Power, a slapstick satire that advocated public ownership of utilities was a huge hit with audiences; with power companies, not so much.
Last week I got an email that's circulating around to theater people asking for signatures on a petition to the new presidential administration to create a Secretary of the Arts position, similar to the ministers of culture or the arts that are found in other nations' governments. The idea, presumably, is that it would be a government entity that would support and provide money to arts organizations. When I read this, my first thought was, ah yes, because that has worked so well in the past.
[Cue traveling back in time music and a slow swirly fadeout. Lights come up in a shabby, half-dark theater where a group of ragtag actors are trying to rehearse a play while stage hands hammer and saw in the background. Oh wait, this isn't a movie, it's a book review! Scrap all that.]
Susan Quinn's Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times tells the story of the most fabled government foray into the arts, the Federal Theatre Project. Much has already been written about this venture (and it even got a movie, too, but I'll get to that in a bit), but often as part of another book about the WPA or the Depression or a biography of one of the major players. Quinn, though, has a whole book and that gives her time to get beyond some of the more well-known stories.
(Just to be clear--my search of the NYPL system shows that, yes, there have been a few other books solely devoted to the Federal Theatre Project, but about a third of these are memoirs of some of those involved in the project, some others look like dissertations, and none of them were published more recently than 1978. Quinn's book is from 2008, so it's been a long time since anyone has really delved into this.)
The "voodoo" Macbeth, put on by John Houseman and Orson Welles, was a critical and box office success.
The Federal Theatre Project was part of the Works Progress Administration, and although it only took up a tiny part of the WPA budget, it was the most visible and thus the most controversial program. The very idea of giving money to artists when many people weren't sure if art is necessary was a problem. Then there were the artists themselves--they were a mysterious "other," people who didn't live the same lives as average hard-working people, who were reportedly immoral (well, maybe reportedly should be struck...), and who promoted radical ideas such as Socialism, Communism, and "race mixing," which Quinn argues played the biggest part in the program's eventual downfall. Communist ideas were bad enough, but for many, especially southern senators who were eventually responsible for handing out the money that supported the project, it was the sight of black and white actors and stagehands working together (black stagehands weren't allowed in the stagehand union before the FTP), and by implication, socializing together, that was really threatening.
Quinn includes mini-biographies of Harry Hopkins, the head of the WPA, and Hallie Flanagan, Hopkins's college friend whom he selected to run the Federal Theatre Project in 1935. Flanagan was an Iowan like Hopkins, and the director of a renowned theatre program at Vassar College (here's one of the strangest parts of this book--Quinn writes about Flanagan's childhood, her years as a Grinnell College student, her marriage and the early death of her father and one of her sons, her move into theatre, her studies at a Harvard theatre program, her study of European theatres on a Guggenheim fellowship, and then...she's heading the WPA. No word on what happened between the Guggenheim fellowship in the 1920s and Hopkins calling her in 1935 about the FTP, at which time she was feeling a need to get away from Vassar. I mean, I know the book isn't called "Hallie Flanagan at Vassar," but it felt odd to leave out how she got there and what she did with the theatre program. Maybe it's just me). Theatrical units were set up all over the country, and each unit operated on its own, choosing its own material; the only time they all worked together was when as many of the theatres as possible performed an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis's novel "It Can't Happen Here" on the same night. Other than that, or when successful productions in one region were picked up by another, the theatres generally put on material that they felt suited their own audiences. Some theatres found themselves essentially putting on variety or vaudeville shows, others did classics, some were able to support a "Negro unit" while others weren't. Some focused on children's shows. A traveling unit put on performances at the Civilian Conservation Corps camps (the CCC had been created by Roosevelt before the WPA to handle jobs such as clearing or maintaing forestland); the CCC even got its own play, "Murder at the CCC Camp," that was a bust at first, but then after being reworked, became a success (with a great deal of audience participation). Other regions tried to create materiall specific to their areas, dealing with local problems or history. Flanagan encouraged this--she often tried to make the point that this was a federal theare, a group of loosely associated theatres, not a single national theatre (though she sure thought it would be nice to have a national theatre as well).
