Stealing the Show

Why conservatives killed America’s federally funded theater

Charlie Tyson

The Federal Theatre’s adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here was seen by nearly 400,000 Americans. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WPA Poster Collection

Between 1935 and 1939, the Federal Theatre Project staged more than a thousand productions in twenty-nine states. Established by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a relief program for out-of-work actors, artists, and theater technicians, the Federal Theatre Project was the most ambitious attempt in American history to use theater to strengthen demo­cratic citizenship.

The bulk of its funds went to labor, and at its height the pro­gram employed more than twelve thousand workers. Thanks to the Project, roughly twenty million Americans (according to audience surveys) saw a play for the first time. Matinees, cheap or free tick­ets, and block bookings by unions turned working-class Americans into regular playgoers. From Seattle to Milwaukee to Miami, a net­work of regional theaters and touring companies aimed to break New York’s stranglehold on American drama and bring theater to the people.

Ever since democracy and theater emerged together in ancient Athens, thinkers have debated the relationship between these two risky and precious human practices. The philosopher (and former dramatist) Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that theater corrupts public virtue and tempts citizens into dissipation. The playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht believed, by contrast, that the interven­tions of drama could make the world more just. Democracy and theater both involve collective assembly, conflict, and a willingness to perform before the eyes of others. Both grant scope to charisma, deception, and illusion. Actors and politicians alike rely on that fickle entity, the public, to whom they must be exquisitely attuned, in a dance of supplication and manipulation. For whether in a darkened playhouse or at a blaring political rally, one can never be sure whether the public rules or is being ruled.

The Federal Theatre sought to democratize the dramatic arts. But it also tried to use theater to invigorate democracy, which is where the program ran into trouble. The Federal Theatre pre­sented not only circus acts, vaudeville, marionette shows, and Shakespeare; it also staged plays dealing with pressing political issues, such as racial inequality, slum housing, and rural electri­fication. The Project’s defenders claimed that such performances responded to popular demand and helped educate the citizenry. Its critics saw these productions as nothing more than propaganda for the New Deal, propaganda that carried a whiff of communism.

All art requires a material base, but staging a play is more expensive than publishing a poem.

The Federal Theatre’s rise and fall is the subject of James Shapiro’s new book, The Playbook: A Story of Theater, Democracy, and the Making of a Culture War. The heroine of Shapiro’s story is Hallie Flanagan, a theater professor at Vassar College who led the Federal Theatre Project with grace and determination, fulfilling, for the four years in which the organization survived, the hope she had once privately voiced: “God help me to be able to do something more vivid in life than adding to the number of Vassar girls in the world.” The villain is Martin Dies, a lusty-voiced congressman from East Texas who, as the first chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), resolved to make a name for him­self by taking down Flanagan’s “communistic” enterprise.

Dies and his allies faulted the WPA’s program for bringing politics into the theater. But in Dies’s attacks on federally funded drama—attacks filled with grandstanding, publicity-stunt hearings, and blasts of factually dubious oratory—Shapiro finds something more troubling: the theatricalization of politics. The dismantling of the Federal Theatre involved the ascendance of a rival form of drama, staged in high-ceilinged hearing rooms before audiences of reporters and photographers. To strike at the New Deal, Dies and his friends needed to gin up a scandal. Turning culture into a battlefield proved a convenient way to stoke outrage and secure power. The Federal Theatre was cast as that classic tragic entity: the scapegoat. This sorry episode, Shapiro argues, established a playbook that conservatives have followed ever since.

in one of those ironies that historians know well, American the­ater was maturing as an art form just as economic and technolog­ical shifts were pushing it to the margins. In the late nineteenth century, theater was a popular art form, including in rural areas. In 1890, there were more than fifty theaters in Nebraska alone. Shapiro estimates that in Lincoln, that state’s capital, where a young Willa Cather got her start as a drama critic, the percentage of theatergoers approached that of Shakespeare’s London. As the curtain fell on the nineteenth century, roughly a third of American towns and cities had theaters of their own. Some two thousand resident stock companies (troupes of local actors) could be found from coast to coast, and hundreds of other acting companies toured the coun­try. However, this was an era of melodrama and minstrel shows, souped-up sketches and stripped-down Shakespeare. Of the orig­inal work written and staged in nineteenth-century America, there is little that stands as a classic. The golden age of American drama delivered much merriment but few good plays.

