A brief but spectacular achievement, the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project (FTP) (1936-1939) not only provided jobs for some 13,000 destitute people at its height but also created and produced 63,600 performances of 1,200 major productions. It reached audiences of more than 30 million people in cities, towns and rural areas nationwide, the vast majority of whom had never before experienced live theater.
Congress funded the Federal Theatre Project primarily to provide economic relief. 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.
Flanagan had achieved noteworthy results as director of Vassar College’s Experimental Theater, largely with amateurs and at low cost. Along with her wide knowledge of the theatre, including European dramatic experiments, she was well prepared for the challenges of founding a national theater.
But the task was daunting—meeting the primary goal of employing jobless theatre people and at the same time achieving quality productions; surmounting funding and bureaucratic hurdles; and responding to union demands, while striving for her own broader artistic vision and social goals that evoked criticism and even charges of subversion.
The FTP was meant to create jobs. Ninety percent of those employed by the FTP came from the relief rolls. Though a number of future stars got their start with the FTP, it was not easy to hire top talent. It could be more time-consuming to determine eligibility for a FT hire than a construction worker. Plus, there was the need to hold auditions.
The repertoire of the Federal Theatre and its national scope are astounding. Productions ranged from circuses, puppet shows, children’s plays and vaudeville to classic works—both traditional and reinterpreted, such as Voodoo Macbeth, set in Haiti with the witches invoking voodoo to conjure up their “toil and trouble,” and Swing Mikado, set on a Pacific South Sea island, instead of Japan.
There were also modern dramas unlikely to play commercially, such as T.S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and the staging of Sinclair Lewis’s anti-fascist novel, It Can’t Happen Here.
The Lewis play opened in twenty-one theatres in seventeen states, and was performed in English, Spanish and Yiddish—a significant step toward Flanagan’s goal of a national theatre reflecting the ethnic diversity of the country.
The FTP also found creative ways to take theatre to new audiences. New York City’s Caravan Theatre used tractors to tow collapsible trailers storing costumes, props and stages for outdoor performances at parks, baseball fields and blocked-off streets.
The FTP’s accomplishments extended to experimental theater. “The Living Newspaper,” for example, dramatized current events using newsreels, still photographs, live actors, music and song.
Playwright Arthur Miller, who joined the Federal Theatre as a jobless college graduate, considered “The Living Newspaper” “the one big invention of the theatre in our time.”
Despite scrupulous adherence to the facts, and even cancelling some of the more “hysterical” productions, the FTP came under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). HUAC’s charged that the plays were “propaganda for Communism.” Flanagan called them “propaganda for Democracy.”
As HUAC’s attack on the FTP and the consequent defunding of the theater show, government support for a national theater likely would be as problematic today as it was then. Some large, public-spirited foundations would need to sponsor such a revival.
The FTP still stands out for its enlightened racial policy that differed significantly from some other New Deal programs. African Americans received equal pay for equal work in every aspect of theatrical production. Audiences were integrated. If a theatre refused to seat Blacks and whites together, the Federal Theatre canceled the performance. Moreover, some of the plays dramatized African Americans’ resistance to white oppression, previously unheard of in American theater.
According to Rosetta LeNoire, who acted in one of the Negro Units, “It was the Federal Theatre who gave us so many of our great actors, because they were permitted to play roles that they would never have been offered on Broadway.”
Flanagan stars not only as a revolutionary force in the American theatre but as one who recognized the role of art and culture in democracy and strengthening the national character. Under Flanagan’s leadership the Federal Theatre became such a force—albeit for too short a time.