inTown: Studs Terkel at the Keegan
WETA Around Town recommends Working, A Musical–playing at the Keegan Theater through May 13th–based on the book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Studs Terkel.
Originally published in 1974, Terkel’s book is still remarkably relevant, as highlighted in these excerpts from its New York Times review in March of that year:
From “Everybody Who’s Nobody and the Nobody Who’s Everybody” by Marshall Berman, March 24, 1974:
…Terkel has chosen a subject that is particularly timely. The disturbances at Lordstown, the H.E.W. “Work in America” report, the increasing intensity of bitterness expressed by workers in every occupation- blue and white collar, unskilled and executive alike- should be enough to convince readers that Americans have come to perceive work as a central problem, maybe the central problem, in the 1970′s. Terkel provides an enormous amount of exciting material indispensable for any full understanding of this problem. He uses the discussion of work to get at so much of what is deepest and most intimate in so many people’s lives, to understand work as Freud understood it, as the individual’s firmest connection with reality. He has learned, as it were, to listen with the third ear. His book should be a best seller, and it deserves to be.
It is not clear how Terkel gets so close to these people. Indeed, he makes it obscurer than it need be by editing his own presence out of most of the interviews he has transcribed, so that his people’s stories generally read as monologues instead of the human encounters they quite clearly are. Still, it is clear that he is giving off something that encourages people to associate freely, to mention “second thoughts” that they would normally keep under wraps, to expose their often precarious and frightening inner lives, to take emotional risks. He may have learned something of this from the late psychoanalytically-minded anthropologist Oscar Lewis, author of “The Children of Sanchez” (1961). Then, too, Americans may well have grown more expressive, more willing to let things out, since Terkel began to listen to people talk: this may be part of the legacy of the sixties. Still, it is clear that he has a rare and precious human gift- a gift that , if his earlier books are any evidence, has come to him relatively lately. This gives “Working” a very special electricity and emotional power. Sometimes, it seems, almost too much power: we want to drop the book, it is too hot…
…One of the most persistent themes among Terkel’s people, young and old, high and low on the social scale, is the ways in which people’s attitudes toward their work have changed. Older workers complain that younger ones lack what Veblen called the “instinct of workmanship,” a desire to do their job well. On the other hand- this usually comes out in second thoughts or free associations- they feel a grudging but intense admiration for young people’s willingness to stand up both to arbitrary power and to work that may, after all, be meaningless…