Insightful, judiciously selective history of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), the most controversial branch of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).
There have been quite a few books about the FTP, most notably Arena (1940), the comprehensive first-person account by FTP head Hallie Flanagan. Nonfiction pro Quinn (Human Trials: Scientists, Investors, and Patients in the Quest for a Cure, 2001, etc.) sensibly opts to craft a focused narrative that takes a few representative productions from the FTP’s sprawling repertoire to highlight the project’s evolution and the difficulties that plagued it. In early 1936, Ethiopia initiated the Living Newspapers, which dealt with current events in a dramatic, experimental style, fulfilling Flanagan’s vision of a truly democratic national theatre that would educate as well as entertain. The sensational “voodoo Macbeth” spotlighted the talents of the FTP’s Negro unit and the genius of 20-year-old director Orson Welles. The FTP’s enlightened racial policies, Quinn suggests, enraged conservative politicians even more than its alleged left-wing sympathies. It Can’t Happen Here, which opened at 15 theatres on October 27, 1936, reiterated Flanagan’s commitment to challenging political theatre. But by mid-1937, when the storm over Marc Blitzstein’s labor opera The Cradle Will Rock led to Welles’s departure from the FTP, Flanagan could no longer count on the unwavering backing of WPA head Harry Hopkins. The New Deal did not have the same overwhelming public support that had launched the WPA in 1935. Emboldened critics ignored the diverse array of popular theatre produced by the FTP across America—nicely sketched by Quinn in several chapters about Flanagan’s cross-country travels—and painted the entire outfit as a hotbed of communists in the egregiously unfair hearings held by the House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities (which later became HUAC). On June 30, 1939, to save the rest of the WPA, President Roosevelt reluctantly signed a bill that eliminated the FTP.
With careful attention to the underlying political and cultural issues, Quinn cogently retells this sad story of “a brief time in our history [when] Americans had a vibrant national theatre almost by accident.”