Organic Theater

I’ve always held to the basic lefty opinion that George Pullman was slime. Clever, vigorous slime, sure–but slime all the same. What could possibly redeem him? That he built a half-civilized version of a company town, with running water and a theater for its citizen employees? Well, he collected their rent, too. And when his sleeping-car company faced thin dividends as a result of the depression of 1893, he cut hours and wages (25 percent!) without cutting the rent at all.

Then he wouldn’t discuss it. He wouldn’t negotiate and he wouldn’t arbitrate. Not even after his workers went out on strike. Not even after they joined Eugene Debs’s American Railway Union and instigated a nationwide labor boycott of trains hauling Pullman cars. Instead, he got Grover Cleveland to send in federal troops. And got Debs put in jail. I’ve always thought I had good reason to think of Pullman as slime.

So I was intrigued when everything I read about Jeffrey Sweet’s American Enterprise suggested that he’d drawn Pullman as a tragic hero: a visionary with a blind spot, a utopian who subverted his own dream. A king whose personal contradictions led him to a public disaster.

A Shakespearean king, no less. More than one preview I read quoted Jane Addams’s description of Pullman as “a modern Lear.” Yipes. This implied more empathy and respect than I could rightly imagine anyone bestowing on a man who had to be buried in a concrete-and-steel bunker to prevent anyone from abusing his remains. And the empathy wasn’t coming from a Pat Buchanan, either. I’ve never been a great fan of Sweet’s play writing; but his work–especially his opus about Hollywood witch-hunting, The Value of Names–carries all the telltale drips of a good old bleeding heart. Maybe he’d show me something beyond the slime I’d always imagined: Pullman with a human face.

Sure enough, American Enterprise gives this particular dog his evening, if not his day. Sweet offers us Pullman as a specifically American sort of reformer–a hard-nosed, iron-willed, independent-minded capitalist prophet who’d made his fortune by following his gut against the common wisdom, and who figured it was about time he solved the world’s problems, too. An engineer at heart, Sweet’s Pullman wants to do a little tinkering with the human condition.

The company town called Pullman is his gizmo. Arguing that a cultivated worker is a productive and law-abiding worker, and that the key to cultivation is an “artistic and refined” environment, Pullman the social engineer builds his own version of a proletarian paradise. His namesake town has neat little homes and landscaped grounds, good schools, pleasant shops, free concerts, a library –and none of the bars, brothels, or gaming houses you find among the tenements of Chicago.

Pullman keeps a tight lid on vice in Pullman. In fact, he keeps a tight lid on everything. Unlike George Eastman, say, who improved his workers’ lives by giving them a piece of Eastman Kodak, Pullman wants to absorb all the pieces, including the workers themselves. His paradise isn’t so much proletarian, it turns out, as paternal. The one truly creepy moment in American Enterprise has Pullman casually producing a list of library- book withdrawals and telling an employee what books he’s been reading lately.

The kicker in that scene is the fact that Pullman’s so sure–so absolutely positive–he’s doing the bookish employee some good. No wonder he’s completely flummoxed when the citizens of Pullman go on strike.

No wonder indeed. Sweet makes a cogent, careful, and exceedingly clear case for his view of Pullman as a good man undermined by his own limitations. I’m willing now to accept the possibility that the palace-car king was something other than slime. A worm, maybe. Even some species of mammal.

But a tragic hero? A Lear? It takes more than a solid argument to create one of those. In fact, Sweet’s care and clarity actually end up demeaning his protagonist–removing the ambiguities that might have given him more mystery, more size. This is such a scrupulous show. An oral-report show. An educational presentation. Sweet moves us through his thesis in the manner of an unusually lively historian: accumulating proofs; presenting some nicely researched facts; leading us smoothly toward his single, central irony–which is much too well set up to surprise us when it finally arrives. It’s telling that Shakespeare’s Lear talks more and more as his life falls apart, while Sweet’s talks less and less: What’s there for Pullman to say? Everything’s already so clear.

This is too bad. Not because it leaves us without a really good Pullman play, but because it leaves a really good Pullman without a play. I love Gary Houston’s sly, comfortable arrogance as King George. There’s something of the Citizen Kane in his simple formidability.

Juan Ramirez is more athletically formidable as Debs, while Larry Russo’s a veritable bulldog as Pullman’s sometime protege, J. Patrick Hopkins. Michael Krawic overdoes the treacle as the Pullman town minister, but makes up for it with his acrid depiction of poor George Pullman Jr. Tonray Ho, meanwhile, just plain overdoes as a worker named Jennie Curtis. The music–most of it by Sweet himself–is appropriately rousing/naive; but all the same, I hope to hell this is the last time for a while that I see onstage troubadors evoking America’s Tradition of Protest.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.