By the 1920s, cinema had emerged as an unstoppable compet­itor, offering silvery absorption at a fraction of the cost of a the­ater ticket. Stock companies shuttered. Playhouses were converted into cinemas. At this inopportune moment, American theater found its voice. Drawing on techniques from German expression­ism, playwrights such as Sophie Treadwell and Elmer Rice created stark, antirealist rebukes of the mechanization and inhumanity of modern society. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and other artists of the Harlem Renaissance attempted to place Black drama on new foundations. And Eugene O’Neill became, in play­houses across the United States and Europe, a vast and unignor­able presence, whose experimental, psychologically probing plays announced a new phase in modern drama.

American theater had at last achieved artistic stature—O’Neill would receive the Nobel Prize one year after the Federal Theatre Project launched—but funding was scarce, especially for anything daring or experimental. As a child, O’Neill had accompanied his father, a Shakespearean actor, on tours around the country, expe­riences that fueled his artistic formation. Now, many of those playhouses no longer existed. All art requires a material base, but staging a play is more expensive than publishing a poem. The economist John Maynard Keynes, an influence on the New Deal and an aggressive proponent of state funding for art and theater, once quipped that had Shakespeare been born fifty years ear­lier—before the wealthy Elizabethan era—England could not have afforded him. Could the United States, ravaged by the Depression, afford a Shakespeare of its own?

The Federal Theatre Project was born in this context of artistic ferment and material deprivation. Founded to supply jobs for art­ists while aiming at theatrical excellence, it was not a “national the­ater” in the French or German model, in which an elite company staged shows in grand marble halls. Instead, the Federal Theatre was a circuit of performing units, and it tailored its productions to meet the country’s ethnic and regional diversity. Unlike Hollywood, which delivered the same products to everyone, the Project was nimble, sensitive to local variation. For example, shows were staged in Spanish in Miami and Tampa and in Yiddish in New York. The Project gave directors license to adjust performances to satisfy local tastes; audiences in different cities might see differing versions of the same play.

The Federal Theatre's first hit was a production of Macbeth in Harlem, directed by Orson Welles, at that time a virtually unknown twenty-year-old actor. Library of Congress, Music Division, Federal Theatre Project Collection

A string of early successes established the Federal Theatre’s rep­utation. Its first hit was a production of Macbeth in Harlem, staged by one of the program’s so-called Negro Units. (The Federal Theatre was, at the time, Harlem’s largest employer.) To direct the production, the organization tapped Orson Welles, at that time a virtually unknown twenty-year-old actor with no professional directorial experience. The Harlem Macbeth—commonly known as the Voodoo Macbeth—traded Scottish gloom for Caribbean exot­icism. Set in nineteenth-century Haiti with a large all-Black cast and filled, in Shapiro’s words, with “drumming and spectacle,” the production was a sensation. It moved from Harlem to Broadway and then embarked on a national tour with stops in the Jim Crow South. The play reached roughly 120,000 people.

An adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s anti-fascist novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935), which depicts a fascist takeover of America, similarly exhibited the Federal Theatre’s reach. MGM had bought the rights to Lewis’s novel, but studio executives canceled the film under pressure from the Hays Office, which in 1934 had begun to censor Hollywood movies. (MGM also feared, Shapiro suggests, that the film would cause it to lose business in Germany.) The Federal Theatre quickly offered a corrective to Hollywood’s coward­ice. Flanagan enlisted Lewis to adapt his novel into a play. Nearly 400,000 Americans saw the Federal Theatre’s It Can’t Happen Here—more people than had bought Lewis’s best-selling novel.

The Project even demonstrated that rarefied art forms such as modern dance could, under the right conditions, win a broad audience. The Federal Dance Theatre, a short-lived unit under the Federal Theatre’s auspices, scored a Broadway success with the overtly political How Long, Brethren? by the dancer and choreogra­pher Tamiris. The show was an arrangement of dances set to Black protest songs (performed, Shapiro notes, by an all-white cast). The show even inspired a protest of its own: after one of its per­formances, five hundred audience members joined performers and musicians in a march against looming cuts to the Federal Theatre.

Shapiro argues that the Federal Dance Theatre offers a glimpse of a road not taken by modern dance in America. Flanagan’s hopes for modern dance were populist: “any tendency to the ‘esoteric,’” she opined, “should be suppressed.” After the Federal Dance Theatre collapsed, modern dance became a high art form directed at connoisseurs. And for years, a single choreographer—Martha Graham—ruled the field. Her ritualistic dance-dramas, filled with angular movement, twisty floor work, stylized breathing, falls, and spasms, did not suppress the esoteric but embraced it. Citing Graham’s later involvement with Cold War propaganda—namely a global tour funded by the State Department—Shapiro laments that after the Federal Dance Theatre closed, modern dance lost both its progressive edge and its popular appeal.

