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Hallie Flanagan DavisHallie's Comet: The Federal Theatre
By Robert Brustein







[This essay was originally written as the forward to Voices from the Federal Theatre, ed. Bonnie Nelson Schwartz (copyright U of Wisc. P, 2003) and linked with the Fall 2003 PBS special Who Killed the Federal Theatre? An Investigation, hosted by Judd Hirsch and coproduced by Schwartz with the Educational Film Center.]

The glorious, totally improbable, and ultimately ill-fated adventure known as the Federal Theatre Project lasted from 1935 to 1939.

It was killed by an act of Congress in an atmosphere of Redbaiting and political hysteria. Yet, in four short years this visionary organization not only created a host of successful Federal Theatre productions, but it helped to revolutionize our notions of the geography and purpose of the American stage.

Conceived in the middle of the Great Depression as a plan to find jobs for an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 out-of-work actors, directors, playwrights, designers, and stagehands, the Federal Theatre at its height eventually employed 13,000 theatre artists in thirty-one states. The relief agency known as the Works Project Administration (WPA), under the enlightened leadership of FDR's deputy Harry Hopkins, had come to realize that among the more than one-third of the nation that were ill-fed, ill-clad, and ill-housed were a number of indigent artists. Hopkins thereupon proceeded to organize a series of Arts Projects, including one for the theatre, and began looking around for an appropriate leader.

Hopkins found his ideal National Director in Hallie Flanagan Davis, a forty-five year old Professor of Drama at Vassar, who possessed boundless energy, irrepressible optimism, untiring zeal, and no administrative experience whatsoever. Hopkins knew instinctively that the project had to be run by a non-commercial theatre person and Hallie had caught his eye through the experimental work she had been doing at Vassar. He was soon to learn that she was not only an extraordinary theatre visionary, but an individual of unusual character, integrity and drive--qualities that, in combination, made her one of the greatest leaders in the history of American theatre.

Rather than feeling her way into her new job, Hallie began with very clear ideas about what was expected of a Federal Theatre. She was convinced that such a project, though conceived as a source of economic relief, was also obliged to establish and maintain high artistic standards. A subsidized Federal Theatre would have to be an alternative to the commercial stage, not a competitor with it, keeping ticket prices within the reach of all. It would also need to be a decentralized theatre--indeed, the seed of a national theatre movement--creating productions not just in New York but in every major city and region of the country. And (perhaps her most controversial idea) its mission would be to produce plays that were not mere entertainments but artworks relevant to the social and political problems of the day. Each of these decisions was destined to extend the boundaries of the American stage and each was destined to land the Federal Theatre in a lot of hot water.

The attempt to combine relief and art, for example, was full of potential conflict, particularly because of the differing goals of social work and artistic achievement. Was the Federal Theatre to be a source of great plays and productions or rather an agency designed to better the lives of the unemployed? How could the Federal Theatre pursue the goals of excellence when the best American theatre artists were not among the unemployed, indeed when Broadway producers sometimes wanted the same artists, at substantially higher wages, for their commercial shows?

Many of the same producers were criticizing the Federal Theatre's subsidized ticket prices (sometimes as low as 25 cents) as unfair competition for the higher-priced Broadway stage. But this was only one of Hallie's headaches. Her effort to decentralize the Federal Theatre, a highly successful move when measured by the number of new theatres being formed around the country in a very brief time, did not always produce work of the highest professional quality. Moreover, the effort sometimes stimulated narrow regional prejudices and chauvinisms. Most dangerous of all, the social and political tub-thumping of the Federal Theatre made it consistently vulnerable to government censorship.

Harry Hopkins had promised Hallie a theatre that was "free, adult, uncensored." Too often, he was unable to keep that pledge. This should not surprise us. There are few patrons of the arts, least of all the government, who have been able to refrain from meddling in the conduct of the artists they support, especially when their work has a high political profile. And there is no question that Federal Theatre artists, with Hallie's blessings, did not hesitate to embroil her in controversy.

