Federal Theatre Project

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
National director Hallie Flanagan with bulletin boards identifying Federal Theatre Project productions under way throughout the United States

The Federal Theatre Project (FTP; 1935–1939) was a theatre program established during the Great Depression as part of the New Deal to fund live artistic performances and entertainment programs in the United States. It was one of five Federal Project Number One projects sponsored by the Works Progress Administration, created not as a cultural activity but as a relief measure to employ artists, writers, directors, and theater workers. National director Hallie Flanagan shaped the FTP into a federation of regional theaters that created relevant art, encouraged experimentation in new forms and techniques, and made it possible for millions of Americans to see live theatre for the first time.[1] Although The Federal Theatre project consumed only 0.5% of the allocated budget from the WPA and was widely considered a commercial and critical success, the project became a source of heated political contention. Congress responded to the project's racial integration and accusations of Communist infiltration and cancelled its funding effective June 30, 1939.[2][3] One month before the project's end, drama critic Brooks Atkinson summarized: "Although the Federal Theatre is far from perfect, it has kept an average of ten thousand people employed on work that has helped to lift the dead weight from the lives of millions of Americans. It has been the best friend the theatre as an institution has ever had in this country."[4]


Philip W. Barber, New York City director of the Federal Theatre Project, at the opening of Macbeth (April 14, 1936)
Poster for Salut au Monde (1936), an original dance drama by Helen Tamiris for the Federal Dance Theatre, a division of the Federal Theatre Project
Burt Lancaster and partner Nick Cravat with the Federal Theatre Circus (1935–1938)
Choreographer Clarence Yates rehearsing Olive Stanton and the cast of The Cradle Will Rock (1937)
The Man Who Knows All (Robert Noack) explains the kilowatt hour to the Consumer (Norman Lloyd) in the Living Newspaper play, Power (1937)

We let out these works on the vote of the people.

— Motto of the Federal Theatre Project, from an inscription at the third century B.C. Greek theatre on Delos[5]: 5 

Part of the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Theatre Project was a New Deal program established August 27, 1935,[5]: 29  funded under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935. Of the $4.88 billion allocated to the WPA,[6] $27 million was approved for the employment of artists, musicians, writers and actors under the WPA's Federal Project Number One.[5]: 44 

Government relief efforts funding theatre through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and Civil Works Administration in the two preceding years were amateur experiments regarded as charity, not a theatre program. The Federal Theatre Project was a new approach to unemployment in the theatre profession. Only those certified as employable could be offered work, and that work was to be within the individual's defined skills and trades.[5]: 15–16 

"For the first time in the relief experiments of this country the preservation of the skill of the worker, and hence the preservation of his self-respect, became important," wrote Hallie Flanagan, director of the Federal Theatre Project.[5]: 17  A theater professor at Vassar College who had studied the operation of government-sponsored theatre abroad for the Guggenheim Foundation,[5]: 9  Flanagan was chosen to lead the Federal Theatre Project by WPA head Harry Hopkins.[5]: 20 [7] Flanagan and Hopkins had been classmates at Grinnell College.[5]: 7  Roosevelt and Hopkins selected her despite considerable pressure to choose someone from the commercial theatre industry; they believed the project should be led by someone with academic credentials and a national perspective.[2]: 39  Flanagan had the daunting task of building a nationwide theater program to employ thousands of unemployed artists in as little time as possible. The Theatre industry had struggled financially prior to the financial collapse of 1929. By that time it was already threatened with extinction due to the growing popularity of films and radio, but the commercial theatre was reluctant to adapt its practices.[2]: 38  Many actors, technicians and stagehands had suffered since 1914, when movies began to replace stock, vaudeville and other live stage performances nationwide. Sound motion pictures displaced 30,000 musicians. In the Great Depression, people with little money for entertainment found an entire evening of entertainment at the movies for 25 cents, while commercial theatre charged $1.10 to $2.20 admission to cover the cost of theater rental, advertising and fees to performers and union technicians. Unemployed directors, actors, designers, musicians and stage crew took any kind of work they were able to find, whatever it paid, and charity was often their only recourse.[5]: 13–14 

"This is a tough job we're asking you to do," Hopkins told Flanagan at their first meeting in May 1935. "I don't know why I still hang on to the idea that unemployed actors get just as hungry as anybody else."[5]: 7–9 

Hopkins promised "a free, adult, uncensored theatre"[5]: 28  — something Flanagan spent the next four years trying to build.[5]: 29  She emphasized the development of local and regional theatre, "to lay the foundation for the development of a truly creative theatre in the United States with outstanding producing centers in each of those regions which have common interests as a result of geography, language origins, history, tradition, custom, occupations of the people."[5]: 22–23 


On October 24, 1935, Flanagan prefaced her instructions on the Federal Theatre's operation with a statement of purpose:

