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Doctor Faustus

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus by Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) opened at Maxine Elliott’s Theatre on January 8, 1937. Twenty-one-year-old Orson Welles (1915–1985), under unit director John Houseman, not only played the title role but also directed and designed the costumes for the FTP production. Though generally recognized as the most important playwright of his time apart from Shakespeare, Marlowe’s plays were seldom staged. The production, which was an early instance of a racially integrated cast, was done virtually without scenery. Visual effects were achieved through highly imaginative lighting, smoke pots, and fire effects devised by Abe Feder (1909–1997), who had a successful career in theatrical lighting design. The score of Doctor Faustus was composed and orchestrated by Paul Bowles (1910–1999), who went on to become not only one of the nation’s finest composers but also a highly gifted writer of biography and fiction.

W.P.A. Theatre Presents “Faustus” by Christopher Marlowe, 1937. Silkscreen poster. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (011.00.00)
Digital ID # ftp0011

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Orson Wells in the Role of Doctor Faustus

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus by Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) opened at Maxine Elliott’s Theatre on January 8, 1937. Twenty-one-year-old Orson Welles (1915–1985), under unit director John Houseman, not only played the title role but also directed and designed the costumes for the FTP production. Though generally recognized as the most important playwright of his time apart from Shakespeare, Marlowe’s plays were seldom staged. The production, which was an early instance of a racially integrated cast, was done virtually without scenery. Visual effects were achieved through highly imaginative lighting, smoke pots, and fire effects devised by Abe Feder (1909–1997), who had a successful career in theatrical lighting design. The score of Doctor Faustus was composed and orchestrated by Paul Bowles (1910–1999), who went on to become not only one of the nation’s finest composers but also a highly gifted writer of biography and fiction.

Orson Welles as Doctor Faustus, 1937. Photograph. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (013.00.00)
Digital ID # ftp0013

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/federal-theatre-project/classics.html#obj1

Doctor Faustus Score by Peter Bowles

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus by Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) opened at Maxine Elliott’s Theatre on January 8, 1937. Twenty-one-year-old Orson Welles (1915–1985), under unit director John Houseman, not only played the title role but also directed and designed the costumes for the FTP production. Though generally recognized as the most important playwright of his time apart from Shakespeare, Marlowe’s plays were seldom staged. The production, which was an early instance of a racially integrated cast, was done virtually without scenery. Visual effects were achieved through highly imaginative lighting, smoke pots, and fire effects devised by Abe Feder (1909–1997), who had a successful career in theatrical lighting design. The score of Doctor Faustus was composed and orchestrated by Paul Bowles (1910–1999), who went on to become not only one of the nation’s finest composers but also a highly gifted writer of biography and fiction.

Paul Bowles. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, 1937. Holograph score. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (014.00.00)
Digital ID # ftp0014

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“Voodoo” Macbeth: The Play that Electrified Harlem

John Houseman (1902–1988), later known to vast audiences as an actor, director, and theater academic, directed the FPT’s Negro Unit, which employed African American actors and theater workers. Houseman invited Orson Welles to direct a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, commonly called “Voodoo Macbeth.” Welles staged his production in nineteenth-century Haiti rather than Scotland and substituted witch doctors for the witches in the original version. Jack Carter, who enjoyed great success in Dubose Heyward’s 1927 original production of Porgy, played the title role. When Macbeth opened in New York at the Lafayette Theatre on April 14, 1936, 10,000 people filled the streets in anticipation. Every one of the Lafayette’s 1,223 seats was filled. The play’s atmosphere was a sultry jungle with constant voodoo drumming, hot tropical colors, and supernatural scenes that were truly menacing. This critically acclaimed play not only helped to solidify the reputation of the FTP, but also provided the opportunity for African American actors, usually seen in only singing and dancing roles, to prove their ability to act in classic roles.

“Voodoo” Macbeth scene with witch doctors, 1936. Photograph. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (016.00.00)
Digital ID # ftp0016

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Opening Night Audience

John Houseman (1902–1988), later known to vast audiences as an actor, director, and theater academic, directed the FPT’s Negro Unit, which employed African American actors and theater workers. Houseman invited Orson Welles to direct a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, commonly called “Voodoo Macbeth.” Welles staged his production in nineteenth-century Haiti rather than Scotland and substituted witch doctors for the witches in the original version. Jack Carter, who enjoyed great success in Dubose Heyward’s 1927 original production of Porgy, played the title role. When Macbeth opened in New York at the Lafayette Theatre on April 14, 1936, 10,000 people filled the streets in anticipation. Every one of the Lafayette’s 1,223 seats was filled. The play’s atmosphere was a sultry jungle with constant voodoo drumming, hot tropical colors, and supernatural scenes that were truly menacing. This critically acclaimed play not only helped to solidify the reputation of the FTP, but also provided the opportunity for African American actors, usually seen in only singing and dancing roles, to prove their ability to act in classic roles.



