One-Third of a Nation

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One Third of a Nation is a Living Newspaper theatrical production that was produced by the Federal Theatre Project in 1938. It focused on the problem of housing in the United States and the growth of slums in New York.


One-Third of a Nation opens with a scene depicting a burning tenement in New York. A voice-over pairs with a character Angus Buttonkooper, “the little man”, and they both try to explain why decent housing is not available in New York. Their discussions lead them to the basic problem, that is corruption in the New York housing department.

With the expansion of the city, a rich landlord is depicted sitting on a patch of grass, which portrays his property. As the population of the city expands, more and more people try and fit on that patch of grass. They resort to petty fighting and theft to somehow get a place to squat on and get rid of their “dehumanizing misery.” Slowly but steadily, the little man gets politicized over the 100 years of corruption and troubles that OTN depicts, increasingly becoming impatient and frustrated by the polarity between the wealthy landlord and their impoverished tenants.

The piece ends with the delineation of the failure of the Wagner – Steagall bill, a $565 million project that only managed to alleviate about 2% of New York’s slums. The Little Man and his wife vow to continue to diatribe the government until the housing crisis is resolved and “everyone in America has a decent place to live in.”


There are quite a few theatrical techniques that are noteworthy in this production. The first one is the concept of the “little man”, an ordinary person with little or no power over his surroundings. He is only a mute spectator and goes where the tide takes him. The little man is conventionally an impoverished person with little access to resources, always suppressed by “Big Men”, usually capitalists or landlords. OTN depicts him as travelling through one hundred years, witnessing corruption and ill administration throughout his journeys. As the story moves on, he emerges as the protagonist. He plays a vital role in fulfilling the Living Newspaper’s function as a social commentary.

Another technique characteristic of Living Newspapers is some form of direct communication with the audience. At the end, the little man urges the audience to take action and press the government to introduce reforms in housing.


One Third Of A Nation was revived in 2011 by the Metropolitan Playhouse in New York City. A review in The New York Times describes the production as "part history lesson, part protest, the play uses a series of sketches to dramatize ghastly housing conditions and to condemn corruption, speculators and slumlords."

Film version[edit]

It was also made into a film released in 1939, directed by Dudley Murphy, starring Sylvia Sydney and child actor, making the only acting appearance of his career, Sidney Lumet.


In conclusion, a living newspaper is a theatrical production that portrays social events. Most popular of the living newspapers were made by the FTP in the 1930s. The FTP’s One Third of a Nation portrays housing problems in New York. It uses interesting theatrical techniques to accomplish that.


Guthu, Sarah. "Living Newspapers:One-Third of the Nation." Living Newspapers: One Third of a Nation. University of Washington, 2009. Web. 07 Nov. 2012. <>

Jaworowski, Ken. "THEATER REVIEW | ONE-THIRD OF A NATION A Depression-Era Protest Ripped From the Headlines." The New York Times, May 1, 2011. Web. 17 May 2013. <>