Saturday, August 22, 2009

Towards An American Theatre

But there were many more Federal Theatre Project productions outside New York, and even outside big cities. This site with text by Lorraine Brown offers an excellent overview, particularly outside New York, with links to Federal Theatre Project documents online. (Stage Matters has had this site in the links list since the beginning.) Her emphasis is on what the Project did for American theatre. She also details the role of Hallie Flanagan.

Brown notes that theatre was a major victim of the Depression, with theatres closing all over the nation. The Depression also began the demise of the New York touring companies, which used to fan out through the country by the hundreds. Broadway was also much larger, with scores of theatres.

The Federal Theatre Project not only revived theatres themselves but took productions to hospitals, CCC camps and other venues. Hallie Flanagan's plan for the Project emphasized quality productions but local productions, to the point that actors and theatre artists who had migrated to big cities for work were encouraged to return to their hometowns for projects there. Flanagan was forthright about her goal: "caring for the unemployed but recreating a national theatre and building a national culture."

The Project was inaugurated not in New York or Washington, but in Iowa City, Iowa, at a National Theatre Conference. It was there that Flanagan assured theatre artists that government funding did not mean censorship. Though there were some censorship disputes, the direction was also clear. "In an age of terrific implications as to wealth and poverty, as to the function of government, as to peace and war, as to the relation of the artist to all these forces, the theatre must grow up," Flanagan insisted. "The theatre must become conscious of the implications of the changing social order, or the changing social older will ignore, and rightly, the implications of the theatre."

There were plays done outside the Living Newspaper and outside New York about social issues. Altars of Steel, stressing "the need for economic freedom in the South," was written by a Birmingham, Alabama playwright (Thomas Hall-Rogers) and first produced in Atlanta, Georgia. But there were also productions of classic plays: Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra and Androcles and the Lion in Los Angeles, for example. Plus newer plays with no overt social subject, such as one of the first productions of T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral in New York and the all-black The Swing Mikado in Chicago.

But the hopes for a national American theatre ended when the Federal Theatre Project, an easy target for New Deal opponents, was cancelled on June 30, 1939. It was killed, Hallie Flanagan said, "because the powerful forces marshaled in its behalf came too late to combat other forces which apparently had been at work against Federal Theatre for a long time. Through two congressional committees these forces found a habitation and a name." The committees were HUAC and the House Appropriations Committee, which simply cut off its funding. It was, Flanagan said, "perhaps the triumph as well as the tragedy of our actors that they became indeed the abstract and brief chronicle of the time."

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