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Photographic Print from New York production of Macbeth, 1936

[Detail] Photographic Print from New York production of Macbeth, 1936

Collection Overview

The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939, includes photographs, stage and costume designs, and notebooks pertaining to productions of Macbeth, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, and Power, a topical drama of the period. Full scripts for 68 other plays are also available, along with Administrative Records of the Federal Theatre Project.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection

Currently, no searching is available with this collection. Browse productions of Macbeth, Power, and The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus to see notebooks, playbills, posters, and costume designs.


U.S. History

The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939 contains flyers, photographs, scripts, and other materials that offer insights into the history of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), its productions, and its commitment both to providing work for theatre professionals and entertainment for millions. A search engine is currently unavailable for the collection, but this Learn More About It contains a variety of links to specific parts of the FTP’s administrative documents, playscripts, and production notebooks for performances of Dr. Faustus, Macbeth, and Power. These documents allow one to examine how this program reflected and influenced American history on and off the theatrical stage.

1) The Federal Theatre Project

In response to the Great Depression, Congress appropriated $4.8 billion for work relief and created agencies to administer the funds, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA put Americans to work in several public projects, one of which was the Federal Theatre Project. Despite being allocated less than one percent of WPA funding, the Federal Theatre Project employed approximately eight thousand Theatre professionals a year during its four-year run. The instructions and memos found in the administrative documents of this collection represent the variety of theatrical arts produced by the Federal Theatre Project as well as the guiding principles and goals of this organization.

The "Instructions for Federal Theatre Projects" include requirements for productions of Marionette and Children’s Theatres, Vaudeville, Variety, and Circus Projects, and teaching Theatre techniques. The project’s "Six-Month Report" also provides information about the Motion Picture Division which “reviewed and passed on many pictures for showings in [Civilian Conservation Corps] camps, and has gathered and presented to the camps historical, educational and scientific material in connection with the showing of certain of the pictures.”

Documents discussing the assignment of workers to FTP programs are available in notebooks from New York productions of Macbeth and Power. A June 28, 1937 memo from the Power notebook requests the replacement of thirty actors, while the casting notes for Macbeth states, “[W]e are forming the first Federal repertory company, some attention must be paid to obtaining the right people, for they shall be directed in many different and varied characterizations.” Correspondence such as the April 26, 1937 letter from the Power notebook requests specific actors and a review of this collection’s administrative documents (Box 964) yield “Personal Assignment” memos such as the one assigning Jack Seligman to the Children’s Repertory Theatre.

Other documents such as the report, “Educational Aspects of the Federal Theatre Project,” describe a variety of educational programs including marionette performances for children in Bellevue Hospital and for adults learning English as a second language. On page 21 of the report the argument is made:

In the sense that education is that which truly informs and awakens the spirit of a people, the Federal Theatre Project, taken as a whole . . . can be considered a significant educational effort that may have its effect upon and exert an influence over many communities for years to come

  • Why do you think the scope of the Federal Theatre Project activities included more than traditional stage plays?
  • What were the different units of the FTP? What types of jobs did these units provide?
  • What audiences did the Project reach?
  • In what ways might the educational role of the FTP have benefited the American people and the project itself?


2) Theatre and Audience

In the 1930s, the American Theatre lost much of its audience to new entertainments driven by technological innovations. Hallie Flanagan, the national director of the FTP, explained in a February 8, 1939 address that, “thousands of unemployed theatre professionals, affected not only by the economic depression but by the rapid development of the cinema and the radio, were destitute.” Flanagan described how the Federal Theatre Project reached out to the community by presenting plays “in parks and hospitals, . . . in public schools and armories, in circus tents and universities, in prisons and reformatories, and in those distant and unfrequented camps where 350,000 of America’s youth are learning all they know about life and art.”

