Federal Theatre Project Wpa House un American Activities Committee the Cradle will Rock

“The theatre, when its good, is always dangerous” Hallie Flanagan

The stock market crash of ’29 caused a drop in employment and hope the likes of which the country had never see before. Millions of jobs were lost in every industry, including theatre. Equity estimated that over 8,000 actors were out of work, plus the 30,000 vaudevillians, technicians and musicians whose jobs had suffered with the rise of the film industry.

Five percent of the $4,800,000,000 Congress allocated for the Emergency Relief Act of April 8, 1935 was awarded to the four arts projects. The Federal Theatre Project, Federal Writers Project, The Federal Art Project and the Federal Music Project were collectively known as Federal One. Kindred spirits, the four projects often collaborated. The art project did most of Federal Theatre’s posters. The other three arts projects never encountered the violent opposition that the theatre project did and were allowed to live longer.

Hallie Flanagan, a Vassar theatre professor and the first woman to receive a Guggenheim grant to study theatre in Europe was sworn in as the project director on August 29, 1935, the same day funding was approved for the project.

There were projects in forty-two cities, the largest in New York with 4,011 employed. The Los Angeles project had 1,389, the next largest was Chicago which provide relief and jobs to 768 theatrical professionals. Other projects served San Francisco, Detroit, Miami, Tampa, Boston and many others.

The project had several sub-categories. The Classical Plays unit produced the all-black Macbeth set in Haiti and the popular Dr Faustus which Orson Welles starred in and directed. The new American Theatre unit included the Living Newspaper which dramatized pertinent news events. The Circus unit employed Burt Lancaster as a trapeze artist and but didn’t have an elephant in the beginning because, according to Hallie “there weren’t any in need of relief.” Hallie praised the Radio unit as a “remarkable medium for returning our people to private industry.” The Vaudeville unit resuscitated a part of the industry that was in genuine need of saving as its format, acts involving ventriloquist dummies and dogs doing pyramids, had lost most of its audience with the advent of the comical shorts played before feature films. The other units were Entertainment Theatre, Children’s Theatre, Dance Theatre, Negro Theatre and Experimental Theatre.

The project was funded by three sources: appropriated funds, sponsors contributions and admission funds. Sixty-five percent of Federal Theatre productions were presented free in playgrounds, schools, hospitals and so forth. The admission prices that were charged were low enough for more Americans than ever to see live theatre, never higher than a dollar. Even before the depression hit, the theatre had suffered from price hikes and extravagant but silly musicals.

The new audience that Federal Theatre found didn’t know how to react to a live production. A southern performance of Twelfth Night was greeted with silence and the actors, who thought they had failed miserably, slunk back to their dressing rooms in despair. When audience members came backstage to tell the actors how much they liked the play the relieved but befuddled actors asked them why they didn’t applaud? They responded, “We didn’t want to interrupt you.”

Despite the fact that the project employed 10,000 theatre people (2,660 of which returned to work in private industry) and earned a great deal of critical acclaim for its noble goal and insightful drama, Federal Theatre encountered opposition and censorship from beginning to end.

The very first Living Newspaper production, Model Tenement, was halted by Chicago mayor Ed Kelly. Kelly approved of the WPA’s goals and worked closely with President Roosevelt in implementing the programs in Chicago, but his approval didn’t extend to allowing Meyer Levin’s play to tell the truth about the slums in his city. The Negro unit in Chicago was also forced to close two of their productions, Big White Fog and Hymn to the Rising Sun.

The unusual case of The Cradle Will Rock illustrates both the type of opposition Federal Theatre received and the inspiring ways they fought back. Mark Blitzstein’s blatantly pro-union musical drama was initially shut down, the theatre padlocked and the actors forbidden by Equity to perform it, because of harsh pre-opening buzz that it was pro-communist. Blitzstein was not part of the union so he, Director Orson Welles and Producer John Houseman, moved the production to a new theatre, and planned to have Blitzstein (who was not in a union) perform the entire show by himself for one night only. Instead, he was joined, one by one, by brave members of the cast who performed their parts from around the house. The production re-opened a year later in January of ’38 and ran for 108 performances.

Federal Theatre employed starving artists, told important stories, brought theatre to people who had never seen it, and produced quite a few much needed commercial successes, but it suffered a tragic end. It was targeted by the House Appropriations Committee and the newly formed House un-American Activities Committee. Congressman Dies heard testimony on the project from people within it who valued it like Flanagan, but gave more credence to malcontents within the project and critics of the projects who gave false evidence of the project’s communist ties and sympathies.

The project had many defenders inside and outside of Congress and they made their voices heard in the papers, on the radio and on the Congressional floor, offering alternatives and testimonials, but Woodrum and Dies had a game plan that was guaranteed to kill Federal Theatre and would result in no real opposition. They offered an ultimatum to Federal Theatre supporters and Roosevelt: let them remove all funding from the Federal Theatre Project or they would stall the budget approval for the entire WPA. Faced with this threat the Project’s Congressional supporters and FDR were forced to sacrifice Federal Theatre. Tony Buttitta and Barry Withams’ memoir of Federal Theatre, Uncle Sam Presents, recalls that Roosevelt “called the exclusion discriminatory legislation to which he was personally opposed, but he signed.”