Top of page

Collection Federal Theatre Project, 1935 to 1939

Federal Theatre: Melodrama, Social Protest, and Genius

The economic vicissitudes of the American theater began long before the Great Depression. "Gambling in theaters as real estate, syndicates that fostered cross-country touring, a monopoly booking system short-cuts to acting by methods of type casting, and long runs"1 had made the commercial theatre the special province of a limited metropolitan clientele. As early as 1910, increased costs of railroad travel made touring companies less profitable, and by the close of World War I, the Middle West, the Far West, and large parts of the South were deprived of first-rate theatrical entertainment. Experimental or art theaters, most often associated with colleges and universities, presented innovative plays that addressed current issues, but they were located in isolated communities across the country. By the 1929-30 season, most road companies had succumbed to the competition from the movies, which took over more and more legitimate theaters and killed the popular-priced circuits.2

Unable to compete with the motion picture industry, actors, stagehands, technicians, musicians, and vaudeville performers found themselves displaced by technology even before the depression. Sound films had replaced the orchestra; recorded music replaced live performance; the training of actors became less important than publicizing the Hollywood star; and stagehands and stage mechanics were no longer needed.3 The popularity of radio and a change in public taste added to the plight of those who were often thought of as a "dispensable luxury" anyway.

With the onset of the depression, producers began to close theater doors. In the season of 1931-32 every Shubert Theater in Chicago was closed for a week in March. Of the 253 companies playing in or near New York City, 213 had closed by the middle of May, and by the end of July only six legitimate theaters remained open on Broadway. During the relatively prosperous 1928-29 season, an actor in New York City averaged thirty-seven weeks of unemployment. By 1937, according to Billboard, actors seeking engagements were "at liberty" forty-seven weeks of the year.4

Relief for unemployed professional actors was first provided by private organizations such as the Actors' Fund, the Actors' Dinner Club, and the Stage Relief Fund. In these organizations resourceful, dedicated volunteers arranged for aid from the Home Relief Bureau, for medical and dental care, and for food and clothing and attempted to create acting jobs for able performers. But such aid, no matter how well intentioned, was at best sporadic, limited in scope, and occasionally humiliating. It was also soon exhausted. As the depression deepened, organized public assistance for professional actors was needed to help people who were increasingly unable to help themselves.

The Civil Works Administration (CWA), the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA), and federalized work-relief programs sponsored performance in hospitals, schools, CCC camps, parks, and in the streets, and provided some work for actors. But even state and federal programs employed only a fraction of the unemployed actors, directors, stagehands, and technicians, and as the depression worsened, theatrical unions became unable to care for their own members.

In the period preceding the WPA, government financing of theater as an education and recreational tool was prominent not only in New York but in the Middle West, Los Angeles, and in Massachusetts. But many persons believed that these federally sponsored activities fostered amateur rather than professional performance. And controversy arose between those who favored a social service theory of dramatics and the professional theater people whose goals were at odds with the government-sponsored theater programs.5

To Harry Hopkins the plight of unemployed theater people was a matter of grave concern. As deputy administrator of New York's FERA and later as head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Harry Hopkins believed that society had an obligation to conserve the talents of men and women in the arts as well as of those in the factories. After being appointed director of the WPA, Hopkins implemented Roosevelt's earlier request for a national theatrical project or series of projects that would provide musical and dramatic entertainment for small and remote communities, a long-time interest of both Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. The affinity of this concept with the philosophy of social service was made clear by the president's emphasis on the educational purpose in these projects. For the Iowa-born administrator of the WPA, the most challenging task was to recruit talented men and women who would be willing to set up and administer arts projects that could operate within a federal bureaucracy.

Hallie Flanagan, national director of the Federal Theatre Project. Federal Theatre Project Collection

One person whose talents he sought was Hallie Flanagan, then director of the Vassar Experimental Theatre in Poughkeepsie, New York. "Unemployed actors are as hungry as anybody else," he remarked to her during their first interview in Washington.6 Hopkins asked Jacob Baker to formulate the theater project, and on May 16, 1935, Baker asked Hallie Flanagan to come to Washington to talk about unemployed actors. She replied that the theater at Vassar was not a commercial one, but Baker assured her that Hopkins was conferring with dozens of commerical theater people and wanted to see her as well.7

Before leaving for Washington, Mrs. Flanagan wired other people in the theatrical world for information on the subject of unemployed actors: Frank Gillmore, president of Actors' Equity; Dr. Moskowitz, president of the League of New York Theatres; Theresa Helburn, Theatre Guild; Cheryl Crawford, Group Theatre; Edith Isaacs, Theatre Arts Monthly; and producer-playwright Elmer Rice. Only Rice responded. He accompanied her on her trip to Washington and expressed his ideas and enthusiasm for government-financed theater. Having submitted his worn plan the month before to the Federal Relief Administration for the newly forming Theatre Alliance, his comments were to the point. He shared Hopkins's and Flanagan's view that "men and women of high professional standing had been reduced to the status of vagrants" and needed help desperately.8 He also believed firmly that a theater project run by the government could not be based entirely in New York but would have to be organized on a regional basis, and his own plan for just how this was to be achieved had already been sent to Hopkins.

