Federal Theatre:  Melodrama, Social Protest, and Genius Next

Hallie Flanagan
Hallie Flanagan,
national director of the Federal Theatre Project.
Federal Theatre Project Collection
One person whose talents he sought was Hallie Flanagan, then director of the Vassar Experimental Theatre in Poughkeepsie, New York. "Unemployed actors are as hungry as anybody else," he remarked to her during their first interview in Washington.6 Hopkins asked Jacob Baker to formulate the theater project, and on May 16, 1935, Baker asked Hallie Flanagan to come to Washington to talk about unemployed actors. She replied that the theater at Vassar was not a commercial one, but Baker assured her that Hopkins was conferring with dozens of commerical theater people and wanted to see her as well.7

Before leaving for Washington, Mrs. Flanagan wired other people in the theatrical world for information on the subject of unemployed actors: Frank Gillmore, president of Actors' Equity; Dr. Moskowitz, president of the League of New York Theatres; Theresa Helburn, Theatre Guild; Cheryl Crawford, Group Theatre; Edith Isaacs, Theatre Arts Monthly; and producer-playwright Elmer Rice. Only Rice responded. He accompanied her on her trip to Washington and expressed his ideas and enthusiasm for government-financed theater. Having submitted his worn plan the month before to the Federal Relief Administration for the newly forming Theatre Alliance, his comments were to the point. He shared Hopkins's and Flanagan's view that "men and women of high professional standing had been reduced to the status of vagrants" and needed help desperately.8 He also believed firmly that a theater project run by the government could not be based entirely in New York but would have to be organized on a regional basis, and his own plan for just how this was to be achieved had already been sent to Hopkins.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt attended the New York opening of the Federal Theatre production of Swing Mikado. Mrs. Roosevelt was an early and faithful supporter of the project, and Hallie Flanagan frequently called on her for help.
Prints &Photographs Division, Library of Congress

After her own lengthy talks in Washington with both Jacob Baker and Harry Hopkins, Mrs. Flanagan wanted to talk to Mrs. Roosevelt, because, as Hopkins said, "She's interested in all these art projects."9 Hallie Flanagan recorded in Arena her impressions of the White House gathering where she first saw Mrs. Roosevelt in a receiving line greeting hundreds of women guests. The green stretches of White House lawn with gay flower gardens and the scarlet marquees under which refreshments were being served, "the superb lines of the White House itself, its air of strength and serenity," gave her, she recalls, "a tremendous sense of pride in being an American."10 Later her personal interview with the First Lady confirmed her feelings that a great new social plan was getting under way and that she was eager to help work it out. These two extraordinary women go on well together from the beginning, sharing a sense of commitment that would bind them together in the future.11 Mrs. Flanagan's own background as director of the Experimental Theatre at Vassar College, as former production assistant to George Pierce Baker at Yale, and as the first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, which she used to study theater production in Europe, made her an ideal choice for the job, as Mrs. Roosevelt clearly perceived that spring day.

For the remainder of her stay in Washington, Mrs. Flanagan pored over the unemployment figures in the professional theater and studied the programs that had been used to alleviate the problems. She compared the situation to a vast map where only a few white areas lightened the spreading blackness of theatrical unemployment. But at least the Works Progress Administration set up by Congress indicated a new approach to the basic problem. For the first time, the preservation of the skill and self-respect of the worker had become the cornerstone of a relief program, a policy Mrs. Flanagan heartily endorsed.

Of the many plans submitted to the Washington office, Elmer Rice's plan for community centers seemed the most carefully worked out. His plan stressed decentralization and the adaptation of regional projects to local community needs. He proposed a government agency to buy or lease existing theaters in a hundred large communities throughout the country. These theaters were to be remodeled and modernized using local talent. In these facilities permanent repertory companies were to be established, recruited in large part from the ranks of the unemployed. The selection on the basis of talent was to be mandatory, however, and as far as possible, the thousands of actors who had migrated to large cities would be encouraged to return to their home communities, emphasizing again the ideal of using local talent. Quality was to be stressed, whether in productions of modern farce or Shakespeare, and every effort was to be made to encourage local playwrights to "draw upon the life around them and the rich folk material of America."12

Another part of the plan was to supplement the regional permanent acting companies with the visiting star system. Audiences would see John Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Walter Huston, and Wallace Beery, and well-known actors would then have a chance to appear in fifteen or twenty cities each year under dignified auspices. The entire program was to be coordinated by a national agency which would act as a clearinghouse and help to set standards and avoid duplication of effort.

