THE EIGHT HOURS
Chicago Cabaret Ensemble
On the 100th anniversary of the Haymarket massacre and trial, we here in Chicago, where it took place, remember only the barest fragments of the episode. But around the world, it is recognized as one of the most important events in the history of the labor movement and commemorated accordingly. It founded our city's reputation that continues today as a bang bang shoot 'em up kind of town.
Every time I read something about those times, I wish I had lived in them. Things were horrible and violent and dirty, I know, but everyone seems so alive in all the accounts. There were real live villains and heroes, and people were actually trying to do something about the evil that existed.
The Eight Hours takes us back. The title is taken from the eight-hour workday movement, which the Haymarket murders grew to represent. But if the play revolves around those killings, it is unconcerned with the facts. Instead, it tries to reveal, through Brechtian, cabaret-style story telling, the atmosphere and ideology of the era.
We encounter the person of Elijah Scoones (Beau O'Reilly), born in the poverty of the prairie and transformed by cold and hunger into a pawn of the evil capitalist Potter Field the First (Robin MacDuffie).
While hiring other desperate men for Field's flock, Scoones runs into Jack Hades (Bill Gallagher), an old shipmate of his back in Zanzibar, where Jack had saved Scoones's life. Scoones decides to help his old friend, and Hades and his fiancee, Peggy Sheets (Stephanie Barto), are soon the happy owners of a saloon for the workingman. Of course they're firmly under the thumb of the upper-class exploiters.
To make matters worse, Field has now teamed up with another rich enemy of the masses, Tribulation P. McCormick (Guy Nixon). Together they conspire, with the help of the Reverend Billy Sunday, to put the idea of an eight-hour workday out of the seething workers' minds (religion is the opiate of the masses and all that).
Into the workers' hell now come Joe Fleisch (Jim Tomasello) and Red Molly (Jenny Magnus), union folk at a time when unions were something wonderful and idealistic. Knowing the power Red Molly commands among the German immigrants, Field and McCormick send out their goons in an all-out effort to find and silence her.
At the fringes of conversations, we hear rumblings of the Haymarket massacre and trial. The capitalists support the hangings. The folks caught in the middle, like Scoones and Hades, can no longer remain neutral. Will they stand by the workers, with whom their sympathies lie, or have they become too tangled in the cogs of the bosses' machine?
Of course, in the real world, four of the Haymarket anarchists did hang. Once that event occurs in the play, the story turns into a workers'-revenge tale. The capitalists are baited and caught, and the eight-hour day is won.
But the question we are left with is, who really won? One hundred years after the Haymarket massacre, the names of Field and McCormick and others they represent remain prominent in Chicago. And what have the workers truly gained?
The piece brings up some interesting questions and analogies. How much have the times actually changed? How much are we still controlled by big business, even in areas of our lives that we feel in charge of? Are we just too apathetic to care about what happens to us?
The whole piece is done as poor man's theater, in the cabaret style of Brecht's Berlin. The stage is essentially bare, lit only by work lights that the actors manipulate. The show is complete with piano player, bittersweet songs, a narrator, and scene titles. It is a type of theater that thrives on poverty, and in poverty and simplicity lies its strength.
Warren Leming has done a superb job in crafting this piece. It is, I'll grant you, a little rough when it comes to connecting all the characters. But that roughness is the very thing that makes it so compelling. We rarely get to see theater stripped down to such bare essentials. "Elusive, mocking, and instructional," says Leming about cabaret theater in his extensive program notes, "it only appears when it has something to say."
The abilities of the cast range all over the map, which really doesn't matter. This is a play of ideas, and it works. Beau O'Reilly does deserve special mention, however. In the twin roles of Narrator and Elijah Scoones, he is perfectly in tune with the style of the piece. You can almost think yourself in Berlin as he slinks about the stage slipping in and out of scenes, totally at home.
One thing was confusing. I've read my history. I dutifully read my program notes, and I know that those striking workers were German. But the people onstage were the most Irish-sounding bunch of Germans I have ever heard. But I could have sworn I was thinking of a different Haymarket event, listening to those accents.
Still, The Eight Hours is a wonderful, exciting work. I would suggest you brush up on the events of the time beforehand, or you may not get some of the references. At least get there half an hour early so you'll have time to read the program notes.