Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Federal Theatre Lives on in "The Lost Colony"

Above: This is a scene from the August 18, 2016 production of Paul Green's The Lost Colony. In 1937 the WPA's Federal Theatre Project helped start the play and, with the exception of a few years during World War II, the play has been performed on Roanoke Island every year since. Author Susan Quinn writes: "One piece of live theatre survives from the days of the Federal Theatre Project. The Lost Colony, the Paul Green pageant about Sir Walter Raleigh's failed attempt to establish a European foothold in the New World, continues to draw large crowds to Roanoke Island in North Carolina every summer. Otherwise, the Federal Theatre Project lives on only in the archives and in the stories of those who took part" (Susan Quinn, Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times, 2008, p. 283). In the scene above, the Spanish ship captain Simon Fernando (on the steps, third from top) tries to warn the English colonists about the danger and folly of their upcoming journey. Photo by Brent McKee.

Above: This scene depicts a tense confrontation between the Europeans and the American Indians who inhabited the area. In 1937, theatre critic Brooks Atkinson described the New Deal's contribution to The Lost Colony: "From the WPA Theatre in New York have come six actors for leading parts and several assistants and counselors... The open-air theatre has been built by local WPA labor. The costumes have been made by local WPA seamstresses. From the CCC camp nearby [Camp Virginia Dare] have come the boys who play the parts of the Indians" ("Paul Green's 'The Lost Colony' Performed on Roanoke Island," New York Times, August 15, 1937). Photo by Brent McKee.

Above: A battle erupts between the colonists and the Indians. Hallie Flanagan recalled Paul Green's philosophy on history and theatre: "[He said] that historical plays should concern themselves not with the leading characters of history but with the surge of common men and women who make history though they are seldom recorded in it" (Hallie Flanagan, Arena, 1940, p. 108). Photo by Brent McKee.

Above: The dance scenes of The Lost Colony were exceptional, as were the fight scenes. According to the play's website: "Each summer, over 200 actors, technicians, designers and volunteers rehearse to bring The Lost Colony Roanoke story to life. The production is enormous. The stage itself is over three times larger than most Broadway stages in New York." Photo by Brent McKee.

Above: Queen Elizabeth, not overly interested in the New World to begin with (at least not in this version of events), tells Sir Walter Raleigh that a growing war makes further assistance to the colonists impossible. The Lost Colony is full of interesting set pieces and costumes. Photo by Brent McKee.

Above: After much hardship, and with no resupply in sight, the colonists realize that they have to leave their settlement. What happened to the colonists of Roanoke Island? Theories abound, but perhaps we'll never know for sure. Photo by Brent McKee.

Above: Cover of the 2016 program. Scanned from personal copy, used here for educational and non-commercial purposes.

Above: Cover of the 1939 program. Courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: A bust of Paul Green, playwright of The Lost Colony, at the Waterside Theatre. A plaque beneath the bust highlights that Green was not only a playwright, but also a "Human and Civil Rights Leader." Photo by Brent McKee.

Above: A plaque commemorating President Roosevelt's attendance at The Lost Colony in 1937. The Lost Colony play means different things to different people of course, but for me it's an example of the New Deal's investment in the American people: A play was created, the people of Roanoke Island dedicated themselves to making it work, and FDR, New Deal policymakers, and formerly unemployed Americans lent a hand. And for nearly 80 years the play has provided employment for theatre workers, entertainment for many thousands of people, and preservation for one of America's most intriguing mysteries. It's a great example of what can happen when we work together (as opposed to the modern ideology of hyper-individualism) and what can happen when our government is truly for the people. Photo by Brent McKee.


  1. Thanks for posting these!! Photo #6 is John Borden and Eleanor Dare, mother of Virginia. Looks like an awesome performance and you were there on Virginia Dare Day! August 18, 1587 is her birthday, which is still celebrated on Roanoke Island. Indeed the Lost Colony is a lasting tradition. I always loved loved the line "Roanoke oh Roanoke, thou hast made a man of me."

    1. Thanks, yes the performance was pretty much flawless.