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Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
Art and Entertainment in the 1930s and 1940s
The Federal Theatre Project

The Federal Theatre Project was one aspect of the depression-era Works Progress Administration, designed to put unemployed people to work at government expense. Below are excerpts from a brief of the project presented to the Committee on Patents of the House of Representatives in 1938. The brief was presented by Hallie Flanagan, Director of the Federal Theatre Project. It is contained in The New Deal Stage: Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939. What arguments does Flanagan make for government support of theatre? What counterarguments could be made? What activities of the Theatre Project sound most interesting to you? Why?

View the entire brief by Hallie Flanagan. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.


Origin

Government support of the theatre brings the United States into the best historic theatre tradition and into the best contemporary theatre practice. Four centuries before Christ, Athens believed that plays were wroth 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.

However, it was not because of historic theatre tradition, nor because of contemporary theatre practice that the Federal Theatre came into being. It came into being because in the Summer of 1935, the relief rolls of American cities showed 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. . . .

Artistic Policy

The artistic policy of the Federal Theatre has always been based on three beliefs:

First, that unemployed theatre professionals want to work; and that, at the same time, millions of American citizens will enjoy the results of this work if productions are offered at a price they can afford to pay.

Second, that the people on our rolls should be regarded not as relief cases, but as professional theatre workers competent to carry out an ambitious nationwide program.

Third, that any theatre sponsored by the government of the United States should do plays of a cheap, trivial, outworn, or vulgar nature, but only such plays as the government can stand proudly behind in a planned theatrical program, national in scope, regional in emphasis, and American in democratic attitude.

What are the plays of such a program? . . .

  1. Classical plays, in forms interesting to a modern audience. . . .
  2. The Theatre of Entertainment. Our audiences want to laugh and so do we. Circuses, musical comedies, light opera, marionettes - all of these have a large place in Federal Theatre. . . .
  3. The Theatre of Youth, which we are developing on every project in the country. Here we are working closely with psychologists and educators in planning plays for children of different age levels. . . .
  4. The Theatre of the Dance, especially as it relates to the themes of American life. . . .
  5. New American Plays. This is one of our most important lines of development since it is based on belief that American life is full of exciting possibilities for drama. . . . The Living Newspaper, a terse, cinematic, hard hitting dramatic form evolved on the project, deals with contemporary factual materials. . . . Some of the plays in this division are, of course, controversial. It was at first feared by many critics that no free expression of opinion would be allowed in any theatre operated by Federal funds. However . . . it has been in spite of certain local problems remarkably free from censorship.
  6. A Negro Theatre. Negroes play a part in many divisions of Federal Theatre. However, it is also our aim . . . to develop a theatre for and by this gifted race.
  7. Research and Experimentation. We are experimenting with the theatre as a force in education, therapeutics, child, hospital, and prison welfare. . . .
  8. Radio. The Federal Theatre of the Air is a branch in which we are sincerely interested not only because it is a remarkable medium for returning our people to private industry, but also because it is a new theatre in the making of which we can have a part. . . .

A Competitive Enterprise?

In the early days of the project many people held, often simultaneously, two somewhat contradictory views: 1. That Federal Theatre productions would be terrible; 2. That Federal Theatre productions would be competing with private industry. As production improved, both these criticisms became less frequent. . . .

It is an amazing fact that of the 25,000,000 people who have witnessed Federal Theatre productions to date, sixty-five per cent indicate on their questionnaires that they have never before seen a play with living actors, but that having started, they intend to continue to go to plays. . . .

Summary

What we all want to know now is to what extent the experiment has been successful. All of us working in this laboratory of American art often become profoundly discouraged because the mixture in the test tube does not become the clear and brilliant color we see in our minds' eye. But before we smash the test tube we must consider this experiment no only in relation to human values, but in relation to the future of American art.

Let me, in conclusion, illustrate. When these projects were being set up, I saw in city after city, long lines of applicants - men and women, broken, discouraged, rebellious, bitter. Recently, after two years, I revisited one of these cities. I found twelve hundred people busily engaged in a tremendous and efficient theatre.... I saw five hundred children turned away from the packed theatre showing Hansel and Gretel. I saw our young actors in the Theatre of the Southwest working on their own play of the California gold rush. I heard the laughter of a crowded house in the seventh week of Ready, Aim, Fire, a musical comedy satirizing dictatorship . . . I saw how this Federal Theatre is penetrating the community. . . .

I saw all these things, and I believe that anyone comparing that scene with the early ones of despair and hopelessness will feel that in its future possibilities for American life and for American art, the Federal Theatre is no less potent because it carries in the pit of its stomach the remembrance of hunger.
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View the entire brief by Hallie Flanagan from The New Deal Stage: Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.