The characters in Sweat have spent decades of their lives thanklessly laboring in Reading Pennsylvania’s local steel and textile mills amid poor working conditions, disrespectful management, and union disputes. To combat this constant strain and underappreciation, the members of Reading’s working-class community depend upon tight-knit relationships with one another as a means of stress relief, support, and fulfillment. However, several close relationships are challenged as characters try to pursue new opportunities and escape the very circumstance over which they bond with others. The play thus shows how changes in status—being promoted at work, reaching a higher socioeconomic class, or pursuing higher education—can create tension and resentment among people who are all struggling to make ends meet, driving a wedge between even the closest of friends.
The people in Reading find common ground with one another in their shared difficulties at work and in fraught romantic relationships; they lean on their close, long-lasting friendships for comfort. Most of the play takes place in a local bar, where friends like Tracey, Cynthia, and Jessie (a trio of middle-aged women who’ve all worked at Olstead’s Steel Tubing plant for decades) gather to socialize with one another and with the beloved bartender, Stan. The bar itself is symbolic of the friendships that play out within it, as both the place and the relationships it facilitates are safe havens away from the stress of the outside world. The sheer amount of time that characters spend together in the “lived-in and comfortable” bar after work emphasizes just how important a similar sense of familiarity and comfort is in their relationships with one another. Tracey and Cynthia, in particular, are “close friends who’ve shared many adventures”—they console each other, cheer each other on, and encourage each other to stay positive and have fun rather than dwell on the stress of work. This kind of intimate friendship seems to be the norm rather than the exception in Reading: Tracey’s son Jason and Cynthia’s son Chris are also best friends who work at Olstead’s and who depend on each other for solidarity and camaraderie. “We’re a team,” Jason says of himself and Chris, one of many sentiments that drives home the sacredness of close relationships for the play’s struggling working-class laborers.
But when characters begin to distance themselves from the status quo and pursue different opportunities, these relationships gradually disintegrate as those left behind feel resentful of their friends’ new paths. When Chris reveals that he’ll be leaving Olstead’s to study teaching at Albright College, Jason is blindsided—he’d hoped to work alongside his best friend for the foreseeable future and to eventually retire and open a business together. To cover up how hurt he is, Jason mocks Chris and tells him he’ll never succeed in such a low-paying career before asking, “But seriously, man, why didn't you tell me?” Despite Jason’s tough exterior, it’s clear that he’s genuinely upset by Chris’s attempts to leave their shared lot in life behind and pursue higher education. Similarly, when Cynthia earns a promotion from floor worker to Warehouse Supervisor at Olstead’s, Tracey becomes spiteful and downright cruel—even though she, too, applied for the job. She bitterly tells Oscar, the busboy at the bar, that she “know[s] the floor as good as Cynthia” does, and Jessie confirms that Cynthia’s promotion has “pissed off a lot of people” even though she earned it fairly. All of the floor workers at Olstead’s feel replaceable and worry about their job security, so Cynthia’s bump in pay and benefits comes off as a slap in the face to her coworkers—one that drives a wedge between her and Tracey especially. In the world of the play, attempting to raise one’s status and transcend one’s current situation breeds resentment among the very friends who commiserated with that situation.
Tensions between friends come to a head when Olstead’s begins making changes and floor workers face the threat (and, eventually, the reality) of a lockout—and the newly promoted Cynthia comes to be seen as a traitor. As Warehouse Supervisor, Cynthia has a newfound insider’s perspective into the management side of the plant. Although Cynthia breaks the rules by warning Tracey, Jessie, Chris, and Jason that a lockout is imminent, they begin to see her as a betrayer rather than a trusted member of their inner circle due to her position of authority over them. “I’m on your side,” Cynthia tells them, but Tracey challenges her: “Then act like it,” she says. “You're making the same sorry excuses that they do. We're friends!” Both Cynthia and her loved ones feel hurt and misunderstood, further demonstrating the tendency for inequality in status to break apart relationships. After the lockout goes forward, Cynthia’s friendship with Tracey completely disintegrates—and when the play jumps forward from 2000 to 2008, it’s revealed that they’ve never reconciled. Their decades-long friendship ends in a seemingly insurmountable grudge, a heartbreaking reality that drives home the pain, jealousy, and hostility that can come about when one friend feels left behind by another.
The fact that everyone in Reading is trying to keep their heads above water seemingly makes them less encouraging rather than more so when their friends try to get ahead. Ultimately, Sweat shows the interpersonal costs of raising one’s station: when desperate people strive for more out of life, fellow desperate people—even, and especially, dear friends—will often respond with resentment rather than support.
Relationships, Status, and Resentment ThemeTracker
Relationships, Status, and Resentment Quotes in Sweat
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.
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.
CYNTHIA: […] I don’t deserve the things you’ve been saying. You’ve always been cool. Be angry, but don’t make it about this…(Points to the skin on the back of her hand) Look at me, Tracey. You don’t want to go down that road, we’ve got too much history between us. You got a problem, you tell me to my face.
CYNTHIA: […] You know after everything. I wanna say that…
(Cynthia fights back emotions.)
CHRIS: For what?
CYNTHIA: It’s just, I shoulda…
(Chris places his arms around Cynthia.)
CHRIS: C’mon. C’mon. I don't want this to be a big deal. Tell me about what’s been going on. You hear from the old gang? Tracey?
CYNTHIA: Fuck her. After what went down. We don’t really—
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.