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“The Pageant as a Form of Propaganda”: Reviews of the Paterson Strike Pageant

In 1913, silk workers in Paterson, New Jersey, went on strike. Journalist John Reed—one of the artists and intellectuals who made New York City’s Greenwich Village a center of bohemian culture—decided to mount a massive public pageant to publicize the strike and raise money for the strikers. He won financial backing from art patron Mabel Dodge and enlisted artists such as John Sloan, who painted a ninety-foot backdrop depicting the Paterson silk mills. The pageant opened on June 7 in Madison Square Garden, ending with the workers and the audience triumphantly singing the “Internationale,” the anthem of international socialism. Neither the pageant nor the strike were triumphant: the pageant lost money while the strike ended in defeat after five months. Nonetheless, the pageant represented an important moment in the alliance between modern art and labor radicalism. The pageant also focused media attention on the strike, as shown in these June 1913 articles from Current Opinion and Survey.


In the revival of one of the earliest forms of drama, the pageant, has been found one of the most “picturesquely vivid means of teaching a lesson or winning devotion to some particular cause.” So says Katharine Lord, writing on “The Pageant of the Idea” in the New York Evening Post.Although this form of drama, Miss Lord points out, is supposed to be nothing but a vivid record of history, the tendency in America has been toward its use for propaganda purposes. The suffrage pageant, recently given in the Metropolitan Opera, was a symbolic pantomime rather than a pageant. The pantomime was weak, says Miss Lord, “in that it is too exclusively symbolic, and has no substructure or human action to carry the idea.” On the other hand, she continues, “it is suggestive of a strong, dramatic, forceful and vivid pageant, which would have the inculcation of an idea or the advancing of a cause for its distinct purpose.”

A pageant of this type was produced shortly after these words were written. So successful in depicting the cause of the striking silk workers of Paterson, N. J., was the “Pageant of the Paterson Strike,” presented in Madison Square Garden on the night of June 7, by one thousand of the strikers and their leaders, that the New York Times found in the performance a veritable menace to existing society. It says:

“Under the direction of a destructive organization opposed in spirit and antagonistic in action to all the forces which have upbuilded this republic, a series of pictures in action were shown with the design of stimulating mad passion against law and order and promulgating a gospel of discontent. The sordid and cruel incidents of an industrial strike were depicted by many of the poor strikers themselves, but with dominating and vociferous assistance from members of the I.W.W., who have at heart no more sympathy with laborers than they have with Judges and Government officers. Their aim is not to upbuild industry but to destroy the law. . . . The motive was to inspire hatred, to induce violence which may lead to the tearing down of the civil state and the institution of anarchy.”

On the other hand, the New York World found in the strike pageant something more poetic and less menacing. Speaking editorially it said: “It was not a drama, and hardly a pageant as the word is understood. It was little more than a repetition of a single scene. But need can speak without elocutionists, and unison of thought in a great mass of highly wrought-up people may swell emotion to the point of tears. Probably few witnessed the exhibition without sympathy with the sacrifices that made it possible and satisfaction in its material success.”

“It would have pleased any dramatic critic because of the sincerity with which the simple plot was carried out,” says the World, adding further: “As viewed by a spectator unbiased either from the labor or capital standpoint, their pageant was rather in the nature of a tragedy than anything else.” The New York Tribune partially described the strike pageant in this way:

"There was a startling touch of ultra modernity—or rather of futurism—in the Paterson strike pageant in Madison Square Garden. Certainly nothing like it had been known before in the history of labor agitation. The I.W.W. has not been highly regarded hereabouts as an organization endowed with brains or imagination. Yet the very effective appeal to public interest made by the spectacle at the Garden stamps the I.W.W. leaders as agitators of large resources and original talent. Lesser geniuses might have hired a hall and exhibited moving pictures of the Paterson strike. Saturday night’s pageant transported the strike itself bodily to New York. . . .

"The first episode of the pageant, entitled ‘The Mills Alive—the Workers Dead,’ represented 6 o’clock one February morning. A great painted drop, two hundred feet wide, stretching across the hippodrome-like stage built for the show, represented a Paterson silk mill, the windows aglow with the artificial light in which the workers began their daily tasks. Then came the operatives, men, women and children; some mere tots, other decrepit old people, 1,200 of them, trooping sadly and reluctantly to the work the ‘oppression’ of the bosses had made them hate. Their mutterings of discontent were soon merged in the whir of the looms as the whistles blew and the day’s work was on.

"But that day’s work did not last long, for the smouldering spirit of revolt suddenly burst into the flame of the strike, and the operatives rushed pell-mell out of the mills, shouting and dancing with the intoxication of freedom. The whir of the mills died down, and then rose the surging tones of the ‘Marseillaise’ as the strikers marched defiantly up and down before the silent mill. ‘The Mills Dead—the Workers Alive’—that was the name of the second episode, best described, perhaps, in the words of the scenario of the pageant—‘Mass picketing. Every worker alert. The police interfere with peaceful picketing and treat the strikers with great brutality. The workers are provoked to anger. Fights between the police and strikers ensue. Many strikers are clubbed and arrested. Shots are fired by detectives hired by the manufacturers, and Valentine Modestino, who was not a striker or a silk-mill worker, is hit by a bullet and killed as he stands on the porch of his house with one of his children in his arms.’

