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.