The primary aim of the Federal Theatre Project is the reemployment of theatre workers now on public relief rolls: actors, directors, playwrights, designers, vaudeville artists, stage technicians, and other workers in the theatre field. The far reaching purpose is the establishment of theatres so vital to community life that they will continue to function after the program of this Federal Project is completed.[8]

Within a year the Federal Theatre Project employed 15,000 men and women,[9]: 174  paying them $23.86 a week while the Actors Equity Association's minimum was $40.00.[10] These men and women would only do six performances a week and have only four hours per day to rehearse.[11] During its nearly four years of existence 30 million people attended FTP productions in more than 200 theaters nationwide[9]: 174  — renting many that had been shuttered — as well as parks, schools, churches, clubs, factories, hospitals and closed-off streets.[2]: 40  Its productions totaled approximately 1,200, not including its radio programs.[5]: 432  Because the Federal Theatre was created to employ and train people, not to generate revenue, no provision was made for the receipt of money when the project began. At its conclusion, 65 percent of its productions were still presented free of charge.[5]: 434  The total cost of the Federal Theatre Project was $46 million.[2]: 40 

"In any consideration of the cost of the Federal Theatre," Flanagan wrote, "it should be borne in mind that the funds were allotted, according to the terms of the Relief Act of 1935, to pay wages to unemployed people. Therefore, when Federal Theatre was criticized for spending money, it was criticized for doing what it was set up to do."[5]: 34–35 

The FTP established five regional centers in New York, New York, Boston (Northeast), Chicago (Midwest), Los Angeles (West), and New Orleans (South).[12] The FTP did not operate in every state, since many lacked a sufficient number of unemployed people in the theatre profession.[5]: 434  The project in Alabama was closed in January 1937 when its personnel were transferred to a new unit in Georgia. Only one event was presented in Arkansas. Units created in Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin were closed in 1936; projects in Indiana, Nebraska, Rhode Island and Texas were discontinued in 1937; and the Iowa project was closed in 1938.[5]: 434–436 

Many of the notable artists of the time participated in the Federal Theatre Project, including Susan Glaspell who served as Midwest bureau director.[5]: 266  The legacy of the Federal Theatre Project can also be found in beginning the careers of a new generation of theater artists. Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, John Houseman, Martin Ritt, Elia Kazan, Joseph Losey, Marc Blitzstein and Abe Feder are among those who became established, in part, through their work in the Federal Theatre. Blitzstein, Houseman, Welles and Feder collaborated on the controversial production, The Cradle Will Rock.

Living Newspaper[edit]

Living Newspapers were plays written by teams of researchers-turned-playwrights. These men and women clipped articles from newspapers about current events, often hot button issues like farm policy, syphilis (spirochete) infection, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and housing inequity. These newspaper clippings were adapted into plays intended to inform audiences, often with progressive or left-wing themes. Triple-A Plowed Under, for instance, attacked the U.S. Supreme Court for killing the Agricultural Adjustment Act. These politically themed plays quickly drew criticism from members of Congress.[citation needed]

Although the undisguised political invective in the Living Newspaper productions sparked controversy, they also proved popular with audiences. As an art form, the Living Newspaper is perhaps the Federal Theatre's most well-known work.

Problems with the Federal Theatre Project and Congress intensified when the State Department objected to the first Living Newspaper, Ethiopia, about Haile Selassie and his nation's struggles against Benito Mussolini's invading Italian forces. The U.S. government soon mandated that the FTP, a government agency, could not depict foreign heads of state on the stage for fear of diplomatic backlash. Playwright and director Elmer Rice, head of the New York office of the FTP, resigned in protest and was succeeded by his assistant, Philip W. Barber.[citation needed]

New productions[edit]

Numbers following the city of origin indicate the number of additional cities where the play was presented.

Title Author City Dates
Highlights of 1935 Living Newspaper staff New York May 12–30, 1936[5]: 390 
Injunction Granted Living Newspaper staff New York July 24–October 20, 1936[5]: 390 
Living Newspaper, First Edition Cleveland Bronner Norwalk, Conn. June 1–July 2, 1936[5]: 390 
Living Newspaper, Second Edition Cleveland Bronner Norwalk, Conn. August 18–25, 1936[5]: 390 
The Living Newspaper Project staff Cleveland March 11–28, 1936[5]: 390 
One-Third of a Nation Arthur Arent New York + 9 January 17–October 22, 1938[5]: 390 
Power Arthur Arent New York + 4 February 23–July 10, 1937[5]: 390 
Spirochete Arnold Sundgaard Chicago + 4 April 29–June 4, 1938[5]: 390 
Triple-A Plowed Under Living Newspaper staff New York + 4 March 14–May 2, 1936[5]: 390 

African-American theatre[edit]

Dooley Wilson (center) in The Show-Off (1937)
Canada Lee (top row center) in a revival of four one-act plays of the sea by Eugene O'Neill (1937)