Were the Federal Theatre’s political plays mainly educational? Or were they propaganda?

The Federal Theatre’s achievements were significant—creating jobs for out-of-work artists, tackling politically sensitive issues, and bringing theater into the lives of millions of people who had never experienced it before. Shapiro argues that these entertainments strengthened America’s “associational life,” contributing to the net­works of sympathy and affiliation on which democracy relies. We can get a sense of the Federal Theatre’s civic potential from a pho­tograph (one of several fascinating images in the book) of Crotona Park, in the Bronx, filled with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people gathered for an outdoor performance: public space, public assembly, public art. By bringing drama to ordinary people, the Project showed that theater was not a marginal or specialist interest. It was the expense of theater tickets and the rarity of high-quality theater outside major metropolitan areas that made it seem as if it were out of reach. In all, thirty million Americans—roughly a quarter of the population—attended Federal Theatre productions.

But weren’t these hundreds of productions recklessly expen­sive? This federal investment in theater, although substantial, amounted to less than 1 percent of the overall funds allocated for federal work relief—or, as Flanagan put it, the subsidy was roughly the cost of building one battleship. Her hope was that Americans would continue to support theater as a vital element of community life after the federal project ended.

Across the country, curtains rose and fell, stagehands wheeled in props and furniture, and construction and factory workers crowded into playhouses. But in Washington, trouble was brewing.

representative martin dies, the Texas Democrat who led the attack on the Federal Theatre, was not a committed antitheatrical­ist like Rousseau. Indeed, he was not a particularly ideological pol­itician, except for his violent racism. Hunger for fame drew Dies to politics, and he could shift with the wind. He was, in short, an opportunist, and other powerful men, in turn, used him oppor­tunistically. By the late 1930s, the backlash against the New Deal was gathering force. Southern Democrats were revolting against President Roosevelt and aligning themselves with the Republicans. Even Roosevelt’s vice president, John Garner, a whisky-drinking Texan known to his contemporaries as “Cactus Jack,” was trying to undermine Roosevelt’s agenda. Garner backed Dies’s proposal to establish a special committee to investigate “un-American” activi­ties. Dies was, Shapiro writes, Garner’s “surrogate,” and their aim was to “throttle” the New Deal.

The Federal Theatre was a convenient target. The idea of work relief for artists had always been controversial. There is a long tra­dition, dating at least as far back as Elizabethan England, of see­ing actors as rogues and vagabonds, engaged in “play” rather than work, and of condemning theaters as hotbeds of idleness. The United States now had “players” sponging off the government pay­rolls. The question, opined The New York Times during the debate over the Federal Theatre, was not whether actors “have to eat but whether they have to act.” In addition, the Project’s work-relief mission and its artistic mission were in tension. It was attacked for staging worthless shows (mere job relief ) and for staging suc­cessful shows (undermining free enterprise). The Federal Theatre was vulnerable on another crucial front. Some of its produc­tions—plays dealing with race, labor, inequality, and other charged topics—had an undeniable left-wing tilt. From playhouses around the country, whispers of “communism” reached Washington like poison poured into the ear.

In The Playbook, James Shapiro argues that the Federal Theatre Project strengthened America’s “associational life,” contributing to the net­works of sympathy and affiliation on which democracy relies.

Were the Federal Theatre’s political plays mainly educational? Or were they propaganda? Shapiro does not offer an emphatic view on this matter, but we can draw certain conclusions. The distinc­tive form of political theater pioneered by the Federal Theatre was the Living Newspaper, fact-based dramas that followed an every­man character who begins to ask questions about the root causes of a social problem, such as substandard housing. He is then led on a tour through various aspects of the problem and presented with possible solutions. The Living Newspaper dramas staged a transformation from spectatorship to political action: the main character usually entered the play by getting up from the audience and walking down the aisle to the stage.

Some Living Newspapers advocated strong government action. Power, about access to electricity, endorsed public ownership of utilities and praised the Tennessee Valley Authority. One Third of a Nation, about tenement housing, quoted the Congressional Record, singling out for embarrassment sitting senators who had opposed a recent bill allotting money for public housing. The Living Newspapers were educative—fact-checked, well researched, and dedicated to clarifying ongoing events. But they were also pro­pagandistic. Their politics were, generally, New Deal. As Shapiro notes, Flanagan herself described the Living Newspapers as “pro­paganda for democracy.”

