Comet: The Federal Theatre
By Robert Brustein
[This essay was originally written as the forward to Voices
from the Federal Theatre, ed. Bonnie Nelson Schwartz (copyright
U of Wisc. P, 2003) and linked with the Fall 2003 PBS special
Who Killed the Federal Theatre? An Investigation, hosted
by Judd Hirsch and coproduced by Schwartz with the Educational
The glorious, totally improbable, and ultimately ill-fated adventure
known as the Federal Theatre Project lasted from 1935 to 1939.
It was killed by an act of Congress in
an atmosphere of Redbaiting and political hysteria. Yet, in four
short years this visionary organization not only created a host
of successful Federal Theatre productions, but it helped to revolutionize
our notions of the geography and purpose of the American stage.
Conceived in the middle of the Great Depression
as a plan to find jobs for an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 out-of-work
actors, directors, playwrights, designers, and stagehands, the
Federal Theatre at its height eventually employed 13,000 theatre
artists in thirty-one states. The relief agency known as the Works
Project Administration (WPA), under the enlightened leadership
of FDR's deputy Harry Hopkins, had come to realize that among
the more than one-third of the nation that were ill-fed, ill-clad,
and ill-housed were a number of indigent artists. Hopkins thereupon
proceeded to organize a series of Arts Projects, including one
for the theatre, and began looking around for an appropriate leader.
Hopkins found his ideal National Director
in Hallie Flanagan Davis, a forty-five year old Professor of Drama
at Vassar, who possessed boundless energy, irrepressible optimism,
untiring zeal, and no administrative experience whatsoever. Hopkins
knew instinctively that the project had to be run by a non-commercial
theatre person and Hallie had caught his eye through the experimental
work she had been doing at Vassar. He was soon to learn that she
was not only an extraordinary theatre visionary, but an individual
of unusual character, integrity and drive--qualities that, in
combination, made her one of the greatest leaders in the history
of American theatre.
Rather than feeling her way into her new
job, Hallie began with very clear ideas about what was expected
of a Federal Theatre. She was convinced that such a project, though
conceived as a source of economic relief, was also obliged to
establish and maintain high artistic standards. A subsidized Federal
Theatre would have to be an alternative to the commercial stage,
not a competitor with it, keeping ticket prices within the reach
of all. It would also need to be a decentralized theatre--indeed,
the seed of a national theatre movement--creating productions
not just in New York but in every major city and region of the
country. And (perhaps her most controversial idea) its mission
would be to produce plays that were not mere entertainments but
artworks relevant to the social and political problems of the
day. Each of these decisions was destined to extend the boundaries
of the American stage and each was destined to land the Federal
Theatre in a lot of hot water.
The attempt to combine relief and art,
for example, was full of potential conflict, particularly because
of the differing goals of social work and artistic achievement.
Was the Federal Theatre to be a source of great plays and productions
or rather an agency designed to better the lives of the unemployed?
How could the Federal Theatre pursue the goals of excellence when
the best American theatre artists were not among the unemployed,
indeed when Broadway producers sometimes wanted the same artists,
at substantially higher wages, for their commercial shows?
Many of the same producers were criticizing
the Federal Theatre's subsidized ticket prices (sometimes as low
as 25 cents) as unfair competition for the higher-priced Broadway
stage. But this was only one of Hallie's headaches. Her effort
to decentralize the Federal Theatre, a highly successful move
when measured by the number of new theatres being formed around
the country in a very brief time, did not always produce work
of the highest professional quality. Moreover, the effort sometimes
stimulated narrow regional prejudices and chauvinisms. Most dangerous
of all, the social and political tub-thumping of the Federal Theatre
made it consistently vulnerable to government censorship.
Harry Hopkins had promised Hallie a theatre
that was "free, adult, uncensored." Too often, he was unable to
keep that pledge. This should not surprise us. There are few patrons
of the arts, least of all the government, who have been able to
refrain from meddling in the conduct of the artists they support,
especially when their work has a high political profile. And there
is no question that Federal Theatre artists, with Hallie's blessings,
did not hesitate to embroil her in controversy.
