The unnamed Reading, Pennsylvania, bar in which most of Sweat’s scenes take place symbolizes the disillusionment that the play’s working-class characters experience and the escapism they seek out as a result. The “lived-in and comfortable” bar at the center of the play is a meeting place that facilitates the similarly familiar and comforting friendships—like the decades-long bond between Tracey, Cynthia, and Jessie—that take place within it. In this way, the bar is both a literal and symbolic safe haven from the outside world—it’s the one place where characters can try to forget about work, speak their minds without fear of being reprimanded, and “stop complaining and have some fun.” Additionally, drinking alcohol tends to loosen people’s inhibitions and bring out underlying emotions—this is certainly the case for the bar’s customers, who often confide in bartender Stan about their financial strife, relationship woes, and broken dreams. In this way, the bar in which this drinking takes place represents the hardships of blue-collar life and the resultant need for emotional release, community support, and leisurely distraction.
As a multigenerational staple of Reading’s working class, the bar also represents tradition and the tendency for people to get stuck in the status quo. All of the play’s main characters were born and raised in town, and most of them (like previous generations) have worked at the local steel mill and frequented the bar in their downtime for decades—all the while feeling stuck in their jobs and in their lives. Stan reflects that “nostalgia is a disease,” and the bar, as a place where people both dwell on the past and fruitlessly dream about the future, symbolizes this idea. However, at the end of the story, Jason and Chris return to the bar after eight years in prison to find that it’s “refurbished, polished” and that Oscar, the former busboy, is now the manager. The fall of heavy industry and ensuing economic downturn that drives much of the play’s action changes everyone and everything in Reading, and the bar is no exception. But ultimately, its change in appearance and management in the aftermath of Sweat’s central crises represents the hopeful idea that communities doesn’t have to stay mired in the past—instead, they can (and should) respond to hard times with resilience and adaptation.
The Bar Quotes in Sweat
CHRIS (Escalating emotions): I dunno. A couple minutes, and your whole life changes, that’s it. It’s gone. Every day I think about what if I hadn’t…You know…I run it and run it, a tape over and over again. What if. What if. What if. All night. In my head. I can’t turn it off. Reverend Duckett said, “Lean on God for forgiveness. Lean on God to find your way through the terrible storm.” I’m leaning into the wind, I’m fuckin’ leaning […] What we did was unforgiveable…
CYNTHIA: […] let me tell you something, once he started messing with that dope, I don’t recognize the man. I know it’s tough out there, I understand. Yeah, yeah, yeah. He went through hell when his plant locked him out, I understand, but I can’t have it.
STAN: Says he got wind that they were gonna cut back his line at the plant. Couldn’t handle the stress.
CYNTHIA: That rumor’s been flying around for months. Nobody’s going anywhere.
STAN: Okay, you keep telling yourself that, but you saw what happened over at Clemmons Technologies. No one saw that coming. Right? You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico, whatever, it’s this NAFTA bullshit—
CYNTHIA: Who knows? I might apply.
TRACEY: What?! Get outta here.
CYNTHIA: Why the hell not? I’ve got twenty-four years on the floor.
TRACEY: Well, I got you beat by two. Started in ’74, walked in straight outta high school. First and only job. Management is for them. Not us.
CYNTHIA: More money. More heat. More vacation. Less work. That’s all I need to know.
JASON: […] But seriously, man, why didn’t you tell me?
JASON: Shit, I just kinda thought we’d retire and open a franchise together. We’re a team, you can’t leave!!
CHRIS: Yeah, I can.
JASON: What about me?
CHRIS: What about you?
JASON: You coulda told me.
CHRIS: Dude, it’s just something I gotta do.
STAN: […] That’s when I knew, I was nobody to them. Nobody! Three generations of loyalty to the same company. This is America, right? You’d think that would mean something. They behave like you’re doing them a goddamn favor […] they don’t understand that human decency is at the core of everything. I been jacking all them years and I can count on my hand the number of times they said thank you. Management: look me in the eye, say “thank you” now and then. “Thanks, Stan, for coming in early and working on the weekend. Good job.” I loved my job. I was good at my job. Twenty-eight years jacking. And look at my leg! That’s what I get.
