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Photographic Print from New York production of Macbeth, 1936

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

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?