Interview with Manny Fried


I first met Manny Fried in the summer of 1962 when the Greensleave Coffee House, then at 719 Elmwood Ave., presented his one act play, The Peddler. Manny directed and played the lead.

At that time he was a vigorous, strong minded man in his early fifties, who looked fifteen years younger. He was earning his living as an insurance salesman, his success­ful career as a union organizer with the U.E. (United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers) having been interrupted by the duplicity of that complex period we simplify, and in some sense dismiss, by calling it the McCarthy Era.

His commitment to unionism and his interest in the fate of working men and women never diminished during the time of his forced exile from organized labor and indeed has remained intact in his plays and other works written over the past forty years.

Today, Manny is a vigorous, strong minded man of 73 who looks twenty years younger. He has earned a Ph.D. from the University of Buffalo, been a professor at Buffalo State College, had numerous, critically‑acclaimed productions of his plays in the United States and Canada, and is again an active voice in the labor community. Currently he is teaching a creative writing course at Buffalo State College, running a playwrighting workshop at the Allentown Community Center, and making weekly trips to New York City where a production of his play The Second Coming is running from November 24 through December 15 at the Writers Theater, 133 Second Avenue.

Manny's opinions and observations seem of particular interest at a time when both unions and the arts in general are struggling to exist in Buffalo. I met with and interviewed Manny in his Buffalo home in August of 1984.

A playwright's commitment to social and political goals need not detract from the esthetic quality of his craft, according to Manny. Not surprisingly, he has much to say on the question of extrinsic objectives versus intrinsic, artistic considerations.

Although most of his plays are "inherently political," he assumes he has "developed his craft sufficiently" to make them artistically viable. (An assumption that is supported by an array of good reviews from prestigious sources, including the New York Times.) "Unlike some playwrights," Manny says, "who get a political idea and then write a play to dramatize it, I work the other way around. I work along the lines of Strindberg, O'Neill, and a host of others, from personal experience, but then probe deeply enough to tap into political currents of the time so that the individual experience becomes a revelation, providing new insights into social and political events of the time.

"I have very consciously lived most of my life on the political firing line. My understanding of personal relationships was forged in the heat of innumerable political battles. I did not withdraw from life to write, nor could I ever sacrifice everything for writing. I am a political person, pro labor, based on my understanding of the political and economical situation and structures of the time. However, no matter what the current trend or style, pro‑ or anti-union, I am labor. I am union. That is my orientation. But that does not mean that I write only about union people. Therein lies the difference between me and many writers of what are essentially political tracts, agitational propaganda. I write about people based on my own experience with people and many times the context includes people who are not employees, not factory workers. My works have included employers, factory owners (imagine that, I write about factory owners!). And I don't treat them simplistically or shallowly. I treat them in a complex way—as people I know well and with whom I can empathize. But my insights and understanding of them is colored by my being a person familiar with the working class and unionism. I do not come up with a political idea or issue and create cardboard characters to serve my political message. That's crap!

“You've got to keep in mind that I came out of the theater of the thirties. I was a member of the Theater of Action, where I learned what not to write. The simplistic stuff they wrote! Every employer was an S.O.B. and every worker a hero. We know that's not so. It's much more complex than that. Having been a union organizer for 16 years, I know damn well the major battles were always fought within our own ranks. If we could solidify our own  ranks, we had no trouble dealing with employers. Our problem was the conflict within our own ranks, getting everybody to work for the good of all.”

We talked about the difficulty of empathy between the rich and the poor, the employee and the employer. Manny thinks there is some truth to the contention that it is easier to empathize down than up, that poor people find it difficult to believe that rich people have problems. "Poor people tend to think that if they had money they wouldn't have problems, but of course that's not true. There is, however, no problem equal to that of starving. No problem equals that one. It's only when you get the starving out of the way that you can afford to have other problems. You will have other problems at that point, however."

Our discussion of empathy led me to ask about a frequently voiced criticism of his plays—that plays about workers and unions were at best anachronistic and were no longer valid areas for artistic treatment because the world has left them behind.

Manny said, "That's nonsense," and backed up his disagreement with that criticism by pointing out the kind of reaction his play Drophammer, which played at Nietzsche's on Allen Street, had elicited. He told of a recent conversation with Arnie Stanton—an unemployed steel worker and member of the West Side Workers Repertory Theater Company, which produced the play—who had spoken of the fantastic response to Drophammer by union people who were in the play. Through their involvement they gained a tremendous sense of self-worth and of political importance. Manny mentioned that one man who was in the play said he found himself using lines from the play in dealing with some of the other workers in his union. What more could a pro‑union playwright ask? 

In fact, Manny responds by suggesting that the charge of anachronism fits more properly those people who control most cultural media—by their penchant for continuing to not only underestimate working people's receptivity and sensitivity to art, but also by continuing their policy of deliberately stifling art forms that would give working people more insight into themselves and knowledge of the social and political realities that affect their lives. "Working people are not involved in culture in this country. In fact, they are taught by most cultural media to despise themselves. They avoid calling themselves working‑class.  They say they are middle-class.

