New Federal Theatre History Assignment

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Congress created the Federal Theatre Project in 1935 to provide work for theater professionals during the Great Depression. The Project was funded under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and directed on the national level by Vassar College drama professor Hallie Flanagan (1890-1969). Seattle initially sponsored three Units: the Federal Players (a white unit), the Negro Repertory Company (an African-American unit), and Variety/Vaudeville. In 1937 a Children’s Theatre unit was created. Prominently involved in the leadership were University of Washington Drama professor Glenn Hughes (1894-1964) and Burton James (1888-1951) and Florence James (1892-1988) of the Seattle Repertory Playhouse. The United States Congress abruptly disbanded the Federal Theatre Project on June 30, 1939, amid cries of censorship from performers and accusations of communist infiltration from both within and without the organization.

Live Theater Across America

The Federal Theatre Project was the brainchild of WPA Director Harry Hopkins, and at its height employed some 13,000 people in 31 states. In the Pacific Northwest, drama professor Glenn Hughes served as the initial Regional Advisor, Guy Williams as Washington State Director, and George T. Hood as Washington State Supervisor. Washington state’s Federal Theatre Project employed about 100 people, whose work in turn impacted thousands of Washington audience members.

National Director Hallie Flanagan envisioned the FTP not only as work-aid to technicians and performers, but also as an opportunity to seed the nation with a vast network of theaters and to expose many Americans to live theater for the first time. Performances were free, or nearly so. Plays (vaudeville, puppetry, children’s theater and dramatic productions) were often laced with social commentary. The FTP created Living Newspapers, simple but powerful dramatizations of current events. Seattle, along with other major cities, sponsored racially segregated African American troops known as Negro Units. Productions were not confined to urban centers but opened in numerous towns, sometimes simultaneously. They were produced locally and employed local actors, directors, and technicians.

In order for a city to host a Federal Theatre Project unit, a sponsor had to volunteer to organize and oversee that unit. In many cities, existing theaters served as sponsors. In Seattle Florence James and Burton James, directors of the Seattle Repertory Playhouse, sponsored the Negro Repertory Company. Regional Representative Glenn Hughes sponsored Seattle’s (white) dramatic and vaudeville units.

In order to qualify for Federal Theatre Project employment, a person had to show previous employment in the theatrical field and be on relief (out of work and receiving government assistance). A 10 percent leeway to this policy permitted units to be professionally directed and supervised, and it was thus that the Jameses and Glenn Hughes were able to serve as organizers for Washington state. Hughes’s work at the University of Washington and the James’s work at the Seattle Repertory Playhouse had already created an interested Seattle audience that would support Theatre Project productions.

Directors found that administering a project on the government dole meant cooperating with the state WPA offices and coping with the omnipresent government red tape. All Theatre Project paperwork had to be filed in triplicate. In this age before the Xerox machine, documents were typed on a typewriter. To make copies additional sheets separated by carbon paper were inserted behind the sheet being typed on. One copy of every document went to the national office in Washington, D.C. All project proposals for any production of any kind had to be submitted in sextuplicate.

Glenn Hughes’s most enduring contribution to the Federal Theatre Project was the creation of a series of 12 wooden models of historic theaters. Carved by skilled woodcarvers, they were accurately scaled models of the Theater at Delphi, the Theater of Dionysus in Athens, a Japanese Noh theater, a Japanese Kabuki theater, and a Roman Lyric theater, among others. As the models were nearing completion there was talk of shipping them to Washington D.C. for display in the Library of Congress. Hughes had intended them to remain at the University of Washington and responded angrily, stating that they were not built in such a way that they could be shipped without damage. The models remain at the University of Washington. They were refurbished in the early 1980s under the direction of UW Drama professor Jack Wolcott, and were on display in the lobby of Meany Hall for a number of years thereafter. They are currently (2002) in a University of Washington storage facility.

African American Theater

The Negro Repertory Company was the most active unit of Seattle’s Federal Theatre Project and produced some of the most innovative and controversial theater. Historian Rena Fraden states that Seattle’s Negro unit mounted “some of the most experimental of productions of any Negro unit,” (Fraden, 177), and was considered by many to be the most interesting part of Seattle’s Federal Theatre Project. The NRC’s first production was Noah, a whimsical gospel chorus musical which opened on April 28, 1936. This was followed by Stevedore, a Marxist-themed piece of social realism concerning a black union organizer unjustly accused of raping a white woman. The cast was interracial. Audiences responded strongly, even spontaneously rising up and surging onstage to join the cast for the climactic finale at one of the performances.

