No For An Answer: A Greek-American People’s Opera from the 1940s

On January 5, 1941, the first of only three performances of the Broadway musical, “No For An Answer,” opened at the Mecca Temple in New York City. Brooks Atkinson, critic for the New York Times, an attendee of the premiere immediately called it, a “very exciting in performance.”
That musical’s setting was unusual in the extreme, considering that the action of this drama focused on the lives of the assorted members of the Diogenes Social Club, a loose gathering of immigrant Greek workers that regularly assemble along Nick Kyriakos’ lunchroom counter. But more was at work than merely its thematic setting. The three performances were advertised as semi-staged (and forced to bill itself as “experimental”) because, frankly, there simply was not enough money to mount a fully- realized Broadway musical. This lack of funding probably should have been expected because “No For An Answer” was composer Marc Blitzstein’s first musical since his notorious “The Cradle Will Rock.”
“Cradle Will Rock,” is also the 1999 film dramatization of the events (real and fictionalized) that surrounded the production of Blitzstein’s 1937, “The Cradle Will Rock.” It is this film, written and directed by Tom Robbins, and featuring actors such as Hank Azaria, John Cusack, Cary Elwes, Angus Macfadyen, Billy Murray, Vanessa Redgrave, Susana Sarandon and others, that is perhaps best known to a contemporary American audience – rather than the original musical and composer on which it is based. As this film depicts, “The Cradle Will Rock,” musical was originally a part of the WPA Federal Theatre Project and was directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman. The original musical showcased the institutionalized corruption and corporate greed prevalent in “Steeltown, USA,” an allegorical American every town. As Atkinson outlines the musical, “The Cradle Will Rock,” is the story of a steel magnate who unscrupulously consolidates a united front of newspapers and citizens’ liberty committees against a union campaign to organize his plant.”
When the musical officially opened at the Mercury Theatre on December 5, 1937, (various productions had appeared and disappeared since June 16th) the production was ultimately judged in the mass media as communistic and leftist. This judgment did not come from a viewing public. Since “The Cradle Will Rock” was a sponsored program of the federal government various officials (within the broader ranks of the government) felt this musical actively promoted a political agenda and so closed it down.
Rather than be disheartened at this governmental condemnation Marc Blitzstein was energized. “After I finished [‘The Cradle Will Rock’], I wanted my next work to try to develop real people, very much themselves, with special personal qualities. I wanted to try characterizations in depth and in musical terms. So I set about writing and composing ‘No For An Answer’ (”
After “The Cradle Will Rock,” Marc Blitzstein was intent on creating nothing less than a people’s opera. Blitzstein selected as his theme: “a club of Greek-American workers in the U.S.A. It is a workers’ social club; not a social workers’ club. Its quarters are the back room of a roadside lunchcounter two miles outside Crest Lake, a summer resort. Nick Kyriakos owns and runs the lunchcounter, and he has made the big barnroom attached to it into the clubroom. The members are the people employed during the season in town; waiters, hotel workers, restaurant workers, chefs, laundresses, chambermaids, and taxi-drivers. They are now, most of them, without work. The time of the play is around September 15, just after the summer season has closed; the hotels are boarded up, shops and bars closed; a skeleton town, a town like a morgue, waits for next summer. Some of the workers have followed the trade to Atlantic City, Miami, the mountains; but some are forced to stay on. These are the ones we find coming to the Diogenes Club—for comfort, for hope, company, enough morale to last the winter. They hold conversations, meetings, study-classes, socials, card-games, and especially chorus rehearsals. Being Greek-Americans, they equip the action with a Greek Chorus of singing waiters, who keep us informed of plot developments.
It is the life and fate of the Diogenes Club and its little people that forms the opera; tragic episodes, comic interludes, individual love stories, plans, anguish, determinations, setbacks, triumphs. The Club is having a hard time surviving. There is almost total unemployment; besides, the hotel owners’ Resort Association, fearing the threat of a union (aliens and a group spirit are an “alarming” combination), worry and harry the Club, and launch an offensive which culminates in the murder of Joe, the Club’s leader, and the burning of the Club. This is the main thread (” The leader, “Joe,” is Joe Kyriakos a Greek-American and the son of Nick Kyriakos.
During the conceptualization, writing and composition for “No For An Answer,” Blitzstein lived with his sister Jo in Ventnor, NJ where the duo spent a great deal of time with two Greek-American cooks. While Blitzstein is very careful to note that the Diogenes Club is “a workers’ social club; not a social workers’ club,” reviewers did not always credit this distinction. As a consequence the reviewers tended to either love or despise this sincere attempt at an American opera.
Brooks Atkinson, who was in the audience on December 5, 1941, gave what seems from our distance in time a balanced review, “If Mr. Blitzstein and his friends had the money, they would probably like to produce it with scenery. But they are lucky to be putting it on a bare stage framed with a battery of lights that change the scene by shifting the lighted areas from left to right. As in the instance of ‘The Cradle Will Rock,’ Mr. Blitzstein provides all the accompaniment by playing a piano in the orchestra pit. The austere setting gives ‘No For An Answer’ a great feeling of sincerity. It is infinitely more dramatic than a full stage setting could be.” Part of the problem, was as Atkinson again observes “’No For An Answer’ is a labor drama, leaning so far to the left that it is practically horizontal.”
{46630}Aaron Copeland, who predicted a considerable future historical importance for this musical, wrote: “No one has ever before even attempted the problem of finding a voice for all those American regular fellows that seem so much at home everywhere except on the operatic stage.”
New York critic Ira Wolfert went as far as possible to name the socioeconomic taboo Blitzstein had violated ,“‘No For An Answer’ is hailed as the best American opera ever written, but can’t get a Broadway showing. Too grim. Too left (Dallas Morning News, June 1, 1941).” Not long after Wolfert drew up the ten-best Broadway hits of the 1941 season which included among their number “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “Native Son,” and “Pal Joey.” “No For An Answer” couldn’t be included because it had never been a commercial production. Nonetheless Wolfert was clear, “If it had, it would have been right up there at the top of the list.”
Not every critic liked this musical. The unidentified writer for Time Magazine, notes in his or her January 13, 1941 review: “‘No For An Answer’ is about Greeks, but its references to Greek pluck are purely coincidental: Composer-Librettist Blitzstein began it more than two years ago, when most people thought of Greeks as hamburger-joint men. Mr. Blitzstein’s Greeks are waiters in a summer hotel. They form a Diogenes Social Club, which bludgeons into a union. A young upper-class couple fall in with the waiters: they want to learn the answers. To anyone who has ever seen a labor play, it is no surprise that They—the vigilantes, the Interests, the Fascists—kill the leader of the waiters, burn the club. From the leader’s father, a kindly hamburger-Greek, the waiters take courage to go on, sing a chorus full of resounding Nos.” Could this general reevaluation of Greeks in North America, as noted by this critic have anything to do with the Greeks defiant stand against the invading Italians in winter of 1940?
Since that reviewer isn’t shy about talking about “hamburger-Greeks,” additional information is essential to complete the historical perspective. Principally, that Pinkerton men hired and paid by the aptly named Robber Barons were the ones principally responsible for the violence during all manner of unions and labor strikes. Also, that Greeks were often strike leaders. Greeks such as Louis Tikas and many others went toe-to-toe with these avowed enemies of the working class who were ultimately nothing but criminals who never went to trial.
“No For An Answer” is very much a musical period-piece. It is also the only American musical ever to showcase the actions of Greek-American workers. Greek-American scholars must one day fully assess the writings and characterizations found in American literature that employ Greek-Americans as the subjects of their art.