It was with this plan in mind that Hallie Flanagan drew up her own initial proposal, modest by comparison with Rice's, which provided for the employment of approximately seventy-five hundred persons. Her report announced that the government would not only be "caring for the unemployed but recreating a national theatre and building a national culture."13 It was precisely this philosophy which senators like Joseph W. Bailey of North Carolina would find so objectionable at a later time.

Although the official announcement of her appointment as director of the Federal Theater Project was delayed until July of 1935, Mrs. Flanagan continued to work on the plan for establishing community theaters throughout the nation. Consultation with E. C. Mabie of Iowa was especially profitable. His enthusiasm and endless stream of ideas and her urgent need for help in the formulation of a regionally centered national theater resulted in a fruitful collaboration. With the aid of Mabie and Elmer Rice, Hallie Flanagan put together the most elaborate plan yet. It provided employment for over thirty thousand people in State and regional centers and in drama departments of educational institutions. A plan obviously meant to appeal to nonprofessional groups in the theater, it stalled when it reached Jacob Baker and his staff.14

This problem was still unsettled when Mrs. Flanagan was sworn in on August 27, 1935, in Iowa City on the occasion of laying the cornerstone for the new University of Iowa Theater. Since Iowa City was also the meeting place for the National Theatre Conference that year, Hopkins addressed a group of theater people which included Elmer Rice, Paul Green, Gilmor Brown, and most of the other people who would become regional directors. Speaking of the new kind of theater he hoped to create in America, he concluded with a statement of policy: "I am asked whether a theatre subsidized by the government can be kept free from censorship, and I say yes, it is going to be kept free from censorship. What we want is a free, adult, uncensored theatre.15

After her return to Washington, Mrs. Flanagan was joined by both Mr. Mabie and Lester Lang, her assistant at Vassar, who now joined the Washington staff. Still unresolved was the Mabie-Flanagan plan which Jacob Baker and his staff had found beyond the capacities of the WPA to finance.16 By October, with Lang's and Mabie's help, a final plan emerged, and this time the primary aim was professional employment centered in the commercial theater and concentrated in New York City. The integration of the theater with community life in the smaller communities now became a secondary air. Were these aims conflicting? Only if one overlooks what the framers of the plan had in mind. For if the outcome of the project was to be the independent theater movement, represented in the university theater and in the community theater, how could professional actors concentrated on Broadway and in other large cities be integrated into the independent theater, except by touring and by convincing many of them to return to their home communities? But unfortunately, neither alternative worked. It proved extremely difficult to convince New York or other big-city-based companies to tour and furthermore no money had been appropriated to send people back home. Shifting clients in the relief program was not allowed.17

October 1935 was also the time for the first meeting of the regional and state directors, held in the old McLean mansion on Dupont Circle: for vaudeville and variety, Eddie Dowling, Broadway actor-producer; for New England, Charles Coburn, actor-director; for New York, Elmer Rice, Broadway playwright-producer, assisted by Philip Barber, dramatist, actor, and stage manager for the New York Group Theatre; for Pennsylvania, Jasper Deeter of Hedgerow Theatre; for the Midwest, E. C. Mabie, director of the Iowa University theatre; for Chicago, Thomas Wood Stevens, director of the Globe; for Ohio, Frederick McConnell, director of the Cleveland Community Playhouse; for the West, Gilmor Brown, director of the Pasadena Community Playhouse, assisted by J. Howard Miller, former actor and stage manager for Max Reinhardt; for Seattle, Glenn Hughes, dramatist, director of the University of Washington Theatre; for the South, Frederick Koch, director of the North Carolina Playmakers, and John McGee, dramatist-director; for the Bureau of Research and Publication, Rosamond Gilder, associate editor of Theatre Arts Monthly. As Mrs. Flanagan looked at those "keen and powerful faces around that table," she felt hat there was nothing that they could not accomplish:

Our whole emphasis in the theatre enterprises which we are about to undertake should be on re-thinking rather than on remembering. The good old days may have been very good days indeed, but they are gone. New days are upon us and the plays that we do and the ways that we do them should be informed by our consciousness of the art and economics of 1935.

We live in a changing world: man is whispering through space, soaring to the stars in ships, flinging miles of steel and glass into the air. Shall the theatre continue to huddle in the confines of a painted boxset? The movies, in their kaleidoscopic speed and juxtaposition of external objects and internal emotions are seeking to find visible and audible expression for the tempo and the psychology of our time. The stage too must experiment-with ideas, with the psychological relationship of men and women, with speech and rhythm forms, with dance and movement, with color and light-or it must and should become a museum product.

In an age of terrific implications as to wealth and poverty, as to the function of government, as to peace and war, as to the relation of the artist to all these forces, the theatre must grow up. The theatre must become conscious of the implications of the changing social order, or the changing social older will ignore, and rightly, the implications of the theatre.18