Capitalizing on the FTP's national network and inherent diversity of artists, the Federal Theatre established specific chapters dedicated to showcasing and celebrating the work of previously under represented artists. Including the French Theatre in Los Angeles, the German Theater in New York City, and the Negro Theatre Unit which had several chapters across the country, with its largest office in New York City.[2] The FTP set up 17 so-called Negro Theatre Units (NTU) in cities throughout the United States. The NTU had additional offices in Hartford, Boston, Salem, Newark, and Philadelphia in the East; Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles in the West; Cleveland, Detroit, Peoria, and Chicago in the Midwest; and Raleigh, Atlanta, Birmingham, and New Orleans in the South. There were additional units in San Francisco, Oklahoma, Durham, Camden, and Buffalo. By the project's conclusion, 22 American cities had served as headquarters for black theater units.[3]

The New York Negro Theatre Unit was the most well known. Two of the four federal theaters in New York City—Lafayette Theatre and the Negro Youth Theater— were dedicated to the Harlem community with the intention of developing unknown theatre artists.[2]

Both theatre projects were headquartered at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, where some 30 plays were presented. The first was Frank H. Wilson's folk drama, Walk Together Chillun (1936), about the deportation of 100 African-Americans from the South to the North to work for low wages. The second was Conjur' Man Dies (1936), a comedy-mystery adapted by Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen from Rudolph Fisher's novel. The most popular production was the third, which came to be called the Voodoo Macbeth (1936), director Orson Welles's adaptation of Shakespeare's play set on a mythical island suggesting the Haitian court of King Henri Christophe.[13]: 179–180 

The New York Negro Theatre Unit also oversaw projects from the African American Dance Unit featuring Nigerian artists displaced by the Ethiopian Crisis. These projects employed over 1,000 black actors and directors.[2] The Negro Actors' Guild of America incorporated on October 1, 1936 in the state of New York. The ten Articles for the Certificate of Incorporation addressed the welfare, appreciation and development of black artists. [14]

The Federal Theatre Project was distinguished for its focus on racial injustice. Flanagan expressly ordered her subordinates to follow the WPA policy against racial prejudice. In fact when it came to making decisions on a national level for the project, the Federal Theatre Regulation mandated that "there may be racial representation in all national planning." A specific example of the FTP's adherence to an anti-prejudicial environment came when a white project manager in Dallas was fired for attempting to segregate black and white theater technicians on a railroad car. Additionally, the white assistant director of the project was pulled because "he was unable to work amicably" with the black artists.[2]

The FTP overtly sought out relationships with the African American community including Carter Woodson of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, as well as Walter White of the NAACP. One of the existing stipulations from the Works Progress Administration for employment in the FTP was prior professional theater experience. However when encountered with 40 young jobless black playwrights national director Hallie Flanagan waived the WPA requirement in the interest of providing a platform and training ground for new young playwrights. During a national conference Flanagan proposed that the leadership of the Harlem chapter of the FTP be led by an African American artist. Rose McClendon, an established actor at the time, publicly argued against this proposal and instead suggested that initially an established white theater artist take the mantle with the understanding and intention of satisfying the WPA's prior professional theater experience clause and giving way to black artists to lead the chapter.[1] This argument from McClendon received support from Edna Thomas, Harry Edwards, Carlton Moss, Abraham Hale Jr., Augusta Smith and Dick Campbell.[1]

This crusade for equality eventually became a sticking point for the Dies Committee, which pulled funding for the Federal Theater Project, arguing that "racial equality forms a vital part of the Communist dictatorship and practices".[2]

Federal Theater Project in New York-Negro Theatre Unit -"Macbeth"
Jack Carter as Macbeth in the Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth at the Lafayette Theatre, Harlem
Photograph of Edna Thomas as Lady Macbeth in the Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth at the Lafayette Theatre
Wanda Macy and Bertram Holmes as Macduff's daughter and son in the Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth at the Lafayette Theatre, Harlem
Macbeth's bodyguard in the Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth at the Lafayette Theatre, Harlem
Virginia Girvin as the Nurse with Wanda Macy and Bertram Holmes as Macduff's daughter and son in the Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth at the Lafayette Theatre, Harlem
Federal Theater Project in New York-Negro Theatre Unit-"Macbeth"

New drama productions[edit]

Numbers following the city of origin indicate the number of additional cities where the play was presented.