In June 1937, Burton and Florence James resigned from the Federal Theatre Project in protest over the outcry in the press concerning their production of Power. Power was a Living Newspaper advocating public ownership of utilities, a controversial idea at that time. The show sold out to huge audiences, but both Seattle newspapers denounced it. The furor over Power was the turning point for Seattle’s FTP. It marked a change from vibrant social realism to safer, less volatile subject matter.

After Florence and Burton James resigned, the Negro Repertory Theatre was housed along with other Seattle Theatre Project units in the former Royal Theatre movie house at 1319-23 Rainier Avenue. (In 2002 the location is an underpass of I-90.)

The Variety/Vaudeville unit toured extensively throughout the state of Washington. Using a vaudeville-type format featuring a series of specialty acts and comedians, the Project performed the CCC Review at many of Washington’s 48 Civilian Conservation Corps camps.

Touring to CCC camps was complicated by CCC regulations that prohibited females from sleeping at CCC camps under any circumstances. (The Civilian Conservation Corps comprised men in their late teens, under the supervision of the U.S. Army and with the Army exercising quasi-parental control over the boys’ morals.) Touring male actors could bunk at the CCC camps, but the women in the company had to be housed with various families, sometimes at an inconvenient distance from their colleagues, since CCC camps were in rural areas. Despite the logistical headaches, the tours boosted CCC camp morale and furthered the goal of exposing a wide audience to live theater.

In the autumn of 1937, Hallie Flanagan visited Seattle and was dismayed to find the Project’s activities greatly reduced in the wake of the James’s resignation. She also felt that Glenn Hughes, whose association with the Project had been strongest in its initial stages, was too preoccupied with his duties at the University of Washington to focus on the Federal Theatre Project. George Hood, former manager of the Metropolitan Theatre, was serving as FTP Washington State Director. Flanagan brought Edwin O’Connor up from the Los Angeles unit and imported her Vassar College friend Esther Porter Lane to create a children’s theater unit.

Lane’s arrival boosted morale. According to biographer Joanne Bentley, “Using the vaudeville group, she started a theatre for children that was well received. One vaudevillian she rehabilitated had been a skilled roper. ‘He had only performed in burlesque halls,’ she recalled, ‘so all he knew besides rope tricks was how to tell filthy jokes.’ Esther taught him to substitute nursery rhymes for the jokes. ‘It took ages to teach him, but he did learn. He recited while he roped’” (Bentley, 282). The Mother Goose/Vaudeville piece was called Mother Goose Goes to Town. It was followed by Mother Goose on the Loose These productions toured Seattle area parks. Children came, literally, by the truckload.

One Third of a Nation

On May 23, 1938, Seattle staged what is now remembered as the Federal Theatre Project’s best-known drama, One Third of a Nation. The title refers to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second inaugural address, delivered on January 20, 1937, in which he stated “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished.” Written by Arthur Arent, the play examined the history of slum conditions in large cities and spotlighted the need for housing reform. In Seattle, as elsewhere, the production was customized to be site-specific.

Wary of the vitriol evoked by Power, however, director Esther Porter Lane treaded cautiously. “We found what so many projects found. You go and photograph (slum) properties in the community and then you find that the most powerful church in town owns it … All these dirty, unsightly garbage dumps are owned by people whose names you can’t mention” (quoted in Bentley, 272). The show ended with an onstage conflagration of the towering tenement set. The play ran for nine weeks at the newly christened Federal Theatre at Rainier Avenue and Atlantic Street. “Seldom has any play so caught the public fancy,” stated the review in The Seattle Times (quoted in Flanagan, 309).

On February 13, 1939, the Seattle FTP opened Arthur Sundgaarde’s Spirochete, a Living Newspaper about the history of syphilis. Spirochete Treponema pallidum is the name of the corkscrew-shaped bacteria that causes the sexually transmitted disease syphilis. The production ran for two months, and was sponsored by the Washington State Board of Health, the Washington Medical Association, the King County Medical Association, the Seattle and King County Health Departments, and the Federated Women’s Clubs. At the time syphilis was incurable. “Approximately 35,000 handbills were distributed throughout the city -- many through doctors’ offices and hospitals -- which stressed that this was not a show for ‘the prurient nor the prude’” (Witham, 89). The disease was so greatly feared and taboo-laden that many audience members had never heard the word "syphilis" spoken in public. Spirochete was the Seattle FTP’s greatest financial and attendance success.

