Tuesday, November 5, 2013
The WPA Theatre: "A Roaring Success"
(WPA poster, image courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
The WPA made efforts to hire unemployed actors, stagehands, directors, and others, by creating a federal theatre program. The director of the WPA Theatre was Hallie Flanagan. Though many conservatives in Congress--both Republican and Democrat--portrayed the program as a communist plot to take over the country, as well as a dangerous mixing of the races, the WPA Theatre enjoyed great success. Fortune magazine wrote, "From any point of view save that of the old-line box-office critics to whom nothing is theatre unless it has Broadway stars and Broadway varnish, the Federal Theatre Project is a roaring success" (from the book Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times, by Susan Quinn, 2008).
Above: It Can't Happen Here was a fictional play by Sinclair Lewis about a Nazi-like government taking control of America. It enjoyed a good run in the WPA Theatre: "It Can't Happen Here wound up playing a total of 260 weeks, or five years, in theatres all around the country. It was seen by more than 316,000 people" (Susan Quinn, Furious Improvisation). WPA poster, image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Above: A scene from It Can't Happen Here. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.
Above: Some members of Congress were not pleased with the racial integration in WPA Theatre plays. As author Susan Quinn points out: "When opponents of the (WPA Theatre) got up to speak in the House and in the Senate, they might start off by talking about incompetence, or boondoggling, or communism, or immorality, but they wound up talking about race." Senator Robert Reynolds of North Carolina voiced his concerns quite clearly: "Through such material the cardinal keystone of communism--free love and racial equality--is being spread at the expense of the god-fearing, home-loving American taxpayer." Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.
Above: In addition to integrated plays, African Americans had opportunities in the WPA Theatre's "Negro Unit." Indeed, though it could have done more, the WPA opened many workplace opportunities for African Americans. WPA Poster, image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Above: The WPA even offered circuses.....for the enjoyment of American audiences and the employment of jobless and hungry performers. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.
Above: These children are enjoying a marionette show put on by the WPA Theatre program. In addition to consternation over integrated performances, some members of Congress were displeased with the racial mixing they saw in audiences. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.
Above: The WPA Theatre program also put on vaudeville shows. Vaudeville shows could include magicians, comics, jugglers, dancers, animals shows, and just about anything else to entertain audiences. WPA poster, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Above: The WPA Theatre program also offered dance performances. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.