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?