The most well-known was the New York theatre unit. Much has been written about their productions--the "voodoo Macbeth," the Living Newspaper plays (their topics were "ripped from the headlines), a Faustus starring Orson Welles. The involvement of Welles and John Houseman in the New York FTP contributed to its high profile; Welles made himself a star during his run acting and directing with the FTP, no less because of his larger than life ability to garner publicity than his talent. Houseman made a lot of the smart choices that made the program famous, and tried his best to control Welles, who was, shall we say, not the most disciplined fellow (Houseman didn't exactly live bankers' hours either, but compared to Welles, he was a watchmaker). Quinn quotes frequently from Houseman's memoirs, and he has a nice dry, wry style (more things to read? oh no...).
Orson Welles' relentlessly silly production of the farce "Horse Eats Hat" was popular, but Hallie Flanagan was a little unsure of its social value. Lighten up, Hallie!
And of course Quinn covers the much told story of Marc Blitzstein's 1937 musical "The Cradle Will Rock." (Much told...yet that won't stop me from chipping in with my summary. I am incorrigible.) The production was going up just as the WPA was cutting jobs and money from its budget, and at a time when strikes and union fights were going on across the nation. Word of Blitzstein's adamantly pro-worker, pro-union piece wasn't winning the FTP any friends in Washington. Word came down that due to budget considerations, no new FTP production could open until July. "Cradle," though, had a June 16th opening set, and with a cast hanging in the balance and lots of publicity and buzz, Welles decided that the production had to open on time. They had to find a differen ttheatre, as they had been locked out of the FTP theatre they'd been using. And then when they did find a theatre, Equity, the actors' union, and the Musician's union, said their members couldn't perform on the WPA payroll on a non-WPA stage (the whole program had been carefully constructed so that FTP employees' wages and FTP ticket prices wouldn't compete with commercial theatres). Someone (I think Houseman? I had to return the book to the library so I can't check) realize that the actors could perform, as long as they didn't get onstage. So the play was performed with Blitzstein onstage, playing the piano alone. Cast members joined in from their seats in the audience. At first Blitzstein wasn't sure anyone would take the risk and perform; he was prepared to just play the score and sing all the parts himself. Instead, most of the cast participated (the cast included Will Geer and the irreplaceable Howard Da Silva, later to be the best Benjamin Franklin ever in the original production of 1776), and the play was sung through without sets, costumes, or even staging. Still, the audience (those who weren't actors) loved it, and the play eventually had a brief commercial run. Sick of the restrictions of the FTP, Welles and Houseman left soon after to form their own commercial company, the Mercury Players. They were both well-known enough now to get backing for their productions. Truth be told, though, if "Cradle" had been performed as Welles had planned, some of the luster might have come off his career--he had designed an elaborate, unwieldy glass set that the actors hated, and was too fragile to survive. If it had opened using his sets, chances are it would have been an expensive debacle.
(The story of "The Cradle Will Rock," by the way, is told in the 1999 film of that name. It's not a great movie by any means--it suffers from trying to cram in too much information about the FTP as a whole and simplify it at the same time. It also throws in a subplot about Diego Rivera painting a mural as part of the Federal Art Project, and some international politics. In other words, just too much other stuff. It gets kind of messy. Dream sequences in which Blitzstein, while writing the piece, is guided by an imaginary Brecht, are weird. Angus MacFayden, an otherwise fine enough actor, can't pull off Welles. Liev Schreiber, who played Welles in "RKO 281", looks less like Welles, but did a better job at capturing his presence. The best part about the movie are the last twenty, twenty-five minutes or so which recreates the first performance of "The Cradle Will Rock." It's a chance to hear a lot of the rarely performed score, which is pretty good--although you can understand why Kurt Weill apparently referred to it sarcastically as "my latest musical.")