Hallie was never opposed to using the theatre for propaganda purposes, if that meant exposing political corruption or unjust social conditions. But although she was often accused of promoting Communism, and even of being a Communist herself, she never consciously allowed the Federal theatre to be used for the purpose of endorsing political parties or advancing political aims. Indeed, she did not hesitate to cancel plays that seemed to her overtly partisan. As she wrote in a note chastizing one of her more radical producers, "I will not have the Federal Theatre used politically. I will not have it used to further the ends of the Democratic party, the Republican party, or the Communist party."

The occasion was a production called Injunction Granted, a play about duped workers and rapacious capitalists that Hallie called "bad journalism and hysterical theatre" because it used government funds "as a party tool." It may have been disingenuous of her to believe that her goal of "a relevant theatre with regional roots," devoted to dramatizing social problems like homelessness and electrical power, would not be exploited for narrow political purposes. It may have been even more naive to assume that the agency that subsidized these productions would refrain from suppressing or censoring them if they threatened government interests.

The first government collision arose over a play called Ethiopa when the WPA banned the appearance on stage of such heads of state as Benito Mussolini and Haile Selassie (Robert Schnitzer's Delaware production of Julius Caesar was also castigated for insulting Il Duce). This move led to the resignation of Elmer Rice as director of the New York Project. There would be even more consternation when Federal Theatre productions criticized or ridiculed American political figures, an irresistible temptation considering the level of mind in Congress at the time.

Hallie began by dividing her empire into five large units: 1) the Living Newspaper, 2) popular price theatre, with Yiddish, Spanish, and other ethnic companies, 3) experimental theatre, 4) Negro theatre, under the directorship of John Houseman and Rose McClendon, and 5) tryout theatre. Hallie's Living Newspapers were always destined to be the most inflammatory things she produced. An effort to dramatize the news ("something like the March of Time in the movies," Harry Hopkins explained to a belligerent Congressman), the Living Newspaper was a spinoff of the epic techniques of Brecht and Piscator. Using confrontational devices and polemical themes, it was meant to be an antidote to a commercial theatre that, in Hallie's words, "continues to tell in polite whispers its tales of small triangular love stories in small rectangular settings." The Living Newspaper settings, as designed by scenic artists like Howard Bay and Mordecai Gorelik, making good use of George Izenour's new remote-control switchboard, were imaginative and various. They substituted light and projections for the "cumbersome scenery" that Hallie and other theatre visionaries were now finding obsolete, mainly because "The cinema," as she added prophetically, "had beaten realism at its own game."

More importantly, the stories told in these openly propagandistic pieces concerned the big issues of the time. In the first of the Living Theatre successes, Triple A Plowed Under, the Federal Theatre enjoined the farmer and the consumer to unite for higher wages and healthier food. It ran for eighty-five performances in New York and was later produced in Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee (though not in Texas where a WPA administrator exhorted Hallie to do "old plays" that didn't evoke bad criticism). That Texan bureaucrat might have had the same complaint about Power, a call for public ownership of utilities, and Spirochete, a history of syphillis climaxing with a call for mandatory blood tests, and (unquestionably the Federal Theatre's greatest success) One Third of a Nation, which exposed the existence of poor housing conditions in the nation's largest cities.

The audience's appetite for "old plays," however, would seem to have been satisfied by the Federal Theatre unit under the direction of John Houseman and Orson Welles. But even classical production was not to be free of controversy. These early efforts to deconstruct classics by making them more "relevant" to the contemporary world (a process later employed by such modern directors as Andrei Serban, Peter Brook, and Peter Sellars), successful as some of them were, still managed to raise hackles. Houseman had hired Welles, at the tender age of twenty, to direct Macbeth with his Negro unit. Setting the play in Haiti, Welles turned the witches into voodoo witch-doctors and treated the central character as if he were "Emperor Jones gone beautifully mad," thereby creating a triumph that played New York and toured the country to great acclaim. The success of this Voodoo Macbeth encouraged Negro units throughout the country to stage black versions of other European classics such as The Swing Mikado and Lysistrata, though the latter was eventually shut down by the WPA for being too "risqué."

