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An Hour Upon the Stage

The Brief Life of Federal Theatre

By Pedro Ponce | HUMANITIES, July/August 2003 | Volume 24, Number 4

With sixteen million workers out of a job during the worst years of the Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took drastic measures: he embarked on a public works program that built 650,000 miles of roads, 125,000 public buildings, 75,000 bridges, and 8,000 parks. One of the controversial ventures of the Works Progress Administration was the Federal Theatre Project, which put nearly 30,000 people back to work, only to gutter out four years later.

The Federal Theatre Project produced twelve hundred plays and brought theater to an audience of more than twenty-five million--many of whom were experiencing live theater for the first time. At its peak, the project employed thirteen thousand people in thirty-one states. It fostered the growth of black theater as well as the early careers of stars such as John Houseman and Orson Welles. Its productions tackled serious themes, from Mussolini’s war on Ethiopia to the tragedy of the Dust Bowl. What began as a product of necessity blossomed into a period of creativity. Houseman once wrote, “The miracle of the Federal Theatre lies precisely in this--that from the drab and painful relief project there sprang the liveliest, most innovative, and most original theatre of its era.”

But success was tempered by skepticism and controversy. Could art result from what was essentially a relief program? And could the U.S. government maintain its fiscal generosity in the face of the project’s provocative productions on social themes? By 1939, Congress answered both questions with a resounding no and voted to eliminate the project.

The story of the Federal Theatre will be retold this fall in Who Killed the Federal Theatre: An Investigation, a television documentary produced by the Educational Film Center and hosted by actor Judd Hirsch. A companion book, Voices from the Federal Theatre, will be available this fall, along with a website containing documents from the period and information about the project.

The Federal Theatre was an unprecedented experiment at the time of its creation--and one that has never been replicated in the U.S. on the same scale. “The attempt to combine relief and art, for example, was full of potential conflict, particularly because of the differing goals of social work and artistic achievement,” writes Robert Brustein, founding director of the American Repertory Theatre, in his introduction to Voices from the Federal Theatre. “Was the Federal Theatre to be a source of great plays and productions or rather an agency designed to better the lives of the unemployed?”

The person who would become central to the four-year experiment was Hallie Flanagan, who like Harry Hopkins, founder of the WPA, hailed from Iowa. When Hopkins selected Flanagan to head the program he told her, “This is an American job, not just a New York job. I want someone who knows and cares about other parts of the country. It’s a job just down your alley.”

Flanagan was faced with the challenge of helping artists make a living while also making art. “Our Federal Theatre, born of an economic need, built by and for people who have faced terrific privation, cannot content itself with easy, pretty, or insignificant plays,” she once said. Flanagan saw the project as an alternative to commercial theater, which she characterized as telling “in polite whispers its tales of small triangular love stories in small rectangular settings.”

Hopkins promised a federal theater that would be uncensored. “I am asked whether a theater subsidized by the government can be kept free of censorship, and I say, yes, it is going to be kept free from censorship,” he told the National Theater Conference in 1935. “What we want is a free, adult, uncensored theater.”

“What came out of this in the process of rescuing people was some of the most brilliant work that had ever been done because the freedom existed to do it,” says the film’s co-producer Bonnie Nelson Schwartz. “Theater is a mirror of our culture, our politics, our society. It forces us to pay attention. And in the middle of this relief measure, here comes something that forced everyone to pay attention.”

Some theatrical talent was squeezed out by stringent employment requirements: only those who were already theater professionals qualified, which had the effect of excluding graduates in the field who lacked stage credentials. The project was also plagued by labor problems. Unions objected to the low salaries; actors working for the WPA earned $23.86 a week, compared to the standard minimum of $40. Even as some expressed wariness about how good a relief program theater could be, the League of New York Theaters refused to give the project space for fear of the competition.

Nevertheless, the project in New York managed to get its first production into rehearsal. Ethiopia was a “living newspaper,” a new genre that typically combined live actors with projected images to bring stories about contemporary issues to the stage.