Title Author City Dates
Accident Policy Arthur Akers Birmingham July 31–August 3, 1936[5]: 392 
Advent and Nativity of Christ adapted by Hedley Gordon Graham New York December 20–24, 1937[5]: 392 
Bassa Moona (The Land I Love) Momodu Johnson, Norman Coker New York December 8, 1936 – March 20, 1937[5]: 392 
Big White Fog Theodore Ward Chicago April 7–May 30, 1938[5]: 392 
Black Empire Christine Ames, Clarke Painter Los Angeles + 1 March 16–July 19, 1936[5]: 392 
The Case of Philip Lawrence George MacEntree New York June 8–July 31, 1937[5]: 392 
Conjur' Man Dies Rudolph Fisher, adapted by Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen[13]: 179  New York + 1 March 11–July 4, 1936[5]: 392 
Did Adam Sin? Lew Payton Chicago April 30–May 14, 1936[5]: 392 
An Evening with Dunbar Paul Laurence Dunbar, adapted by project staff Seattle October 31–December 17, 1938[5]: 392 
Great Day M. Wood Birmingham October 7, 1936[5]: 393 
Haiti William DuBois New York + 1 March 2–November 5, 1938[5]: 393 
Heaven Bound Nellie Lindley Davis, adapted by Julian Harris Atlanta October 10, 1937 – January 8, 1938[5]: 393 
Home in Glory Clyde Limbaugh Birmingham April 16–May 15, 1936[5]: 393 
It Can't Happen Here Sinclair Lewis, John C. Moffitt Seattle + 20 October 27–November 6, 1936[5]: 393 
Jericho H. L. Fishel Philadelphia + 3 October 16, 1937 – April 4, 1938[5]: 393 
John Henry Frank Wells Los Angeles September 30–October 18, 1936[5]: 393 
Lysistrata Aristophanes, adapted by Theodore Browne Seattle September 17, 1936[5]: 393 
Macbeth William Shakespeare, adapted by Orson Welles New York + 8 April 14–October 17, 1936[5]: 393 
The Natural Man Theodore Browne Seattle January 28–February 20, 1937[5]: 393 
The Swing Mikado adapted from Gilbert and Sullivan Chicago + 3 September 25, 1938 – February 25, 1939[5]: 393 
Return to Death P. Washington Porter Holyoke, Mass. August 17–20, 1938[5]: 393 
The Reverend Takes His Text Ralf Coleman Roxbury, Mass. + 3 December 12, 1936[5]: 393 
Romey and Julie Robert Dunmore, Ruth Chorpenning Chicago April 1–25, 1936[5]: 393 
Sweet Land Conrad Seiler New York January 19–February 27, 1937[5]: 393 
The Taming of the Shrew William Shakespeare, adapted by project staff Seattle June 19–24, 1939[5]: 393 
The Trial of Dr. Beck Hughes Allison New Jersey Spots + 2 June 3–12, 1937[5]: 393 
Trilogy in Black Ward Courtney Hartford June 18, 1937[5]: 393 
Turpentine J. Augustus Smith, Peter Morell New York June 26–September 5, 1936[5]: 393 
Unto Such Glory Paul Green New York May 6–July 10, 1936[5]: 393 
Walk Together Chillun Frank H. Wilson New York February 4–March 7, 1936[5]: 393 

Standard drama productions[edit]

Numbers following the city of origin indicate the number of additional cities where the play was presented.

Title Author City Dates
Androcles and the Lion George Bernard Shaw Seattle + 2 November 1–6, 1937[5]: 428 
Bloodstream Frederick Schlick Boston March 17–27, 1937[5]: 428 
Bound East for Cardiff Eugene O'Neill New York October 29, 1937 – January 15, 1938[5]: 428 
Brother Mose Frank H. Wilson New York + 20 July 25, 1934 – December 21, 1935[5]: 428 
Cinda H. J. Bates Boston + 4 January 21–24, 1936[5]: 428 
The Emperor Jones Eugene O'Neill Hartford + 1 October 21–23, 1937[5]: 428 
The Field God Paul Green Hartford February 17–19, 1938[5]: 428 
Genesis H. J. Bates, Charles Flato Hyde Park, Mass. + 2 February 26, 1936[5]: 428 
Hymn to the Rising Sun Paul Green New York May 6–July 10, 1937[5]: 428 
In Abraham's Bosom Paul Green Seattle + 1 April 21–May 22, 1937[5]: 428 
In the Valley Paul Green Hartford September 7–10, 1938[5]: 428 
In the Zone Eugene O'Neill New York October 29, 1937 – January 15, 1938[5]: 428 
Just Ten Days J. Aubrey Smith New York August 10–September 10, 1937[5]: 428 
The Long Voyage Home Eugene O'Neill New York October 29, 1937 – January 15, 1938[5]: 428 
Mississippi Rainbow (Brain Sweat) John Charles Brownell Cleveland + 7 April 18–May 10, 1936[5]: 428 
The Moon of the Caribbees Eugene O'Neill New York October 29, 1937 – January 15, 1938[5]: 428 
Noah André Obey Seattle + 4 April 28–July 8, 1936[5]: 428 
Porgy DuBose Heyward, Dorothy Heyward Hartford March 17–May 14, 1938[5]: 428 
Roll, Sweet Chariot Paul Green New Orleans June 16–18, 1936[5]: 428 
Run, Little Chillun Hall Johnson Los Angeles + 2 July 22, 1938 – June 10, 1939[5]: 428 
The Sabine Women Leonid Andreyev Hartford December 15–17, 1936[5]: 429 
The Show-Off George Kelly Hartford March 5–July 3, 1937[5]: 429 
Stevedore Paul Peters, George Sklar Seattle March 25–May 9, 1937[5]: 429 
Swamp Mud Harold Courlander Birmingham July 11, 1936[5]: 429 
The World We Live In Josef Čapek, Karel Čapek Hartford January 13–15, 1938[5]: 429 

Dance drama[edit]

New productions[edit]

Numbers following the city of origin indicate the number of additional cities where the play was presented.

