Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Second-Story Man by Upton Sinclair

Only enough time for the simplest of sob stories
Upton Sinclair
I am not a habitual reader of plays, but I do like to read the dramatic works of my favorite authors, even when they’re not renowned as great playwrights. The Second-Story Man, a one-act play by Upton Sinclair, was published in his 1911 book Plays of Protests, along with The Machine, The Naturewoman, and Prince Hagen. Of these four dramas, The Second-Story Man is by far the briefest, amounting to only about 20 minutes of stage time. Nothing that occurs during that 20 minutes will make you forget that Sinclair is first and foremost a novelist.

The phrase “second-story man” is a slang term for a burglar, as in someone who enters through a second-story window. In this case, the thief is Jim Faraday, “a roughly dressed young fellow with a patch over one eye.” In the midst of a job he encounters the married couple he is in the very process of robbing. When caught in the act, Faraday explains that he has been driven to a life of crime by poverty. The play consists almost entirely of his story, with a little bit of room left at the end for a reaction before the curtain falls. The story that Faraday relates is similar to the labor David versus capitalist Goliath theme that appears in other Sinclair works such as The Jungle, Samuel the Seeker, and Mountain City. In his novels, Sinclair is able to flesh out his stories with graphic detail and intelligent insight, which at times results in a great masterpiece of socially conscious literature. Here, however, the workers’ plight is reduced to only the barest, most simplistic narrative, resulting in a rather generic and forgettable sob story. With a broad brush, Sinclair paints Faraday’s capitalist persecutors as murderous and thieving monsters, then unrealistically asks them to feel remorse. Whatever the reason for the play’s skimpy runtime, it only allows for all but the most cursory and didactic treatment of the complex social issues in question.

Though The Second-Story Man may not have a great deal of literary merit, like all of Sinclair’s work, it does have historical and cultural value for what it tells us about the Socialist movement in America during the early 20th century. One might imagine this play being performed at a workers’ meeting in a rented hall full of folding chairs, sandwiched between the potluck dinner and the party business meeting. The one-act play is an odd format that seems to predestine dramatic works to obscurity. It’s unlikely any high school forensics team will be blowing the dust off this one anytime soon. Unlike many famous novelists (Jack London comes to mind), Sinclair is not a terrible playwright, but drama certainly isn’t his strong suit.
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