May 2022

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal

Creativity and Conscience


FTP Poster Courtesy, LOC.

Congress funded the Federal Theatre Project primarily to provide jobs for unemployed theatre people during the Great Depression. But WPA administrator Harry Hopkins and the FTP’s dynamic director Hallie Flanagan had a much broader mission: to create a publicly funded national theater, accessible to all, that would both entertain and strengthen public dialogue and democracy. Documentary photographers working under Roy Stryker at the Farm Securities Administration were similarly driven, capturing on film the great inequality between the rich and the poor. Stirring the conscience of Americans then and still.

 

In this Issue:


The Fearless Federal Theater

Hallie Flanagan

Hallie Flanagan
As the director of the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project from 1935 to 1939, Flanagan oversaw the hiring of thousands of unemployed theater workers and the production of nearly 64,000 theatrical performances for over 30 million audience members. Courtesy, NARA.

Compared to the New Deal’s overall expenditures, the budget of the WPA arts projects was laughably small, and the Federal Theater Project’s was even smaller—a mere tenth of one percent. But the Federal Theater, begun in 1935 under the bold leadership of the 5-foot dynamo Hallie Flanagan, still managed to introduce this country to an astonishing range of new ideas that still resonate nearly a century later.

Hallie Flanagan was an adored teacher at Vassar when she took on the Federal Theater job. She was promised by WPA boss Harry Hopkins that the Federal Theater would be “free, adult and uncensored.” She took this as permission to innovate in surprising ways.

Since the goal was to create jobs, there were plenty of old chestnuts among Federal Theater productions—domestic comedies, musical revues, circuses, vaudeville.


The FTP’s “Living Newspaper” dramatized current and historical events. “One-Third of a Nation” portrayed the housing crisis. The title is taken from FDR’s second inaugural address, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”
Courtesy, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

But Flanagan also found ways to make necessity the mother of invention. There was a need to create shows that employed large numbers both backstage and on. She used her experience in Europe, where she watched the theater of the left present the news cabaret-style, to develop something she called the Living Newspaper—a series of performances that put hundreds to work presenting an in-depth look at issues of the day.  One Living Newspaper called One-Third of a Nation focused on the perils of slum housing: the set caught fire at the opening of the play and again at the end, dramatizing the relentlessness of poverty. Other Living Newspapers addressed the struggles of farmers, the threat of monopolies and even the spread of syphilis.   

Playbill, 1937
Federal Theater Project production, “Life and Death of an American,” by George Sklar. Courtesy, LOC.

“We are going to make a country in which no one is left out,” Franklin Roosevelt said more than once, and no one worked harder than Hallie Flanagan at making this a reality. Even the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were visited by the Federal Theater Project: a team of professional actors descended on the camps to stage a mock trial, with men from the camp recruited for some of the roles. The audience loved it. The CCC Murder Mystery toured 256 CCC camps along the East Coast, and could have toured the country had the budget allowed.

Flanagan’s most daring gambit may well have been her plan to dramatize Sinclair Lewis’ novel about a fascist takeover, It Can’t Happen Here, and open it on the same night in theaters

Poster "It Can't Happen Here"

It Can't Happen Here
The Federal Theatre opened a stage version of Sinclair Lewis’ anti-fascist drama in 21 cities on the same night in 1936. Courtesy, LOC.

around the country—a subtle way of challenging the American assumption that fascism could never happen in the United States.  It was a massive organizational challenge—especially since the plan was to open the play in Yiddish and Spanish as well as English, and on Broadway as well as on the pop-up stage of a touring truck. In the end, It Can’t Happen Here played a total of 260 weeks, or five years, in theaters around the country. “Thousands of Americans who do not know what a Fascist dictatorship would mean,” wrote The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, “now have an opportunity to find out.”


The crowd outside Harlem’s Lafayette Theater for opening of the FTP’s Negro Division performance of “MacBeth,” directed by Orson Wells. Courtesy, LOC.

There can be no doubt that the Federal Theater’s approach to race was what most angered and alarmed the right-wing bigots in Congress and led to the FTP’s demise in 1939. All-Black productions were one of the most exciting aspects of Federal Theater from the start.  A production of Macbeth set in Haiti and performed at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem under the direction of Orson Welles, was a critical and popular success—providing a chance, as the Amsterdam News noted, “to abandon banana and burnt-cork casting” and “play a universal character.” 

An all-Black Swing Mikado was another huge hit. But even more controversial, in the eyes of southern senators, was the Federal

Martin Dies
Senator Martin Dies (R-Texas), Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, 1940
Courtesy, Wikipedia.

Theater’s policy of casting Blacks and whites in the same shows. When the House Un-American Activities Committee, led by Texas Senator Martin Dies, began to investigate the Federal Theater, they called a witness, Sally Saunders, who told them, with dismay and disgust, that a Black man in the company

had dared to ask her out on a date. Such testimony was used, as Flanagan noted after it was all over, as “a way to hang the New Deal in effigy.”