Hallie was never opposed to using the theatre
for propaganda purposes, if that meant exposing political corruption
or unjust social conditions. But although she was often accused
of promoting Communism, and even of being a Communist herself,
she never consciously allowed the Federal theatre to be used for
the purpose of endorsing political parties or advancing political
aims. Indeed, she did not hesitate to cancel plays that seemed
to her overtly partisan. As she wrote in a note chastizing one
of her more radical producers, "I will not have the Federal Theatre
used politically. I will not have it used to further the ends
of the Democratic party, the Republican party, or the Communist
The occasion was a production called Injunction
Granted, a play about duped workers and rapacious capitalists
that Hallie called "bad journalism and hysterical theatre" because
it used government funds "as a party tool." It may have been disingenuous
of her to believe that her goal of "a relevant theatre with regional
roots," devoted to dramatizing social problems like homelessness
and electrical power, would not be exploited for narrow political
purposes. It may have been even more naive to assume that the
agency that subsidized these productions would refrain from suppressing
or censoring them if they threatened government interests.
The first government collision arose over
a play called Ethiopa when the WPA banned the appearance
on stage of such heads of state as Benito Mussolini and Haile
Selassie (Robert Schnitzer's Delaware production of Julius
Caesar was also castigated for insulting Il Duce). This move
led to the resignation of Elmer Rice as director of the New York
Project. There would be even more consternation when Federal Theatre
productions criticized or ridiculed American political figures,
an irresistible temptation considering the level of mind in Congress
at the time.
Hallie began by dividing her empire into
five large units: 1) the Living Newspaper, 2) popular price theatre,
with Yiddish, Spanish, and other ethnic companies, 3) experimental
theatre, 4) Negro theatre, under the directorship of John Houseman
and Rose McClendon, and 5) tryout theatre. Hallie's Living Newspapers
were always destined to be the most inflammatory things she produced.
An effort to dramatize the news ("something like the March
of Time in the movies," Harry Hopkins explained to a belligerent
Congressman), the Living Newspaper was a spinoff of the epic techniques
of Brecht and Piscator. Using confrontational devices and polemical
themes, it was meant to be an antidote to a commercial theatre
that, in Hallie's words, "continues to tell in polite whispers
its tales of small triangular love stories in small rectangular
settings." The Living Newspaper settings, as designed by scenic
artists like Howard Bay and Mordecai Gorelik, making good use
of George Izenour's new remote-control switchboard, were imaginative
and various. They substituted light and projections for the "cumbersome
scenery" that Hallie and other theatre visionaries were now finding
obsolete, mainly because "The cinema," as she added prophetically,
"had beaten realism at its own game."
More importantly, the stories told in these
openly propagandistic pieces concerned the big issues of the time.
In the first of the Living Theatre successes, Triple A Plowed
Under, the Federal Theatre enjoined the farmer and the consumer
to unite for higher wages and healthier food. It ran for eighty-five
performances in New York and was later produced in Chicago, Cleveland,
Los Angeles, and Milwaukee (though not in Texas where a WPA administrator
exhorted Hallie to do "old plays" that didn't evoke bad criticism).
That Texan bureaucrat might have had the same complaint about
Power, a call for public ownership of utilities, and
Spirochete, a history of syphillis climaxing with a call
for mandatory blood tests, and (unquestionably the Federal Theatre's
greatest success) One Third of a Nation, which exposed
the existence of poor housing conditions in the nation's largest
The audience's appetite for "old plays,"
however, would seem to have been satisfied by the Federal Theatre
unit under the direction of John Houseman and Orson Welles. But
even classical production was not to be free of controversy. These
early efforts to deconstruct classics by making them more "relevant"
to the contemporary world (a process later employed by such modern
directors as Andrei Serban, Peter Brook, and Peter Sellars), successful
as some of them were, still managed to raise hackles. Houseman
had hired Welles, at the tender age of twenty, to direct Macbeth
with his Negro unit. Setting the play in Haiti, Welles turned
the witches into voodoo witch-doctors and treated the central
character as if he were "Emperor Jones gone beautifully mad,"
thereby creating a triumph that played New York and toured the
country to great acclaim. The success of this Voodoo Macbeth
encouraged Negro units throughout the country to stage black versions
of other European classics such as The Swing Mikado and
Lysistrata, though the latter was eventually shut down
by the WPA for being too "risqué."
