Federal Theatre:  Melodrama, Social Protest, and Genius Next

These vigorous theater activities during the crucial year of 1937 took place in the shadow of impending cuts. The protests from the year before, when eleven members of the dance unit had been arrested while picketing, when a sit-down strike had occurred, and when a group from the arts projects visited Mayor La Guardia, were fresh in everyone's mind. On March 25, 1937, Mrs. Flanagan moved her headquarters from Washington to New York City and assumed the New York City directorship in addition to the national directorship. Although her work greatly increased, she felt that this was the best working arrangement the Federal Theatre in New York had ever had, and the project morale was being restored. Unlike the early days of confusion and haggling with WPA officials, or the recent frantic protests, these were productive days for the project people. In April both Bernard Shaw and Eugene O'Neill released their plays to the Federal Theatre for nationwide production at the fifty-dollar rental rate. This caused great excitement in units across the country. The O'Neill cycle of plays eventually included fourteen and the Shaw cycle nine.

But by May a congressional order to cut was again rumored and all the unions began protesting even before the cut materialized. "After a performance of Candide and How Long Brethren both the cast and audience joined in an all-night sit down demonstration against cuts, while 44th Street was filled with marchers."30 On June 10 an order to cut the New York project by 30 percent was received, clearly signaling the growing opposition in Washington. Subsequently, The Cradle Will Rock was prevented from opening, and more importantly the publication of Federal Theatre Magazine was stopped. What now of the plans already in motion for the summer? Hopkins insisted that they continue. So in spite of the cuts, the protests, and the picketing and the bitter disappointment and anger over the cancellation of Cradle, the Federal Theatre went on with its plans for the summer caravan season. Five trucks from Broadway theaters went rolling out to the boroughs of Richmond, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan. Brooks Atkinson thought that these occasions were really festivals, and he described in his column the families, "men in their shirtsleeves, women hushing babies, young men with their best girls, thousands of people filling the hillside."31 Plans for the first Federal Summer Theatre, to be held at Vassar, also continued, but by the end of the summer over a thousand people had been cut from the Federal Theatre rolls.

By September of 1937 a badly battered and bruised Federal Theatre began its third season. John McGee's southern region had producing centers left in only three states. In the Midwest only the Chicago project, a children's theater in Gary, and small production units in Detroit, Des Moines, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Springfield, and Peoria had survived. In the East, units in Rhode Island and Delaware closed down, and cuts in both Los Angeles and New York meant fewer productions during the new season. Mrs. Flanagan took immediate steps to try to repair the damage. Nationwide cycles of plays by Shaw and O'Neill were a must if the Federal Theatre was to remain a regional theater. New plays like Prologue to Glory, a play about the young Lincoln and Created Equal, Boston's historical pageant, were to explore the American scene. Living newspapers would continue to focus on contemporary problems. New York City, New Orleans, and Cincinnati would have their own versions of One-Third of a Nation, a play about housing conditions; "Oregon's flax growers would see Flax; Denver would have a living newspaper on sugar, and Iowa one on corn. At Christmas each project would combine both classical and religious drama with medieval shepherd plays."32 Circuses, ballets, musical comedies were to have their place this season, too.

The creation of the National Service Bureau in the fall of 1937, which merged the Play Bureau and the Play Policy Board, proved a boon to many of the smaller projects. The bureau read, wrote, re-wrote, and translated plays and sent synopses, scripts, and bibliographies to the field. Through loans of talent and equipment, it was able to strengthen local units on a much expanded scale. The growing success of this umbrella organization made clear the necessity of careful coordination in a national theatrical organization which hoped to create flourishing regional units.

To see for herself what might be done to strengthen the project across the country, Hallie Flanagan set out in October for a two-month tour. Beginning in the East, Mrs. Flanagan met with George Gerwing, formely California director, now regional director for the New England and Middle Atlantic states. He stressed the varying artistic quality of the work done by the units in this area. Generally small, most of the units struggled to keep costs down and to win public support. While some units like the Connecticut project were making tremendous artistic strides, the Buffalo unit needed reorganization, and both Philadelphia and Boston suffered from their own particular brands of ineffectiveness.

