Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Furious Improvisation" reviewed

Longtime readers of this blog may recall that I am fascinated by the history of America in the 1930s. Particularly '30s American theater history. Even more particularly the Federal Theatre Project and its director Hallie Flanagan, a former Vassar professor. Therefore I was thrilled and delighted to read a new-ish history of the Federal Theatre Project, Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times, by Susan Quinn.

In the course of my fascination with '30s theater, I had already picked up some of the information contained in Furious Improvisation--but I had never read a popular history book that spells out the whole story of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), its four short years of creativity and struggle. Furious Improvisation is a quick read, full of vivid detail, with an emphasis on the strong personalities that populated the FTP. If the book has a heroine, it is Hallie Flanagan; through reading excerpts of the letters she sent home to her husband, Phil, while she traveled the country, you feel like you really get to know her. Orson Welles, his famous "Voodoo" Macbeth, and his The Cradle Will Rock put in their expected appearances (which are always fun to read about), but the book also tells some less familiar stories from the FTP. I hadn't known anything about the failure of the first Living Newspaper, Ethiopia; or the challenges of adapting Sinclair Lewis' anti-Fascist novel It Can't Happen Here into a play that would open in multiple cities on the same day; or the endeavors of the Federal Theatre in Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco--but I enjoyed reading about all of these topics.

Even better, however, are the last chapters, where Quinn puts forth an intriguing thesis about what really caused the demise of the Federal Theatre. In the late 1930s, conservative Congressmen (many from the South) began to turn against FDR's New Deal policies, accusing him of setting the country on a dangerously Socialist or Communist path. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) came into existence, the committee went after the Federal Theatre and accused it of harboring Communists, and, because of these trumped-up charges, popular opinion turned against the FTP. Halfway through 1939, allocations for the WPA arts projects were removed from the federal budget--and thus the FTP shut down.

Quinn's contribution, however, is to note that what really frightened HUAC was not the idea that the FTP harbored Communists who were plotting to destroy the American government, but rather, that the FTP encouraged "dangerous" equality between blacks and whites:
The issue of race was never far from the surface in the Dies committee's assault on the Federal Theatre Project. In fact, the success of many productions of the Negro units, and the visibility they brought to blacks--not to mention the integration the project sponsored in its casts and in its audience--were all viewed by the committee as signs of Communist influence. In truth, for most on the committee, and certainly for Martin Dies, its chairman, the racial policies of the Federal Theatre Project struck a deeper note of alarm than the alleged Communist infiltration.
Now, what's fascinating about this is that Furious Improvisation was published in July 2008--and therefore written long before it was certain that the United States would elect a black president. And yet, haven't we seen the exact same thing happen, since Obama's election, as happened in the 1930s--conservatives accusing him of "socialism" as a coded way of saying "his policies help racial minorities and hurt Real White Americans"?

History repeats itself, folks. And because of that, Furious Improvisation also can serve as a useful counter-argument to any idealist who says "but why can't the United States be like Europe and devote more of the federal budget to supporting the arts?" Well, because it would set off a political firestorm. It did in the 1930s (even before HUAC formed, there were many political struggles over what kind of art the FTP ought to present), and it would probably be even worse in the current partisan political climate. Don't get me wrong, I'm deadly jealous of the "European-style" model for funding art! But I can see why it wouldn't work in this country, unless we are able to resolve the problems that stymied and killed the FTP. And if even an administrator as enthusiastic, intelligent, bold, and talented as Hallie Flanagan couldn't make this kind of program work for more than four years... how could it work in the 21st century?


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dr.J said...

By a happy coincidence I am reading just now The rest is noise by Alex Ross (and listening to Mahler 4th Symphony at this very moment). The chapter about WPA is very interesting for a european. Somewhere Ross says that the public allocation per capita in Finland is 200 times bigger than in USA, that may explain why there are so many frontline finnish composers for such a small country.
I am completely against political bias in art (I am an "ivory tower believer) but the role of private sponsors in your country is overwhelmingly higher than in mine, probably for fiscal reasons.
Well, it is very nice to find someone at the other end of the world along the same wavelength (is that idiomatic in English?)
Thank you so much and I will keep telling you about The rest is noise when I finish it.
Is Derricka male or female?

Marissa said...

I agree that some of the Federal Theatre's projects overstepped the line and showed too much political bias. For instance, taxpayer money probably shouldn't have been used to produce a show supporting Roosevelt's plan for public ownership of utilities--that's too much like propaganda. Trouble is, many politicians in America are just CRAZY and will stir up controversy about the stupidest things (I am talking mostly about social conservatives). For instance, they might say of a David Mamet play, "That play has too many swear words! You can't take children to go see it! Taxpayer money shouldn't fund THAT!"

So a federally funded theater would get scared and produce only the most innocuous, the least controversial shows. And then the conservatives would say "See! All they're producing is fluff--silly little farces and musicals! Taxpayer money shouldn't fund THAT!"

When it comes to dealing with conservatives, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

(This fall, a theater in NYC is going to revive Kushner's "Angels in America," indisputably the most important American play of the last 25 years--and tickets are only $20! But this is done through private funding, not government support. It would be political suicide to ask for taxpayers to support a play about HIV and gay men and Ethel Rosenberg and scary angels...)

P.S. Derricka is a woman--my play has 2 female characters.