Book Review: The Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939: Engagement and Experimentation

Given how many theater advocates are calling these days for “a new Federal Theatre Project,” this newly-published book about the first one is, if nothing else, well timed. In The Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939: Engagement and Experimentation  (Edinburgh University Press, 256 pages), Rania Karoula provides a useful reminder of the government agency’s aims and accomplishments as well as its shortcomings. 

Yes, the Federal Theatre Project was created to secure permanent employment for (what we are now calling) arts workers, at a time (like now) when a devastated  economy left many struggling to pay their bills. But that was not the agency’s only purpose. Its director Hallie Flannagan wanted to generate  high quality theater at low prices, for Americans throughout the country, especially those who had never attended live theater before — a theater “national in scope, regional in emphasis and American in democratic attitudes.”  But beyond that, Flanagan envisioned a theater free “from the non essentials which have become synonymous with it – divorced from expensive buildings, stage equipment, painted sets, elaborate costumes and properties, made up plays.” In other words, the antithesis of Broadway. (It is fascinating to realize that, in the current moment, when we also praise the “essential,” we are free of buildings, equipment, and most costumes, although not by choice.) 

Ideally, Flanagan wanted theater to become “a place where an idea is so ardently enacted that it becomes the belief of actors and audience alike,” with audiences participating as fully as the performers.

The author focuses on four units of the Federal Theatre Project based in New York that reflected the agency’s commitment both to artistic experimentation and sociopolitical engagement, detailing specific shows within each unit.

One-Third of a Nation, 1938

The Living Newspaper aimed to dramatize current events, the  social problems they revealed and possible solutions to those problems. These shows were staffed not just like a theater, with artists, but like a newspaper, with editors and reporters doing extensive research. Among the shows that the author describes: “Injunction Granted,” about employers’ use of court injunctions to kill employee strikes; “Triple-A Plowed Under” about the plight of farmer, which used cinematic-like short, visual scenes (The director was Joseph Losey, who went on to a career as a film director.); and later, more toned down both in its experimentation and in its message: “Power,” about the importance of electricity,  and “One-third of a Nation,” about the housing shortage (taking its title from FDR’s second inaugural address: “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished….”); the set in the New York production featured a four-story structure built with material from actual demolished tenements; the play began with a fatal fire.

Voodoo Macbeth, 1936

The Negro Unit in New York, one of some dozen the FTP established in cities throughout the country, staged more than 30 productions at Lafayette Theater in Harlem, most famously the “voodoo” production of Macbeth, directed by a pre-Hollywood Orson Welles and John Houseman, set in the Caribbean with an all-Black cast. (After the first year, the white directors of the unit were replaced by Black ones.).

The Revolt of the Beavers, 1937

The Children’s Theater created productions intended to be both entertaining and educational.

Helen Tamiris, How Long Brethren, 1937

Modernist dancer Helen Tamiris translated Greek Tragedy into choreography for the Dance unit.

Congress shut down The Federal Theatre Project after four years, but it had run into problems from the get-go.  Harry Hopkins, director of the Works Progress Administration, which oversaw the FTP and four other arts programs, declared  that “what we want is a free, adult, uncensored theater.” But conservative legislators disagreed, seeing the program as using public tax monies to promote views and causes of which they disapproved, some of which they considered un-American —  an early glimpse of  the red-baiting that fully flowered in the two decades ahead and the culture wars that raged half a century later,

But the opposition wasn’t just from conservative politicians.  Liberal WPA officials were skittish, Karoula writes, if a play’s message diverged from those of the Roosevelt Administration’s New Deal. The WPA canceled both a Living Newspaper show about Ethiopia, and, most famously, “The Cradle Will Rock” (a complicated backstage story that Karoula tells well), prompting The New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson to comment that “a theater supported by government funds cannot be a free agent when art has an insurgent political motive.”

And, according to Karoula, the Broadway community was also against the program, seeing it as competition.  

The author claims other factors were involved as well: The theater project was the only one of the five art programs within the WPA headed by a woman….and the only one of the five to be shut down.

The lessons for our current moment that readers can derive from Rania Karoula’s book are not explicitly expressed by  the author herself, who teaches modernist drama at the University of Edinburgh. Her (painfully overpriced) academic book is part of a series entitled “Edinburgh Critical Studies in Modernism, Drama and Performance,” and the author spends  time and energy exploring the connections between the works of the Federal Theatre Project and the modern European theater movements of the era.  Flanagan was certainly conversant with the avant-garde and politically active theater happening overseas; she spent a year in Europe on a Guggenheim fellowship to study it, and then wrote a book published in 1928, “Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre.” But the most charitable way I can phrase my reaction to Karoula’s passages on early twentieth century European theater is to say they were tangential to my interests. (There are surely more readable accounts of the theatrical philosophies and practices of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Bertolt Brecht, the WTM and The Blue Blouse theater movement.)

For all her comparisons with European theater, Karoula doesn’t address a question that feels crucial to our current moment in American theater (and, to be fair, one I haven’t seen addressed in any of the many other books about the FTP):  How is it that so many European governments have been willing and able to this day to subsidize their theaters and theater artists with such relative generosity, no matter how aesthetically or politically adventurous, while the U.S. could barely make it through four years, eight decades ago?

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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