“THE PLAY’S THE THING!”
Imagine sitting in the audience of a “Voodoo” version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth set in Haiti; or, watching headlines and articles ripped from the pages of the daily newspaper and performed live on stage; or else, “Rocking the Cradle” to a Proletarian Opera where the cast members stood up and sang their parts from their seats in the audience; or, else watching in horror as a fascist dictator simultaneously storms center stage in theatres all across America—surely, It Can’t Happen Here—or did it?!
All of these seemingly bizarre and unusual things did occur as part of the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal initiative headed by Hallie Flanagan (1890-1969). When Flanagan accepted the post as national director of the FTP from Harry Hopkins, she was promised that she would be allowed to produce “free, adult, and uncensored” theatre. The limits of censorship would be tested almost immediately with an aborted production of Ethiopia. This Living Newspaper production was intended to bring to stage Benito Mussolini’s war of words with Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and the invasion of that last independent African nation in 1936. Timid federal supervisors pulled the plug on the production fearing that it might provoke a diplomatic brouhaha with Italy. Consequently, only a few reporters attending the dress rehearsal had the opportunity to watch the play, as the first director of the New York Office of the FTP resigned in a huff in a dramatic protest against government censorship.
Other FTP productions suffered far less interference, and in some cases enjoyed considerable success. A Federal Theatre Project “negro” company under the direction of the infamous Orson Welles, for example, created a unique version of Shakespeare’s classic Macbeth set during the Haitian revolution and complete with outlandish sets and Voodoo witches.
And as fascist dictators in Europe began staging wars in North Africa and Spain, the Federal Theatre Project provided Americans all across the country with the horrific possibility of a fascist coup in the United States. In 1936, author Sinclair Lewis worked with John C. Moffitt to transform his novel, It Can’t Happen Here into a stage version, produced by the FTP and premiering simultaneously in numerous cities across the United States.
But controversy continued to dog the Federal Theatre Project. Although its budget was miniscule in comparison with other WPA projects, the conservative anti-Communist crusader and chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC) Martin Dies targeted the FTP as a subversive project infiltrated by Communists sponsoring “leftist” propaganda in the guise of art. This political battle between HUAAC and Hallie was recently taken up in a popular 1999 Hollywood production, Cradle Will Rock.
The Cradle Will Rock, a musical written by Marc Blitzstein as a scathing indictment against Middle Class bourgeois society and a celebration of unionization was set to open as A Federal Theatre Project production at the Maxine Elliott Theatre in July 1937. Director Orson Welles’ costly and overly-ambitious set designs clashed with cuts to the FTP budget, and the proletarian opera was shut down, and the theatre padlocked and surrounded by armed servicemen. Never one to call it quits, Welles organized an impromptu showing at another venue, and when the actor’s union warned performers not to perform onstage, most stood up and serenaded each other from across the aisles mixed in among the audience. Ultimately, looming budget cuts combined with HUAAC’s attacks in the media to create an atmosphere conducive to bringing an early end to the Federal Theatre Project.
Thanks to the generosity of Christopher DeNoon, we have recently greatly augmented our original collection of New Deal materials. The Christopher DeNoon Collection for the Study of New Deal Culture includes lots of rare Federal Theatre Project books, periodicals, playbills, and other materials, many of which have been used to illustrate today’s blog.