Eleanor Roosevelt attended the New York opening of the Federal Theatre production of Swing Mikado. Mrs. Roosevelt was an early and faithful supporter of the project, and Hallie Flanagan frequently called on her for help. Prints &Photographs Division, Library of Congress

After her own lengthy talks in Washington with both Jacob Baker and Harry Hopkins, Mrs. Flanagan wanted to talk to Mrs. Roosevelt, because, as Hopkins said, "She's interested in all these art projects."9 Hallie Flanagan recorded in Arena her impressions of the White House gathering where she first saw Mrs. Roosevelt in a receiving line greeting hundreds of women guests. The green stretches of White House lawn with gay flower gardens and the scarlet marquees under which refreshments were being served, "the superb lines of the White House itself, its air of strength and serenity," gave her, she recalls, "a tremendous sense of pride in being an American."10 Later her personal interview with the First Lady confirmed her feelings that a great new social plan was getting under way and that she was eager to help work it out. These two extraordinary women go on well together from the beginning, sharing a sense of commitment that would bind them together in the future.11 Mrs. Flanagan's own background as director of the Experimental Theatre at Vassar College, as former production assistant to George Pierce Baker at Yale, and as the first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, which she used to study theater production in Europe, made her an ideal choice for the job, as Mrs. Roosevelt clearly perceived that spring day.

For the remainder of her stay in Washington, Mrs. Flanagan pored over the unemployment figures in the professional theater and studied the programs that had been used to alleviate the problems. She compared the situation to a vast map where only a few white areas lightened the spreading blackness of theatrical unemployment. But at least the Works Progress Administration set up by Congress indicated a new approach to the basic problem. For the first time, the preservation of the skill and self-respect of the worker had become the cornerstone of a relief program, a policy Mrs. Flanagan heartily endorsed.

Of the many plans submitted to the Washington office, Elmer Rice's plan for community centers seemed the most carefully worked out. His plan stressed decentralization and the adaptation of regional projects to local community needs. He proposed a government agency to buy or lease existing theaters in a hundred large communities throughout the country. These theaters were to be remodeled and modernized using local talent. In these facilities permanent repertory companies were to be established, recruited in large part from the ranks of the unemployed. The selection on the basis of talent was to be mandatory, however, and as far as possible, the thousands of actors who had migrated to large cities would be encouraged to return to their home communities, emphasizing again the ideal of using local talent. Quality was to be stressed, whether in productions of modern farce or Shakespeare, and every effort was to be made to encourage local playwrights to "draw upon the life around them and the rich folk material of America."12

Another part of the plan was to supplement the regional permanent acting companies with the visiting star system. Audiences would see John Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Walter Huston, and Wallace Beery, and well-known actors would then have a chance to appear in fifteen or twenty cities each year under dignified auspices. The entire program was to be coordinated by a national agency which would act as a clearinghouse and help to set standards and avoid duplication of effort.

It was with this plan in mind that Hallie Flanagan drew up her own initial proposal, modest by comparison with Rice's, which provided for the employment of approximately seventy-five hundred persons. Her report announced that the government would not only be "caring for the unemployed but recreating a national theatre and building a national culture."13 It was precisely this philosophy which senators like Joseph W. Bailey of North Carolina would find so objectionable at a later time.

Although the official announcement of her appointment as director of the Federal Theater Project was delayed until July of 1935, Mrs. Flanagan continued to work on the plan for establishing community theaters throughout the nation. Consultation with E. C. Mabie of Iowa was especially profitable. His enthusiasm and endless stream of ideas and her urgent need for help in the formulation of a regionally centered national theater resulted in a fruitful collaboration. With the aid of Mabie and Elmer Rice, Hallie Flanagan put together the most elaborate plan yet. It provided employment for over thirty thousand people in State and regional centers and in drama departments of educational institutions. A plan obviously meant to appeal to nonprofessional groups in the theater, it stalled when it reached Jacob Baker and his staff.14

This problem was still unsettled when Mrs. Flanagan was sworn in on August 27, 1935, in Iowa City on the occasion of laying the cornerstone for the new University of Iowa Theater. Since Iowa City was also the meeting place for the National Theatre Conference that year, Hopkins addressed a group of theater people which included Elmer Rice, Paul Green, Gilmor Brown, and most of the other people who would become regional directors. Speaking of the new kind of theater he hoped to create in America, he concluded with a statement of policy: "I am asked whether a theatre subsidized by the government can be kept free from censorship, and I say yes, it is going to be kept free from censorship. What we want is a free, adult, uncensored theatre.15

