Monday, November 10, 2014

What would happen if we created a federal theatre program today?

(Children learning theatre in a WPA project in New York City, 1935. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum and the New Deal Network.)

Many conservative politicians of the 1930s--both Republicans and Democrats--weren't too happy about the existence of the WPA's theatre program. They thought it was a foolish waste of money and, very likely, a communist plot to destroy the nation.  Also, many didn't care for the racial mixing that occurred in some of the theatre productions and classes (see photo above). Senator Robert Reynolds of North Carolina said: "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" (from the book Furious Improvisation, by Susan Quinn). Eventually, conservative politicians were successful in getting rid of the program, thereby saving millions of American children from the incalculable evils of theatre.

It's interesting to contemplate what would happen if we created a federal theatre program today, three-quarters of a century later. Certainly, most conservative politicians would scold it as a waste of money, just like before. More radical conservatives--like Ted Cruz and Joni Ernst--would declare the program to be socialist plot to undermine "wholesome family values"; again, just like before ( and the Koch brothers would probably pour millions of dollars into such messaging). With respect to racism, it would probably be more subtle. Perhaps a John Boehner or Paul Ryan-type figure would say something to the effect of, "There's an inner-city culture that maybe doesn't want to work, but maybe wants to be in a play instead." (See, e.g., "Code words for race: What’s really behind GOP’s poverty and welfare obsession," Salon, March 17, 2014). 

In some ways, it seems, our country hasn't changed very much.


  1. Good question Brent. It brings to mind the problem though, what would the content of the plays be and is there enough humanity and brainpower left to understand the tragedy that we exist in? A recent performance of Clifford Odets play "The Big Knife" here in Los Angeles underscored the utter disaster of the Truman years, the destruction of morals under the Communist witch hunts that came in with him, and the banality of Hollywood. Some of which was autobiographical in Odets case, when as a young playwright inspired by the radical change that came in with FDR, wrote plays like "Waiting For Lefty" and anti-Nazi plays which got him in trouble by the Commie hunters for being anti Nazi too soon, afterwards, being lured to Hollywood, and becoming just another cog in the fantasy machine, which, on his death bed, admitted was a total waste of his life. A fuller story of him and Yiddish Theater that he came out of is recounted in this article which can be traced back to Schiller and his idea of using the theater and tragedy as a means of uplifting the population

    Conversely, just the basic fact that almost a century of Hollywood and TV culture has turned the population into a bunch of total morons that are virtual carbon copies of the spectators in the Roman arenas; best exemplified by what is most popular on YouTube. Your complaints about the right wing can be traced also to Hollywood, which through films like "Birth Of A Nation" which brought the KKK back to life and "Bolshevism on Trial" began the whole Red Scare hysteria. During the Cold War, the other side of the cultural warfare was conducted by the CIA under organizations such as the Council For Cultural Freedom

    So, the million dollar question for our era, who will be our Shakespeare, our Schiller, our Odets?

    1. I definitely think pop culture distraction and celebrity worship are tremendous negative influences on our culture. Reality TV, ironically, does a great job of distracting people from reality (a reality that includes fewer job opportunities, stagnant wages, and retirement insecurity). I don't mind movies and television per se, but there has to be balance. People have to get more involved in the issues that are affecting our quality of life.