LONGITUDE 49 (first perf. 1950; pub. 1952). Written by ex-merchant
seaman and Maritime Union official Herb Tank (1922–1982), Longitude
49 is a well-crafted example of agitprop drama set aboard the American
tanker Mackay docked in Abadan, Iran. Here the “workers” include Brooks,
a black union delegate; Maguire, a disillusioned old radical; the country boy
Alabama; and Blackie, a drunken ex-prize-fighter simmering with revolutionary fervor. The “capitalists” are represented by an anonymous Captain
and Mate, who are concerned that Brooks’ distribution of left-wing literature aboard the ship will cause dissension. The villainous Mate shoots
Brooks, who had been subduing the inebriated Blackie to prevent him from
attacking the officers. A blood transfusion provided by Alabama fails to save
Brooks’ life. The Captain, who initially encouraged the Mate to trump up
a charge against Brooks, now turns on him in the face of solidarity among
the crew. The crew’s union-inspired strength precludes a more violent reaction, symbolized by Maguire’s discarding a gun through a porthole.
Longitude 49 nicely captures the camaraderie of the forecastle and messroom and is dense with details of the tanker trade. Brooks, the Mate, and
the Captain are vaguely reminiscent of Billy, Claggart, and Vere in Herman
Melville’s *Billy Budd, Sailor* (1924). The resolution of the plot turns on
the need to maintain the status quo and on maritime law, though Tank’s
sympathies are unambiguously with the crew. The play is also reminiscent
of Eugene O’Neill’s* S.S. Glencairn* cycle (1919). The original New York
production notably featured Sidney Poitier as Brooks. There were also productions at the left-wing Unity Theatre in London, in East Berlin, and in