After her return to Washington, Mrs. Flanagan was joined by both Mr. Mabie and Lester Lang, her assistant at Vassar, who now joined the Washington staff. Still unresolved was the Mabie-Flanagan plan which Jacob Baker and his staff had found beyond the capacities of the WPA to finance.16 By October, with Lang's and Mabie's help, a final plan emerged, and this time the primary aim was professional employment centered in the commercial theater and concentrated in New York City. The integration of the theater with community life in the smaller communities now became a secondary air. Were these aims conflicting? Only if one overlooks what the framers of the plan had in mind. For if the outcome of the project was to be the independent theater movement, represented in the university theater and in the community theater, how could professional actors concentrated on Broadway and in other large cities be integrated into the independent theater, except by touring and by convincing many of them to return to their home communities? But unfortunately, neither alternative worked. It proved extremely difficult to convince New York or other big-city-based companies to tour and furthermore no money had been appropriated to send people back home. Shifting clients in the relief program was not allowed.17

October 1935 was also the time for the first meeting of the regional and state directors, held in the old McLean mansion on Dupont Circle: for vaudeville and variety, Eddie Dowling, Broadway actor-producer; for New England, Charles Coburn, actor-director; for New York, Elmer Rice, Broadway playwright-producer, assisted by Philip Barber, dramatist, actor, and stage manager for the New York Group Theatre; for Pennsylvania, Jasper Deeter of Hedgerow Theatre; for the Midwest, E. C. Mabie, director of the Iowa University theatre; for Chicago, Thomas Wood Stevens, director of the Globe; for Ohio, Frederick McConnell, director of the Cleveland Community Playhouse; for the West, Gilmor Brown, director of the Pasadena Community Playhouse, assisted by J. Howard Miller, former actor and stage manager for Max Reinhardt; for Seattle, Glenn Hughes, dramatist, director of the University of Washington Theatre; for the South, Frederick Koch, director of the North Carolina Playmakers, and John McGee, dramatist-director; for the Bureau of Research and Publication, Rosamond Gilder, associate editor of Theatre Arts Monthly. As Mrs. Flanagan looked at those "keen and powerful faces around that table," she felt hat there was nothing that they could not accomplish:

Our whole emphasis in the theatre enterprises which we are about to undertake should be on re-thinking rather than on remembering. The good old days may have been very good days indeed, but they are gone. New days are upon us and the plays that we do and the ways that we do them should be informed by our consciousness of the art and economics of 1935.

We live in a changing world: man is whispering through space, soaring to the stars in ships, flinging miles of steel and glass into the air. Shall the theatre continue to huddle in the confines of a painted boxset? The movies, in their kaleidoscopic speed and juxtaposition of external objects and internal emotions are seeking to find visible and audible expression for the tempo and the psychology of our time. The stage too must experiment-with ideas, with the psychological relationship of men and women, with speech and rhythm forms, with dance and movement, with color and light-or it must and should become a museum product.

In an age of terrific implications as to wealth and poverty, as to the function of government, as to peace and war, as to the relation of the artist to all these forces, the theatre must grow up. The theatre must become conscious of the implications of the changing social order, or the changing social older will ignore, and rightly, the implications of the theatre.18

When the directors returned to their projects, Hallie Flanagan and her staff remained in Washington to coordinate the simultaneous scenes soon to be staged north, south, east, and west. First, "physical plans had to be made available: halls in which to rehearse plays and theatres in which to perform them; workshops for the manufacture and assemblage of scenery, costumes, properties and electrical equipment. Space also had to be provided for casting directors, play readers, designers, typists, and publicists."19 The organizational problems were, of course, always aggravated by the financial limitations and by the hostility and obstructionism of certain elements both inside and outside the government. Congressional disapproval, WPA regulations, and anti-Roosevelt newspaper columns vilified the efforts of the theater project from the beginning. Even professional theater people opposed Federal theatre performances at nominal prices, charging they took business from the commercial theater.

As the project got under way, FERA projects in New York City, California, Boston, and Chicago continued. Where existing dramatic organizations functioned, supplementary units of people from relief rolls used the facilities of the directing organization. Where regional and folk drama had been developed, the institutions continued their productions and were instructed to make use of Federal Theatre units. Where no organizations existed, independent companies had to be organized with a view to eventual integration with community life. Marionette units were organized, separately, as a supplement to existing organizations, or in connection with new companies. Children's theater companies were strongly recommended. Vaudeville, variety, and circus units were encouraged, and dance and acting classes were to be part of every unit where they could be justified.