The "Instructions for Federal Theatre Projects" were designed to develop a new audience and called for “the establishment of theatres so vital to community life that they will continue to function after the program of this Federal Project is completed.” This commitment is reflected in the “Audience” section of the FTP’s "Third Year Report" which noted that eighty percent of performances were presented free of charge “in state institutions – asylums, reformatories, homes for the aged, hospitals, prisons,” while a review from the Boston production notebook of Macbeth, “Federal Theatre’s ‘Macbeth’ Captivates Audience,” commented:

The people who came to "Macbeth" were not of that class who entreated decay of the Theatre by "patronizing" it, or by regarding it as an art, as one of the finer things of life. They were people, mostly poor, who came to the show because they wanted to see "Macbeth."

The article congratulates the Federal Theatre Project for “culling greatness from the tradition of the Theatre, and presenting it to its community for less than the price of a movie.” The price of a ticket is not the only point of comparison between this production of Macbeth and the movies. Orson Welles trimmed the running time of the play to one hour and incorporated a variety of auditory cues such as jungle drums, chants, and dramatic lighting to enhance his adaptation of Macbeth.

  • What steps did the FTP take to revitalize American Theatre?
  • What does the reviewer's assessment of the Macbeth audience suggest about the effect of the FTP on Theatre and its audience?
  • How did film influence the expectations and interests of audiences? How did the FTP respond to such changes?
  • Why did the FTP choose to produce classic plays?
  • Did the means by which Welles and others sought to make these plays more appealing to a modern audience detract from the overall impact and original intent of the production of a classic?
  • What makes a classic a classic?

Additional information is available in administrative documents such as “Classics Can Be Interesting!” which directly addressed educators, offering “to take the classics from between the dull pages of text-books and make them a real part of the lives of New York’s high school students.”

  • Why did the Federal Theatre Project target the Civilian Conservation Corps camps?
  • Is there a difference between presenting a play such as Macbeth to a paying audience and to high school students? What are the expectations of each group?
  • What do these expectations say about the potential community role of the FTP and of Theatre in general?
  • Did the FTP's exploration of new audiences change Theatre in America?
  • Did the FTP succeed in making Theatre vital to communities?


3) The Living Newspaper

In an attempt to create new plays, the Federal Theatre Project often recruited new writers. The project’s "First Six Months Report" acknowledges the criticism that it is much easier to build a dam or teach a trade than it is to develop a playwright. The report explains that one of the goals of the FTP is to create plays and provide training for aspiring writers: “Training for the playwright was the starting point of the Living Newspaper, a New York theatre unit engaged in portrayal of the news of the day, by writers who are attempting to dramatize salient situations objectively.”

  • What does the Living Newspaper project and its use as a means of training playwrights suggest about the FTP's attitude toward what makes good art and artists?
  • Why did the FTP promote plays about real life news events?
  • How did the concept of the Living Newspaper plays relate to other WPA programs?

Living Newspaper productions included Triple-A Plowed Under, an account of the Agricultural Administration Act that paid farmers to ruin their own crops, One-Third of a Nation, based on Franklin Roosevelt’s inaugural pledge to feed and house the nation, and Arthur Arent's 1937 play, Power, a history of electricity and the companies that controlled it. Despite the fact that the Living Newspaper was designed to incorporate contemporary news in a drama, there was some question whether drama would be of interest to the audience.

Reviews of two productions of Power provide conflicting assessments of the play in terms of its appeal to its audience. The Seattle production notebook described audience reaction as favorable: “About three scenes in, the audience would catch the rhythm and we never failed to close with at least four curtain calls.” The San Francisco production notebook, on the other hand, included a "Director’s Report" criticizing Power as a propagandist play that offered “no parts . . . to stir up the emotion of the audience”, suggesting that the author of such projects can succeed only if he “knows how to interest his audiences through their emotion and sentimental responses.” The expectations of the members of the Living Newspaper theatre unit are available in the Living Newspaper newsletter, which touts headlines “15,000,000 Enjoy WPA Shows.”

  • Why might a Living Newspaper drama yield such differing results?
  • What is the potential value of incorporating news into drama? What are the potential hazards?
  • Is it valid to charge that Power is propaganda? Is that such a bad thing?


4) Tennessee Valley Authority

Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933 to maintain the forty-one thousand-square mile area that constitutes the Tennessee River system. In addition to managing navigation, flood control, and national defense, the TVA was charged with the production and distribution of hydroelectric power throughout the area. Private power companies competed with the TVA for physical and financial control of the nation's electricity market. In addition to building power lines before the TVA, private industry took legal action to stop federal funding of power plants.