Following Macbeth, which was staged
at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, Houseman and Welles took over
the Maxine Elliot Theatre on Broadway to produce two more scintillating
versions of classic plays: Horse Eats Hat, a wild adaptation
of a 19th-Century Labiche farce featuring the young Joseph Cotten,
and Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, directed by
and starring Welles in the title role (his first leading part
in New York).
was by all accounts a mesmerizing retinterpretation of a great
classical play, with Jack Carter (the black actor who played Macbeth)
turning Mephistopheles into a dignified, bemused portrait of evil,
and with Welles indulging his weakness for heavy makeup along
with his lifelong passion for magic in the way he staged the episode
involving the Seven Deadly Sins. The Federal Theatre was now on
a roll. Critics were calling it the "greatest producer of hits"
in New York. The best dramatists of the day, such as Bernard Shaw
and Eugene O'Neill, were letting the project do their plays for
a royalty of $50 a week or less, delighted to get produced in
regions that would normally never be exposed to their work. Similarly,
novelists like Sinclair Lewis were only too happy to accept Hallie's
invitation to adapt their novels into plays. Lewis' It Can't
Happen Here, about the coming of fascism to America, though
a poor piece of dramatic writing, had twenty-two productions opening
simultaneously in eighteen cities, and played to nearly 500,000
people. Inevitably, the play was interpreted as campaign propaganda
for the New Deal.
Despite its accumulating successes, however,
the Federal Theatre suffered a grievous loss in authority and
personnel when Marc Blitzstein's Brechtian satire The Cradle
Will Rock was cancelled by the WPA administration, on the
eve of its opening, under the pretext of budget cutting. The story
of the opera's clandestine resurrection is now too well known
to require extensive retelling (that episode would be the centerpiece
of Tim Robbins' 1999 film, also called The Cradle Will Rock,
which starred Cherry Jones as Hallie Flanagan). Suffice it to
say, Welles and Houseman walked their opening-night audience twenty
blocks uptown from the Maxine Elliot to the empty Venice Theatre;
Blitzstein played the entire score from his piano; and the actors,
cleverly skirting a union injunction, sang their parts from the
house, all to thunderous applause.
But it was a Pyrrhic victory for the Federal
Theatre. Welles and Houseman left the project soon after to form
their own Mercury Theatre, where they produced a groundbreaking
Julius Caesar in black shirts and a mesmerizing Heartbreak
House that found the twenty-two year old Orson Welles once
again applying excessive makeup to play the octogenerian Captain
Shotover. But although Hallie professed to be happy whenever her
artists found work in the commercial theatre, the Houseman-Welles
defection left her without her two most dynamic figures and valuable
She was also losing her greatest supporter
in the Roosevelt Administration, Harry Hopkins who, ill with cancer,
was starting to let less informed assistants make his decisions
for him. (The quality of those decisions can be assessed by the
opinion of one of them, a California bureaucrat, who called a
good theatre project "anything that keeps out of the papers").
In his second term, Roosevelt had cut government spending in order
to avoid inflation and give business a leg up and, as usual, the
first area to suffer was the arts.
Around this time, Hallie remained resolutely
focused on her mandate to create a truly national theatre, making
tireless tours of the country in an effort to ensure that all
the regional units were running well and maintaining high standards.
Wherever she went, she encountered gratitude from artists and
audiences alike, but also hostility from some of the press and
abuse from some of the politicians. There was the usual criticism
growing in Congress that too much money was being spent in New
York by Bolshevik sympathizers. The Washington Post called
for an end of the Federal Theatre and its "frilly artistic projects."
Hearst's San Francisco Examiner carried a headline demanding
"Federal Theatre Communist Trend Must Be Eradicated." One Congressional
investigator was appalled that, in some Federal Theatre shows,
blacks and whites shared the same stage and even "danced together."
Even the titles of harmless Federal Theatre stock farces--The
Bishop Misbehaves, Up In Mabel's Room, Lend Me Your Husband--were
being denounced as lewd and salacious by Congressmen who never
bothered to see the plays.
It must be admitted that the Workers Alliance,
a socialist organization said to be a nursery for the Communist
party, was recruiting a lot of Federal Theatre employees. And
it is also true that some of the project's later work, notably
the children's play Revolt of the Beavers, was sufficiently
slanted to provoke the Times's Brooks Atkinson into saying
it was Karl Marx disguised as Mother Goose and the Saturday
Evening Post into charging the Federal Theatre with teaching
poor children to murder rich ones (actually, kids of all income
brackets loved the show as a story of good guys versus bad guys).