At this time, Mrs. Flanagan also cleared up the confusion about the definition of "professional" that established permanently the character of the project. Only those who could show evidence of theatrical employment in the past were to be hired, men and women who were members of theatrical unions: Actors' Equity, American Federation of Actors for Vaudeville and Variety, and Interalliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. In spite of this concession to the professional actors, friends of the independent theater throughout the country still supported the project and applauded the regional organization which divided the country into thirteen areas.20

Under pressure to employ as many people as possible in the next few months, Mrs. Flanagan was incensed by the lack of cooperation among WPA state and regional officers. In spite of Hopkins's insistence that WPA officials cooperate with the Arts Project representatives, men like E. C. Mabie and Jasper Deeter trying to assemble staffs encountered ignorance and intransigence when they made their "courtesy calls" on state administrators. Equally difficult was locating prospective Federal Theatre employees. The "grapevine telegraph" or a notice on a bulletin board was more effective than state relief organizations, which often refused reclassification to those on relief rolls or even refused to survey the rolls had not indicated that they were members of the theatrical profession when they signed up, and many were not on the relief rolls under any category, preferring odd jobs to charity. The problem of certification was further complicated by the fact that in the early days of the depression theatrical unions had dissuaded, even forbidden, their members to enroll for relief.

Locating unemployed theater people was no problem in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. In New York, for instance, thousands of people swarmed into Federal Theatre offices on Eighth Avenue, and by December 28, 1935, 3,350 people were at work, 60 percent of them actors, 10 to 15 percent newspapermen and playwrights. The overwhelming majority of these professional people were members of trade unions or other professional organizations. The other 20 percent were ushers, cleaners, porters, and seamstresses. Hallie Flanagan contends in Arena that one must see Federal Theatre against the background of old and new labor unions, of several thousand people who had gone through a terrific struggle and who would go to any lengths to keep from going back to the food basket for relief: "For our actors were themselves protagonists in a drama more stirring than any which ever reached our stage.21

Out of the confusion and conflicts, five units emerged in New York City, each housed in its own theater: the Living Newspaper, sponsored by the New York Newspaper Guild and supervised by Morris Watson (Biltmore), the Popular Price Theatre under Edward Goodman, designed to present original plays by new authors (Manhattan), the Experimental Theatre for new plays in a new manner under Virgil Geddes and James Light (Daly's), the Negro Theatre under Rose McClendon and John Houseman (Lafayette), and the Tryout Theatre under Otto Metzger, sponsored by the League of New York Theatres.

New companies followed in quick succession: a one-act play unit directed by Em Jo Basshe, a classical repertory unit under George Vivian, a poetic drama unit directed by Alfred Kreymborg, a children's unit under Abel Plenn, a Negro youth theater under Venzuella Jones, Yiddish vaudeville unit, a German unit under John E. Bonn, presenting German classics, and an Anglo-Jewish theater, directed by Boris Thomashefsky.

It was a difficult period, not only for testing whether a federal bureaucracy could manage theater groups but for experimenting with innovative activities such as the Bureau of Research and Publications, the Federal Theatre Magazine, the Living Newspaper, and Negro Theatre-all originating in New York but nationwide in scope. Censorship in New York of Ethiopia, the first Living Newspaper, and in Chicago of Model Tenements caused many to wonder if Hopkins's promise of an uncensored theater was possible after all. An enraged Elmer Rice asked if Washington would ever permit anything other than "pap for babies and octogenarians"22 to go on the Federal Theatre boards.

Hallie Flanagan persuaded T.S. Eliot to allow Murder in the Cathedral to be produced by the Federal Theatre, and it became one of the finest successes of the project.The New York production, shown here, was directed by Halsted Welles and featured Harry Irvine in the role of the archbishop. Federal Theatre Project Collection

The earliest New York productions, such as Comedy of Errors, Jefferson Davis, and American Holiday were nervous and faltering efforts. But three productions in March 1936, Chalk Dust, an attack on America's educational system; Triple A Plowed Under, the first produced Living Newspaper, and Murder in the Cathedral, T. S. Eliot's verse drama about Thomas a' Becket, needed no apologies. A "supernatural" adventure, the production of the voodoo Macbeth, meant that the Federal Theatre had four big productions in operation by the end of March. Produced by John Houseman and directed by Orson Welles, Macbeth won almost universal acclaim. At the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, "ten thousand people clogged the streets, followed the scarlet and gold bands of the Negro Elks, watched the flash of jewels, silk hats and ermine."23

This scene from the New York production of the Living newspaper Triple A Plowed Under shows Jane Johnson (Mrs. Sherwood) confessing to James Bradleigh (the police lieutenant) that she has drowned her baby because she couldn't afford to feed it. The Living Newspapers were attempts to dramatize actual events from newspaper articles that were regularly clipped and saved by the Living Newspaper staff. Federal Theatre Project Collection