Arthur Arent’s 1937 play for the Living Newspaper theatre unit, Power, chronicled the history of electricity from its discovery to the TVA’s legal disputes. The 1937 production notebook from Seattle’s Metropolitan Theatre includes a synopsis of the play, a brief chronology of legislation, and a publicity memo describing the TVA as “the first of the series of the government’s program of hydro-electric projects that if carried out will blanket the entire United States and, according to advocates, make a vivid reality of the New Deal’s plan to provide a ‘more abundant life.’”

On January 3, 1938, the United States Supreme Court defended the TVA when it ruled that government assistance of municipal power plants was constitutional. The Living Newspaper was committed to keeping its productions topical and Arthur Arent added a revision to the conclusion of Power that reflected that ruling. Publicity memos from February 3, 1938 and March 24, 1938 describe how Arent planned to incorporate new developments into the final scene of his play.

  • Why were private companies threatened by the TVA?
  • Who would benefit from government-sponsored hydroelectric projects?
  • How did Power depict the TVA and the Supreme Court?
  • Why was it important for the Living Newspaper to update Power?


5) Advertising

The playbills and posters from the Federal Theatre Project provide insights into how the theatres advertised their productions and their patrons. The playbill from the Hartford production of Macbeth features a full-page ad promoting the selling power of “Times Want Ads” while the Atlanta production of Dr. Faustus includes spots for a loan company, a sign painter, and an exterminator. The playbill for the New York production of Dr. Faustus, on the other hand, features ads for other productions such as The Show Off and Power, and for WPA publications such as the Federal Theatre Magazine, and the Almanac for New Yorkers, which was written by the Federal Writers’ Project.

  • How much of the program does the FTP reserve for advertisements?
  • How do the ads compare to the rest of the content in the playbills?
  • Why might the playbills advertise other FTP productions?

Theatrical posters from Federal Theatre Project productions of Power in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco embrace the technological influences of modernism with angular lines, bright colors, and allusions to machinery. These pieces can be compared to the works featured in the Poster Gallery that accompany Carol Strickland’s discussion of the Federal Art Project in her article “Posters for the People” (one of four illustrated articles in this collection’s Special Presentation). Additional images are available by browsing Theatrical productions in the Subject Index of the Posters: WPA Posters collection.

  • What types of colors, fonts, and images are used in these posters?
  • How do the Power posters compare to the pieces in the Poster Gallery?
  • How do they compare to other theatrical posters?
  • Why is it effective to advertise Power with modernist techniques?
  • What techniques were used to advertise other Federal Theatre productions?


Critical Thinking

The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939, offers a number of primary sources with which to analyze the history, effects, and influences of government-sponsored theatre in America. Administrative documents provide an opportunity to gain and reinforce historical comprehension of the Federal Theatre Project’s development and the economic, technical, and political obstacles that challenged the program. Analysis of the production notebooks from Orson Welles’ interpretation of Macbeth raises questions about race relations and racial stereotypes in early twentieth-century America, while the administrative documents also provide a good starting point for discussion and debate over the merits of government-sponsored art. Although the collection has no search engine at this time, its wealth of materials provide a unique opportunity to research the day-to-day workings of the Federal Theatre Project.

Chronological Thinking

The collection contains a number of tools for practicing chronological thinking and gaining further insight into the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) and its impact. The Federal Theatre Project was established in August 1935 as one of four arts-related initiatives in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). The FTP had five regional divisions, with Hallie Flanagan serving as national director (Flanagan had previously chaired the experimental theatre department at Vassar College).

When Flanagan met with regional and state directors for the first time in October 1935, her address, "Is This the Time and Place?", provided a brief history of her involvement in the development of the FTP and called for the creation of jobs in a new and vital American theatre that served the community. The state of the theatre, she claimed, could be attributed to more than the economic climate of the era. It was necessary to reinvent the theatre: “For if we attempt to put people back to work in theatre enterprises which are defunct, we are engaged in temporarily reviving a corpse which will never be alive again.”