Hallie often replied, with a zealousness that knew no fear, that
only a free people could create a Federal Theatre, that it was
a democratic answer both to communism and fascism. But no one
seemed to be listening. The Federal Theatre, lacking any genuine
grassroots support, was being convicted without defense in the
court of public opinion.
Eventually, the House Un-American Activities
Committee under the chairmanship of the notorious Martin Dies
of Texas, saw the political controversy engulfing the Federal
Theatre as an excellent opportunity to attack the Roosevelt administration.
Dies's fellow committeeman from New Jersey, J. Parnell Thomas--both
of them would soon turn their attention in the direction of "Reds"
in Hollywood--identified the Federal Theatre not just as a "link
in the vast and unparallelled New Deal propaganda machine," but
as an arm of the Communist Party. In the words of Jane De Hart
Matthews (The Federal Theatre, 1935-39), "Hereafter,
Hallie Flanagan would find her time and attention devoted increasingly
to defense of the Federal Theatre, rather than to its expansion."
Hallie's preoccupation with defending
the reputation of her enterprise would also occupy the attention
of the best commentators on the subject--not only Ms. De Hart
but, as she admitted in her poignant and powerful memoir Arena,
Hallie herself. As a drama with its own heroes and villains, this
conflict between strongarm politics and defenseless art was a
natural for press attention, but its outcome was foreordained.
Not only would the Democratic administration fail to put through
its projected plan for a new governmental Department of Art, providing
subsidized theatrical, musical, and art activities in twenty-five
to one hundred cities. It would be enjoined from supporting any
art at all, most especially the art of the theatre.
What is deeply frustrating about this encounter
is that for many months the eloquent Hallie Flanagan was prevented
by the WPA administration from releasing any statements to the
press in her own defense. She had to remain silent not only in
the face of criticism of her own politics but of the Federal Theatre's
artistic achievements. Witness after witness testified to how
the Federal Theatre was dominated by Communists and fellow travellers,
after which Representative Clifton Woodrum of Virginia informed
the House that "[The Federal Theatre] has produced nothing of
merit as far as national productions are concerned," adding with
smug pride, "We are going out of the theatre business."
Hallie was allowed to submit a brief before the Dies Committee,
after a large number of unfriendly witnesses had sufficiently
tarnished the reputation of her endeavor. The brief was never
read or published, but some of it was covered in her testimony.
She began by defending the patriotism of her project ("Since August
29, 1935, I have been...combatting Un-American activity") and
herself against charges that, because she had once visited Russia
and written favorably about Russian theatre, she was a Red. It
is disheartening to find this dignified human being forced to
say "that I am not and never have been a Communist; that I am
a registered Democrat...that I had planned and directed Federal
Theatre from the first as an American enterprise." Words of a
similar nature would echo and re-echo throughout Congressional
chambers for many years to come.
Hallie was willing to concede that many
of her productions were expressions of propaganda, but insisted
that propaganda was a form of education for democracy, rather
than a tool for advancing Communist doctrine. In a moment that
summed up the nature of this investigation, she was asked by Representative
Joseph Starnes about an ominous figure named Christopher Marlowe.
"You are quoting from this Marlowe. Is he a Communist?" "Put in
the record," Hallie replied, "that he was the greatest dramatist
in the period of Shakespeare." It was a blunder on a level with
the Committee charge some years later that the eight-year-old
Shirley Temple was a Communist for dancing with Bill Robinson,
and it was a blunder that would end up in Starnes' obituary, though
unfortunately not on his tombstone.
But Hallie could make no impact on a Committee
determined to extinguish the Federal Theatre from the face of
the earth. With Chairman Dies raising his gavel to end the hearings
for lunch, Hallie asked to be allowed to make a final statement.
Dies said he would consider it, but she never got her chance to
be heard again, nor was her testimony ever distributed. "We don't
want you back," declared Congressman Thomas, "You're a tough customer
and we're all worn out."
