Sweat is preceded by an excerpt from Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again,” a poem that critiques the false promise of the American Dream and encourages poor and working-class Americans (among other marginalized groups) to rise up and “make America again”—essentially to “redeem” the oppression they’ve faced and the opportunities they’ve been cheated out of. However, Sweat’s cast of characters is anything but empowered: rather than resist the hand they’ve been dealt, they have little choice but to make ends meet by laboring in Olstead’s Steel Tubing plant and to weather the early-2000s downturn of the U.S. manufacturing industry. Under these conditions, the play’s main characters rapidly fall into personal decline that mirrors the economic decline affecting their hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, and the rest of the Rust Belt. Whereas news coverage (such as the headlines included at the beginning of each act) tends to focus on how corporate leaders and stockholders are affected by shifts in the economy, Sweat serves as a case study in how working-class individuals are those most hurt by economic decline. The play argues that in such situations, communities like Reading bear the worst burden, as they’re left financially destitute, outraged, and steeped in disillusionment.
The rise of industry that Reading, Pennsylvania, has experienced over the years has left the town largely unrecognizable to residents who were born and raised there. Tracey, a longtime employee at Olstead’s Steel Tubing plant, bittersweetly recalls how Reading used to be when she was a child. She’s adamant that her German immigrant family “built this town,” and that her grandfather was a talented woodworker—back then, she says, “if you worked with your hands people respected you for it.” However, now that large-scale industrial manufacturing has taken over Reading, Tracey and the rest of the working-class population are left longing for the former reverence that manual laborers and craftsmen enjoyed. Indeed, this feeling of underappreciation is a common sentiment in Reading. Stan, a local bartender and former Olstead’s worker, is embittered by the new management at the plant. The clean-cut young men with MBAs who now oversee Olstead’s refuse to “understand the real cost, the human cost” of labor, leaving floor workers feeling overlooked, exploited, and replaceable. Notably, many employees have essentially put their aspirations on hold to start at Olstead’s straight out of high school—Tracey’s friend Jessie, for instance, gave up on her dreams of backpacking in Alaska and Asia to start at the plant at 18. By 2000, when most of the play takes place, steel manufacturing is so ingrained in Reading’s culture that people’s very identities are defined by their roles in the industry.
However, the fall of industry is even more impactful than the rise: when Olstead’s and other local mills begin cutting costs and instituting lockouts, workers turn to self-destructive behavior as they’re left feeling distraught and alienated in their own hometown. When Olstead’s begins relocating its equipment and transferring management, it’s rumored that the company is taking advantage of NAFTA by outsourcing its labor to Mexico. This is never directly confirmed, but regardless, pay and benefits are cut—and the employees are locked out of the plant until they agree to these concessions. Literally overnight, Olstead’s floor workers are left with no jobs and no answers, a situation that exemplifies how working-class communities are devastated by such downturns in the manufacturing sector. Olstead’s is only one of multiple local plants that has locked out its employees, and in the wake of this mass unemployment, Reading’s working-class community falls into despair. Brucie, who works at a textile mill that has been locked out for nearly two years, becomes dependent on drugs to numb the desperation and sense of hopelessness that comes with unemployment. His son Chris and Tracey’s son Jason, who are locked out of Olstead’s, alternate between protesting on the union line and seething with rage as they drink at the bar where Stan works. Tracey and Jessie—lost, aimless, and embittered—similarly turn to alcohol. Essentially, the community undergoes a kind of collective existential crisis when the industry to which they’ve dedicated their lives begins to crumble, resulting in their own self-destruction.
Ultimately, this community-wide sense of despair culminates in violence—a trajectory that exemplifies the negative chain reaction that economic downturn can have on working-class people. When Jason and Chris’s wrath over losing their jobs finally reaches its breaking point, they lash out and physically attack Oscar, a busboy at the bar who’s begun working at Olstead’s for a lower wage while the regular employees are locked out. Oscar is, of course, not to blame for the lockout, but the fact that he has a job at the plant is too much for the other men to bear—a clear example of how economic strife can lead otherwise reasonable, hardworking people to desperately and senselessly lash out. However, Stan is the one who ends up injured in this altercation: Jason grabs a baseball bat from behind the bar and accidentally hits Stan in the head instead of Oscar, leaving Stan with a traumatic brain injury and landing Jason and Chris with eight-year prison sentences for the assault. This tragic chain of events shows just how devastating economic decline can be on working-class people, resulting not only in self-destructive behavior but in the ruining of an innocent man’s life. The effects of downturn and job-loss radiate outward to affect not only businesses, but the psychological wellbeing of laborers and the integrity of the communities to which they belong.
Sweat doesn’t end on an entirely pessimistic note, however. In 2008, after Chris and Jason are released from prison, Chris reveals his intentions to complete his bachelor’s degree in lieu of the Albright College teaching program he dreamed of attending before his sentencing. Oscar, meanwhile, has worked his way up to become the manager of the bar. Years after the initial decline of the manufacturing industry, the play plants these seeds of hope to send the message that although economic changes and failing industries are inevitable, there are still other avenues by which ordinary, working-class people can “make America again.”
Working-Class Disillusionment ThemeTracker
Working-Class Disillusionment Quotes in Sweat
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.