  • What factors influenced the state of American theatre in the 1930s?
  • How does the creation of the FTP in August 1935 compare to the development of other Works Progress Administration programs?

The changes brought about by the FTP in New York City are detailed in the "Origin and Chronology of Drama Relief in New York City.. . ." which describes how “[v]arious new units and departments were established to handle the activities of the extensive undertaking.” An examination of national events and a brief biography of Hallie Flanagan are available in Lorraine Brown’s article, "Federal Theatre: Melodrama, Social Protest, and Genius", from the collection’s Special Presentation.

  • How did theatre sponsored by local government differ from the FTP programs?
  • What elements of the FTP helped to keep theatrical workers employed?
  • Were there any FTP programs that were ill advised?
  • How did the FTP evolve over its four-year existence?
  • What impact did the FTP have on the careers of theatre workers such as Flanagan, producer John Houseman, and actor and director Orson Welles?


Historical Comprehension: Production Limitations

The project’s "Third Year Report" notes that ninety percent of Federal Theatre Project funding was designated for labor costs. One section of the report, “The Plan,” explains that limited funds required that a new theatre vocabulary be developed: “writers, actors and designers must try for a rapid, simplified, and vivid form of stage expression.”

The production notebooks from various performances of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus detail the challenges facing each production. The director’s notes from the New Orleans production explain, “The difficulties at times seemed insurmountable as the theatre was literally being built under out feet while we were rehearsing and getting out the sixty-nine costumes used.” The notebook's production notes outline the requirements for the production while the "Critic’s Opinion" page includes a description of the space that houses the production: “the building has been slicked up at low cost. . . There is only one fault in the auditorium, the seats have not been slanted – this because the money ran out.”

A "Sound Department Report" describes the renovations needed by many theatres rented or leased by the FTP, which required “highly technical installation of sound equipment in order that the utmost efficiency could be rendered the public and the actors themselves. Many of the theatres had never been equipped with sound and therefore echoes had to be eliminated by technical means.”

Obstacles were also faced in the productions themselves. The Detroit production notebook includes a "Director’s Report" describing the limitations of the production:

Casting called for considerable doubling on the part of our Acting Company, yet at the same time it gave every one an opportunity of working in the last play of the season. Our project at that time had neither the lighting equipment nor staging facilities to make of the production.

This situation prompted the unit to design the play so that it could be performed with a minimum of technical requirements, allowing them to take the production to many audiences: “It was our spot bookings that brought the production out of the 'red'; and the very nature of the play brings numerous requests, particularly from Churches and Schools, for additional performances.”

  • Why was it important to allocate most of the FTP funds to salaries?
  • How did the FTP productions reinvent the vocabulary of the theatre?
  • What were the limitations of the productions?
  • Were there any benefits to these limitations?


Historical Analysis and Interpretation: The Negro Unit Production of Macbeth

Producer John Houseman and African-American actress Rose McClendon ran the Negro Theatre Unit, one of five major production units in the FTP. This troupe was responsible for Swing Mikado, a swing version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s piece, W.E.B. DuBois’ Haiti, and Orson Welles’ interpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Wendy Smith’s 1996 article, “The Play That Electrified Harlem” explains the genesis of this unit and its production of classics such as Macbeth:

Harlem audiences, Houseman concluded, would be offended by uptown productions of racial dramas written from a white point of view. And in the militant atmosphere of the '30s, the revues and musicals that had gained mainstream acceptance for many black performers "were regarded as 'handkerchief-head' and so, for our purposes, anathema," as he wrote in his memoirs . . . Houseman decided that one part of the Negro Unit should do classical plays "without concession or reference to color."

  • What does it mean to do a classical play "without concession or reference to color?"

In 1936, Orson Welles set William Shakespeare’s Macbeth in nineteenth-century Haiti with an African-American cast. The costume designs, photographs, and production notebook from Welles’ Macbeth provides a vivid sense of the production. The notebook contains information such as a description of the play’s overture, “Yamekraw” as “a genuine Negro treatise on spiritual, syncopated, and blues melodies expressing the religious fervor and happy moods of the natives of Yamekraw, a Negro settlement situated on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia.” A sample of the music from “An African Dance Drama,” features chants such as “Aha ga-a ra wu-ro a-ga-a ra-wa.”