The Anti-Art Un-American Activities Committee

In May 1938, Congress convened the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The committee targeted for investigation first the Works Progress Administration (WPA) overall, and soon the Federal Theatre Project specifically. Texas conservative Democrat Martin Dies (1900-1972) spearheaded the committee. Hallie Flanagan’s character and motives were attacked both by the Dies committee and by disgruntled Project members called as witnesses. Federal Theatre Project productions were branded as propaganda for Communism. Flanagan responded that they were in fact propaganda for democracy since they utilized constitutional freedoms to point out America’s most pressing problems (Bentley). Against a background of Hitler’s march on Europe, Congress slashed relief funding as America’s focus turned toward war.

As Seattle project members joined hundreds of citizens of Vancouver, Washington, on the banks of the Columbia River to present Flotilla of Faith, a historic reenactment of the first crossing by whites of the great river, Congress was sounding the Federal Theatre Project’s death knell.

The Seattle Unit spent early June preparing a new Northwest-specific Living Newspaper production called Timber. The piece, written by Seattle Project members Burke Ormsby and Mary Myrtle, tells the story of the rapid decline of America’s timber acreage and the pioneers who “grabbed all they could get and the devil take the hindmost” (Flanagan, 310). The public never saw this play: On June 30, 1939, all Federal Theatre Project workers nationwide were issued pink slips. The Project was officially and abruptly disbanded.

In Washington state, as elsewhere, actors, technicians, directors, designers, costumers, ticket sellers, and vaudevillians all melted back into the fabric of society, each seeking a living without federal assistance. When the Federal Theatre Project closed, 8,000 people across the country lost their paycheck, 87 of them in the state of Washington. Seattle’s FTP units had mounted 51 full productions for a total of 885 performances, as well as touring vaudeville and puppet shows.

Theater professionals from around the country protested the demise of the Federal Theatre Project. Despite the furor over Communist infiltration, in the end it was not anticommunism that felled the Project, but the view in Congress that the average American saw no value in spending tax dollars to aid performers and encourage the arts. Federal funding for the arts was controversial, although the budget for the Project amounted to less than 1 percent of the WPA’s total allocation. Hallie Flanagan’s stepdaughter, Joanne Bentley, quotes an unnamed congressman at the time the Project was shut down: “Culture! What the Hell---Let ‘em have a pick and shovel” (Bentley, 340).

The Federal Theatre Project (1935–39) was a New Deal program to fund theatre and other live artistic performances and entertainment programs in the United States during the Great Depression. It was one of five Federal Project Number One projects sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. It was created not as a cultural activity but as a relief measure to employ artists, writers, directors and theater workers. It was shaped by national director Hallie Flanagan into a federation of regional theatres 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. The Federal Theatre Project ended when its funding was canceled after strong Congressional objections to the left-wing political tone of a small percentage of its productions.


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[1]:5

Part of the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Theatre Project was a New Deal program established August 27, 1935,[1]:29 funded under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935. Of the $4.88 billion allocated to the WPA,[2] $27 million was approved for the employment of artists, musicians, writers and actors under the WPA's Federal Project Number One.[1]:44

Government relief efforts 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.[1]: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.[1]:17 A theater professor at Vassar College who had studied the operation of government-sponsored theatre abroad for the Guggenheim Foundation,[1]:9 Flanagan was chosen to head the Federal Theatre Project by WPA head Harry Hopkins,[1]:20 a former classmate at Grinnell College.[1]:7 Roosevelt and Hopkins selected her despite considerable pressure to choose someone from the commercial theatre; they believed the project should be led by someone with academic credentials and a national perspective.[3]:39

Flanagan was given the daunting task of building a nationwide theater program to employ thousands of unemployed artists in as little time as possible. The problems of the theatre preceded 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.[3]: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 who had no 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 stagecrew took any kind of work they were able to find, whatever it paid, and charity was often their only recourse.[1]: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."[1]:7–9

Hopkins promised "a free, adult, uncensored theatre"[1]:28 — something Flanagan spent the next four years trying to build.[1]: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."[1]: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.[4]

Within a year the Federal Theatre Project employed 15,000 men and women,[5]:174 paying them $23.86 a week.[6] During its nearly four years of existence it played to 30 million people in more than 200 theaters nationwide[5]:174 — renting many that had been shuttered — as well as parks, schools, churches, clubs, factories, hospitals and closed-off streets.[3]:40 Its productions totalled approximately 1,200, not including its radio programs.[1]: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.[1]:434

The total cost of the Federal Theatre Project was $46 million.[3]: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."[1]:34–35

The Federal Theatre Project did not operate in every state, since many lacked a sufficient number of unemployed people in the theatre profession.[1]: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.[1]: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.[1]: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.