Ethiopia dealt with Benito Mussolini’s invasion of that country. But when the White House learned of the production, Steve Early, President Roosevelt’s secretary, warned of the possible international repercussions for portraying living statesmen on stage. Washington intervened to cancel the production.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Elmer Rice, head of the project’s New York City unit, quit. “To present the Italo-Ethiopian War without Mussolini and Haile Selassie would be like presenting Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. The issue is clearly one of free speech,” Rice told the press.

Out west, the Federal Theatre Project met with success. Black Empire, a drama about the fall of Henri Christophe’s kingdom in Haiti during the early nineteenth century, ran in Los Angeles from March through July 1936. The second living newspaper, Triple-A Plowed Under, went through eighty-five performances in New York and was eventually staged in Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Cleveland. Triple-A dealt with farmers’ troubles during the thirties and the ravages of the Dust Bowl.

“When it got up to that point where it was getting to the Supreme Court, the audience used to get hot under the collar because they would take sides and they would start talking back to the actors, calling out to the actors,” says Norman Lloyd, who first acted with the Federal Theatre Project in the 1936 performance.

The living newspapers represented the project’s concerted efforts to develop a national theater in the United States. “Hallie was doing versions of the living newspaper in every major city in the country, as well as finding what was regional and essentially native to the city for their own productions,” says Brustein.

Other living newspapers included Spirochete, a production about efforts to combat syphilis, and Power, a critique of the privatization of electric companies. When the play was accused of spreading propaganda, Hopkins replied, “Propaganda? What of it? I say more plays like Power and more power to you.”

As the Federal Theatre made its mark socially, so did it artistically. Financial constraints often led to significant technical leaps. The project’s tight budget required alternatives to the lavish stage set. Sets became more abstract, with modular pieces that could be moved around. Other innovations included the stage lighting of George Izenour, who designed a console that allowed stage lights to be controlled from a central location.

The project set about developing permanent companies of actors for specific theaters. “It’s like a ball team,” says Brustein. “If you work together, if you play together, you know each other’s plays. You can support each other and reinforce each other onstage in a way that a pickup team doesn’t.”

When Sinclair Lewis’s cautionary tale about fascism in America, It Can’t Happen Here, was adapted for the stage, it opened simultaneously at twenty-two federal theaters across the country.

“Three of the productions were in Yiddish. It’s mind-boggling to do that,” says Edna Nahshon, who teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. According to Nahshon, the play’s opening had the kind of buzz usually associated with films.

Half a million people saw the show. The Federal Theater’s reputation was heightened by the fact that Lewis, the first American novelist to win a Nobel Prize, had chosen it over offers from Broadway.

“The Federal Theatre was now on a roll,” says Brustein. “Critics were calling it the greatest producer of hits in New York. The best dramatists of the day, such as Bernard Shaw and Eugene O’Neill, were letting the project do their plays for a royalty of fifty dollars a week or less, delighted to get produced in regions that would normally never be exposed to their work.”

The Federal Theatre provided black theater with a venue for growth and experimentation both onstage and behind the scenes. The project’s Negro Units produced Theodore Browne’s Natural Man in Seattle, Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog in Chicago, and Orson Welles’s adaptation of Macbeth with a black cast in Harlem. Welles was twenty years old when Houseman hired him to direct the play.

“Setting the play in Haiti, Welles turned the witches into voodoo witch-doctors and treated the central character as if he were ‘Emperor Jones gone beautifully mad,’ thereby creating a triumph that played New York and toured the country to great acclaim,” writes Brustein. “The success of this Voodoo Macbeth encouraged Negro units throughout the country try to stage black versions of other European classics such as The Swing Mikado and Lysistrata, though the latter was eventually shut down by the WPA for being too ‘risqué.’”

By 1939, skepticism about New Deal policies put Congress in the mood to reevaluate WPA programs. Despite the Federal Theatre’s wide range of productions, from puppet shows and circuses to Shakespeare, the House Un-American Activities Committee seized on a small group of shows and investigated them for New Deal or Communist propaganda. Among these was Revolt of the Beavers, a children’s play about working beavers exploited by their chief. The play’s theme had provoked condemnation from theater critics. “Mother Goose is no longer a rhymed escapist. She has been studying Marx; Jack and Jill lead the class revolution,” observed Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times.

