HALLIE FLANAGAN: A Life in the American Theatre by Joanne Bentley
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HALLIE FLANAGAN: A Life in the American Theatre

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Flanagan (1889-1969)--a pioneer in progressive university theater and director of FDR's Federal Theatre Project--receives close-up, generous yet balanced treatment in this ""personal"" biography; the author, a psychologist and wife of critic Eric Bentley, is one of Flanagan's three stepchildren. ""I think her life has meaning for the many women today who want to combine careers with child-rearing."" So says Bentley--and accordingly emphasizes Flanagan's early, pre-fame years. Raised in Iowa, part of a family that remained warm and serene despite hard times, Hallie wanted to shine as wife-and-mother but--after marrying her Grinnell College sweetheart--soon became frustrated with domesticity. When her young husband and older child both died (tuberculosis, meningitis), she was left with ""the double legacy of a troubled conscience and the freedom to pursue a career."" Often leaving son Fred in others' care, Hallie studied at Harvard's legendary 47 Workshop; on a Guggenheim grant she toured European theater--absorbing Stanislavsky and Meyerhold, flirting with Gordon Craig. At Vassar she introduced the US to ""constructivist"" staging, became ""the center of a cult,"" and began concentrating on ""agitprop"" theater that addressed economic issues and embraced leftwing causes. (""She was a theater person with radical beliefs, not a radical intent on using the stage to disseminate propaganda."") So, when WPA head Harry Hopkins needed someone to create jobs for unemployed theater workers, Hallie was a natural choice, though she ambitiously complicated the task--by deciding that this jobs-project should in fact build ""a national culture"" via a network of theaters. Also, she often insisted that the plays be socially useful: hence, the famous ""Living Newspaper"" dramas--on agriculture, etc. But, despite many hits (including Murder in the Cathedral), Halite was beleaguered--by government regulations. artists' rebellion at any censorship (the Cradle Will Rock episode), and HUAC charges that the Theatre was a Communist tool. (Like others, says Bentley, non-Communist Hallie was ""caught up in Popular Front ideology, a leftist umbrella so broad that is blurred all distinctions."") Pulled in different directions by bureaucrats, militant radicals, and witch-hunters, she lost the battle to save the Federal Theatre and returned to academia (where she'd remarried). Look elsewhere for a vivid evocation or full evaluation of the Federal Theatre's artistic output. But this sturdily written, carefully researched account provides persuasive close-ups of Flanagan as inspirational educator, willful idealist, and half-successful family woman.

Pub Date: June 16th, 1988
Publisher: Knopf