So all that's in there, which is good enough, but I really appreciated the way Quinn covered the events in other parts of the country, to hear about their productions and the way the different regions had their own styles, their own successes and failures. That's what sets this book apart from other writing on this topic, I think. It's also finely written, although well-helped along by large amounts of quotes from Flanagan's memoirs, as well as the aforementioned Houseman's and other participants. It's a super fast read and I enjoyed it. I recommend it if you're either curious about the WPA or theatre history. If not, well, don't worry, I'll come up with something for you eventually.
The Federal Theatre Project was cut from the WPA in 1939. The heads of the arts programs had been called before the House Un-American Activities committee to defend themselves against charges that their ranks were filled with communists and their works were communist propaganda. Flanagan didn't have much of a chance to make her defense, and instead (as continued to be the case with HUAC) found herself sitting by helplessly as she and the FTP were skewered by misquotes, words taken out of context, and bald lies; one charge, that none of the plays produced had been a critical success, prompted a letter from a group of national critics who pointed out the many positive reviews they had given of FTP productions (Flanagan's brief testimony, though, did result in the famous exchange where she quoted Christopher Marlowe and a congressman interrupted and asked "who was this Marlowe," so they could investigate him. You know, in case, he was one of those communist Elizabethans.). However, Quinn notes that as much as the congressmen asked about Communism and radical ideas in the FTP, the subject kept circling back to race--plays that seemed to advocate more power for African-Americans, examples of "race mixing" onstage and off. One actress testified that when she complained to her director about being asked out on a date by a black actor, she was told, "So? He has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," an answer that appalled and insulted her. The congressional panel sympathized with her. Quinn writes that the issue of race torpedoed the FTP as much as communism--theatrical projects, which are naturally collaborative, had come too close to creating a world where African-Americans were the equals of whites, and many people in America weren't ready for that yet. Of course most Americans believed racial equality was part of the communist plan for destroying America, so the two issues were inevitably intertwined.
But during the FTP's brief life, it gave black actors and stagehands a chance to perform for audiences who usually wouldn't have bothered to see them. It started the careers of young people who otherwise wouldn't have had a chance to find their way in the theater (Arthur Miller was an FTP employee). It helped those at the end of their careers, ageing actors and actresses who had no pension and no realistic chance of getting cast in a commercial production. Vaudeville comedians, their careers otherwise dead, had a chance to perform Shakespeare and got the first legit reviews of their lives. People all over the country who would never have seen a play got to see one. The Federal Theatre Project was worth something, but what made the FTP worthwhile--the daring, the inclusiveness, the experimental productions that never would have gotten a commercial run--was what eventually killed it.
And that brings us back to that petition for a Secretary of the Arts. If the government gives the arts money, there will no doubt be a day when someone somewhere will say, "I'm a taxpayer, that's my money, and I don't like how it's being spent." The only way to avoid that is to produce work that is so harmless that it's not worth producing. Even in the 1930s, when movies were still in their infancy and televisions in the home were a decade away, Hallie Flanagan understood that theatre could no longer settle for putting on staid productions of old classics. Before movies, it was easy enough to awe audiences with a set that was an exact replica of a living room in a wealthy home, or a lovely Elizabethan costume. But movies put fantastic sets, costumes, people, and real life locations on screens, larger than life, that audiences could watch for a dime, a fraction of even the price of a WPA project. In order for theatre to have meaning, it had--has--to do more (as I always tell theatre company people, if we could do this on a TV show, it's not worth doing). And that will always lead to ruffled feathers somewhere, and those people are always the loudest. I would love to live in a world where the government could help support the arts. Imagine being able to work in a theater where we could afford to rehearse with the heat on, instead of in our coats, or be able to hire musicians, or put on free productions, or even--dare I say it?--get paid. Just think of what we could do if we could not have to count every dime to buy paint. I would love to have a government that could help us all live that kind of life. But I don't know how it could be done without the tradeoff, the strictures on material in order to not cause complaint. Of course, in a perfect world, sensible taxpayers would say, "You are getting money me, as a taxpayer, to do projects that I don't approve of and don't want to see. But you are a taxpayer too, and your tax money is probably going to something that you don't like or approve of, that I do like. You have yours and I'll have mine, and we'll all contribute together." That's how it would be handled in a perfect world. But we don't live in a perfect world.