Theater on the Left

Theater on the Left

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.


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.)

Possibly FTP’s most distinctive and finished innovation, aesthetic or otherwise, was the “Living Newspaper.” Being, so to speak, open propaganda openly arrived at, its conscious frankness contributed a purity of form and intention, an absence of artificiality, and a punch lacking in all but a few other examples of propaganda drama. Plays like Albert Bein’s “Let Freedom Ring” or Lawson’s “Marching Song” strike one, in contrast, as impure amalgams of aesthetic feeling and social thesis.

Timing and tempo were of the essence, so much so that there was almost a symphonic quality about certain ensembles in “Power” and “One Third of a Nation.” There were reminiscences of the technique of the old agit-prop at its best, and also of the chorus interludes of “Peace on Earth,” but the scripts were far sharper and more factual, and a direction emerged that was flexible and mature. The very limitations of the themes chosen elicited not only a careful documentation but a dramatic ingenuity lacking in earlier and freer propaganda groups.

The Federal Theater Project, vast as it is, has by no means preempted the field of the social theater. If many social-minded and talented persons were absorbed from other groups when the WPA started, hundreds were later dropped for lath of funds or returned to jobs in the regular theater. Distinguished examples are of course Marc Blitzstein (‘Cradle Will Rock”) and Welles and Housman of the Mercury, who were responsible for FTP’s Negro “Macbeth” and “Faustus.” In the catastrophic contingency of a collapse of the Federal Theater Project the nucleii for a renascent and independent theater in America would be legion.

Though FTP is worthy of acclaim by all believers in a “free adult theater” it would be a mistake to overlook certain limitations and dangers inherent in any state-subsidized theater. In spite of the absence of formal censorship, limitations have inevitably been imposed, first, by the general objectives of the Administration — reforming capitalism and defending it — and, secondly, by the directives of the Communist Party, which has organized the largest bloc of left opinion inside the FTP. The fact that recently the immediate objectives of the Administration and of the Communist Party have coincided has constituted a kind of double check on the character and scope of left criticism permissible in WPA drama. It is easy to imagine a whole category of plays subject to this double check: any play, for instance, that sharply portrayed the democracies — England, France, and the United States — as defenders today of capitalist imperialism rather than as potential allies in a crusading war against fascism, or any play critical of Washington from the left and advocating a “revolutionary way out of the crisis of capitalism,” as many left plays of the early thirties did. All this, in the writer’s opinion, quite apart from the merits of the political questions involved, is an argument for a flourishing “free and adult” social theater outside the federal project.

But within the limits set by this double check the freedom and vitality of FTP’s social theater, as I have emphasized, have been astonishing. As far as I am aware, they would be endangered only by a world war or a turn to the right in Washington, or in the administration of the Federal Theater itself.

What would have happened, for example, to “Injunction Granted,” or “The Revolt of the Beavers,” or “Power” in war time? Since social criticism is notoriously incompatible with mobilizing a modern nation for war, they would never have been produced. On the other hand, if the Federal Theater Project should be still alive when war comes, it would presumably serve the War Department as a propaganda arm-and far more effectively than the commercial theater itself.

Of more pressing interest, one hopes, is the future of FTP in peace time. It was disturbing a year ago to find lots of evidence of a relative dampening down originating in Washington. Certain workers in the New York project, at least, believed that those in control were no longer seeking for plays that “say something” but for plays that “say little” as innocuously as possible. Last year George Kondolf replaced Philip Barber as head of the New, York theater project. He was energetic and devoted, but a rumor persisted that he was appointed in order to make FTP in New York “safe” for the Administration. Whether or not that was true, it is easy to see why social-minded audiences thought so. “One Third of a Nation” was produced and indeed in part directed by Mr. Kondolf, but the play was an inheritance from Mr. Barber’s administration. “Haiti,” though based on the stirring story of Christophe’s revolutionary resistance to Napoleon, turned out to be the old familiar miscegenation melodrama. Rex Ingraham and the rest of the Negro cast, as well as the theme itself, deserved better treatment at the hands of WPA. “Prologue to Glory,” a play about Lincoln’s youth, was socially quite innocuous, and both script and production were unbelievably dull. The only play in the repertory with punch was one contributed from England by Mr. Shaw. “On the Rocks” had enough of Shaw in it to make it worth seeing, though it was difficult when the curtain came down to decide whether the author had been advocating a Fascist dictatorship or a Communist one.

This year there have been signs of renewed vitality. Under attack and working against odds, FTP has continued to be one of the soundest cultural and social assets of America. The politicians who want to destroy it in the name of economy or the “American way” would do well to take a plebiscite of the 30,000,000 Americans who constitute its audience. The season has given us, among other things, “The Blow,” a pleasant and highly successful melodrama about a hurricane, and the irreverant and lively “Swing Mikado.” (See without fail “Pins and Needles’ ” hilarious parody, “The Red Mikado,” inspired by it.) But above all, “Life and Death of an American” by George Sklar — which contrasts favorably with Messrs. Kaufman and Hart’s boy-scout version of American civilization in “The American Way” — proves that FTP as a social theater isn’t dead.

One calls to mind the remark made two years ago by Hallie Flanagan to the American Theater Council: “The theater when it is good is always dangerous.

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