Title Author City Dates
Adelante Helen Tamiris New York April 20–May 6, 1939[5]: 386 
All the Weary People Project staff Portland, Ore. September 28, 1937[5]: 386 
An American Exodus Myra Kinch Los Angeles + 1 July 27, 1937 – January 4, 1939[5]: 386 
Ballet Fedre Berta Ochsner, Grace and Kurt Graff, Katherine Dunham Chicago January 27–February 19, 1938[5]: 386 
Bonneville Dam Project staff Timberline Lodge, Ore. September 29, 1937[5]: 386 
Candide Charles Weidman New York June 19–30, 1936[5]: 386 
The Eternal Prodigal Gluck-Sandor New York December 2, 1936 – January 2, 1937[5]: 386 
Fantasy 1939 (Immediate Comment) Berta Ochsner, David Campbell New York June 26–27, 1939[5]: 386 
Federal Ballet Ruth Page, Kurt Graff Chicago + 5 June 19–July 30, 1938[5]: 386 
Federal Ballet (Guns and Castanets) Ruth Page, Bentley Stone Chicago + 1 March 1–25, 1939[5]: 386 
Folk Dances of All Nations Lilly Mehlman New York December 27, 1937 – April 11, 1938[5]: 386 
How Long Brethren Helen Tamiris New York + 1 May 6, 1937 – January 15, 1938[5]: 386 
Invitation to the Dance Josef Castle Tampa July 18–22, 1937[5]: 386 
Little Mermaid Roger Pryor Dodge New York December 27, 1937 – April 11, 1938[5]: 386 
El Maestro de Ballet Senia Solomonoff Tampa July 18–22, 1937[5]: 386 
Modern Dance Group Project staff Philadelphia March 29, 1939[5]: 386 
Mother Goose on Parade Nadia Chilkovsky New York December 27, 1937 – April 11, 1938[5]: 386 
Music in Fairyland Myra Kinch Los Angeles December 25, 1937 – January 1, 1938[5]: 386 
Prelude to Swing Melvina Fried Philadelphia June 12–30, 1939[5]: 386 
Salut au Monde Helen Tamiris New York July 23–August 5, 1936–[5]: 386 
Texas Flavor B. Collie Dallas November 8–30, 1936[5]: 387 
Trojan Incident Euripides, adapted by Philip H. Davis New York April 21–May 21, 1938[5]: 387 
With My Red Fires, To the Dance, The Race of Life Doris Humphrey New York January 30–February 4, 1939[5]: 387 
Young Tramps Don Oscar Becque New York August 6–8, 1936[5]: 387 

Foreign-language drama[edit]

These plays were given their first professional production in the United States by the Federal Theatre Project. Titles are shown as they appeared on event programs. Numbers following the city of origin indicate the number of additional cities where the play was presented.

New productions[edit]


Title Author City Dates
Die Apostel Rudolph Wittenberg New York April 15–20, 1936[5]: 389 
Doktor Wespe Roderich Benedix New York September 4–18, 1936[5]: 389 
Einmal Mensch Fritz Peter Buch New York December 3, 1936 – February 18, 1937[5]: 389 
Seemanns-Ballade Joachim Ringelnatz New York October 1–8, 1936[5]: 386 


Title Author City Dates
Esto No Pasará Aqui Sinclair Lewis, John C. Moffitt Tampa October 27–November 1, 1936[5]: 389 


Title Author City Dates
Awake and Sing Clifford Odets, adapted by Chaver Paver New York + 1 December 22, 1938 – April 9, 1939[5]: 389 
Awake and Sing Clifford Odets, adapted by Sigmund Largman Los Angeles April 1, 1937 – April 11, 1938[5]: 389 
It Can't Happen Here Sinclair Lewis, John C. Moffitt Los Angeles
New York
Paterson, N. J.
October 27–November 3, 1936[5]: 389 
October 27, 1936 – May 1, 1937[5]: 389 
April 18–19, 1937[5]: 389 
Monesh I. L. Peretz, adapted by Jonah Spivak Chicago September 7–November 14, 1937[5]: 389 
Professor Mamlock Friedrich Wolf Peabody, Mass. + 3 February 10, 1938[5]: 389 
The Tailor Becomes a Storekeeper David Pinski Chicago + 1 February 25–April 9, 1938[5]: 389 
Uptown and Downtown Boris Thomashefsky and Cornblatt New York January 1, 1935 – June 17, 1936[5]: 389 
We Live and Laugh Project staff New York June 9, 1936 – March 5, 1937[5]: 389 


