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Down the Airshaft
by Irwin Granich (Mike Gold)


The third bill of the Provincetown Players second New York season opened on December 28, 1917, the same day the railroads all passed into Federal war control, the headlines were filled with German peace proposals that were being rejected, and New York City and many parts of the world were in the midst of one of the coldest winters in history.  Though there is no extant script of Irwin Granich’s (Mike Gold) play Down the Airshaft, the opening play of the bill, sections of his unpublished and unedited autobiography along with an interview he gave to Robert Sarlos give a good idea of what the play was about.  Gold writes in his autobiography how the play came into being:

One night I lay in my gas-lit gloomy bedroom, with its cracked walls and ceiling spotted with insect corpses, listened to the melancholy defeatist song of the airshaft, and began to dream of a play.  It took me only a few nights of lost sleep to finish, it flowed as naturally as a song.  Down the Airshaft was written out of my life, my own need for liberation from the dark tenement prison.(1)

The play is set in an East Side tenement building and is about a young boy, Sammy Cohen, who loses his job.  After he returns from being gone all day, his mother asks him where he’d been looking for work, but he reveals he’s been at the Public Library all day reading a book.  His mother doesn’t understand him, and he decides to leave her and head west; she tries to talk him out of it, but he is determined to find his fortune.  Through the airshaft, the woes of the neighbors are heard by Sammy, depressing him even more.  Cook described what happened from this point on in the play in a speech to the cast that Gold recalled:

A neighbor on the top floor, a hungry wedding musician, is playing his flute. The nostalgic melody falls down the airshaft like a sad, beautiful voice from the fields, a call to freedom.  The boy listens with anguish, he cries into the airshaft, “Don’t call me flute, I’m a slave, I must not listen to your call of freedom!(2)

At the end of the play, this experience seems to help Sammy decide to stay, or at least the audience is made to feel so.  Gold remembered that Cook had “halted the rehearsal to utter again a dreamy word on the play’s significance,” and explained to them: “Remember, this East Side boy has worked all his life, but has hated his slavery, has hungered after finer things.  His poor peasant mother can’t understand him.  She knows the one proletarian truth, that a family [will] starve if it has no bread and it has no bread if it has no job. . .”  He tells them that the flute “is the first cry of a rebel, it is the poetry of revolt.  The prisoner is beating at the walls of poverty!  This is the cry of a confused and bitter rebellious working class youth." (3) 

Cook is stopped from his inspirational talk by Harry Kemp, who has dropped in to watch the rehearsal.

"The East Side has produced more rugged cries of revolt, Jig, than this self-pitying wail.  Can you imagine Emma Goldman talking like that?”  “In her first confused adolescence, she probably did,” said Jig.  “No, neither did gangsters like Gyp the Blood, or prizefighters like Leach Cross or Abe Attell,” Harry declared.  “Is boxing your idea of revolt?  Look,” said Jig, “I could put on the gloves with you and give you a sound beating, but it wouldn’t mean I had uttered a cry of revolt.”  “You could never give me a beating,” Harry exploded.  “I can outbox you and Jack Reed and everyone in this damn theatre!  And my boxing is definitely my rebellion against this industrial exploitation that deforms and makes so ugly the human body. . . .”  “The athletic life of the Greeks wasn’t a revolt.  It was worship of nature’s beauty and harmony,” said Jig.  “The Greeks are no model for us today,” said Harry, “and that’s your greatest fallacy, Jig, we aren’t ancient Greeks, but modern Americans.  Our America is a world of machines, autos, steel mills, harvest machines, and newspapers.  An American must revolt or die.  I hate the whole damn thing, I revolt against it but I revolt loudly, passionately, with all my muscles and my full voice.”  “I never read a poem of yours, Harry, with a world of revolt in it,” Jig taunted him.  “Have you, Edna?”  Edna Millay, the young actress poet, smiled her pert, cute, collegiate smile, tossed her small nervous glossy head of a redbird. “No, Harry, your poems are merely beautiful,” she sparkled. (4)

After rehearsal, Gold remembers that the debate continued for an hour and then into the Hell Hole:

How often did such diversions interrupt the scheduled work of the theatre!  At times there would be whole days and nights devoted to hammering, painting, rehearsing, at other times nothing but fine talk and quarrels, weeping, laughter, and meanderings.  In the center stood the noble figure of Jig Cook, a massive intense prophet who believed in this theatre as in a religion of truth, inspiring all with his own fervor and faith. (5)

This rare account gives one a glimpse into the kind of interplay that took place within the Players, even at rehearsal.

When opening night arrived, Gold was amazed that his play “had by some miracle become a unity.  It was a poignant tenement picture that brought tears to my eyes, as though I were seeing it for the first time, and Jig Cook, that universal man, played a Jewish shepherd melody on his ocarina and it really sounded like a flute that had called the boy to freedom.”(6)  Cook had apparently played his ocarina backstage as a stand in for the sound of the flute.  Gold had believed that Millay had played the part of the Mother, but the program says it was played by Bella Nodell.(7)  The voice of the neighbor was Bella Cohen, Gold later remembering “Bella Spewack, of the Broadway writing team, was the voice of the neighbor down the airshaft.”(8)  Max Fromm played Sammy Cohen.  Players secretary David Carb, who had been the publicity manager for The Masses as well, directed the play, and Louis Ell is credited with designing the set. 

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) Mike Gold Papers, Special Collections, University of Michigan.

(2) Mike Gold Papers, Special Collections, University of Michigan.

(3) Mike Gold Papers, Special Collections, University of Michigan.

(4) Mike Gold Papers, Special Collections, University of Michigan.

(5) Mike Gold Papers, University of Michigan, Special Collections.

(6) Mike Gold Papers, University of Michigan, Special Collections.

(7) Bella Nodel had been an actress with the Neighborhood Playhouse and would perform on Broadway in The Idle Inn.

(8) Bella Cohen married Sam Spewack and would write plays and librettos for Broadway plays and musicals, including Kiss Me Kate, Leave it to Me, and Boy Meets Girl.