The Los Angeles production notebook of Macbeth includes a "Director’s Report" describing the changes in setting from Haiti to Africa and explaining that the changes were “influenced architecturally and physiologically by a Negro civilization existing a great number of years ago in Abyssinia and Madagascar. This evolved into a very interesting treatment for both set and costumes.” The play’s synopsis also argues that the casting of African-Americans makes the story “more humanly plausible”:

Especially in this colored version . . . the hero appears to be a mere tool in the hands of a witch doctor and his sinister three sisters, who, with weird and sensuous jungle incantations, strip all pretense . . . off loyalties. Thus it is the witch doctor and his witches who become the real heroes of “Macbeth”. . . .

  • Why did the directors choose Haiti and Africa as the settings of their interpretations of Macbeth?
  • What assumptions about the casting of African Americans in this classical play might these choices reflect?
  • What were the vehicles by which the settings were conveyed according to the photos, costumes, lighting designs, and the production notebook for the play?
  • To what extent do the productions seem to reflect stereotypes?
  • How do the directors' explanations of referencing Yamekraw and Madagascar affect your assessment of the plays and their potential stereotyping?
  • How do these interpretations, set in Haiti and Africa, contribute to or change the overall effect of the play?
  • When the New York production depicted Macbeth with Haitian witch doctors, jungle drums, and a sympathetic hero, was the Negro Unit presenting a classic “without concession or reference to color?”
  • Is it possible to have an African-American theatre unit that doesn’t directly reference race? Is that a positive or negative thing? Why?


Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: Government-Supported Theatre and Censorship

In her February 8, 1939 address to the House of Representatives’ Committee on Patents, Hallie Flanagan claimed that in funding contemporary theatre, the United States joined a long standing tradition: “Four centuries before Christ, Athens believed that plays were worth paying for out of public money; today France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Russia, Italy and practically all other civilized countries appropriate money for the theatre.”

Lorraine Brown’s article, "Federal Theatre: Melodrama, Social Protest, and Genius" (one of four illustrated articles in the Special Presentation) notes that certain regions of the country provided government funding for theatre but that there was concern that federal support “fostered amateur rather than professional performance” and caused controversy between “those who favored a social service theory of dramatics and the professional Theatre people whose goals were at odds with the government-sponsored Theatre programs.” Flanagan’s 1939 address dismissed this concern when stating: “[D]ue to Mr. [Harry] Hopkins’ wisdom in stating at the beginning that this was to be ‘a free, adult theatre,’ it has been in spite of certain local problems, remarkably free from censorship.”

The report, “Reorganization of the Play Bureau,” claims that there “are no taboos on subject, form, or theme,” but articulates the following guidelines:

first, that a play shall be about something; second, that a play shall not violate good taste …We do not sympathize with directors who experiment only in degrees of bad taste …We wish to work through the accepted tastes of the community, rather than attempt to foist our opinions of plays upon them at a time when they would only be suspicious and unresponsive.

Some conflicts did, however, prompt complaints of censorship. The Living Newspaper’s first planned production, Ethiopia, was shut down when it was ruled that the FTP could not depict current heads of state. And, in perhaps the most famous FTP event, Cradle Will Rock was canceled on the eve of its debut, against a backdrop of suspicion that the FTP had been infiltrated by communists. It was feared that the pro-union musical would fuel the workers' strikes and other acts of civil unrest prevalant at the time. Arriving at the theatre on the day of the intended debut, cast and crew were barred from entering by government soldiers. Orson Welles, intent on presenting the show, secured another theatre and led the company and the waiting audience to it. Since the company's unions prohibited them from appearing on stage in this new theatre, the actors and muicians performed from seats in the audience, with the composer providing a piano accompaniment from the stage.