“They're giving working people the kind of stuff that keeps them from thinking, stuff that doesn't relate to their lives [shifting to the local theater scene and warming to the subject], the kind of stuff given by the Studio Arena that is deliberately kept sterile by at least two of its prominent board members who watch like hawks to see that nothing is done to disturb their control of culture in that particular area. I learned more about the class nature of culture from these two gentlemen than from any other source." Manny paused for a moment and said. "To avoid giving the impression that I'm making unsubstantiated generalizations, I think it necessary to be specific about my relationships with the two men who sit on that board.

"During the years after World War II, when I was embroiled in a tremendous fight between the I.U.E., a union set up with the assistance of the U.S. government (the F.B.I. was deeply involved) and the U.E. (of which I was the local international representative), one of these gentlemen and I and our families were close friends. We were buying a home then (our second daughter had just been born) and this gentleman was handling the legal work. I was under a great deal of pressure (this was in 1950), being smeared in the newspaper because of my position with the U.E. I had a call from this man, who said he had to talk to me right away, I went to see him and he told me, very bluntly, that I must resign from the U.E., give a public statement condemning my union and condemning the left, and that if I didn't, I would be prosecuted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and eventually go to jail. For this reason the Veteran Administration would refuse to grant my mortgage because I would soon be in jail and therefore unable to make mortgage payments. I told that man that I didn't believe him, that the V.A. and the F.B.I. wouldn't have the nerve to say publicly that they were denying a veteran a guarantee on his G.I. mortgage because at sometime in the future he might be put in jail for his political views. I said it absolutely would not happen, that he could tell the F.B.I. to go to hell. He admitted then that it was a bluff, to go ahead and apply, that the loan would be granted. From that point on, for years, we didn't talk. I became persona non grata in the community. No one dared talk to me because of my position and my political views."

"That gentleman is a member of that board and he is inimical to everything I stand for."

"More important is another board member. I organized workers at his plant for the U.E. I led several strikes at his plant. This man joined the Studio Arena Board immediately after Mel Benstock, who was directing Hedda Gabler, cast me to play Judge Brack—a very brave gesture on Mel's part, and one I greatly appreciated. This man soon became a board member, and he remains so to this day."

In the1960's, the AFL‑CIO started a pilot project in four major cities including Buffalo, to involve union people more actively in the cultural life of those cities. "The project flopped," Manny said, "because instead of trying to create material that came out of working people's lives, they tried to use the unions to increase audiences for existing stuff. The union people were smart. They voted with their feet; they went to the corner gin mill, which was more exciting. The local head of the project feared that the program would be wiped out. So I suggested that we see Neal DuBrock about doing Dodo Bird. We did and Neal said, essentially, that he couldn't do it, that I was an unknown, the investment would be too much to risk. I reminded him of the rave reviews in the New York papers and said I thought it would do well locally. When he said that they couldn't possibly risk doing it, I asked him what the run would be, how many performances? I then talked to some union reps I knew, got assurances from them and went back to Neal and said, 'We can sell out your entire theater for the entire run, 100% before you begin re­hearsals.' He said, 'Can't do it Manny, people on the board would resign, two on the board would resign.'''

"I tried to call the gentlemen in question but they kept ducking me. I persisted and finally one of them talked to me. He told me that the decision on whether or not to do Dodo Bird was DuBrock's. So I went back to Neal who made it quite clear, without mentioning names, that the problem was these two board members."

"Subsequent to that I spoke to two other board members who were AFL‑CIO members. One of them said, 'Manny, they will never do anything that enhances the image of labor.'  So that's the story on the leadership of the Studio Arena.  Incidentally, right now, the Dodo Bird is being considered by PBS for American Playhouse.''

Manny summarized his feelings, "I think it's time someone said this and you can quote me. These two men are not at the helm of the Studio Arena to advance the cultural and educational participation of this community, but rather to make sure that things aren't done with which they disagree. They prevent the theater from being what it should be, a medium through which challenging ideas are presented that stimulate questions—questions that lead to new insights and new answers to society's problems. That is the true role of the arts—to give insight into political and social problems so that people are able, non‑violently, to effect the changes that we so desperately need. Any questions? Have I left any holes?"

Manny, as always, makes his points clearly and confidently, dispassionately but intensely. In the few remaining minutes Manny had before getting on the phone to take care of some business with the director of The Second Coming, I garnered the following comments and opinions:

Manny believes that commitment to social, political, humanitarian goals and concepts are vital to the creation of art of any import or impact, and dismisses theater of the absurd as "establishment's safe alternative—a complete abdication of dealing with reality in our society." Manny is a structural traditionalist and cites Shakespeare, Balzac, O'Neill, and the early Odets, as writers whose content and structure inspired his idea of the artist as moralist and visionary.

Manny's comparison of Miller and Odets is revealing. He admires Miller's craft and praises him as probably America's greatest commercial playwright. "Miller has reached the ultimate of where one can go while maintaining a middle‑class perspective. Basically what Miller says is that we should not change things, but do them better. That we should all be honest within the existing structures; whereas Odets, with all his imperfections, said that we've got to change the structure of society."

Manny Fried is a man of courage and conviction. He had dedicated his life, his art, and his endless flow of energy to persuading people to re‑examine their social and political perceptions and their view of the playwright and his art.

SOURCE: Mahoney, Mike. "Interview with Manny Fried", Buffalo Arts Review [Irving Press Collective], vol. 2, no. 3, Winter 1984.

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