May brought a welcome and unexpected reprieve from threatened congressional action against the Project,24 and three new productions were ready to open: a second and newly conceived Living Newspaper, 1935, Michael Gold and Michael Blankfort's story about John Brown called Battle Hymn, and Class of '29 about the economic difficulties of four college graduates began New York runs. In addition, two dance productions, Charles Weidman's Candide and Helen Tamiris's Salut au Monde were staged in Brooklyn. It now seemed clear that New York could produce successful shows in spite of problems of requisitions, procurement, and government regulations, but what about the health of the Federal Theatre units outside of New York? After nearly a year of having to concentrate on problems peculiar to New York City, Mrs. Flanagan initiated plans for the national exchange of plays, directors, and ideas. Triple A, Chalk Dust, and the Harlem Macbeth had toured Federal Theatre houses all over the country, but in the fall of 1936, the Federal Theatre needed national recognition as well as new audiences, so they tried yet another daring venture. On October 27 twenty-two simultaneous productions of Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here opened across the country, a tribute to the stamina, talent, and ambition of the workers on the project.25

On October 27, 1936, It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, opened simultaneously in twenty-one theaters in seventeen states. The Los Angeles Yiddish production, pictured here, featured Morris Weisman as "Buzz" Windrip. Federal Theatre Project Collection

Lewis's antifascist play had great audience appeal, and before it was over nearly five hundred thousand people saw the show, which played 260 weeks or the equivalent of five years. Choosing the Federal Theatre as the producer despite offers from Broadway, Sinclair Lewis, the first American novelist to win the Nobel Prize, gave the project a momentous and much needed boost in prestige.

The implications of this successful nationwide venture were not lost on either commercial producers or critics of the project. Burns Mantle in his column of November 8 in the Chicago Tribune, reviewing the effectiveness of the production in such diverse locations as Denver, Boston, Cleveland, Omaha, Tampa, and Seattle, wrote: "it indicated rather revealingly... what could happen here if the social body should ever become theatre-minded in a serious way. This was a demonstration of the uses to which a peoples' theatre might reasonably be put."26

One of the early Living Newspapers produced in New York, Injuction Granted portrayed the struggle of labor in the courts. Hallie Flanagan found it "bad journalism and hysterical theatre" and ordered it closed. Federal Theatre Project Collection

While Houseman and Welles continued to chalk up success after success with Horse Eats Hat and Dr. Faustus, the Living Newspaper unit proved irksome and hard to control, a case in point being Injunction Granted. 27 A history of labor in the courts, the play was directed by Joe Losey. Attending opening night, Hallie Flanagan found the play to be "bad journalism and hysterical theatre," and she wrote an indignant letter to Losey and to Morris Watson, supervisor of the Living Newspaper unit. Unpersuaded by Watson's argument that the play was drawing crowds, she exercised her authority as director of the Federal Theatre and insisted that the production be closed. The controversy reflected both Mrs. Flanagan's determination to exercise stricter administrative control over the unit and fear of past instances where censorship had been imposed from the outside. This now doubly cautious lady believed that she must achieve a balance between "safe" plays and socially relevant plays if the project were to survive. The first year had taken it toll in other ways too: E. C. Mabie, Elmer Rice, Frederick Koch, Gilmor Brown, Frederick McConnell, Thomas Wood Stevens, Jasper Deeter, Rosamond Gilder, and Eddie Dowling had all left the project.

The Miami production of Altars of Steel, written by Birmingham author Thomas Hall-Rogers. The set was designed by Joseph Lentz. Federal Theatre Project Collection

Hallie Flanagan continued to put into effect the hard-won lessons of that first year. In a meeting in Birmingham of leaders from the South she suggested simultaneous productions of plays about contemporary problems, antiwar plays, "living newspapers" on regional themes, children's plays, and plays on religion. Entertaining as well as socially important plays were also to be considered and made a regular part of Federal Theatre offerings. The Birmingham meeting served still another purpose, for at the same meeting John Temple Graves, lawyer and newspaperman on the Birmingham Age Herald, called for a play on steel, since steel and cotton were dictating the new political economy of the South. The Federal Theatre readily complied the next year by producing Altars of Steel by Thomas Hall-Rogers, a Birmingham author. Produced in Atlanta, the play stressed the need for economic freedom in the South and the development of its great resources. Praised and blamed, the play and the furor it created made it clear, not only in the South but across the country, that playwrights and audiences were keenly interested in plays with social and economic themes, whatever commercial producers in the thirties, as well as in the past, had concluded about the theatrical appetites of American audiences. Sixty thousand people in New York bought tickets for Power, a living newspaper on the TVA, before it opened. But Power and Sweet Land, produced at the Lafayette, were still the only social plays of the early 1937 season.

