The story begins with my speaking at downtown Fordham to the Sodality of Our Lady, one noon hour some years ago. The meeting had a note in the Times perhaps, under "Meetings of the Day," and that's how some outsiders happened to be there.
I talked of the Green Revolution, and how Lenin had said that there could be no revolution without a theory of revolution, and how students had taken a vital part in movements in other countries, and how the Fordham students could not only be studying the theory of the Green Revolution, but also be participants, spreading Catholic periodicals and pamphlets as the communists did. I pointed out how, in times of change, newspapers were always suppressed; how Trotsky was first sent to Siberia for distributing leaflets outside a factory in Odessa. (I indulged in these radical examples not only because of my former communist associations, but because it makes the students feel the more keenly their own complacent attitude of taking things for granted).
I finished my talk by asking the students to do as much as they could in spreading Catholic periodicals by leaving them in subways, buses, trains, on their way to and from school, and also to familiarize themselves with what was going on by reading them.
During the question period a young girl in the rear raised her hand. "I'm not a Fordham student, and I'm not a sodality member," she said. "I'm an actress in 'Tobacco Road'."
There was the same kind of stunned silence that always ensues when I speak of Lenin or Trotsky as an example to be followed. Peter Maurin believes in the technique of surprise. He thinks people need to be startled, but I wonder sometimes if we don't startle them too much. There was no doubt about it though, the audience certainly had listened to every word.
"I came here because I saw the meeting advertised," she said, "and I wanted to learn more about the Catholic Worker. I first got a copy a few months ago on a very cold day, up on Forty-second Street. I'd passed the fellow who sold the paper many times before, and thought how undignified it was for a Catholic paper to be hawked on the street like that—just as though it were a communist or a Judge Rutherford sheet. But it was so cold that I felt sorry for the fellow who sold it, and bought a copy.
"And when I read it, I enjoyed it so; I could understand every bit of it. I decided I'd spread it around as much as possible. So I made it my job to go to all the houses in my parish, from door to door, and ask them whether they wanted to subscribe to the Sunday Visitor, or the Catholic Worker. I gave them their choice, but I made them take one paper. I did that every month all winter. And I liked the Catholic Worker so much myself, because it deals with people who are poor, that I took it for every member of the cast of 'Tobacco Road'."
She added a little sadly, a little apologetically, "Of course there is an awful lot of profanity in the play, and a lot of wickedness. But I pray for those poor people, and every time I hear them take the Lord's name in vain I say 'Jesus, Mary and Joseph, forgive them'."
Ruth Byrnes was there for that meeting and we were going to have lunch together afterward, with one of the priests. We were both touched and charmed by Miss Hunter and invited her to go to lunch with us. She was a completely natural person and we enjoyed the luncheon very much. She had not so much sympathy with some aspects of the Catholic Worker, the women's House of Hospitality for instance.
"I worked like a dog myself," she told us, "so I don't see why any woman cannot get a job doing housework or something like that. If a woman is not lazy she can always find a home. In between stock company jobs, I always took what I could get, housework or anything else." She told us that she was married, had a child and had built a home with her earnings from "Tobacco Road," and that she was going to give up her job soon.
Also she invited Ruth and me to see the show. Neither of us had ever had any intention of seeing it, but we accepted her offer of seats, so one evening that week we found ourselves in about the sixth row, listening to about as sad a play as any one could conceive.
What was most horrible was the audience. They laughed with delight at every obscenity. They howled in shocked amazement at the bawdy missionary woman, at the antics of the harelipped girl (Miss Hunter). When there was nothing to eat but a turnip, they shouted with laughter over the hunger portrayed. When a Negro was killed, and one of the Southerners said, "It's only a nigger," they laughed at that. They laughed at incest and lechery and hunger and death. And the audience was not just Broadway, not just New York, but people from all over the country.
After the performance we went back to Miss Hunter's dressing-room. There was a picture of the Sacred Heart on the wall. She had made tea for us, and there was a box of little cookies which she had made herself. "Well, I could see how shocked you were," she said sadly, as she got herself into her clothes. "It is awful, isn't it? It started out as a pretty serious show, but every time some line got a laugh, we had to step up the action, play up the aspect that the audience wanted. I've always taken that show seriously. I've prayed for those poor ones. They have one appetite they can satisfy, and only one, and they satisfy it the only way they can. They are hungry and Godforsaken. Even their land is being taken from them, worn out as it is. They have nothing left but sex. They are a degraded lot and there's lots of poor like that too, and who are we to be passing Judgment.
"Perhaps it always was bawdy. But also it was a serious play. It was the audience that made it what it is."
[For more of Dorothy Day's writings from Commonweal, see our full collection.]