That inability of art to inculcate in its audience understanding of something as physical as labor partly inspired the artistic abstraction of Lehyt’s work. Though he initially said he tended toward a more didactic account, he ultimately decided to produce works that gave viewers little or no direction in interpretation. “The more I thought about being direct,” Lehyt said, “the more I thought that was useless because there is a subjective aspect [or] connection to art that I thought was more useful than saying things directly.”
ABSENCE AND ABSTRACTION
People are conspicuously absent from Lehyt’s pieces. The box clearly represents the product of Lehyt’s own man-hours, but it is not the human effort that is emphasized. The piece is not about the laborers; it is about the concept of labor itself. The people are buried in the conceptual framework of Lehyt’s box. They are far from the fore.
The “calendar” does not deal directly with laborers either. Instead, the large overlapping paper squares in a scrambled grid, painted in brown and blue tones, calls to mind the place where the ocean meets the sand.
The beach is just the image Lehyt intended to invoke. His “calendar” is meant to project daydreams of freedom on workdays. “I thought of it as being away from the office, factory—escape,” he said. So while workers’ visions are splashed onto the paper, it is not the workers themselves who are the subject of the piece.
“Working”, on the other hand, is based entirely on the people performing labor. The agents of the work sing and dance and carry the plot; the people matter. Indeed, real people are the foundation for “Working.” Schwartz and Faso based the musical on “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do,” a book of interviews published in 1974 by Louis “Studs” Terkel. The compilation aimed to highlight how real-life workers found meaning in the everyday.
There are 26 characters in “Working”, each identified by name and profession—political fundraiser, schoolteacher, UPS deliveryman, and so on. Thus characters, even those in professions typically undervalued in society, are listed in their professional capacity rather than in their relations to each other.
The musical is a product of its time, a remnant of the 1960s and the Marxist ideology in vogue then. “In the 1960s and 1970s there was a lot of progressive and radical thought that said that workers are too invisible,” said Jaeger. However, Ortiz is confident that its message still applies in contemporary society and updated its dialogue to avoid alienating a modern audience.
“In the same way that our union is steeped in traditions of the American labor movement but also trying to update and innovate, I have a sense from talking to these students that they are trying to do the same thing,” Jaeger continued. “[They are] taking some of the ideas about the dignity of work and of recognizing and humanizing working people and putting a fresh, modern, local flavor with that.”
For the students wearing the borrowed HUCTW uniforms, there seems to be an implicit assumption that their professional roles in the play will not actually be their professional post in real life. Arthur R. Bartolozzi ’12, who plays the CEO in the show, said that “most people are really shitty things they won’t be [when they get older].”
But the actors’ futures, of course, are yet to be determined.
At last weekend’s rehearsal, a general shout roused the cast: “We need Russell,” they said. Russell Y. Huang ‘12, the assistant musical director, put down his copy of “War and Peace” to play “Just a Housewife” on the piano. A group of six female Harvard students began to sing the uncharacteristically pessimistic song: “All I am is / Just a housewife / Just a housewife, nothing great / What I do is ‘out of fashion’/ What I feel is out of date.” The six actresses started twirling around the broomsticks they were holding, spinning as they sang the somber song. “I’m afraid it is unimpressive / All I am is someone’s mother.”
The scene seemed particularly poignant for six Harvard students. Despite common confidence in a Harvard degree and the modern expectation that women can have both a family and successful career, whether these six students will grow up to have both is still uncertain. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that they could become stay-at-home moms. Besides, if “Working” succeeds in its glorifying aims, the fate should not seem like a particularly “shitty” one: the play presents housewifely work as another valuable way to contribute to society. For Harvard students, the point would be well taken.
Though many students see it as extracurricular—an activity outside the realm of serious work—acting itself is labor of sorts. Memorizing the lines, building the set—which the cast did last Sunday as a group task—and performing are all activities that could develop into real-life professions.
The same holds for visual artists. “I’m obviously not a worker who has been subjected, I’m quite the opposite,” said Lehyt. “But everyone does something—I also do something. Art is labor.”
—Staff writer Elyssa A. L. Spitzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org