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The Federal Theatre Project, Part 3

A Quick and Decisive Blow to Progressive Theater

In fewer than three years, the Federal Theatre Project’s (FTP) Living Newspaper and Negro Theatre Units were making great strides in creating new work for a post-Great Depression nation that promoted social progress and racial equality, but they were not the project’s only branches to produce compelling theater for new audiences. 

When Hallie Flanagan was appointed to run the FTP, she set out to create a program with integrity. In producing new theatrical work for her audiences, many of which had never seen live theater before, it made sense to focus on creating high-quality experiences that spoke directly to those audiences. 

That approach included incorporating themes of social justice, desegregation, workers’ rights and housing reform. Flanagan was already known for being the first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship and for creating Vassar College’s experimental theater program, so she was well versed in the potential of the art form to push societal change by speaking directly to the audience. 

In 1939, only four years after the FTP was established, Congress pulled funding from the program and put thousands of artists out of work nationwide after a series of hearings in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Citing material produced by the Living Newspaper project that promoted workers’ unions, as well as plays created by the Negro Theatre Unit that called for racial equality, the committee launched an investigation into the FTP on the grounds that communist sympathizers may have infiltrated it or that it may have been promoting socialist propaganda.

The FTP’s new works were not the only ones under fire by the committee. Close to 10 percent of all work produced by the project was cited as problematic, including classic pieces and works by Voltaire and George Bernard Shaw. The committee also deemed children’s theater productions unacceptable, including Revolt of the Beavers for its negative depiction of worker exploitation by anthropomorphized beavers. 

These broad-brushstroke accusations against theatrical literature would perhaps seem more fitting a decade later – during Joseph McCarthy’s rise to prominence – but they offered an early glimpse at just how broad the definitions of communist behavior would eventually become.

Congress ultimately pivoted to a conclusion that the average American would not find theater to be a meaningful use of taxpayer dollars. That seems to be a hard line to argue, considering that FTP productions were wildly successful, especially in areas with first-time exposure to theater.

The very nature of being government funded allowed FTP productions to be available to audiences at a very low cost, and often free, which meant that entertainment and progressive messaging was available to the people who needed it most. By defunding the project, the government dealt a blow to both the economy and the social welfare of the country. 

Some of the oldest theater in the world was written as social commentary that poked holes in the status quo, so it’s hardly surprising that when theater artists have the basics they need to create productions without worrying about their success or failure, the work they produce will reflect their place in the social hierarchy. Hallie Flanagan argued on the committee floor that the work the Federal Theatre Program had created was as American as it could have been, and that the program’s messaging reflected democracy. 

“Our Federal Theatre,” she said, “born of an economic need, built by and for people who have faced terrific privation, cannot content itself with easy, pretty or insignificant plays … We have been given a chance to help change America at a time when 20 million unemployed Americans proved it needed changing. 

“And the theater, when it is any good, can change things … Don’t be afraid when people tell you this is a play of protest. Of course it’s protest – protest against dirt, disease, human misery … Here is one necessity for our theater – that it help reshape our American life.”