The Federal Theatre was hardly the only entity in this period engaging in propaganda. As historian Kim Phillips-Fein has shown in Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal (2009), anti–New Deal business lobbies such as the National Association of Manufacturers spent copiously on radio programs, movies, billboards, mailings, and other public-relations efforts exalting the virtues of free enterprise and painting a rosy picture of the relationship between labor and management. The business­men who funded this messaging likewise characterized it as educa­tion, even though their manipulations had far less to do with fact than did most of the Federal Theatre’s documentary offerings.

Card-carrying Communists could be found within the Federal Theatre’s ranks, and some of them distributed literature during working hours. But despite the claims of Dies and others, the Federal Theatre was not a site of unbridled radicalism. Flanagan’s organization was reformist in spirit, and sometimes not even that. Indeed, the Federal Theatre could be overly cautious, censoring scripts that seemed too incendiary.

A case in point is the play Liberty Deferred, by Abram Hill and John Silvera, which dealt frankly with racism and lynching. This edgy and inspired riff on a Living Newspaper featured a scene set in Lynchotopia, “the fabled land where all lynch victims go,” in order to compare the grotesque treatments they suffered at the hands of whites. The residents of Lynchotopia, learning that Southerners in the Senate are filibustering an anti-lynching bill, march off to Washington, stepping to the tune “Heigh-Ho,” from the Walt Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released the previ­ous year. Another scene spotlights a large map of the United States, with each state that denies Black people the right to vote featuring a small door. Eager to cast his ballot, one man rushes from state to state. Door after door is slammed shut. Liberty is deferred.

As Dies, now chairman of HUAC, ratcheted up his attacks, the Federal Theatre, reluctant to rile this increasingly influential body, deferred producing Liberty Deferred. Shapiro observes that the play, which vividly foregrounds the problem of democratic participa­tion, has never been staged. The Federal Theatre’s stifling of this provocative drama may well point to an isolated failure of nerve rather than an inherent shortcoming of government-sponsored theater. However, it is a striking fact that some contemporary rad­ical theater troupes, such as the Bread and Puppet Theater, refuse any government subsidy.

Such timidity did not placate Dies. The congressman had ini­tially signaled that among the “un-American activities” he and his special committee planned to investigate would be the increasingly popular American Nazi Party. In August 1938, he subpoenaed a Nazi propagandist, George Sylvester Viereck, before changing his mind and letting Viereck sail to Germany. It would later come out that Viereck was on Hitler’s payroll. And in February 1939, two months after Flanagan testified before Dies’s committee, twenty thousand Hitler supporters gathered under swastikas in Madison Square Garden. Dies had a choice about where to direct his resources, and instead of investigating Nazis, he chose to go after theater-makers.

Dies was himself, Shapiro insists, a showman. In high school he was president of his school’s drama club, and he claimed that while in law school he attended “a school of Dramatical Art and Public Speaking.” Blessed with a clear and resonant voice, the con­gressman made his way in politics through his oratorical talents. Once he assumed the chairmanship of his special committee, he imagined it as a federal theater of sorts, in the form of investiga­tive hearings that would tour nationally, “moving from city to city, beginning on the West Coast and ending back East.”

Dies’s first “hit”—the committee hearings that won media attention for his probe into the Federal Theatre—owed much to a costar, a chain-smoking nurse named Hazel Huffman. Convinced that the Federal Theatre Project was spreading communism, Huffman became Dies’s key witness. She, too, had a flair for the theatrical. (Shapiro includes a photograph of her testifying before the House Un-American Committee while taking a deep drag on a cigarette and wearing a brooch in the form of a spider.) At one time an actress—she had performed in Edward Knoblock’s Grand Hotel (1931)Huffman sweet-talked Flanagan into giving her a WPA mailroom job, where she promptly opened all of Flanagan’s mail, looking for “revolutionary” and “seditious” material. The brazen accusations Huffman lobbed against Flanagan and the Federal Theatre garnered sensational headlines and put Dies on a new political path.