The Federal Theatre Project was the most costly of the Federal One projects, consuming 29.1 percent of Federal One's budget, which was itself less than three-fourths of one percent of the total WPA budget.

On June 30, 1939, the Federal Theatre Project ended when its funding was canceled, largely due to strong Congressional objections to the overtly left-wing political tones of less than 10 percent of the Federal Theatre Project productions.[1]:361–363

Living Newspaper[edit]

Main article: Living Newspaper

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 testing, 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 an aid agency for farmers. These politically themed plays quickly drew criticism from members of Congress.

Although the undisguised political invective in the Living Newspapers 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 Federal Theatre Project, 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.

New productions[edit]

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

Highlights of 1935Living Newspaper staffNew YorkMay 12–30, 1936[1]:390
Injunction GrantedLiving Newspaper staffNew YorkJuly 24–October 20, 1936[1]:390
Living Newspaper, First EditionCleveland BronnerNorwalk, Conn.June 1–July 2, 1936[1]:390
Living Newspaper, Second EditionCleveland BronnerNorwalk, Conn.August 18–25, 1936[1]:390
The Living NewspaperProject staffClevelandMarch 11–28, 1936[1]:390
One-Third of a NationArthur ArentNew York + 9January 17–October 22, 1938[1]:390
PowerArthur ArentNew York + 4February 23–July 10, 1937[1]:390
SpirocheteArnold SundgaardChicago + 4April 29–June 4, 1938[1]:390
Triple-A Plowed UnderLiving Newspaper staffNew York + 4March 14–May 2, 1936[1]:390

African-American theatre[edit]

The Negro Theatre Unit was part of the Federal Theatre Project and had units that were set up in cities throughout the United States. The units were located in four different geographical regions of the country. In the West, units were located in Seattle, Washington, and Los Angeles, California. In the East, units were located in New York City, New York, Boston, Massachusetts, Hartford, Connecticut, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Newark, New Jersey. In the South, there were units in Raleigh, North Carolina, Durham, North Carolina, and Birmingham, Alabama. In the Midwest, units were located in Chicago, Illinois, Peoria, Illinois, and Cleveland, Ohio. The project provided employment and apprenticeships to black playwrights, directors, actors, and technicians. The project offered a much needed source of assistance for African-American theatre from 1935 to 1939. The project's inspiring purposes further influenced the founding within a year of the American Negro Theater, 1940 – 1949.

The Negro Theatre Unit of New York City was the best known. It was 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.[7]:179–180

New drama productions[edit]

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

Accident PolicyArthur AkersBirminghamJuly 31–August 3, 1936[1]:392
Advent and Nativity of Christadapted by Hedley Gordon GrahamNew YorkDecember 20–24, 1937[1]:392
Bassa Moona (The Land I Love)Momodu Johnson, Norman CokerNew YorkDecember 8, 1936 – March 20, 1937[1]:392
Big White FogTheodore WardChicagoApril 7–May 30, 1938[1]:392
Black EmpireChristine Ames, Clarke PainterLos Angeles + 1March 16–July 19, 1936[1]:392
The Case of Philip LawrenceGeorge MacEntreeNew YorkJune 8–July 31, 1937[1]:392
Conjur' Man DiesRudolph Fisher, adapted by Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen[7]:179New York + 1March 11–July 4, 1936[1]:392
Did Adam Sin?Lew PaytonChicagoApril 30–May 14, 1936[1]:392
An Evening with DunbarPaul Laurence Dunbar, adapted by project staffSeattleOctober 31–December 17, 1938[1]:392
Great DayM. WoodBirminghamOctober 7, 1936[1]:393
HaitiWilliam DuBoisNew York + 1March 2–November 5, 1938[1]:393
Heaven BoundNellie Lindley Davis, adapted by Julian HarrisAtlantaOctober 10, 1937 – January 8, 1938[1]:393
Home in GloryClyde LimbaughBirminghamApril 16–May 15, 1936[1]:393
It Can't Happen HereSinclair Lewis, John C. MoffittSeattleOctober 27–November 6, 1936[1]:393
JerichoH. L. FishelPhiladelphia + 3October 16, 1937 – April 4, 1938[1]:393
John HenryFrank WellsLos AngelesSeptember 30–October 18, 1936[1]:393
LysistrataAristophanes, adapted by Theodore BrowneSeattleSeptember 17, 1936[1]:393
MacbethWilliam Shakespeare, adapted by Orson WellesNew York + 8April 14–October 17, 1936[1]:393
The Natural ManTheodore BrowneSeattleJanuary 28–February 20, 1937[1]:393
The Swing Mikadoadapted from Gilbert and SullivanChicago + 3September 25, 1938 – February 25, 1939[1]:393
Return to DeathP. Washington PorterHolyoke, Mass.August 17–20, 1938[1]:393
The Reverend Takes His TextRalf ColemanRoxbury, Mass. + 3December 12, 1936[1]:393
Romey and JulieRobert Dunmore, Ruth ChorpenningChicagoApril 1–25, 1936[1]:393
Sweet LandConrad SeilerNew YorkJanuary 19–February 27, 1937[1]:393
The Taming of the ShrewWilliam Shakespeare, adapted by project staffSeattleJune 19–24, 1939[1]:393
The Trial of Dr. BeckHughes AllisonNew Jersey Spots + 2June 3–12, 1937[1]:393
Trilogy in BlackWard CourtneyHartfordJune 18, 1937[1]:393
TurpentineJ. Augustus Smith, Peter MorellNew YorkJune 26–September 5, 1936[1]:393
Unto Such GloryPaul GreenNew YorkMay 6–July 10, 1936[1]:393
Walk Together ChillunFrank H. WilsonNew YorkFebruary 4–March 7, 1936[1]:393