As a direct result of these hearings, the
House eventually passed, by a vote of 373 to 21, the Relief Bill
for 1939-40 calling for sweeping changes in the WPA program, including
drastic cuts in arts funding and the imposition of loyalty oaths
designed to get rid of radicals. It also called for an end to
the Federal Theatre. Hallie learned about this development from
a newspaper someone handed her, shocked that Congress had decided
on what she called "outright execution rather than slow strangulation."
There would be rallies on behalf of the Federal Theatre. Critics
would speak of its great achievements. Orson Welles would offer
to debate hostile politicians on radio. Telegrams would pour in
from far and wide. And the Senate, charmed by Tallulah Bankhead,
daughter of one of its members, would briefly consider keeping
the Federal Theatre alive for a few more years. But the effort
failed because the Senate was reluctant to put other artists out
of work in order to save funds for the theatre, and, for the same
reason, Roosevelt sadly signed the bill.
Despite Hallie's brave cries of "Do not
give up," and the thunderous support of the entire theatre industry
and thousands of supporters, all efforts to save the Federal Theatre
proved of no avail. This first attempt in history to subsidize
serious Ameridan theatre with federal funds was treated by Congress
with the same hostility, maliciousness, and fear that were later
to surround the National Endowment for the Arts, and a great Idea,
one that brought fine theatre to a new audience of millions of
Americans, fell victim to narrow and bigoted minds. "Thus Federal
Theatre ended as it began," wrote Hallie in Arena, "with
fearless presentation of problems touching American life. If this
first government theatre in our country had been less alive it
might have lived longer. But I do not believe anyone who worked
on it regrets that it stood from first to last against reaction,
against prejudice, against racial, religious, and political intolerance.
It strove for a more dramatic statement and a better understanding
of the great forces of our life today; it fought for a free theatre
as one of the many expressions of a civilized, informed, and vigorous
Hallie not only lost her job; she lost
her second husband, Philip H. Davis, soon after the demise of
the Federal Theatre. She went back to academic life in 1941, accepting
a position at Smith College as Dean and as Professor of Drama.
It was there that I first met her, as a student at Amherst when
one of my Smith girlfriends was playing in a Living Newspaper
piece called E=MC Square about the splitting of the atom.
Four years later, she developed the illness that seems to afflict
so many theatre artists, Parkinson's disease, and retired to her
old haunts in Poughkeepsie near Vassar, where she died in 1969
at the age of seventy-nine.
The Voices of the Federal Theatre, some
of them growing a little hoarse and parched with age, all testify
to the vigor, the energy, the controversy, and the fearlessness
that characterized this project and its leader. Reflecting the
ephemeral nature of the theatre itself, nothing remains of the
productions except for some faded photographs and some yellowing
scripts. But just as other Federal arts projects produced such
giants as John Cheever, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright in the
Writers program, and Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Philip
Guston, and Jack Levine in the Art project, the Theatre program
provided a home for some of the most brilliant actors, directors,
designers, and dancers of the period (only the Group Theatre can
boast as many gifted alumni): Orson Welles and John Houseman,
Norman Lloyd, Arthur Kennedy, Katherine Dunham, Helen Tamiris,
Jack Carter, Canada Lee, Ian Keith, Joseph Cotten, Burt Lancaster,
Sidney Lumet, E.G. Marshall, Alvin Childress, Will Geer, Paula
Lawrence, John Randolph, Jules Dassin, Jose Limon--the list is
endless. And this, in the face of the fact that the Federal Theatre
was mandated to hire not reigning stars but primarily the unemployed.
But let the last words be those of the
great woman who saw this project through those four exhilarating,
demoralizing, incomparable years: "The President of the United
States in writing to me of his regret at the closing of the Federal
Theatre referred to it as a pioneering job. This it was, gutsy,
lusty, bad and good, sad and funny, superbly worth more wit, wisdom
and imagination than we could give it. Its significance lies in
pointing to the future. The ten thousand anonymous men and women--the
et ceteras and the and-so-forths who did the work, the nobodies
who were everybody, the somebodies who believed it--their dreams
and deeds were not the end. They were the beginning of a people's
theatre in a country whose greatest plays are still to come."
Those of us in the serious American theatre
have built on the back of this brave enterprise, and in the shadow
of the unconquerable figure who led it. May her spirit rest, unperturbed