Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Federal Theatre Project Legacy

The Federal Theatre Project was important to the careers of many actors, directors, producers, playwrights and other theatre artists who would become prominent in American and international theatre and film for the next generation or more. Some of them would carry part of what they experienced, learned and produced into their future endeavors. Without what he did and saw in the Federal Theatre Project, Orson Welles probably would not have made what is often considered the greatest American movie, Citizen Kane, especially in the way he made it.

But after the self-censorship of the war years, and the violent suppressions of the 50s--the reign of HUAC and the Blacklist, which sent many theatre artists into exile or prison, or drove them to suicide or at least out of theatre and film-- the political theatre of the FTP has been purposely forgotten. Add to that the temporary nature of theatre, especially without extensive film documentation, and too much has been lost.

Occasionally, as in the Robbins film, an aspect of it is resurrected. A few plays have been revived: notably Big White Fog by Theodore Ward, first produced by the Negro Unit of the Chicago Federal Theatre Project in 1938, was produced in 2007--in London. A review in the Times Literary Supplement describes it as the story of a black family during the 1920s and 30s, confronting alternatives and prejudices within the black community, as they try to navigate through the "big white fog" of the dominant white society and its racism. Although there are anachronisms, the review notes, the writing remains powerful.

Sometimes, too, current situations revive some memories--and not just the threatened reenactment of a severe economic crisis. It was 2006, when the Bush administration and the Rovean politics of inflaming and exploiting the religious Right, inspired Joe Keohane to write a retro-book review in the Boston Globe of the Sinclair Lewis novel, It Can't Happen Here. His review begins:

PICTURE THIS: A folksy, self-consciously plainspoken Southern politician rises to power during a period of profound unrest in America. The nation is facing one of the half-dozen or so of its worst existential crises to date, and the people, once sunny, confident, and striving, are now scared, angry, and disillusioned.

This politician, a ''Professional Common Man,'' executes his rise by relentlessly attacking the liberal media, fancy-talking intellectuals, shiftless progressives, pinkos, promiscuity, and welfare hangers-on, all the while clamoring for a return to traditional values, to love of country...

The novel was pretty popular when it was published in 1935, but what Keohane doesn't mention that it was even more popular as a play--a play produced by the Federal Theatre Project. It played in 18 cities in October 1936, to capacity audiences. Eventually 23 companies played it for a total of 260 weeks. A few years later it was revived briefly, with Sinclair Lewis acting in it.

Look at those numbers again--18 cities, 23 companies, 260 weeks--in a country with less than half of today's population. Those desperate days were clearly different, but the Federal Theatre Project remains a model of the kinds of theatre that can be done, as well as what courage and dedication can do. It is also a model for government supported theatre with minimal censorship, and for what the U.S. still lacks---anything resembling a national theatre, and arguably, an American theatre.

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