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Photographic Print from New York production of Macbeth, 1936

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

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?

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