Standard drama productions[edit]

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

Androcles and the LionGeorge Bernard ShawSeattle + 2November 1–6, 1937[1]:428
BloodstreamFrederick SchlickBostonMarch 17–27, 1937[1]:428
Bound East for CardiffEugene O'NeillNew YorkOctober 29, 1937 – January 15, 1938[1]:428
Brother MoseFrank H. WilsonNew York + 20July 25, 1934 – December 21, 1935[1]:428
CindaH. J. BatesBoston + 4January 21–24, 1936[1]:428
The Emperor JonesEugene O'NeillHartford + 1October 21–23, 1937[1]:428
The Field GodPaul GreenHartfordFebruary 17–19, 1938[1]:428
GenesisH. J. Bates, Charles FlatoHyde Park, Mass. + 2February 26, 1936[1]:428
Hymn to the Rising SunPaul GreenNew YorkMay 6–July 10, 1937[1]:428
In Abraham's BosomPaul GreenSeattle + 1April 21–May 22, 1937[1]:428
In the ValleyPaul GreenHartfordSeptember 7–10, 1938[1]:428
In the ZoneEugene O'NeillNew YorkOctober 29, 1937 – January 15, 1938[1]:428
Just Ten DaysJ. Aubrey SmithNew YorkAugust 10–September 10, 1937[1]:428
The Long Voyage HomeEugene O'NeillNew YorkOctober 29, 1937 – January 15, 1938[1]:428
Mississippi Rainbow (Brain Sweat)John Charles BrownellCleveland + 7April 18–May 10, 1936[1]:428
The Moon of the CaribbeesEugene O'NeillNew YorkOctober 29, 1937 – January 15, 1938[1]:428
NoahAndré ObeySeattle + 4April 28–July 8, 1936[1]:428
PorgyDuBose Heyward, Dorothy HeywardHartfordMarch 17–May 14, 1938[1]:428
Roll, Sweet ChariotPaul GreenNew OrleansJune 16–18, 1936[1]:428
Run, Little ChillunHall JohnsonLos Angeles + 2July 22, 1938 – June 10, 1939[1]:428
The Sabine WomenLeonid AndreyevHartfordDecember 15–17, 1936[1]:429
The Show-OffGeorge KellyHartfordMarch 5–July 3, 1937[1]:429
StevedorePaul Peters, George SklarSeattleMarch 25–May 9, 1937[1]:429
Swamp MudHarold CourlanderBirminghamJuly 11, 1936[1]:429
The World We Live InJosef Čapek, Karel ČapekHartfordJanuary 13–15, 1938[1]:429

Dance drama[edit]

New productions[edit]

