Federal Theatre:  Melodrama, Social Protest, and Genius Next

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.

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

Murder in the Cathedral 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
Triple A Plowed Under 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