. According to historian Paul Nadler, one issue that wasn’t “addressed publicly by living newspaper was the status of African Americans.” Hughes doesn’t focus on the Black workers, but he does include them in his portrait of the pan-racial strike. Hughes pays attention to the undertow of racism and how it informs both the behavior of the workers and of the farm owners; this complicates the narrative from the simple “worker vs. capitalist” trope. The inclusion of Mexican and Black workers could have alienated white workers in the audience — who viewed the minorities as potential threats to their job security in the post-Depression economy. Again, we see Hughes testing the limits of the Living Newspaper genre.
Unlike his later one-act play Don’t You Want to Be Free — which calls for “a bare stage, except for a rope and an auction block” — the production of Harvest seems to require serious capital, planning, and execution. The large cast and the length of the play are two components of this: hiring so many actors for a play this long necessitates a large initial investment. Plus, the suggestions for the staging are extremely detailed; this suggests that the production costs would be even higher. Margeret Larkin of the The Theatre Union, in her response to Hughes’ script (dated September 11, 1934) stated: “But [Harvest’s] size presents obvious difficulties for us.” Thus the scope of Harvest was better suited for a Broadway stage than for one of the many small leftist production companies who relied on donations. Or the government funded Federal Theatre Project. However, the politics of the play were much too controversial for a Broadway premiere. Harvest mirrored the genres and motifs of its time, yet it stands apart from the other leftist plays being produced in the 1930’s.
The Ending of Harvest : A Victory for Epic Theatre
The ending of Harvest represents one of the work’s major successes, and also its aspiration to be epic. The ending is the source of the most revisions throughout Hughes’ and Winter’s process of writing Harvest. One of the earliest drafts of the play in his papers ends with a long speech by the white union leader Jennie, whose last lines are: “we must prepare to strike again -- and yet again -- until the walls of our misery have been broken down and the workers hold the world in our own hands”
This conclusion would suggest a cycle of strikes, and no obvious resolution. It is also blatantly rhetorical and ideological, pulling almost verbatim from parts of the language of the Communist Manifesto.
Later, there was discussion (although no draft suggesting it was approved by Hughes) that the play should end with the funeral of a Mexican worker killed in the bloody clash. Winter was a strong proponent of this ending: “I believe that the mass funeral should end the play . . . nothing is more energizing -- a beginning.” The mass funeral scene consists of a silent procession of laborers passing by the coffins of the dead and then filing out of the theater through the audience. This has the effect of highlighting the spiritual strength of the movement. But here too the resolution is somber and even a bit depressing. One can imagine audience members leaving with tears in their eyes — not the fury of revolutionaries. Hughes rejected Winter’s suggestion.
Hughes completely reworked the play’s second half. He gutted an entire act (3.1-3.3) — including the dissolution of the union and the mass funeral — replacing it with the last scene of Act II. The result: we are left with the “blood on the fields” that the working title suggests. We witness the injury of several workers and the death of Buster and Jose at the hands of the farm owners. Of the three endings, this one feels the most visceral. Jose runs to Jennie calling her name, is shot, and proceeds to die on stage on Jennie’s arms. The word “love” is brought into the equation, as Jose seems to be professing his passion for her and the cause which she is leading: “. . . I love you. I love you, Comrade Jennie — like I love the revolution”. It is not simply Jose’s life, then, but also the camaraderie between the strikers which is being destroyed. Immediately after this exchange, Buster — a black picker — raises a banner reading “BLACK AND WHITE UNITE TO FIGHT.” The rhetoric feels hollow now; we mourn the death of the Mexican who was so integral to the strike. This ending combines death, love, mourning, and the potential for rebirth in ways the previous endings didn’t.
Playwright and theater theorist Bertolt Brecht coins the term “epic theatre” to describe the shift of theater away from pure entertainment and towards socio-political outcomes — specifically those revolutionary goals espoused by the workers’ theatre and agitprop. In his manifesto A Short Organum for the Theatre, Brecht could almost be referring to Harvest ’s ending: “Even the bursting flood of a vast catastrophe can be appreciated in all its majesty by society, if society knows how to master it; then we make it our own.” This is exactly what the new ending forces audience members to do: imagine the conclusion of the strike and therefore make it our own. To place ourselves into the final scene and begin to react to the injustice perpetrated by the landowners.
Resolving the drama in the theater would have the effect of quelling our imaginations; Harvest’s ending asks us to draw up our own, alternative endings and to dream about the possibilities for the characters and the plot. In Hughes’ earlier draft, the ending is straightforward, and in line with the historical events. The strikers win a pay raise, a compromise which they speculate won’t last. In Hughes’ final draft, however, the strike is coming into its own — at a climax. The likelihood of a revolution is palpable in this moment, against all odds. Hughes could squash this seed of hope, but he chooses not to. In this, there lies the epic theatre which Brecht describes. It also makes clear that Hughes’ political goal for Harvest is something radical, perhaps even revolutionary. The fact that Harvest wasn’t produced isn’t at all indicative of its worth as a play. The play’s large scale was poorly timed for the economically depressed theater scene, and its political message made it undesirable to those theaters with the resources to produce it.
Epilogue: A Brief Look At Hughes’ Theatre Career After Harvest
Hughes’ luck changed almost immediately after the rejection of Harvest; Ella Winter congratulated him on the acceptance of his play Mulattoon Broadway on October 2nd 1934. Unlike Harvest, Mulatto’s focus is on the controversial topic of miscegenation. Mulatto ran for several years, setting “a record for the number of performances of any play written by a black American, a record not eclipsed until Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) . . .” But despite Mulatto’s commercial success, Hughes didn’t receive accolades from critics for his writing. The New York Times writer described him as having “little of the dramatic strength of mind that makes it possible for a writer to tell a coherent, driving story in the theatre.” This criticism echoed those of Harvest . In 1935, Hughes missed another opportunity to get an agitprop piece produced — this time based off of the recent arrest and imprisonment of Angelo Herndon. Instead he published the play, Angelo Herndon Jones, in the leftist New Theatre Magazine.
Hughes’ trial and errors as a writer were remedied temporarily when he started up the Harlem Suitcase Theater in 1937. The first play he decided to produce was his own one-act Don’t You Want to Be Free. It was a success by all accounts — 3500 people attended 38 performances that first season and reviews were positive. Perhaps this was a sign that Hughes was adapting to the constraints of budget; he was looking at commercialization from a different perspective now that he was the one producing the play. Regardless of the success of Mulatto and Don’t You Want to Be Free, Harvest remains an example of experimentation with the intersection of leftist theater, and more specifically political theater of epic proportions — and in this regard it is worth studying.
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15 “Dies Inquiry Gets Income Tax Books,” New York Times, August 10 1938. back to text
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25 Rampersad, p. 359. back to text