The Play that Electrified Harlem
part 4 of 4

The critics were a bit bewildered by it all. They couldn't help but respond to the production's swirling excitement and lush imagery (the black-and-white photographs in the Federal Theater Project archives at the Library of Congress, alas, give little sense of the riot of color that exploded on the Lafayette Theatre stage), and most realized that transposing the scene to Haiti gave the witches an effectiveness they seldom had in contemporary presentations. Some critics carped, however, that this radical rethinking of Macbeth "wasn't Shakespeare at all" but rather "an experiment in Afro-American showmanship." Percy Hammond of the anti-New Deal Herald Tribune went further and called the show "an exhibition of de-luxe boondoggling," complaining that the government was squandering taxpayer dollars on a wasteful vanity production no commercial producer would be insane enough to undertake. When Hammond died suddenly a few days later, a rumor circulated among the Negro Unit staff that he was the victim of malevolent spells cast by the enraged voodoo drummers.

Duncan and his court arrive at Macbeth's palace..
"Macbeth" adapted by Orson Welles. Act I, Scene II. Duncan and his court arrive at Macbeth's palace. Negro Theatre unit, WPA Federal Theatre Project of NYC. Federal Theatre Project Collection.

The Voodoo Macbeth certainly cast a spell over audiences, which did not share the critics' reservations. It ran for 10 sold-out weeks at the Lafayette, then moved downtown for a 10-day run at the Adelphi Theatre before going on tour to FTP theaters in Bridgeport, Hartford, Dallas, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Syracuse. It also inspired Negro units in other cities to adapt the classics: Seattle's did an all-black Lysistrata, closed by WPA officials who found Aristophanes' verse "too risque," and when Los Angeles couldn't get the Welles Macbeth, the unit produced its own, set in Africa. Cincinnati did not make Macbeth's touring schedule because local authorities said the audience would have to be segregated, which was against FTP policy; at all WPA productions, blacks could sit anywhere, not just in the balcony.

Everywhere it went, Macbeth caused an enormous stir. The one thing it did not do was make money. An FTP memo estimated the production's touring costs at nearly $3,400 a week (including railroad fares and subsistence pay for the company) and noted that the best weekly gross at the Lafayette had been $1,935 - this at a time when a modest Broadway hit like the Group Theater's Awake and Sing! was pulling in $10,000 a week. When the tour was over, Macbeth had netted $14,000 - and spent $97,000.

Kenneth Renwick

and George Nixon in
"Macbeth" adapted by Orson Welles. Act I, Scene II. Kenneth Renwick and George Nixon as the murderers plot Duncan's death at the ball given by Macbeth. Negro Theatre unit, WPA Federal Theatre Project of NYC. Federal Theatre Project Collection.

The Federal Theater Project was not intended to turn a profit. Its aim was twofold: to put people back to work and to provide free or low-cost entertainment to audiences previously unreached because of ticket prices or the lack of live theater in their area. Two-thrids of the FTP's productions were free, and tickets for the rest were cheap. Macbeth in Harlem for example, had a price scale from 15 to 40 cents, while a Broadway show, by comparison, charged $1 for a balcony and $3 for the orchestra.

The FTP established companies in regions where people had not seen live performances since the movies killed vaudeville. Extravaganzas like Macbeth and sharply political works like the Living Newspaper productions, which grappled with such charged issues as venereal disease and labor activism, got all the press attention. But it was the quiet, day-to-day work of the federally supported local theaters, which presented everything from children's plays to such stock staples as Up in Mabel's Room, that most affected average Americans. Beyond the FTP's immediate goals, Hallie Flanagan dreamed of creating a distinctively American national theater, diverse and democratic as the highly centralized state theaters of Europe were not, that would express the country's varied cultural heritage, yet draw people together in shared theatrical experiences.

The FTP, however, did not have as long a professional life as Welles and Houseman. (After departing the project, they went on to stir up New York with the Mercury Theater productions of Julius Caesar and Heartbreak House - as well as the infamous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.) Between 1936 and 1939, the FTP presented some 1,200 productions at a cost of approximately $46 million. More than 30 million Americans saw these shows, which took in about $2 million in admissions - more revenue, Flanagan pointed out, than any other WPA project generated. But on June 30, 1939, the FTP was shut down by an act of Congress.

The popularity of big-spending New Deal programs had waned by 1939, and although closing the FTP saved not one cent - its budget was simply distributed among other projects - it gave congressmen who had always disliked the idea of the government funding show business an opportunity to make a political point. Almost all the witnesses invited to testify before the House Committee on Appropriations were opponents of the FTP; the WPA foolishly decided not to permit Flanagan to reply to their charges until it was too late. By then, hostile congressmen had succeeded in depicting the FTP as a hotbed of communism (which it was not) and as a tax-subsidized organization disseminating New Deal propaganda (which it more or less was). The WPA appropriations bill for 1939 specifically stated that none of its funds "shall be available...for the operation of any Theatre Project."

Independent African-American companies did not spring up to take the place of the Negro units, and without such institutional support serious black playwrights floundered until galvanized by the civil-rights movement. After 1939, black actors were once again relegated to stereotyped roles in mainstream white shows, and the black technicians trained by the FTP were excluded from every theatrical union in the United States. It would be two decades before the actors and technicians who had gained employment and artistic self-respect on Macbeth and the other Federal Theater Project productions would again find sustained work in the theater.