Congress chose “for that purpose a project small and scattered enough so that protest would not cost too many votes, and potent enough to stir up prejudice.”  She observed: “They were “afraid of the Project, but not for the reasons they mentioned on the floor of the Congress. They were afraid of the Federal Theater because it was educating the people of its vast new audience to know more about such vital issues of the day as housing, power, agriculture and labor,”  They were afraid—and rightly so—of thinking people.”

Susan Quinn is the author of Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times (Walker Publishing Company, 2008, now available from Plunkett Lake Press). Susan and her husband Daniel Jacobs are the authors of a new play, Enter Hallie, which intertwines the stories of Hallie Flanagan’s private struggle and public fight for the Federal Theater. The play will be the subject of a Living New Deal webinar on September 22.

The New Deal Through the Lens of Arthur Rothstein

Self Portrait, Arthur Rothstein

Self Portrait, Arthur Rothstein
Courtesy, Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.

President Franklin Roosevelt had a remarkable ability to rally the nation using the mass-communication media of his time. He crafted intimate “Fireside Chats” to reach Americans in their homes by radio, but in this pre-television era FDR also needed compelling visual imagery to advance his New Deal agenda, promote national unity and counter the growing political extremism from both left and right.

Photography was central to the administration’s wide-ranging media strategies.

The most influential body of work was produced by a team of photographers in the Resettlement Administration (RA), an agency created by FDR in 1935 that later became the Farm Security Administration (FSA) within the Department of Agriculture.

Rehabilitation client repays loan. Smithfield, North Carolina, 1936

Rehabilitation client repays loan, Smithfield, North Carolina, 1936.
Courtesy, Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.

One of the largest and most visible of the New Deal’s initiatives, the FSA assisted struggling rural families and dislocated industrial workers throughout the country.

The President appointed Columbia University professor and key New Deal strategist, Rexford Tugwell, as director of the Resettlement Administration. Tugwell brought a colleague—agricultural economist Roy Stryker—to Washington to create the RA’s publicity arm, referred to as the

Historical Section. Stryker believed the best way to fulfill the Section’s mission was through photography, so he immediately hired his former student and recent Columbia graduate, Arthur Rothstein, as the agency’s photo lab director and first photographer.

"Eighty Acres." Wife and child of agricultural worker.

"Eighty Acres." Wife and child of agricultural worker.
Courtesy, Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.

Over the next eight years, Rothstein and a group of more than a dozen photographers working under Stryker gained renown as the FSA Photo Unit.

The primary mission of the Photo Unit was to document the hardships of those struggling through the Great Depression and how the FSA was working to address their problems. These iconic images portray Americans amidst drought, dust storms and failing crops; unemployment lines and communities abandoned by failing industries. But they also evince hope: farms stabilized by the agency’s loans, families resettled to greener pastures and farm hands who found respite in FSA migrant housing.

Children of sharecropper. North Carolina, 1935.

Children of sharecropper, North Carolina, 1935.
Courtesy, Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.

A secondary, but crucial role of the FSA’s photographers was to provide images in support of other New Deal programs. At times, Stryker’s photographers were loaned-out for assignments with other agencies, including the Interior Department and the US Public Health Service. These photographs often appeared in government reports and publications describing such New Deal initiatives as reducing child labor, improving international relations and boosting domestic tourism.

The Photo Unit produced more than 175,000 photographs during the 1930s and early 40s. Stryker provided the best of these images to newspapers, magazines and book publishers free of charge. This put a human face on the economic abstractions of the Great Depression and helped justify the need for the New Deal’s far-reaching initiatives.  The FSA Photo Unit later became part of the US Office of War Information (OWI), employed to promote national unity as America mobilized for war.

Explaining the Rural Electrification Administration to farm women at Central Iowa 4-H Club Fair. Marshalltown, Iowa, 1939.

Explaining the Rural Electrification Administration to farm women at Central Iowa 4-H Club Fair, Marshalltown, Iowa, 1939.
Courtesy, Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.

Arthur Rothstein and his contemporaries at the FSA contributed significantly to the nation’s collective memory of the New Deal-era. Rothstein served as a photographer for the US Army Signal Corps during WWll. In the decades after the war, he continued to influence the field of photojournalism as a teacher, writer and mentor to countless photographers. He helped shape the visual culture of post-war America as director of photography at LOOK and Parade, two of the most popular magazines at the time.

Ann Rothstein Segan, Ph.D and her husband, Brodie Hefner, manage the Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project. Together they develop publications, educational programs and exhibitions on the life and career of Ann’s father, documentary photographer Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985). Segan and Hefner are active members and contributors to the work of American Photography Archive Group, The Living New Deal and Archivists Round Table of New York.

New Deal Maps

Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.

Take a look at our previous guides, equally comprehensive, covering key New Deal sites in San Francisco and New York City.