  • What types of threats did plays such as Cradle Will Rock and those featured in Brown's article pose to the nation?
  • Did the Federal Theatre Project allow government censorship?
  • Should art be funded at least in part by the federal government?
  • If the government does provide funding, do they have the right to enforce limitations on expression?
  • What is a community standard? Who defines it?
  • Should communities establish standards of decency? If so, should there be local or federal standards? How should these standards be enforced?
  • How should an artist respond if he is informed that he is violating community standards?
  • What is the relationship between an artist, his or her work, and the community? Does there necessarily have to be a relationship between the three?
  • Does art have the power to incite social unrest? How?
  • How does the government currently sponsor art?
  • What types of contemporary controversies arise over government-sponsored art? How do these controversies compare to those in the era of the FTP?

Historical Research Capability

The administrative documents in this collection include advertising and publicity materials, rehearsal and performance schedules, reports, and scrapbooks. Documents such as a "Southwestern Research and Play Bureau Productivity Report", a "Summary of Press Criticisms", and Radio Division schedules provide insight into the day-to-day workings of the FTP while John Cole’s article, “Amassing American ‘Stuff’” from the Special Presentation presents a history and overview of the Library of Congress's collection of Federal Arts Projects materials.

Other American Memory collections provide more information about the Federal Theatre Project and its relationship to other programs in the Works Progress Administration. The American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 collection yields accounts of stage life with a search on theatre. The Posters: WPA Posters collection contains Theatrical production posters from the Subject Index. America from the Great Depression to World War II yields pertinent black and white photographs with searches on theatre, depression, work, unemployed, and job. Additional collections include Voices from the Dust Bowl and Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections.


Arts & humanities

The playscripts, production notebooks, reviews, and photographs in The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939, provide an in-depth look at all aspects of a theatrical production, providing a basis for several creative projects. Although this collection is not currently searchable, sixty-eight complete playscripts are available for interpretation and performance. Synopses of numerous other plays, as well as reviews and publicity materials, also are available in this collection.

Themes in Federal Theatre Project Productions

This collection contains 68 digitized Federal Theatre Project playscripts ranging from new pieces such as Andrew Barton’s The Disappointment to works by Gilbert & Sullivan and William Shakespeare. The administrative documents in this collection include play synopses from the West region of the FTP. These descriptions are divided alphabetically ("A to H” “I to P” and “Q to Z”) and provide detailed information about the narratives and themes of each play. Examples include dramas such as the back-to-Africa tragedy Big White Fog, Strife, a “struggle between capital and labor . . . in the strike area of a mining town in Wales,” and comedies such as The Very Great Man, in which “a clever schemer and high pressure public relations expert, performs miracles with his clients because he knows the value of high power advertising.”

  • What themes appear in the contemporary pieces?
  • What types of social and political ideas appear in these pieces?
  • How do these contemporary themes compare to themes found in revived classics?
  • Are there differences in theme between comedy and tragedy?
  • Which plays sound most interesting to you? Why?

Interpretations of Macbeth

Different productions of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth offer multiple interpretations of this classic play. The Los Angeles production notebook focuses on the power of the supernatural and includes a synopsis that claims, “Especially in this colored version of Macbeth, the hero appears to be a mere tool in the hands of a witch doctor and his sinister three sisters, who, with weird and sensuous jungle incantations, strip all pretense . . . off loyalties.”

The Boston production notebook, on the other hand, approaches the piece as a murder thriller. The director’s report emphasizes a simple production in which “[s]peed and excitement were the principal keynotes. . . . ” This approach was selected for the audiences of students studying the play: “My object was to send these children back to the classroom with a vivid picture of the play as a whole and perhaps enhance their interest in the study.”

The Cincinnati production notebook features a "Director’s Report" that points out the influence of production limitations on the interpretation: “Realizing we did not have any exceptional Shakespearian actors . . . [I invested] . . . the performance with a novelty in staging and business that would not point up the individual performance too much.”

  • What is the emphasis of each production?
  • Are the interpretations of each director valid?
  • Is there a difference between a general audience and an audience of students? Why or why not?
  • How do the various interpretations relate to the goals of each director?
  • How do these plays compare to contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare in film or on the stage?
  • What makes a play (or any piece of art) open to interpretation?
  • Are there general themes or ideas that should always be conveyed?
  • How do personal ideas influence interpretations of someone else’s work? What else inspires and influences interpretations?
  • Who in a production is responsible for these interpretations? How does this person work with the other members of the production to convey his or her ideas?