“Voodoo” Macbeth opening night audience photo, April 14, 1936. Photograph. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (020.00.00)
Digital ID # ftp0020

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/federal-theatre-project/classics.html#obj4

Opening Night at New York City’s Lafayette Theatre

John Houseman (1902–1988), later known to vast audiences as an actor, director, and theater academic, directed the FPT’s Negro Unit, which employed African American actors and theater workers. Houseman invited Orson Welles to direct a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, commonly called “Voodoo Macbeth.” Welles staged his production in nineteenth-century Haiti rather than Scotland and substituted witch doctors for the witches in the original version. Jack Carter, who enjoyed great success in Dubose Heyward’s 1927 original production of Porgy, played the title role. When Macbeth opened in New York at the Lafayette Theatre on April 14, 1936, 10,000 people filled the streets in anticipation. Every one of the Lafayette’s 1,223 seats was filled. The play’s atmosphere was a sultry jungle with constant voodoo drumming, hot tropical colors, and supernatural scenes that were truly menacing. This critically acclaimed play not only helped to solidify the reputation of the FTP, but also provided the opportunity for African American actors, usually seen in only singing and dancing roles, to prove their ability to act in classic roles.

“Voodoo” Macbeth opening night at the Lafayette Theatre, April 14, 1936. Photograph. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (021.00.00)
Digital ID # ftp0021

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/federal-theatre-project/classics.html#obj5

Behind-the-Scenes Labor and Costs

At its peak the Federal Theatre Project had more than 12,700 theater workers on its payroll, a majority of whom worked behind-the-scenes. The seamstresses shown here at work on costumes for the legendary “Voodoo” Macbeth, were just one facet of preparing a production as elaborate as this famed Shakespeare revival. Prior to the creation of the costumes, other staff were involved in the costume design. Additional employees fitted, stored, repaired, and cleaned the costumes during the life of all productions. Similarly, many workers were involved in set and lighting design and the production, moving, and storage of the sets. This production of Macbeth did well in terms of ticket sales, but the income came nowhere near covering its final costs, especially given the very low admission fees asked for FTP productions.

Federal Theatre Project costume seamstresses, ca. 1936. Photograph. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (023.00.00)
Digital ID # ftp0023

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Stage Hands at Work

At its peak the Federal Theatre Project had more than 12,700 theater workers on its payroll, a majority of whom worked behind-the-scenes. The seamstresses shown here at work on costumes for the legendary “Voodoo” Macbeth, were just one facet of preparing a production as elaborate as this famed Shakespeare revival. Prior to the creation of the costumes, other staff were involved in the costume design. Additional employees fitted, stored, repaired, and cleaned the costumes during the life of all productions. Similarly, many workers were involved in set and lighting design and the production, moving, and storage of the sets. This production of Macbeth did well in terms of ticket sales, but the income came nowhere near covering its final costs, especially given the very low admission fees asked for FTP productions.

“Voodoo” Macbeth stage hands, 1936. Photograph. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (024.00.00)
Digital ID # ftp0024

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Horse Eats Hat

Horse Eats Hat opened in New York City on September 26, 1936, at Maxine Elliott’s Theatre. The play was performed by Theatre Unit 891, which was headed by John Houseman and had some of the finest nascent talent in all of the theatrical arts. The production was directed by Orson Welles who also played one of the major roles. Virgil Thompson (1896–1989), who orchestrated the score written by Paul Bowles, was the inspiration for the decision to tackle the classic 1851 Parisian farce. Nat Karson (ca. 1908–1954) designed the vivid costumes and sets, and Abe Feder and Jean Rosenthal (1912–1969) did the lighting design. The opening night of the play is remembered as one of the most outrageous evenings in New York theater history, featuring the collapse of the stage set’s chandelier as Joseph Cotton (1905–1994) swung from it, followed by the collapse of the stage curtain.

Horse Eats Hat rehearsal with Orson Welles seated 1936. Photograph. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (007.00.00)
Digital ID # ftp0007

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Costume Design for the Countess

Horse Eats Hat opened in New York City on September 26, 1936, at Maxine Elliott’s Theatre. The play was performed by Theatre Unit 891, which was headed by John Houseman and had some of the finest nascent talent in all of the theatrical arts. The production was directed by Orson Welles who also played one of the major roles. Virgil Thompson (1896–1989), who orchestrated the score written by Paul Bowles, was the inspiration for the decision to tackle the classic 1851 Parisian farce. Nat Karson (ca. 1908–1954) designed the vivid costumes and sets, and Abe Feder and Jean Rosenthal (1912–1969) did the lighting design. The opening night of the play is remembered as one of the most outrageous evenings in New York theater history, featuring the collapse of the stage set’s chandelier as Joseph Cotton (1905–1994) swung from it, followed by the collapse of the stage curtain.

Horse Eats Hat costume design, 1936. Graphite, watercolor, and textile samples. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (009.00.00)
Digital ID # ftp0009

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Horse Eats Hat Cast on Stage

Horse Eats Hat opened in New York City on September 26, 1936, at Maxine Elliott’s Theatre. The play was performed by Theatre Unit 891, which was headed by John Houseman and had some of the finest nascent talent in all of the theatrical arts. The production was directed by Orson Welles who also played one of the major roles. Virgil Thompson (1896–1989), who orchestrated the score written by Paul Bowles, was the inspiration for the decision to tackle the classic 1851 Parisian farce. Nat Karson (ca. 1908–1954) designed the vivid costumes and sets, and Abe Feder and Jean Rosenthal (1912–1969) did the lighting design. The opening night of the play is remembered as one of the most outrageous evenings in New York theater history, featuring the collapse of the stage set’s chandelier as Joseph Cotton (1905–1994) swung from it, followed by the collapse of the stage curtain.

Horse Eats Hat stage production with cast and chandelier, 1936. Photograph. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (008.00.00)
Digital ID # ftp0008

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/federal-theatre-project/classics.html#obj10

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Return to The Plays and the Players List Previous Section: Circus | Next Section: Living Newspaper