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Federal Theatre:  Melodrama, Social Protest, and Genius

by Lorraine Brown

Lorraine Brown is professor of English and associate director of the Research Center for the Federal Theatre Project at George Mason University in Virginia. She is coeditor with John O'Connor of Free, Adult, and Uncensored: The Living History of the Federal Theatre Project,a richly illustrated "scrapbook" of oral history excerpts, costume designs, posters, and photographs, and is currently editing an anthology of black plays written for the Federal Theatre.

The economic vicissitudes of the American theater began long before the Great Depression. "Gambling in theaters as real estate, syndicates that fostered cross-country touring, a monopoly booking system short-cuts to acting by methods of type casting, and long runs"1 had made the commercial theatre the special province of a limited metropolitan clientele. As early as 1910, increased costs of railroad travel made touring companies less profitable, and by the close of World War I, the Middle West, the Far West, and large parts of the South were deprived of first-rate theatrical entertainment. Experimental or art theaters, most often associated with colleges and universities, presented innovative plays that addressed current issues, but they were located in isolated communities across the country. By the 1929-30 season, most road companies had succumbed to the competition from the movies, which took over more and more legitimate theaters and killed the popular-priced circuits.2

Unable to compete with the motion picture industry, actors, stagehands, technicians, musicians, and vaudeville performers found themselves displaced by technology even before the depression. Sound films had replaced the orchestra; recorded music replaced live performance; the training of actors became less important than publicizing the Hollywood star; and stagehands and stage mechanics were no longer needed.3 The popularity of radio and a change in public taste added to the plight of those who were often thought of as a "dispensable luxury" anyway.

With the onset of the depression, producers began to close theater doors. In the season of 1931-32 every Shubert Theater in Chicago was closed for a week in March. Of the 253 companies playing in or near New York City, 213 had closed by the middle of May, and by the end of July only six legitimate theaters remained open on Broadway. During the relatively prosperous 1928-29 season, an actor in New York City averaged thirty-seven weeks of unemployment. By 1937, according to Billboard, actors seeking engagements were "at liberty" forty-seven weeks of the year.4

Relief for unemployed professional actors was first provided by private organizations such as the Actors' Fund, the Actors' Dinner Club, and the Stage Relief Fund. In these organizations resourceful, dedicated volunteers arranged for aid from the Home Relief Bureau, for medical and dental care, and for food and clothing and attempted to create acting jobs for able performers. But such aid, no matter how well intentioned, was at best sporadic, limited in scope, and occasionally humiliating. It was also soon exhausted. As the depression deepened, organized public assistance for professional actors was needed to help people who were increasingly unable to help themselves.

The Civil Works Administration (CWA), the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA), and federalized work-relief programs sponsored performance in hospitals, schools, CCC camps, parks, and in the streets, and provided some work for actors. But even state and federal programs employed only a fraction of the unemployed actors, directors, stagehands, and technicians, and as the depression worsened, theatrical unions became unable to care for their own members.

In the period preceding the WPA, government financing of theater as an education and recreational tool was prominent not only in New York but in the Middle West, Los Angeles, and in Massachusetts. But many persons believed that these federally sponsored activities fostered amateur rather than professional performance. And controversy arose between those who favored a social service theory of dramatics and the professional theater people whose goals were at odds with the government-sponsored theater programs.5

To Harry Hopkins the plight of unemployed theater people was a matter of grave concern. As deputy administrator of New York's FERA and later as head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Harry Hopkins believed that society had an obligation to conserve the talents of men and women in the arts as well as of those in the factories. After being appointed director of the WPA, Hopkins implemented Roosevelt's earlier request for a national theatrical project or series of projects that would provide musical and dramatic entertainment for small and remote communities, a long-time interest of both Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. The affinity of this concept with the philosophy of social service was made clear by the president's emphasis on the educational purpose in these projects. For the Iowa-born administrator of the WPA, the most challenging task was to recruit talented men and women who would be willing to set up and administer arts projects that could operate within a federal bureaucracy.

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