• U.S.

The Theatre: Flanagan’s Drama

3 minute read

The late Federal Theatre Project was the biggest State-subsidized theatre on record. In four years it spent almost enough money to build a battleship ($46,000,000), employed 13,000 people at its peak, gave 63,600 performances of 1,200 major productions to audiences of 30,300,000, of whom some 65% had never before seen a living actor at work. This whopping project was run by tiny, greenish-eyed Hallie Flanagan, head of Vassar College’s Experimental Theatre. Last week Hallie Flanagan published an ardent, lively history of Federal Theatre, Arena (Duell, Sloan & Pearce; $3), winding up with a blast at the politicos who finally packed the whole huge show off to the storehouse.

Because it enabled an average of 10,000 people to support an average of four dependents apiece for four years, Federal Theatre fulfilled its purpose: relief. In the process it made many original contributions to theatre art. Among them were its productions of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and T. S. Eliot’s religious drama Murder in the Cathedral, the Negro Swing Mikado, etc. But Hallie Flanagan is especially proud of the socio-esthetic achievement as a whole, of the fact that millions were given a wide gamut of drama from Euripides to O’Neill, as well as musical comedies, pageants, ballets, puppet shows, children’s plays, foreign-language productions, radio programs. She gets a lot of what she feels into a poem about the Theatre’s Florida activities. Excerpt:

Wauchula was the place where we played musical comedy And no one laughed. The director went out and said “What’s the matter? Don’t you like it? Why don’t you laugh? Why don’t you clap?” An old lady said “We’d like to laugh but we’re afraid to interrupt the living actors It don’t seem polite. We’d like to clap, but we don’t know when. We don’t at the pictures.”

Federal Theatre was allowed the widest latitude of any government theatre ever heard of. It got loud approval from most commercial theatre people (just as libraries are approved by booksellers). It grossed $2,000,000 at the box office and at the end of the project its receipts were meeting all expenses—costumes, scenery, lighting, royalties, advertising—except labor. It was killed by Congress in June 1939. Like almost every enterprise, public or private, at the time, Federal Theatre had its radical elements. But an almost Neanderthal illiteracy played a part in Federal Theatre’s murder. In the Dies Committee’s hearings Representative Joe Starnes of Alabama said to Hallie Flanagan : “You are quoting from this Marlowe. Is he a Communist?” On the Senate floor, Senator Robert Reynolds of North Carolina gave a list of plays presented by Federal Theatre that “definitely bear the trademark of ‘red’ Russia in their titles, plays spewed forth from the gutters of the Kremlin.” Senator Reynolds included Up in Mabel’s Room.

Hallie Flanagan, fiftyish, is the widow of Philip H. Davis, Vassar Greek professor. She was born in Redfield, S. Dak., went to Grinnell College. Iowa, and Radcliffe, assisted the late George Pierce Baker at his Harvard dramatic workshop. In 1926 she was the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, on which she studied the theatre in twelve European countries and wrote Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theater. Her admiration for the early Soviet theatre of Meyerhold and others stood her in bad stead when she faced the brand of dramatic criticism offered by Representative Starnes and Senator Reynolds.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com