Federal Theatre:  Melodrama, Social Protest, and Genius Next

May brought a welcome and unexpected reprieve from threatened congressional action against the Project,24 and three new productions were ready to open: a second and newly conceived Living Newspaper, 1935, Michael Gold and Michael Blankfort's story about John Brown called Battle Hymn, and Class of '29 about the economic difficulties of four college graduates began New York runs. In addition, two dance productions, Charles Weidman's Candide and Helen Tamiris's Salut au Monde were staged in Brooklyn. It now seemed clear that New York could produce successful shows in spite of problems of requisitions, procurement, and government regulations, but what about the health of the Federal Theatre units outside of New York? After nearly a year of having to concentrate on problems peculiar to New York City, Mrs. Flanagan initiated plans for the national exchange of plays, directors, and ideas. Triple A, Chalk Dust, and the Harlem Macbeth had toured Federal Theatre houses all over the country, but in the fall of 1936, the Federal Theatre needed national recognition as well as new audiences, so they tried yet another daring venture. On October 27 twenty-two simultaneous productions of Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here opened across the country, a tribute to the stamina, talent, and ambition of the workers on the project.25

It Can't Happen Here On October 27, 1936, It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, opened simultaneously in twenty-one theaters in seventeen states. The Los Angeles Yiddish production, pictured here, featured Morris Weisman as "Buzz" Windrip. Federal Theatre Project Collection

Lewis's antifascist play had great audience appeal, and before it was over nearly five hundred thousand people saw the show, which played 260 weeks or the equivalent of five years. Choosing the Federal Theatre as the producer despite offers from Broadway, Sinclair Lewis, the first American novelist to win the Nobel Prize, gave the project a momentous and much needed boost in prestige.

The implications of this successful nationwide venture were not lost on either commercial producers or critics of the project. Burns Mantle in his column of November 8 in the Chicago Tribune, reviewing the effectiveness of the production in such diverse locations as Denver, Boston, Cleveland, Omaha, Tampa, and Seattle, wrote: "it indicated rather revealingly... what could happen here if the social body should ever become theatre-minded in a serious way. This was a demonstration of the uses to which a peoples' theatre might reasonably be put."26

While Houseman and Welles continued to chalk up success after success with Horse Eats Hat and Dr. Faustus, the Living Newspaper unit proved irksome and hard to control, a case in point being Injunction Granted. 27 A history of labor in the courts, the play was directed by Joe Losey. Attending opening night, Hallie Flanagan found the play to be "bad journalism and hysterical theatre," and she wrote an indignant letter to Losey and to Morris Watson, supervisor of the Living Newspaper unit. Unpersuaded by Watson's argument that the play was drawing crowds, she exercised her authority as director of the Federal Theatre and insisted that the production be closed. The controversy reflected both Mrs. Flanagan's determination to exercise stricter administrative control over the unit and fear of past instances where censorship had been imposed from the outside. This now doubly cautious lady believed that she must achieve a balance between "safe" plays and socially relevant plays if the project were to survive. The first year had taken it toll in other ways too: E. C. Mabie, Elmer Rice, Frederick Koch, Gilmor Brown, Frederick McConnell, Thomas Wood Stevens, Jasper Deeter, Rosamond Gilder, and Eddie Dowling had all left the project.

Injunction Granted One of the early Living Newspapers produced in New York, Injuction Granted portrayed the struggle of labor in the courts. Hallie Flanagan found it "bad journalism and hysterical theatre" and ordered it closed. Federal Theatre Project Collection

Hallie Flanagan continued to put into effect the hard-won lessons of that first year. In a meeting in Birmingham of leaders from the South she suggested simultaneous productions of plays about contemporary problems, antiwar plays, "living newspapers" on regional themes, children's plays, and plays on religion. Entertaining as well as socially important plays were also to be considered and made a regular part of Federal Theatre offerings. The Birmingham meeting served still another purpose, for at the same meeting John Temple Graves, lawyer and newspaperman on the Birmingham Age Herald, called for a play on steel, since steel and cotton were dictating the new political economy of the South. The Federal Theatre readily complied the next year by producing Altars of Steel by Thomas Hall-Rogers, a Birmingham author. Produced in Atlanta, the play stressed the need for economic freedom in the South and the development of its great resources. Praised and blamed, the play and the furor it created made it clear, not only in the South but across the country, that playwrights and audiences were keenly interested in plays with social and economic themes, whatever commercial producers in the thirties, as well as in the past, had concluded about the theatrical appetites of American audiences. Sixty thousand people in New York bought tickets for Power, a living newspaper on the TVA, before it opened. But Power and Sweet Land, produced at the Lafayette, were still the only social plays of the early 1937 season.

Altars of Steel The Miami production of Altars of Steel, written by Birmingham author Thomas Hall-Rogers. The set was designed by Joseph Lentz. Federal Theatre Project Collection