The Federal Theatre Project presented plays that made audiences think. That’s what made them so richly rewarding–but too dangerous for Congress to stomach.
It is admitted — and in certain circles acutely resented — that in a brief three years and a half Uncle Sam has become the greatest producer in the world. With a taste both daring and catholic, the Federal Theater has lifted plays out of the whole dramatic canon of the race beginning with Euripides and ending with Shaw, including Broadway successes, vaudeville, marionettes, a circus, and a show boat. Playing in thirty-five states, with the admission price usually from 5 to 55 cents, it has attracted an audience totaling 26,000,000, 65 per cent of whom, according to Hallie Flanagan, had never seen a “legit” before in their lives. Of this vast project, the present article will deal with but a single aspect — the relation of the WPA theater to left and social drama.
More than a year ago Fortune declared, “From any point of view save that of the old-line box-office critics the Federal Theater Project is a roaring success.” But it has not been a success with evangelistic opponents of the Administration — who feel that the taxpayers’ money, has not only been wasted but at times been spent to spread the germs of communism in America. When “The Revolt of the Beavers,” a class-struggle parable, appeared, one New York reviewer suggested that Sovietism was being taught by the Federal Theater to American school children. The review was instantly photostated, and within twenty-four hours a copy was on the desk of every United States Senator.
The following plays are generally considered the most provocatively left of FTP’s productions: “Turpentine,” a play about Negro workers in their relations to their white bosses; “Chalk Dust,” which dealt with teachers and the educational system; “Class of 1929,” a play about young men on relief; “The Cradle Will Rock,” class struggle in the steel mills in operetta form (this play, originally sponsored, then denied sets and stage hands, by FTP, was later taken under the wing of the Mercury — after a successful run on its own); “It Can’t Happen Here,” a doubtful left play portraying what fascism would look like in America according to Sinclair Lewis — it implied strong defense of old-fashioned Americanism and was careful not to offer any radical alternative; “Help Yourself,” a farcical kidding of bankers and big business; “The Revolt of the Beavers,” mentioned above; “The Living Newspaper” — “Triple A Plowed Under,” “Injunction Granted,” “News of 1935,” “One Third of a Nation,” “Power.” Other districts outside New York have contrived their own “Living Newspapers.” Chicago, for example, last season did “Spirokete,” popularizing the menace and cure of syphilis.
FTP affirms, and audience records bear it out, that it has produced social plays — as it has produced Shakespeare — because the public demanded them. It is this fact and not FTP sponsorship that should really give the Saturday Evening Post pause, if it insists on the jitters. Of a typical FTP audience Richard Lockridge wrote: “It is young, lively, and I suspect hard-up. It goes to the theater only partly to pass the time. It goes evidently expecting to hear something said.” The “something” can be gathered from a study of the preceding list and a score of other provocative offerings. An English observer who wrote a book on FTP insists: “Not only have the best of the Federal Theater productions expressed a definite viewpoint; it seems their excellence is on the whole in direct ratio to such expression. Clearly what is needed in that good 55-cent playwright is a clear propagandist.” (Italics mine.)