Create a Production

The production notebooks of Dr. Faustus, Macbeth, and Power provide detailed information regarding all aspects of a theatre production. The set and costume designs, blueprints, photographs, director’s notes, and playscripts can serve as the basis for creating a production. Begin by analyzing these items:

  • What types of themes are emphasized in the director’s notes?
  • Why might a director alter a scene?
  • What is the relationship between a director and the production’s set, lighting, and costume designers?
  • What is the relationship between a director and the production’s actors?
  • Do costumes change as they move from early sketches to photographs of a finished production?
  • How do limitations on production costs influence the final version?

Your production can be anything from enacting a single scene to developing an entire play complete with a production notebook, advertisements, and newspaper reviews. These projects, however, should be designed for private use in light of copyright issues.

  • What type of considerations should be addressed in your production?
  • Who is your audience?
  • What themes are you trying to convey? How will you convey them?
  • What are your time and cost constraints?
  • How many actors, designers, and directors are being used?
  • Will actors memorize their lines or read from a script?
  • What types of costumes and stage sets are available?

Newspaper Reviews

Reviews of FTP plays provide an opportunity to examine how theatre critics assessed these productions and how these assessments were used for promotional purposes. Production notebooks contain excerpts and complete reviews such as the "Critic’s Opinion" page featuring a review of Dr. Faustus in the New Orleans production notebook: “So superior was the production and so ideally suited to the uses of the legitimate theatre is the playhouse that it appears rather to be regretted that this Faust will run only through Saturday.”

Quotes from publications such as The Herald Tribune and The New Yorker appear on the "Newspaper Criticisms" page of the New York production notebook for Dr. Faustus. A quote from the New York Evening Telegram proclaiming, “This has been a wonderful season to study the development of the Theatre and we are largely indebted to the Federal Theatre for it” follows on the "Remarks" page. The quote serves as an introduction to a publicity piece describing the delivery of “new life” to Dr. Faustus through “the original treatment of its brilliant director . . . and the light expert.” Assessments of other performances and their use in publicity materials are part of this collection’s administrative documents.

  • What are the tone and focus of these reviews? What aspects of productions do the critics discuss? What do they say about them and why?
  • How do theatre critics discuss the relationship between individual productions and the Federal Theatre Project? Do they make fair comparisons given that there are five different regions in the FTP?
  • How do quotes from critics add to advertisements for films and plays?
  • Write your own review of a play or movie.

Persuasive Writing

As the national director of the Federal Theatre Project, Hallie Flanagan worked on behalf of the administration to promote its programs and ensure their success. The administrative documents in this collection contain speeches Flanagan made to her colleagues and supervisors. A review of these addresses provides insight into how Flanagan argued for the creation and continuation of government-supported theatre.

Flanagan first spoke to her regional directors in an October 1935 address at the McLean Mansion entitled, “Is This the Time and Place?” Before calling for the creation of resources to assist the nation’s unemployed theatre workers, Flanagan noted the irony of giving such a speech in the luxurious estate:

The hideousness of the chandelier in the great ballroom, the busts and statues in the court, the gold faucets on the gigantic bathtub, are only equaled by their excessive cost. In short, the McLean Mansion, like many similar edifices throughout America, is a monument to the period of American culture in which the value of a work of art was measured in terms of its cost and the distance from which it was imported.

In a February 8, 1939 address to the House of Representatives’ Committee on Patents, Flanagan framed the Federal Theatre Project in terms of world history: “Four centuries before Christ, Athens believed that plays were worth paying for out of public money; today France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Russia, Italy and practically all other civilized countries appropriate money for the theatre.”

  • Why do you think Flanagan made these comparisons?
  • How do these comparisons reflect upon the FTP?
  • How might these examples help to elicit support for the FTP?
  • How does Flanagan use these examples to establish a tone and direction for her speeches?