After John Houseman's departure from Harlem to head the new "891" classical unit, the Negro unit had produced Turpentine, a play about the conditions in the Florida turpentine camps. Written by Augustus J. Smith and Peter Morrell, the play sparked little interest among the downtown public, who preferred the Negro as "exotic." The Amsterdam News, on the other hand, reported that "plain working people and their problems were movingly dramatized."28 The Seattle Negro unit had produced Stevedore in repertory with Lysistrata (before censorship closed it) and Noah. But by and large, in the early days of the project the Negro units confined themselves to the classics, musicals, folk plays, and melodrama, a fact due in part at least to white directorial control in most units (except that in Boston) and to the paucity of Negro playwrights and scripts.

Turpentine, by Augustus J. Smith and Peter Morrell, dealt with tyranny, injustice, and murder in a Negro labor camp in a southern pine woods. In this production at the Lafayette unit in Harlem, Estelle Hemsley (Granny) holds Charles Taylor (Turtle Eyes), while Thomas Mosley (Colonel Dutton) looks on. Federal Theatre Project Collection
The Seattle Negro Repertory Company production of Natural Man, a folk opera version of the John Henry legend, written by actor, director, and playwright Theodore Browne. Pictured here is the Beale Street scene, with Joe Staton as John Henry. The woman at his table is probably the "hostess," played by Mable Smalley. Federal Theatre Project Collection
George Bernard Shaw's Androcles and the Lion was a favorite with the Lafayette unit in Harlem. This production at the WPA Building of the New York World's Fair featured Arthur Wilson as Androcles and Add Bates as the lion. Federal Theatre Project Collection

Interestingly, others in the Federal Theatre found the subject of the Negro experience in America of sufficient concern to warrant serious artistic treatment. Helen Tamiris's How Long Brethren, which opened in May 1937, dramatized in dance form Lawrence Gellert's Negro Songs of Protest, songs gathered in the South during his assignment to the Atlanta unit of the Federal Theatre. "To the singing of a Negro Chorus and music by Genevieve Pitot, Tamiris and her group danced seven episodes of Negro life all simple in pattern but dramatic in intensity."29 How Long Brethren drew praise from critics and audiences and won the award from Dance Magazine for the best group choreography of the season.

These vigorous theater activities during the crucial year of 1937 took place in the shadow of impending cuts. The protests from the year before, when eleven members of the dance unit had been arrested while picketing, when a sit-down strike had occurred, and when a group from the arts projects visited Mayor La Guardia, were fresh in everyone's mind. On March 25, 1937, Mrs. Flanagan moved her headquarters from Washington to New York City and assumed the New York City directorship in addition to the national directorship. Although her work greatly increased, she felt that this was the best working arrangement the Federal Theatre in New York had ever had, and the project morale was being restored. Unlike the early days of confusion and haggling with WPA officials, or the recent frantic protests, these were productive days for the project people. In April both Bernard Shaw and Eugene O'Neill released their plays to the Federal Theatre for nationwide production at the fifty-dollar rental rate. This caused great excitement in units across the country. The O'Neill cycle of plays eventually included fourteen and the Shaw cycle nine.

But by May a congressional order to cut was again rumored and all the unions began protesting even before the cut materialized. "After a performance of Candide and How Long Brethren both the cast and audience joined in an all-night sit down demonstration against cuts, while 44th Street was filled with marchers."30 On June 10 an order to cut the New York project by 30 percent was received, clearly signaling the growing opposition in Washington. Subsequently, The Cradle Will Rock was prevented from opening, and more importantly the publication of Federal Theatre Magazine was stopped. What now of the plans already in motion for the summer? Hopkins insisted that they continue. So in spite of the cuts, the protests, and the picketing and the bitter disappointment and anger over the cancellation of Cradle, the Federal Theatre went on with its plans for the summer caravan season. Five trucks from Broadway theaters went rolling out to the boroughs of Richmond, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan. Brooks Atkinson thought that these occasions were really festivals, and he described in his column the families, "men in their shirtsleeves, women hushing babies, young men with their best girls, thousands of people filling the hillside."31 Plans for the first Federal Summer Theatre, to be held at Vassar, also continued, but by the end of the summer over a thousand people had been cut from the Federal Theatre rolls.

By September of 1937 a badly battered and bruised Federal Theatre began its third season. John McGee's southern region had producing centers left in only three states. In the Midwest only the Chicago project, a children's theater in Gary, and small production units in Detroit, Des Moines, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Springfield, and Peoria had survived. In the East, units in Rhode Island and Delaware closed down, and cuts in both Los Angeles and New York meant fewer productions during the new season. Mrs. Flanagan took immediate steps to try to repair the damage. Nationwide cycles of plays by Shaw and O'Neill were a must if the Federal Theatre was to remain a regional theater. New plays like Prologue to Glory, a play about the young Lincoln and Created Equal, Boston's historical pageant, were to explore the American scene. Living newspapers would continue to focus on contemporary problems. New York City, New Orleans, and Cincinnati would have their own versions of One-Third of a Nation, a play about housing conditions; "Oregon's flax growers would see Flax; Denver would have a living newspaper on sugar, and Iowa one on corn. At Christmas each project would combine both classical and religious drama with medieval shepherd plays."32 Circuses, ballets, musical comedies were to have their place this season, too.