"Episode three represented the funeral of Modestino, a scene that, with all the accessories of sombre realism, worked the actors themselves and their thousands of sympathizers in the audience up to a high pitch of emotion, punctuated with moans and groans and sobs. A coffin, supposed to contain Modestino’s body, was borne across the stage, followed by the strikers in funeral procession to the heavy tones of the ‘Dead March.’ As they passed, the mourners dropped red carnations and ribbons upon the coffin, until it was buried ‘beneath the crimson symbol of the workers’ blood.'

“The next episode depicted a mass meeting of the strikers, with all the regulation incidents of fiery I.W.W. speeches, the singing of revolutionary songs, the waving of red flags, and the pledging of the workers never to go back to work until their boss knuckled under. Then came episode five, with its May Day parade through the streets of Paterson, and its big climax of sending away the children to be cared for in other cities, that their parents might go on and fight and starve and struggle unhampered by their little ones. With all the details of farewell embraces and tears, and finally shouts of enthusiasm breaking through the sadness of parting, the tots were handed over to the ‘strike mothers’ from other cities, and taken away, while Elizabeth Gurley Flynn made a consoling speech to the weeping mothers, and roused their spirits once more to the blind determination to fight on.”

Judged from the artistic standards and ideals defined by Miss Lord in her article in the Evening Post, the “Pageant of the Paterson Strike” seems to be truly an artistic achievement, even though it may be, as the Times has pointed out, a dangerous weapon for subversive propaganda.


The average man who went to look [at the Paterson strike pageant] and the social observer familiar with labor struggles left Madison Square Garden with a vivid new sense of the reality of the silk strike and of industrial conflict in general for that matter.

The pageant, in which a thousand strikers participated, went the “human document” one better; it gave a real acquaintance with the spirit, point of view and earnestness of those who live what a “human document” tells; it conveyed what speech and pamphlet, picture and cartoon, fiction and drama fall short of telling. The simple movements of this mass of silk workers were inarticulate eloquence. And the words of “Big Bill” Haywood, or Elizabeth Flynn or Carlo Tresca or Pat Quinlan, in their efforts to give typical strike speeches, added nothing to the effect which the workers themselves spontaneously gave. Even the speakers seemed to feel this, for what they said seemed calm in substance and delivery compared with the whole-hearted simple vigor and earnestness of the thousand.

Yet it was an earnestness that had little of the vindictive. Grimness was not the dominant note in this characterization of industrial warfare—even when the workers surrounded the coffin of Modestino, the non-silk worker who was killed on the porch of his home when the detectives fired on the strikers. There was almost a note of gayety when an Italian striker sang, to the music of one of his native folk songs, some words concerning the strike, and the refrain was taken up with much gusto by the group around him. When the strike was called, and the throng rushed from the door of the mill to the front of the stage and down the center aisle, there was dash and enthusiasm.

Perhaps the thing that struck the observer most forcibly was the sort of people the strikers seemed to be and the absence of race prejudice. A large proportion were substantial, wholesome appearing German-Americans who seemed utterly to lack the hot-headed emotionalism which most people think characterizes I.W.W. adherents. One German striker, when asked how those of his nationality got along with the Italians, said, “We’re all brothers and sisters”—and it certainly seemed so, for the Italian singer was reinforced by a hearty chorus of German women.

The pageant was without staginess or apparent striving for theatrical effect. In fact, the offer of theatrical producers to help in “putting it on” was declined by those who wanted the workers' own simple action to impress the crowd. There was no complicated detail. The “episodes”—all with the same scenery, a great painted canvas mill building—showed: the workers dully going to work, entering the mill, and then rushing out a little later when the strike was called; picketing and police clubbing in front of the mill; the funeral of Modestino; the strikers giving their children for temporary keeping to “strike mothers” from other cities; and a typical strike meeting addressed by I.W.W. leaders.

The hall was decorated with great signs to enlist sympathy for the strikers and stimulate the reading of I.W.W. literature. This was sold almost by the ton. Every seat was occupied at prices ranging from ten cents to $2. This alone made it a financial help to the strikers' cause, but a large collection was taken also. That the whole occasion was most inspiriting to the strikers was very evident, surely, to any one who heard the mighty volume of sound when the audience joined in thundering out the Marseillaise.

Source: Current Opinion and Survey, June 1913. Reprinted in Joyce L. Kornbluh, ed., Rebel Voices: An I.W.W. Anthology (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964), 210–214.

See Also:The Paterson Strike Pageant Program