Hallie Flanagan on CBS Radio for the Federal Theatre of the Air (1936)

The Federal Theatre of the Air began weekly broadcasts March 15, 1936. For three years the radio division of the Federal Theatre Project presented an average of 3,000 programs annually on commercial stations and the NBC, Mutual and CBS networks. The major programs originated in New York; radio divisions were also created in 11 states.[5]: 267–268, 397  Series included Professional Parade, hosted by Fred Niblo; Experiments in Symphonic Drama, original stories written for classical music; Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera, the complete works performed by Federal Theatre actors and recordings by D'Oyly Carte; Ibsen's Plays, performances of 12 major plays; Repertory Theatre of the Air, presenting literary classics; Contemporary Theatre, presenting plays by modern authors; and the interview program, Exploring the Arts and Sciences.[5]: 268 

The radio division presented a wide range of programs on health and safety, art, music and history. The American Legion sponsored James Truslow Adams's Epic of America. The children's program, Once Upon a Time, and Paul de Kruif's Men Against Death were both honored by the National Committee for Education by Radio. In March 1939, at the invitation of the BBC, Flanagan broadcast the story of the Federal Theatre Project to Britain. Asked to expand the program to encompass the entire WPA, the radio division produced No Help Wanted, a dramatization by William N. Robson with music by Leith Stevens. The Times called it "the best broadcast ever sent us from the Americas".[5]: 268–269 [15]

Federal Dance Project[edit]

The Federal Dance Project (FDP) was a short-lived entity that was ultimately absorbed into the Federal Theater Project.[16] Dancer Helen Tamiris was the central figure of the FDP, which existed as an independent entity from January 1936 until October 1937.[16]

Funding pulled by Congress[edit]

Rep. Martin Dies, Chairman of the House Committee of Un-American Activities, February 17, 1940

In May 1938, Martin Dies Jr., director of The House Committee on Un-American Activities specifically targeted the WPA's Federal Theatre Project. Assailing Flanagan's professional character and political affiliations, the committee heard testimony from former Federal Theatre Project members who were unhappy with their tenure with the project. Flanagan testified that the FTP was pro-American insofar as the work celebrated the constitutional freedoms of speech and expression to address the relevant and pressing concerns of its citizens.

Citing the Federal Theatre's call for racial equality, impending war, and further perpetuating the rumor that the FTP was a front for radical and communist activities, Congress ended federal funding as of June 30, 1939, immediately putting 8,000 people out of work across the country. Although the overall financial cost of the FTP was minuscule in the grand scheme of the WPA's budget, Congress determined that the average American did not consider theater a viable recipient of their tax dollars. Following the decision, Flanagan's stepdaughter, Joanne Bentley quoted an unnamed Congressmen saying "Culture! What the Hell—Let 'em have a pick and shovel!"[17]

Members of Congress criticized a total of 81 of the Federal Theatre Project's 830 major titles for their content in public statements, committee hearings, on the floor of the Senate or House, or in testimony before Congressional committees. Only 29 were original productions of the Federal Theatre Project. The others included 32 revivals or stock productions; seven plays that were initiated by community groups; five that were never produced by the project; two works of Americana; two classics; one children's play; one Italian translation; and one Yiddish play.[5]: 432–433 

The Living Newspapers productions that drew criticism were Injunction Granted, a history of American labor relations; One-Third of a Nation, about housing conditions in New York; Power,[5]: 433  about energy from the consumer's point of view;[5]: 184–185  and Triple A Plowed Under, on farming problems in America.[5]: 433  Another that was criticized, on the history of medicine, was not completed.[5]: 434 

Dramas criticized by Congress were American Holiday, about a small-town murder trial; Around the Corner, a Depression-era comedy; Chalk Dust, about an urban high school; Class of '29, the Depression years as seen through young college graduates; Created Equal, a review of American life since colonial times; It Can't Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis's parable of democracy and dictatorship; No More Peace, Ernst Toller's satire on dictatorships; Professor Mamlock, about Nazi persecution of Jews; Prologue to Glory, about the early life of Abraham Lincoln; The Sun and I, about Joseph in Egypt; and Woman of Destiny, about a female President who works for peace.[5]: 433 

Help Your-Self, La Jolla Hi-School Auditorium, 1937, Paul Vulpius[18][19]

Negro Theatre Unit productions that drew criticism were The Case of Philip Lawrence, a portrait of life in Harlem; Did Adam Sin?, a review of black folklore with music; and Haiti, a play about Toussaint Louverture.[5]: 433 