BRUCIE: […] this old white cat, whatever, gets in my face, talking about how we took his job. We? […] He don’t know my biography. October 2nd, 1952, my father picked his last bale of cotton. He packed his razor and a Bible and headed North. Ten days later he had a job at Dixon’s Hosieries. He clawed his way up from the filth of the yard to Union Rep, fighting for fucking assholes just like this cat. So I don’t understand it. This damn blame game, I got enough of that in my marriage.
TRACEY: […] I know the floor as good as Cynthia. I do. […] I betcha they wanted a minority. I’m not prejudice, but that’s how things are going these days. I got eyes. They get tax breaks or something. […] I’m not prejudice, I say, you are who you are, you know? I’m cool with everyone. But I mean…c’mon…you guys coming over here, you can get a job faster than—
OSCAR: I was born here.
TRACEY: Still…you weren’t born here, Berks.
OSCAR: Yeah, I was.
TRACEY: Yeah? Well, my family’s been here a long time. Since the twenties, okay? They built the house that I live in. They built this town.
TRACEY: […] It was back when if you worked with your hands people respected you for it. It was a gift. But now, there’s nothing on Penn. You go into buildings, the walls are covered over with sheetrock, the wood painted gray, or some ungodly color, and it just makes me sad. It makes me…whatever.
OSCAR: You okay?
TRACEY: Listen, that piece of paper you’re holding is an insult, it don’t mean anything, Olstead’s isn’t for you.
CYNTHIA: I’ve stood on that line, same line since I was nineteen. I’ve taken orders from idiots who were dangerous, or even worse, racist. But I stood on line, patiently waiting for a break. I don’t think you get it, but if I walk away, I’m giving up more than a job, I’m giving up all that time I spent standing on line waiting for one damn opportunity.
TRACEY: You want us to feel sorry for you?
CYNTHIA: …I didn’t expect you to understand, babe. You don’t know what it’s been like to walk in my shoes. I’ve absorbed a lotta shit over the years, but I worked hard to get off that floor. Call me selfish, I don’t care, call me whatever you need to call me, but remember, one of us has to be left standing to fight.
OSCAR: […] I keep asking for some good fortune. That’s it. A little bit of money. That’s it. My father, he swept up the floor in a factory like Olstead’s—those fuckas wouldn’t even give him a union card. But he woke up every morning at four A.M. because he wanted a job in the steel factory, it was the American way, so he swept fucking floors thinking, “One day they’ll let me in.” I know how he feels, people come in here every day. They brush by me without seeing me. No: “Hello, Oscar.” If they don’t see me, I don’t need to see them.
JASON: […] Eleven dollars an hour? No thank you. They’ll work us down to nothing if we let ‘em. “Jacking ain’t for softies!” But they know they can always find somebody willing to get their hands sweaty. And they’re right. There will always be someone who’ll step in, unless we say NO!
STAN: Look. Olstead is a prick. If he was here I wouldn’t stop you. In fact I’d hold him down for you to give him a proper beating, but Oscar…he’s another story.
JASON: […] All I’m saying is that he needs to understand the price of that dinner he’s putting on his table.
STAN (Shouts): What the fuck do you want him to do? Huh? It ain’t his fault. Talk to Olstead, his cronies. Fucking Wall Street. Oscar ain’t getting rich off your misery.
EVAN: I’ve seen enough guys in your situation to know that over time it’s…it’s crippling. I’m not a therapist, I’m not the right dude to talk to about any of this. But what I do know, is that it’s not a productive emotion. Most folks think it’s the guilt or rage that destroys us in the end, but I know from experience that it’s shame that eats us away until we disappear. You put in your time. But look here, we been talking, and we can keep talking—but whatcha gonna do about where you’re at right now?