The creation of the National Service Bureau in the fall of 1937, which merged the Play Bureau and the Play Policy Board, proved a boon to many of the smaller projects. The bureau read, wrote, re-wrote, and translated plays and sent synopses, scripts, and bibliographies to the field. Through loans of talent and equipment, it was able to strengthen local units on a much expanded scale. The growing success of this umbrella organization made clear the necessity of careful coordination in a national theatrical organization which hoped to create flourishing regional units.

To see for herself what might be done to strengthen the project across the country, Hallie Flanagan set out in October for a two-month tour. Beginning in the East, Mrs. Flanagan met with George Gerwing, formely California director, now regional director for the New England and Middle Atlantic states. He stressed the varying artistic quality of the work done by the units in this area. Generally small, most of the units struggled to keep costs down and to win public support. While some units like the Connecticut project were making tremendous artistic strides, the Buffalo unit needed reorganization, and both Philadelphia and Boston suffered from their own particular brands of ineffectiveness.

The Midwest hardly reflected a cheerier situation. Except for Chicago, where O Say Can You Sing, a musical spoof of the Federal Theatre, The Lonely Man, Howard Koch's drama about Lincoln, and O'Neill's The Straw followed each other in rapid succession, the Midwest needed help. But in Seattle, San Francisco, and finally Los Angeles, the second largest project, Mrs. Flanagan found much to her liking. Productions of Ready! Aim! Fire!, a musical satire on dictatorship, American Exodus, the contribution of the Dance Group, Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra and Androcles and the Lion in Los Angeles all earned her approval. Not that California didn't have its share of delegations and investigations to contend with, but her pride in the Los Angeles project couldn't be dampened. The unit was a model of administrative efficiency, and its productions reflected the professional quality she always encouraged. The combined talents of Gilmor Brown, Howard Miller, and George Gerwing had built a thriving project that serviced the entire West Coast. Of particular interest to her was the Theatre of the Southwest, Los Angeles's equivalent of New York's experimental unit. There Mary Virginia Farmer, applying her experience at both Hedgerow and the Group Theatre, worked with writers and actors on a cycle of plays about California. An experiment in communal living and working, the unit conducted research and collaborated on all aspects of theatrical production. One of three contemporary plays about California agriculture, The Sun Rises in the West, Mrs. Flanagan saw in rehearsal. She was impressed by the eagerness and intelligence of the group and wrote a letter to Miss Farmer on the train going home, offering her own suggestions for strengthening the play.33

Summoned home by the message that the projects were being ousted from the McLean mansion, Howard Miller and Hallie Flanagan returned to Washington apprehensive about the Federal Theatre's demise; and indeed, in December of 1937, the future not only of the theatre project but of the entire WPA seemed to hang in the balance.34

In spite of feuds and recriminations, the New York City unit, now under the direction of George Kondolf, had four plays running by the end of 1937: One-Third of a Nation, Haiti, Prologue to Glory, and On the Rocks. Although these were less startling perhaps than the best plays done in the early years, Mrs. Flanagan called them the strongest quartet the project ever had running simultaneously in New York City.

California looked much less bright, for by January 1938 direction of the project there reverted to Colonel Connolly of the WPA. Gilmor Brown had been dismissed, all playscripts were called in, and Judgment Day by Elmer Rice was canceled. Once again Hallie Flanagan and the Federal Theatre had to fight the spectre of political censorship. At issue was the right to choose plays; that right had always been the core of the Federal Theatre. If state administrators were allowed to choose plays to be performed, music to be played, works of art to the exhibited, then the basis of selection would become a political rather than an artistic one. All national directors stood firm on this issue, and in this instance they won out; Judgment Day did go on.35 But in Hopkins's absence, due first to illness and then to his appointment as secretary of commerce, the battle worsened and discouragement and frustration within the project grew.

Ironically the national aspect of the Federal Theatre seemed to grow stronger in this climate of distrust and embattlement. Directors from the Federal Theatre Summer Theatre returned to their communities and began a nationwide program, for once not dominated by New York but with New York sharing in the general lines of development of the rest of the country. A nationwide Shaw and O'Neill cycle and a nationwide program of children's and religious plays proved immensely successful. A program of dance reached new audiences in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia. The exchange of companies was further evidence that the Federal Theatre was becoming a truly national theater. Chicago sent Swing Mikado to New York. New York sent Haiti to Boston and Prologue to Glory to Chicago and Philadelphia. Federal Theatre was clearly a producing organization and reviewers talked increasingly of a permanent, government-sponsored theater.36