Also criticized for their content were the dance dramas Candide, from Voltaire; How Long Brethren, featuring songs by future Guggenheim Fellowship recipient Lawrence Gellert; and Trojan Incident, a translation of Euripides with a prologue from Homer.[5]: 433 

Help Yourself,[20] a satire on high-pressure business tactics, was among the comedies criticized by Congress. Others were Machine Age, about mass production; On the Rocks by George Bernard Shaw; and The Tailor Becomes a Storekeeper.[5]: 433 

Children's plays singled out were Mother Goose Goes to Town, and Revolt of the Beavers, which the New York American called a "pleasing fantasy for children".[5]: 433 

The musical Sing for Your Supper also met with Congressional criticism, although its patriotic finale, "Ballad for Americans", was chosen as the theme song of the 1940 Republican National Convention.[5]: 433 

Cultural references[edit]

A fictionalized view of the Federal Theatre Project is presented in the 1999 film Cradle Will Rock, in which Cherry Jones portrays Hallie Flanagan.[21]



  1. ^ a b c Dewberry, Jonathan (March 1990). "Black Actors Unite: The Negro Actors' Guild". The Black Scholar. 21 (2): 2–11. doi:10.1080/00064246.1990.11412962. ISSN 0006-4246.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Ross, Ronald (January 1974). "The Role of Blacks in the Federal Theatre, 1935–1939". The Journal of Negro History. 59 (1): 38–50. doi:10.2307/2717139. JSTOR 2717139. S2CID 150210872.
  3. ^ a b Sheridan & Leslie 1997, p. 50–52.
  4. ^ Atkinson, Brooks (May 28, 1939). "FDR's WPA FTP; At Moderate Box Office Prices the Theatre-Going Public Is Inexhaustible". The New York Times. Retrieved January 31, 2023.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au av aw ax ay az ba bb bc bd be bf bg bh bi bj bk bl bm bn bo bp bq br bs bt bu bv bw bx by bz ca cb cc cd ce cf cg ch ci cj ck cl cm cn co cp cq cr cs ct cu cv cw cx cy cz da db dc dd de df dg dh di dj dk dl dm dn do dp dq dr ds dt du dv dw dx dy dz ea eb ec ed ee ef Flanagan, Hallie (1965). Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre. New York: Benjamin Blom, reprint edition [1940]. OCLC 855945294.
  6. ^ Roosevelt, Franklin D. (August 26, 1935). "Letter on Allocation of Work Relief Funds". The American Presidency Project. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley. Retrieved 2015-03-04.
  7. ^ "Letters". OAH Magazine of History. 11 (4): 56. 1997-06-01. doi:10.1093/maghis/11.4.56-a. ISSN 0882-228X.
  8. ^ Flanagan, Hallie (October 24, 1935). "Instructions for Federal Theatre Projects of the Works Progress Administration". New Deal Stage. Library of Congress. Retrieved 2015-03-08.
  9. ^ a b Houseman, John (1972). Run-Through: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-21034-3.
  10. ^ Dunning, Jennifer (July 5, 1981). "'New Deal' Artists Star in a TV Documentary". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-02-27.
  11. ^ Mathews, Jane Dehart (1967). "Federal Theatre, 1935-1939: Plays, Relief, and Politics". Princeton University Press. JSTOR j.ctt13x1bqq.
  12. ^ UMD - Retrieved 2018-05-02
  13. ^ a b Hill, Anthony D. (2009). The A to Z of African American Theater. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group. ISBN 9780810870611.
  14. ^ Dewberry, Jonathan (1990). "Black Actors Unite: The Negro Actors' Guild". The Black Scholar. 21 (2): 2–11. doi:10.1080/00064246.1990.11412962. ISSN 0006-4246. JSTOR 41067679.
  15. ^ "No Help Wanted". RadioGOLDINdex. Archived from the original on 2015-04-02. Retrieved 2015-03-31.
  16. ^ a b DeNoon, Christopher (1987). Posters of the WPA. Francis V. O'Connor. Los Angeles: Wheatley Press, in association with the University of Washington Press, Seattle. p. 133. ISBN 0-295-96543-6. OCLC 16558529.
  17. ^ "Federal Theatre Project". historylink.org. Retrieved 2019-05-08.
  18. ^ Vulpius, Paul (20 December 2002). "Help yourself".
  19. ^ "Guide to the Federal Theatre Project collection, 1885-1986". Federal Theatre Project collection. scrc.gmu.edu. Retrieved 17 January 2022.
  20. ^ ""Help your-self" A 3 act comedy". Posters: WPA Posters, Online, Comedies, Banking. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved 17 January 2022.
  21. ^ Maslin, Janet (December 8, 1999). "Cradle Will Rock (1999): Panoramic Passions on a playbill from the 1930s". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-03-02.

