Depression-born, the Federal Theater lived only four years, but long enough to employ, at one point, 12,000 people, mount 830 stage productions and some 6,000 radio plays.
Current performances by the New Federal Theater Tuesdays in the Library of Congress and Wednesdays through Sundays at the National Heritage Theater, 13th and E Streets NW, have prompted interest in this largely forgotten division of the WPA, Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration.
Seeds of the Federal Theater's beginnings were in conversations then-New York Sen. Robert Wagner had with Mary Stewart French and Olga Samaroff Stokowski, the conductor's wife. The women were working on a plan which became ANTA, the American National Theater and Academy. The powerful New York senator promised to introduce them to President Roosevelt.
By the time French and Stokowski met FDR his actions to get people back to work had taken precedence over theater as art. Whatever everyone needed then was work.
After several earlier projects had been seen as inadequate, the Works Progress Administration was created in April, 1935, with Harry Hopkins as administrator. Within it were several Federal Arts projects, including Arts, headed by painter Edward Bruce, and Theater, for which Hopkins picked as national director his classmate at Iowa's Grinnell College, Hallie Flanagan, by then head of Vassar's noted Experimental Theater.
As John Houseman, who was to work with her, later remarked, Flanagan "was not drawn from the commercial hierarchy of Broadway but from among the dreamers and experimenters, the eggheads of the American theater."
Allowed to offer salaries of $23.86 per week, Flanagan embarked on all forms of theater to get professional performers back to work. Nine out of 10 Federal Theater members, she later would report, came from relief rolls and $9 out of $10 were spent for wages.
The programs embraced classical and modern plays, dance, musical comedy, children's plays, marionette shows and cycles of plays by recognized and new dramatists, covering all the then-48 states.
She tells the story in her 1940 memoir, "Arena."
Playwright Elmer Rice was almost the only established theater name to throw his weight into Flanagan's project. After hearing Hopkins' promise that the Federal Theater would be kept free from censorship and seeing this as "the first time in American history the government was fostering the arts, even though the projects were intended primarily to reduce unemployment," the famed playwrigth agreed to head the New York region.
Bureaucracy quickly cut him down. On his first day he was informed that "first we'll have to requisition some requisition blanks." There were seven copies to be signed for every form and no provisos were in the legislation to rent theaters. After the State Department protested that Mussolini might "take offense" at a Living Newspaper play about Italy's invasion of Ethiopia, Harry Hopkins failed to back up his promise to Rice of no censorship. Five months after taking the job, Rice quit.
Some of the Federal Theater's earliest unknowns were Will Geer of "The Waltons," Joseph Cotten, still acting, Abe Feder, the lighting expert, John Houseman, the director whose first acting role recently netted him an Oscar, and Houseman's 20-year-old friend, Orson Welles.
Introduced to Flanagan by that activist critic, Rosamond Gilder, of Theater Arts Monthly, Houseman took on formation of the New York WPA Negro Theater.
A white man, Houseman carefully chose two Negro aides, Edward Perry, his stage manager for the Stein-Thomson "Four Saints in Three Acts," and Carlton Moss, trained at Maryland's Morgan College and a speaker last Tuesday at the Library of Congress "Black Theater" performance.
Restoring Harlem's Lafayette Theater was fairly uncomplicated; choosing plays, Houseman found, was far trickier. Downtown successes, revues and musicials, he said, were "under ideological censure from both Left and Right," regarded as "handkerchief-head and so, for our purposes, anathema."
Classical works topped Houseman's priorities, and the idea appealed to his friend Welles, then earning his living through his magnificent voice on radio. Welles was inspired to think of staging "Macbeth" with a Haitian background and for months its preparation excited Harlem, proud to have gotten its Federal Theater into operation before all others.
Hammond's description of the Federal Theater as "deluxe boondoggling" reflected the commercial theater's distrust of the project. Its prices of 50 cents to a dollar seemed to threaten economic traditions. The Left felt the Federal Theater didn't go far enough, the unions objected to under-scale wages and the Right was outraged by dramatized statistics.
All this now seems confusing, for 830 separate major titles, only 81 were criticized as to content and of those only 29 had originated with the Federal Theater. Besides the "Lving Newspaper" series, mostly by Arthur Arent, who died five years ago after a career largely devoted to U.S. Steel's Theater Guild on the Air, remembered productions include Sinclair Lewis's "It Can't Happen Here," which opened simultaneously in 21 cites, "The Swing Swing Mikado," E.P. Conkle's Lincoln drama, "Prologue to Glory," "Haiti," "Women of America" and Paul Green's "The Lost Colony," still playing each summer on Manteo Island, N.C.
In "Drama and Commitment," Gerald Rabkin observed: "Let us not forget that although social plays constituted only a small percentage of its prolific record, the phenomenon of the Federal Theater was itself indicative of a social atmosphere in which art and political commitment were intimately interrelated . . . The project's main contribution was theatrical, not dramatic, in the principle rather than in the results of government-sponsored drama."
The abrupt end of the Federal Theater came in the way Washington most understands. Nobody won or lost the arguments before the House Un-Amercian Activities Committee, whose chairman, Martin Dies, said he was "shocked by vulgarity and profanity" in some of the works, and where Rep. J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey sniffed "communism." Congress simply failed to appropriate funds for the Federal Theater to continue.
Playwright Rice observed: "The demise was perhaps the most tragic occurrence in the cultural history of the United States. Had funds been provided for continuance, upon esthetic basis divorced from unemployment relief, the foundation would have been laid for a nationwide theatrical structure that would have brought enlightenment and enjoyment to millions and stimulation to artistic creation. The cost, compared to the billions expended annually upon weapons of destruction, would have been infinitesimal."
Forty years later the Endowment for the Arts, after 30 years of talk, legislation and beginnings, seems to be an accepted federal tradition, but a book could be written about potential hurdles ahead based on the Federal Theater's short, complex history.
The Federal Theater papers of the Library of Congress were stored for years in an airplane hangar/warehouse in Maryland and now are on permanent loan to George Mason University, which has created a research center on its Fairfax compus. While the material cannot be removed, scholars are welcome to research the collection there.