Following Macbeth, which was staged at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, Houseman and Welles took over the Maxine Elliot Theatre on Broadway to produce two more scintillating versions of classic plays: Horse Eats Hat, a wild adaptation of a 19th-Century Labiche farce featuring the young Joseph Cotten, and Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, directed by and starring Welles in the title role (his first leading part in New York).

It Can't Happen Here, NYC, 1936Faustus was by all accounts a mesmerizing retinterpretation of a great classical play, with Jack Carter (the black actor who played Macbeth) turning Mephistopheles into a dignified, bemused portrait of evil, and with Welles indulging his weakness for heavy makeup along with his lifelong passion for magic in the way he staged the episode involving the Seven Deadly Sins. The Federal Theatre was now on a roll. Critics were calling it the "greatest producer of hits" in New York. The best dramatists of the day, such as Bernard Shaw and Eugene O'Neill, were letting the project do their plays for a royalty of $50 a week or less, delighted to get produced in regions that would normally never be exposed to their work. Similarly, novelists like Sinclair Lewis were only too happy to accept Hallie's invitation to adapt their novels into plays. Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, about the coming of fascism to America, though a poor piece of dramatic writing, had twenty-two productions opening simultaneously in eighteen cities, and played to nearly 500,000 people. Inevitably, the play was interpreted as campaign propaganda for the New Deal.

Despite its accumulating successes, however, the Federal Theatre suffered a grievous loss in authority and personnel when Marc Blitzstein's Brechtian satire The Cradle Will Rock was cancelled by the WPA administration, on the eve of its opening, under the pretext of budget cutting. The story of the opera's clandestine resurrection is now too well known to require extensive retelling (that episode would be the centerpiece of Tim Robbins' 1999 film, also called The Cradle Will Rock, which starred Cherry Jones as Hallie Flanagan). Suffice it to say, Welles and Houseman walked their opening-night audience twenty blocks uptown from the Maxine Elliot to the empty Venice Theatre; Blitzstein played the entire score from his piano; and the actors, cleverly skirting a union injunction, sang their parts from the house, all to thunderous applause.

But it was a Pyrrhic victory for the Federal Theatre. Welles and Houseman left the project soon after to form their own Mercury Theatre, where they produced a groundbreaking Julius Caesar in black shirts and a mesmerizing Heartbreak House that found the twenty-two year old Orson Welles once again applying excessive makeup to play the octogenerian Captain Shotover. But although Hallie professed to be happy whenever her artists found work in the commercial theatre, the Houseman-Welles defection left her without her two most dynamic figures and valuable assets.

She was also losing her greatest supporter in the Roosevelt Administration, Harry Hopkins who, ill with cancer, was starting to let less informed assistants make his decisions for him. (The quality of those decisions can be assessed by the opinion of one of them, a California bureaucrat, who called a good theatre project "anything that keeps out of the papers"). In his second term, Roosevelt had cut government spending in order to avoid inflation and give business a leg up and, as usual, the first area to suffer was the arts.

Around this time, Hallie remained resolutely focused on her mandate to create a truly national theatre, making tireless tours of the country in an effort to ensure that all the regional units were running well and maintaining high standards. Wherever she went, she encountered gratitude from artists and audiences alike, but also hostility from some of the press and abuse from some of the politicians. There was the usual criticism growing in Congress that too much money was being spent in New York by Bolshevik sympathizers. The Washington Post called for an end of the Federal Theatre and its "frilly artistic projects." Hearst's San Francisco Examiner carried a headline demanding "Federal Theatre Communist Trend Must Be Eradicated." One Congressional investigator was appalled that, in some Federal Theatre shows, blacks and whites shared the same stage and even "danced together." Even the titles of harmless Federal Theatre stock farces--The Bishop Misbehaves, Up In Mabel's Room, Lend Me Your Husband--were being denounced as lewd and salacious by Congressmen who never bothered to see the plays.