Cited works[edit]

  • Goldstein, Malcolm. The Political Stage: American Drama and Theater of the Great Depression. Oxford University Press, 1974.
  • Jefferson, Miles M. "The Negro on Broadway, 1947-1948". Phylon (1940–1956), vol. 9, no. 2, 1948, p. 99., doi:10.2307/272176.
  • Norflett, Linda Kerr. “Rosetta LeNoire: The Lady and Her Theatre". Black American Literature Forum, vol. 17, no. 2, 1983, p. 69., doi:10.2307/2904582.
  • Pool, Rosey E. "The Negro Actor in Europe". Phylon (1940–1956), vol. 14, no. 3, 1 Sept. 1953, pp. 258–267. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/271466?refreqid=search-gateway:0a4e4b9a53d893b23f2ee26ce846367f.
  • Roses, Lorraine Elena. Black Bostonians and the Politics of Culture, 1920-1940. University of Massachusetts Press, 2017.
  • Shandell, Jonathan. The American Negro Theatre and the Long Civil Rights Era. University of Iowa Press, 2018.
  • Sheridan, Frank; Leslie, Linda (1997). "A User's Guide to the Federal Theater Project". OAH Magazine of History. 11 (2): 50–52. doi:10.1093/maghis/11.2.50. ISSN 0882-228X. JSTOR 25163137.

Further reading[edit]

  • Batiste, Stephanie Leigh. Darkening Mirrors: Imperial Representation in Depression-Era African American Performance (Duke University Press; 2012) 352 pages; Explores African-Americans' participation on stage and screen; especially FTP's "voodoo" Macbeth.
  • Bentley, Joanne. Hallie Flanagan: A Life in the American Theatre (1988).
  • Flanagan, Hallie. Arena: The Story of the Federal Theatre (1940) online 1985 edition : Free Borrowing : Internet Archive
  • Frost, Leslie. "'Don’t Be Mean' and Other Lessons from Children’s Plays of the Federal Theatre Project." Ludics: Play as Humanistic Inquiry ed. by Vassiliki Rapti and Eric Gordon; (Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore, 2021) pp. 403-426.
  • Frost, Leslie Elaine, Dreaming America: Popular Front Ideals and Aesthetics in Children’s Plays of the Federal Theatre Project (Ohio State University Press, 2013).
  • Gagliardi, Paul (Fall 2017). "The Illusion of Work: The Con Artist Plays of the Federal Theatre Project". The Journal of American Drama and Theatre. 30 (1). Martin E. Segal Theatre Center. ISSN 2376-4236. PDF
  • Hurt, Melissa, “Oppressed, Stereotyped, and Silenced: Atlanta’s Black History with the Federal Theatre Project.” in Constructions of Race in Southern Theatre: From Federalism to the Federal Theatre Project edited by Noreen Barnes McLain. (University of Alabama Press, 2003).
  • Karoula, Rania (2020). The federal threatre Project, 1935-1939 : engagement and experimentation. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9781474445450. OCLC 1272066373.
  • Mathews, Jane DeHart. Federal Theatre, 1935-1939: Plays, Relief, and Politics (Princeton UP 1967) JSTOR j.ctt13x1bqq
  • Moore, Cecelia. The Federal Theatre Project in the American South: The Carolina Playmakers and the Quest for American Drama (Lexington Books, 2017).
  • Newton, Christopher. "In Order to Obtain the Desired Effect": Italian Language Theater Sponsored by the Federal Theatre Project in Boston, 1935–39," Italian Americana, (Sep 1994) 12#2 pp 187–200.
  • O'Connor, John, and Lorraine Brown, eds. Free, Adult, Uncensored: The Living History of the Federal Theatre Project (1978).
  • O'Connor, John. "The Drama of Farming: The Federal Theatre Living Newspapers on Agriculture." Prospects 15 (1990): 325-358.
  • Osborne, Elizabeth (2011). "Storytelling, Chiggers, and the Bible Belt: The Georgia Experiment as the Public Face of the Federal Theatre Project". Theatre History Studies. 31 (1): 9–26. doi:10.1353/ths.2011.0016. S2CID 191586120. Project MUSE 469278.
  • Osborne, Elizabeth A. (2011). Staging the people : community and identity in the Federal Theatre Project (First ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9780230113312. OCLC 741931369.
  • Quinn, Susan (2008). Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times. New York: Walker and Company. ISBN 9780802779717. OCLC 955212213. excerpt @ amazon
  • Schwartz, Bonnie Nelson. Voices from the Federal Theatre. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003); includes interviews with such Federal Theatre actors, playwrights, directors, designers, producers, and dancers as Arthur Miller, Jules Dassin, Katherine Dunham, Rosetta LeNoire, John Houseman etc; primary sources.
  • White, Leslie. "Eugene O'Neill and the Federal Theatre Project." Resources for American Literary Study 17.1 (1990): 63-85 online.
  • Witham, Barry B. The Federal Theatre Project: A Case Study (2004). excerpt @ amazon

External links[edit]