The Midwest hardly reflected a cheerier situation. Except for Chicago, where O Say Can You Sing, a musical spoof of the Federal Theatre, The Lonely Man, Howard Koch's drama about Lincoln, and O'Neill's The Straw followed each other in rapid succession, the Midwest needed help. But in Seattle, San Francisco, and finally Los Angeles, the second largest project, Mrs. Flanagan found much to her liking. Productions of Ready! Aim! Fire!, a musical satire on dictatorship, American Exodus, the contribution of the Dance Group, Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra and Androcles and the Lion in Los Angeles all earned her approval. Not that California didn't have its share of delegations and investigations to contend with, but her pride in the Los Angeles project couldn't be dampened. The unit was a model of administrative efficiency, and its productions reflected the professional quality she always encouraged. The combined talents of Gilmor Brown, Howard Miller, and George Gerwing had built a thriving project that serviced the entire West Coast. Of particular interest to her was the Theatre of the Southwest, Los Angeles's equivalent of New York's experimental unit. There Mary Virginia Farmer, applying her experience at both Hedgerow and the Group Theatre, worked with writers and actors on a cycle of plays about California. An experiment in communal living and working, the unit conducted research and collaborated on all aspects of theatrical production. One of three contemporary plays about California agriculture, The Sun Rises in the West, Mrs. Flanagan saw in rehearsal. She was impressed by the eagerness and intelligence of the group and wrote a letter to Miss Farmer on the train going home, offering her own suggestions for strengthening the play.33

Summoned home by the message that the projects were being ousted from the McLean mansion, Howard Miller and Hallie Flanagan returned to Washington apprehensive about the Federal Theatre's demise; and indeed, in December of 1937, the future not only of the theatre project but of the entire WPA seemed to hang in the balance.34

In spite of feuds and recriminations, the New York City unit, now under the direction of George Kondolf, had four plays running by the end of 1937: One-Third of a Nation, Haiti, Prologue to Glory, and On the Rocks. Although these were less startling perhaps than the best plays done in the early years, Mrs. Flanagan called them the strongest quartet the project ever had running simultaneously in New York City.

California looked much less bright, for by January 1938 direction of the project there reverted to Colonel Connolly of the WPA. Gilmor Brown had been dismissed, all playscripts were called in, and Judgment Day by Elmer Rice was canceled. Once again Hallie Flanagan and the Federal Theatre had to fight the spectre of political censorship. At issue was the right to choose plays; that right had always been the core of the Federal Theatre. If state administrators were allowed to choose plays to be performed, music to be played, works of art to the exhibited, then the basis of selection would become a political rather than an artistic one. All national directors stood firm on this issue, and in this instance they won out; Judgment Day did go on.35 But in Hopkins's absence, due first to illness and then to his appointment as secretary of commerce, the battle worsened and discouragement and frustration within the project grew.

Ironically the national aspect of the Federal Theatre seemed to grow stronger in this climate of distrust and embattlement. Directors from the Federal Theatre Summer Theatre returned to their communities and began a nationwide program, for once not dominated by New York but with New York sharing in the general lines of development of the rest of the country. A nationwide Shaw and O'Neill cycle and a nationwide program of children's and religious plays proved immensely successful. A program of dance reached new audiences in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia. The exchange of companies was further evidence that the Federal Theatre was becoming a truly national theater. Chicago sent Swing Mikado to New York. New York sent Haiti to Boston and Prologue to Glory to Chicago and Philadelphia. Federal Theatre was clearly a producing organization and reviewers talked increasingly of a permanent, government-sponsored theater.36

International recognition was beginning to develop, and Mrs. Flanagan was invited to speak at the International Congress of the Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon. Unable to leave the project herself, she prepared a brief history which Tamiris presented on her behalf. Enthusiastic response from that gathering indicated that a government-sponsored theater in a free society had much to tell a world divided between fascism and communism.37

But in spite of the obvious vitality of the project and the caliber of people who had struggled so valiantly to keep it alive, by June of 1939 members of the theatrical world from all over the country found it necessary to join in a campaign to try to save the organization. For in spite of its record of accomplishment it was in mortal danger. The cut in funds was not an economy move, a human issue, or even a cultural issue; the Federal Theatre had become a political issue. And the project was ended, Mrs. Flanagan explained, "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."38 Mrs. Flanagan referred, of course, to the House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, under Chairman Martin Dies, and the House Committee on Appropriations, under Chairman Clifton A. Woodrum. It became clear that the Federal Theatre had become a microcosm of all the New Deal represented to the enemies of the administration, notably in its spending policy and its liberal attitude toward labor, aliens, and minorities. It was, Mrs. Flanagan reflected, "perhaps the triumph as well as the tragedy of our actors that they became indeed the abstract and brief chronicle of the time."39 The Federal Theatre was ended by an Act of Congress on June 30, 1939.