It must be admitted that the Workers Alliance, a socialist organization said to be a nursery for the Communist party, was recruiting a lot of Federal Theatre employees. And it is also true that some of the project's later work, notably the children's play Revolt of the Beavers, was sufficiently slanted to provoke the Times's Brooks Atkinson into saying it was Karl Marx disguised as Mother Goose and the Saturday Evening Post into charging the Federal Theatre with teaching poor children to murder rich ones (actually, kids of all income brackets loved the show as a story of good guys versus bad guys). Hallie often replied, with a zealousness that knew no fear, that only a free people could create a Federal Theatre, that it was a democratic answer both to communism and fascism. But no one seemed to be listening. The Federal Theatre, lacking any genuine grassroots support, was being convicted without defense in the court of public opinion.

Eventually, the House Un-American Activities Committee under the chairmanship of the notorious Martin Dies of Texas, saw the political controversy engulfing the Federal Theatre as an excellent opportunity to attack the Roosevelt administration. Dies's fellow committeeman from New Jersey, J. Parnell Thomas--both of them would soon turn their attention in the direction of "Reds" in Hollywood--identified the Federal Theatre not just as a "link in the vast and unparallelled New Deal propaganda machine," but as an arm of the Communist Party. In the words of Jane De Hart Matthews (The Federal Theatre, 1935-39), "Hereafter, Hallie Flanagan would find her time and attention devoted increasingly to defense of the Federal Theatre, rather than to its expansion."

Hallie's preoccupation with defending the reputation of her enterprise would also occupy the attention of the best commentators on the subject--not only Ms. De Hart but, as she admitted in her poignant and powerful memoir Arena, Hallie herself. As a drama with its own heroes and villains, this conflict between strongarm politics and defenseless art was a natural for press attention, but its outcome was foreordained. Not only would the Democratic administration fail to put through its projected plan for a new governmental Department of Art, providing subsidized theatrical, musical, and art activities in twenty-five to one hundred cities. It would be enjoined from supporting any art at all, most especially the art of the theatre.

What is deeply frustrating about this encounter is that for many months the eloquent Hallie Flanagan was prevented by the WPA administration from releasing any statements to the press in her own defense. She had to remain silent not only in the face of criticism of her own politics but of the Federal Theatre's artistic achievements. Witness after witness testified to how the Federal Theatre was dominated by Communists and fellow travellers, after which Representative Clifton Woodrum of Virginia informed the House that "[The Federal Theatre] has produced nothing of merit as far as national productions are concerned," adding with smug pride, "We are going out of the theatre business."

Hallie Flanagan Davis testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee,  1938Finally, Hallie was allowed to submit a brief before the Dies Committee, after a large number of unfriendly witnesses had sufficiently tarnished the reputation of her endeavor. The brief was never read or published, but some of it was covered in her testimony. She began by defending the patriotism of her project ("Since August 29, 1935, I have been...combatting Un-American activity") and herself against charges that, because she had once visited Russia and written favorably about Russian theatre, she was a Red. It is disheartening to find this dignified human being forced to say "that I am not and never have been a Communist; that I am a registered Democrat...that I had planned and directed Federal Theatre from the first as an American enterprise." Words of a similar nature would echo and re-echo throughout Congressional chambers for many years to come.

Hallie was willing to concede that many of her productions were expressions of propaganda, but insisted that propaganda was a form of education for democracy, rather than a tool for advancing Communist doctrine. In a moment that summed up the nature of this investigation, she was asked by Representative Joseph Starnes about an ominous figure named Christopher Marlowe. "You are quoting from this Marlowe. Is he a Communist?" "Put in the record," Hallie replied, "that he was the greatest dramatist in the period of Shakespeare." It was a blunder on a level with the Committee charge some years later that the eight-year-old Shirley Temple was a Communist for dancing with Bill Robinson, and it was a blunder that would end up in Starnes' obituary, though unfortunately not on his tombstone.

But Hallie could make no impact on a Committee determined to extinguish the Federal Theatre from the face of the earth. With Chairman Dies raising his gavel to end the hearings for lunch, Hallie asked to be allowed to make a final statement. Dies said he would consider it, but she never got her chance to be heard again, nor was her testimony ever distributed. "We don't want you back," declared Congressman Thomas, "You're a tough customer and we're all worn out."