“Hallie often replied, with a zealousness that knew no fear, that only a free people could create a Federal Theatre, that it was a democratic answer both to Communism and Fascism,” says Brustein. “But no one seemed to be listening.”

Flanagan had in fact written to one of her producers, “I will not have the Federal Theatre used politically. I will not have it used to further the ends of the Democratic party, the Republican party, or the Communist party.”

But tensions were mounting. The controversy over The Cradle Will Rock is now the stuff of legend. Set in Steeltown, U.S.A., the play deals with unionism and corruption. Rehearsals began in the spring of 1937, at a time when violence between striking steelworkers and the police had been escalating for months. There was great public interest in the play, and between fourteen and eighteen thousand advance tickets were sold.

Six days before opening night, Flanagan received word from Washington that budget cuts and personnel changes were to be made in the Federal Theatre Project and that no plays should open that month.

Flanagan understood the ban as censorship. “Don’t be afraid when people tell you this is a play of protest. Of course it’s a protest against dirt, disease, human misery,” she said at the time. “If, in giving great plays of the past as greatly as we can give them, and if, in making people laugh, which we certainly want to do, we can’t also protest--as Harry Hopkins is protesting and as President Roosevelt is protesting--against some of the evils of this country of ours, then we do not deserve the chance put into our hands. Here is one necessity for our theatre--that it help reshape our American life.”

Despite Orson Welles’s attempts to convince WPA officials that the play was artistically important rather than being purely political, the ban against the production remained in place. Theater unions barred the actors and musicians from performing in it.

Undeterred, Welles and Houseman found a new location and decided to perform the play “on a refugee run,” as Houseman called it. On opening night the audience followed them twenty blocks uptown to the empty Venice Theater, a truck with a piano on it leading the way. At the Venice the playwright appeared alone onstage with no props or scenery, and played the piano while the actors recited their lines from the house.

“It is almost impossible, at this distance in time, to convey the throat-catching, sickeningly exciting quality of that moment,” Houseman writes. “There was no audience. There was instead a roomful of men and women as eager in the play as any actor. As singers rose in one part and another of the auditorium, the faces of these men and women made new and changing circles around them.”

“The stopping of The Cradle Will Rock,” Flanagan recalled later, “was more than a case of censorship. It marked a changing point of view in Washington.”

Congressional criticism was growing, and Roosevelt was cutting government spending. The Washington Post disparaged the Federal Theatre’s “frilly artistic projects” and the San Francisco Examiner ran the headline, “Federal Theatre Communist Trend Must Be Eradicated.” Soon Flanagan found herself defending her art as well as her ideology before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

“Hallie was willing to concede that many of her productions were expressions of propaganda, but insisted that propaganda was a form of education for democracy, rather than a tool for advancing Communist doctrine,” Brustein writes. “In a moment that summed up the nature of this investigation, she was asked by Representative Joseph Starnes about an ominous figure named Christopher Marlowe. ‘You are quoting from this Marlowe. Is he a Communist?’ ‘Put in the record,’ Hallie replied, ‘that he was the greatest dramatist in the period of Shakespeare.’”

The hearing room erupted in laughter. But Congress was unsympathetic to the project, and on June 30, 1939, voted 373 to 21 to eliminate it.

“When you have drama that has something to say, there are also a number of people who will disagree with the message,” says coproducer Ira H. Klugerman. “And that’s essentially what killed the Federal Theatre.”

“If this first government theatre in our country had been less alive it might have lived longer,” Flanagan wrote in 1940. “It strove for a dramatic statement and a better understanding of the great forces of our life today; it fought for a free theatre as one of the many expressions of a civilized, informed, and vigorous life.”

Pedro Ponce is a freelance writer in Denver.

Who Killed the Federal Theatre: An Investigation received $600,000 in NEH support. The documentary will air this fall on WNET in New York. An accompanying DVD and website will be released at the same time.