International recognition was beginning to develop, and Mrs. Flanagan was invited to speak at the International Congress of the Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon. Unable to leave the project herself, she prepared a brief history which Tamiris presented on her behalf. Enthusiastic response from that gathering indicated that a government-sponsored theater in a free society had much to tell a world divided between fascism and communism.37

But in spite of the obvious vitality of the project and the caliber of people who had struggled so valiantly to keep it alive, by June of 1939 members of the theatrical world from all over the country found it necessary to join in a campaign to try to save the organization. For in spite of its record of accomplishment it was in mortal danger. The cut in funds was not an economy move, a human issue, or even a cultural issue; the Federal Theatre had become a political issue. And the project was ended, Mrs. Flanagan explained, "because the powerful forces marshaled in its behalf came too late to combat other forces which apparently had been at work against Federal Theatre for a long time. Through two congressional committees these forces found a habitation and a name."38 Mrs. Flanagan referred, of course, to the House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, under Chairman Martin Dies, and the House Committee on Appropriations, under Chairman Clifton A. Woodrum. It became clear that the Federal Theatre had become a microcosm of all the New Deal represented to the enemies of the administration, notably in its spending policy and its liberal attitude toward labor, aliens, and minorities. It was, Mrs. Flanagan reflected, "perhaps the triumph as well as the tragedy of our actors that they became indeed the abstract and brief chronicle of the time."39 The Federal Theatre was ended by an Act of Congress on June 30, 1939.


  1. Edith J. R. Isaacs, "Portrait of a Theatre: America-1935," Theatre Arts Monthly 17 (January 1933): 32-42. [Return to text]
  2. Kenneth MacGowen, Footlights Across America: Towards a National Theatre (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1929), p. 73. [Return to text]
  3. Hallie Flanagan, Arena (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1940), p. 13. [Return to text]
  4. Willson Whitman, Bread and Circuses: A study of Federal Theatre (New York: Oxford University Press, 1937), p. 107. [Return to text]
  5. William F. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1969), p. 492. [Return to text]
  6. Flanagan, Arena, p. 9. [Return to text]
  7. Hopkins first contacted Mrs. Flanagan about the problem of unemployed actors in February 1934. She was sailing for England to direct the theater at Dartington Hall and couldn't meet him at the time. [Return to text]
  8. Elmer Rice, The Living Theatre (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), p. 149. [Return to text]
  9. Flanagan, Arena, p. 10. [Return to text]
  10. Flanagan, Arena, pp. 10, 11. [Return to text]
  11. An observation made by Marcella Cisney in an interview, November 17, 1975. [Return to text]
  12. Rice, Living Theatre, pp. 150-53. [Return to text]
  13. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts, p. 502. [Return to text]
  14. Ibid., p. 503. [Return to text]
  15. Flanagan, Arena, p. 28. [Return to text]
  16. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts, p. 502. [Return to text]
  17. Rice, Living Theatre, p. 156. [Return to text]
  18. Flanagan, Arena, pp. 45-46. [Return to text]
  19. Rice, Living Theatre, p. 154. [Return to text]
  20. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts, p. 511. [Return to text]
  21. Flanagan, Arena, p. 59. [Return to text]
  22. Ibid., p. 66. [Return to text]
  23. Flanagan, Arena, p. 59. [Return to text]
  24. Jane Mathews, The Federal Theatre 1935-1939: Plays, Relief and Politics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 80. [Return to text]
  25. Interview with H. L. (Bud) Fishel describes the frantic nature of the revisions made by Sinclair Lewis at the Essex House in New York. October 26, 1976. [Return to text]
  26. Flanagan, Arena, p. 126. [Return to text]
  27. Ibid., p. 72. [Return to text]
  28. Flanagan, Arena, p. 75. [Return to text]
  29. Flanagan, Arena, p. 199. [Return to text]
  30. Ibid., p. 201. [Return to text]
  31. Ibid., p. 205. [Return to text]
  32. Hallie Flanagan "Prologue to a Season," New York Times, September 12, 1937, Sec. 11, p. 1. [Return to text]
  33. Interview with Virginia Farmer, August 11, 1976. [Return to text]
  34. Flanagan, Arena, p. 285. [Return to text]
  35. Ibid., p. 288. [Return to text]
  36. Ibid., p. 323. [Return to text]
  37. Ibid., p. 324. [Return to text]
  38. Ibid., p. 335. [Return to text]
  39. Ibid., p. 347. [Return to text]

Lorraine Brown is professor of English and associate director of the Research Center for the Federal Theatre Project at George Mason University in Virginia. She is coeditor with John O'Connor of Free, Adult, and Uncensored: The Living History of the Federal Theatre Project,a richly illustrated "scrapbook" of oral history excerpts, costume designs, posters, and photographs, and is currently editing an anthology of black plays written for the Federal Theatre.