As a direct result of these hearings, the House eventually passed, by a vote of 373 to 21, the Relief Bill for 1939-40 calling for sweeping changes in the WPA program, including drastic cuts in arts funding and the imposition of loyalty oaths designed to get rid of radicals. It also called for an end to the Federal Theatre. Hallie learned about this development from a newspaper someone handed her, shocked that Congress had decided on what she called "outright execution rather than slow strangulation." There would be rallies on behalf of the Federal Theatre. Critics would speak of its great achievements. Orson Welles would offer to debate hostile politicians on radio. Telegrams would pour in from far and wide. And the Senate, charmed by Tallulah Bankhead, daughter of one of its members, would briefly consider keeping the Federal Theatre alive for a few more years. But the effort failed because the Senate was reluctant to put other artists out of work in order to save funds for the theatre, and, for the same reason, Roosevelt sadly signed the bill.

Despite Hallie's brave cries of "Do not give up," and the thunderous support of the entire theatre industry and thousands of supporters, all efforts to save the Federal Theatre proved of no avail. This first attempt in history to subsidize serious Ameridan theatre with federal funds was treated by Congress with the same hostility, maliciousness, and fear that were later to surround the National Endowment for the Arts, and a great Idea, one that brought fine theatre to a new audience of millions of Americans, fell victim to narrow and bigoted minds. "Thus Federal Theatre ended as it began," wrote Hallie in Arena, "with fearless presentation of problems touching American life. If this first government theatre in our country had been less alive it might have lived longer. But I do not believe anyone who worked on it regrets that it stood from first to last against reaction, against prejudice, against racial, religious, and political intolerance. It strove for a more dramatic statement and a better understanding of the great forces of our life today; it fought for a free theatre as one of the many expressions of a civilized, informed, and vigorous life."

Hallie not only lost her job; she lost her second husband, Philip H. Davis, soon after the demise of the Federal Theatre. She went back to academic life in 1941, accepting a position at Smith College as Dean and as Professor of Drama. It was there that I first met her, as a student at Amherst when one of my Smith girlfriends was playing in a Living Newspaper piece called E=MC Square about the splitting of the atom. Four years later, she developed the illness that seems to afflict so many theatre artists, Parkinson's disease, and retired to her old haunts in Poughkeepsie near Vassar, where she died in 1969 at the age of seventy-nine.

The Voices of the Federal Theatre, some of them growing a little hoarse and parched with age, all testify to the vigor, the energy, the controversy, and the fearlessness that characterized this project and its leader. Reflecting the ephemeral nature of the theatre itself, nothing remains of the productions except for some faded photographs and some yellowing scripts. But just as other Federal arts projects produced such giants as John Cheever, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright in the Writers program, and Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Philip Guston, and Jack Levine in the Art project, the Theatre program provided a home for some of the most brilliant actors, directors, designers, and dancers of the period (only the Group Theatre can boast as many gifted alumni): Orson Welles and John Houseman, Norman Lloyd, Arthur Kennedy, Katherine Dunham, Helen Tamiris, Jack Carter, Canada Lee, Ian Keith, Joseph Cotten, Burt Lancaster, Sidney Lumet, E.G. Marshall, Alvin Childress, Will Geer, Paula Lawrence, John Randolph, Jules Dassin, Jose Limon--the list is endless. And this, in the face of the fact that the Federal Theatre was mandated to hire not reigning stars but primarily the unemployed.

But let the last words be those of the great woman who saw this project through those four exhilarating, demoralizing, incomparable years: "The President of the United States in writing to me of his regret at the closing of the Federal Theatre referred to it as a pioneering job. This it was, gutsy, lusty, bad and good, sad and funny, superbly worth more wit, wisdom and imagination than we could give it. Its significance lies in pointing to the future. The ten thousand anonymous men and women--the et ceteras and the and-so-forths who did the work, the nobodies who were everybody, the somebodies who believed it--their dreams and deeds were not the end. They were the beginning of a people's theatre in a country whose greatest plays are still to come."

Those of us in the serious American theatre have built on the back of this brave enterprise, and in the shadow of the unconquerable figure who led it. May her spirit rest, unperturbed and proud.


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