Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > The New Deal Stage

Back to Collection Connections

Photographic Print from New York production of Macbeth, 1936

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

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?