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

AdelanteHelen TamirisNew YorkApril 20–May 6, 1939[1]:386
All the Weary PeopleProject staffPortland, Ore.September 28, 1937[1]:386
An American ExodusMyra KinchLos Angeles + 1July 27, 1937 – January 4, 1939[1]:386
Ballet FedreBerta Ochsner, Grace and Kurt Graff, Katherine DunhamChicagoJanuary 27–February 19, 1938[1]:386
Bonneville DamProject staffTimberline Lodge, Ore.September 29, 1937[1]:386
CandideCharles WeidmanNew YorkJune 19–30, 1936[1]:386
The Eternal ProdigalGluck-SandorNew YorkDecember 2, 1936 – January 2, 1937[1]:386
Fantasy 1939 (Immediate Comment)Berta Ochsner, David CampbellNew YorkJune 26–27, 1939[1]:386
Federal BalletRuth Page, Kurt GraffChicago + 5June 19–July 30, 1938[1]:386
Federal Ballet (Guns and Castanets)Ruth Page, Bentley StoneChicago + 1March 1–25, 1939[1]:386
Folk Dances of All NationsLilly MehlmanNew YorkDecember 27, 1937 – April 11, 1938[1]:386
How Long BrethrenHelen TamirisNew York + 1May 6, 1937 – January 15, 1938[1]:386
Invitation to the DanceJosef CastleTampaJuly 18–22, 1937[1]:386
Little MermaidRoger Pryor DodgeNew YorkDecember 27, 1937 – April 11, 1938[1]:386
El Maestro de BalletSenia SolomonoffTampaJuly 18–22, 1937[1]:386
Modern Dance GroupProject staffPhiladelphiaMarch 29, 1939[1]:386
Mother Goose on ParadeNadia ChilkovskyNew YorkDecember 27, 1937 – April 11, 1938[1]:386
Music in FairylandMyra KinchLos AngelesDecember 25, 1937 – January 1, 1938[1]:386
Prelude to SwingMelvina FriedPhiladelphiaJune 12–30, 1939[1]:386
Salut au MondeHelen TamirisNew YorkJuly 23–August 5, 1936–[1]:386
Texas FlavorB. CollieDallasNovember 8–30, 1936[1]:387
Trojan IncidentEuripides, adapted by Philip H. DavisNew YorkApril 21–May 21, 1938[1]:387
With My Red Fires, To the Dance, The Race of LifeDoris HumphreyNew YorkJanuary 30–February 4, 1939[1]:387
Young TrampsDon Oscar BecqueNew YorkAugust 6–8, 1936[1]: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]




Awake and SingClifford Odets, adapted by Chaver PaverNew York + 1December 22, 1938 – April 9, 1939[1]:389
Awake and SingClifford Odets, adapted by Sigmund LargmanLos AngelesApril 1, 1937 – April 11, 1938[1]:389
It Can't Happen HereSinclair Lewis, John C. MoffittLos Angeles
New York
Paterson, N. J.
October 27–November 3, 1936[1]:389
October 27, 1936 – May 1, 1937[1]:389
April 18–19, 1937[1]:389
MoneshI. L. Peretz, adapted by Jonah SpivakChicagoSeptember 7–November 14, 1937[1]:389
Professor MamlockFriedrich WolfPeabody, Mass. + 3February 10, 1938[1]:389
The Tailor Becomes a StorekeeperDavid PinskiChicago + 1February 25–April 9, 1938[1]:389
Uptown and DowntownBoris Thomashefsky and CornblattNew YorkJanuary 1, 1935 – June 17, 1936[1]:389
We Live and LaughProject staffNew YorkJune 9, 1936 – March 5, 1937[1]:389


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.[1]: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.[1]: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".[1]:268–269[8]

Productions criticized by Congress[edit]

A total of 81 of the Federal Theatre Project's 830 major titles were criticized by members of Congress 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.[1]:432–433

The Living Newspapers that drew criticism were Injunction Granted, a history of American labor relations; One-Third of a Nation, about housing conditions in New York; Power,[1]:433 about energy from the consumer's point of view;[1]:184–185 and Triple A Plowed Under, on farming problems in America.[1]:433 Another that was criticized, on the history of medicine, was not completed.[1]: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.[1]:433

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.[1]: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.[1]:433

Help Yourself, 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.[1]: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".[1]: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.[1]: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.[9]


Hallie Flanagan, national director of the Federal Theatre Project, on CBS Radio for the Federal Theatre of the Air (1936)

Philip W. Barber, New York City director of the Federal Theatre Project, at the opening of Macbeth (April 14, 1936)

Salut au Monde (1936) was an original dance drama by Helen Tamiris for the Federal Dance Theatre, a division of the Federal Theatre Project

The Man Who Knows All (Robert Noack) explains the kilowatt hour to the Consumer (Norman Lloyd) in the Living Newspaper play, Power (1937)


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