Dies’s stagy hearings were breathlessly covered by newspapers, especially publications opposing the New Deal. The proceedings at times veered into farce, as when one dim-witted congressman, Joe Starnes, grilling Flanagan about a certain Elizabethan play­wright, demanded, “You are quoting from this Marlowe. Is he a Communist?” Flanagan protested eloquently against what she saw as a grave mischaracterization of her project. She enlisted influential figures from the worlds of film and theater, including stars such as Tallulah Bankhead (the niece of an Alabama senator), to defend the Federal Theatre. But rational argument crumbled before the power of spectacle. Instead of the civically minded drama of the Federal Theatre, Dies and his cast offered the public a taste of politics as theater, a development Shapiro deplores. Governance devolved into spectacle. Unlike on the stage, the stakes were real: when Congress defunded the Federal Theatre, thousands of Americans lost their jobs. Dies knew how to stir up scandal that translated into column inches. In Shapiro’s account, the newspapers come off as so thirsty for conflict, so vulnerable to the predations of cha­risma, that the Living Newspapers seem the superior alternative.

The Federal Theatre Project cost about as much as building one battleship.

In June 1939, Roosevelt reluctantly signed a relief bill discon­tinuing all funding for the Federal Theatre. It was the only WPA program slated for elimination. Flanagan returned to teach at Vassar. Soon after, her husband Philip Davis, a fellow academic, died of a heart attack. “I feel and always have,” Flanagan wrote in her memoir, “that Phil’s early and unaccountable death was bound up with the violent end of the Federal Theatre.” Flanagan was diag­nosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1946. She deteriorated, stopped seeing plays, and confided to a friend her belief that her entire life had been a failure.

As for the Federal Theatre, even its archives were lost for decades. In the 1970s, two scholars from George Mason University found the old playbooks, set designs, photographs, and posters in an airplane hangar in Maryland, boxed in wooden crates caked with bird droppings.

there have been calls, of late, for federal funding of nonprofit theater. The industry is in trouble. In recent years, regional the­aters from Seattle to Baltimore have cut back on shows, layoffs have become increasingly common, and many small or midsize companies have closed. “The American theater is on the verge of collapse,” the writer Isaac Butler warned in The New York Times last summer. “Only the federal government can provide the scope of support needed to stabilize it.”

Butler’s entreaty for a federal bailout of nonprofit theater prompted a dissenting letter to the editor from the actor Scott Klavan. “One of the main reasons that nonprofit theaters are clos­ing is the increasingly political nature of the plays they are pre­senting,” Klavan wrote. “More and more, stage plays are becoming narrow, didactic, political propaganda.” In other words, theater is to blame for its own demise, having alienated much of its audience.

The issues that Klavan raises are interesting, but they are unlikely to be resolved in an environment of strict material con­straint. Propaganda has long had an important place on the stage, from weepy Victorian melodramas spotlighting the exploitation of chimney sweeps and child factory workers to suffragette plays underscoring the irrationality of denying women the vote. And Brecht is not alone among modern dramatists in achieving pow­erful aesthetic effects by violating the boundary between art and propaganda. The relation between the theatrical and the propagan­distic, especially in our bewildering information environment, mer­its exploration through dramatic experiment. Such ventures are precisely what is not happening. Regional theaters hemorrhaging subscribers and funds are preparing to fall back on bland commer­cialism. And serious drama is poised to remain a luxury for the few.

In drama, Willa Cather wrote, “a story of human experience [is] given to us alive. . . . Only real people speaking the lines can give us that feeling of living along with them, of participating in their existence.” American theater is in financial peril. But as a cultural force it may yet have its part to play. Against the homogenization of culture, theater brings us back to the local and the particular. Against the evacuation of social life to the digital realm, it returns us to the body. The theatrical has long been seen as the archetype of the unreal or imitative. Yet when set against, say, entertainments generated by artificial intelligence, live drama may begin to mark out for us a new standard of reality in art.

Flanagan estimated that the Federal Theatre Project cost about as much as building one battleship. The latest class of aircraft carrier costs $13 billion per unit. The budget for the National Endowment for the Arts for fiscal year 2024 is $211 million. What could “one battleship” get us today?

Charlie Tyson is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Baffler, and Bookforum.
Originally published:
June 10, 2024


Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books
Teju Cole

The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre

Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre

You Might Also Like

Theater of Shame

The rise of online humiliation
Charlie Tyson

I, Too, Am John Clare

Becoming a different kind of postcolonial writer
Amit Chaudhuri


Nathan Alan Davis and Abe Koogler on Finding One’s Voice

Nathan Alan Davis
Abe Koogler


Sign up for The Yale Review newsletter and keep up with news, events, and more.