Hallie Flanagan & the Federal Theatre Project

Virgil Geddes, Hallie Flanagan and Harry Hopkins in lobby of Experimental Theatre, from the New Deal Network
Hallie Flanagan, photo from the New Deal Stage
"Macbeth," photo from George Mason Univ. SC&A

Hallie Flanagan on Aug. 27, 1935, became director of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) that would reach 25 million Americans with 1000 plays in 50,000 performances produced by 12,000 actors, directors, stagehands in 40 theaters in 20 states. She was described by John Houseman as "a small, forthright, enthusiastic lady with strong teeth, whose matted reddish hair lay like a wig on her skull and who seemed to take her vast responsibilities with amazing self-confidence and sang-froid." (Gustaitis p. 16) Hopkins and Flanagan had both grown up in Grinnell Iowa and she went on to become the first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship that she spent studying theater in Europe. By 1935 she was the director of the Experimental Theater at Vassar in FDR's hometown of Poughkeepsie NY. She met with Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House in May 1935, and began working informally with Hopkins and WPA regional directors to develop a plan for regional theaters. Hopkins and Flanagan both shared the goal of the New Deal to democratize the arts in America, increase popular participation in government programs, and create a national arts program. Her headquarters in Washington DC was the McLean mansion on Dupont Circle. Hopkins on Aug. 27, 1935, asserted a fundamental policy of the FDP: "I am asked whether a theatre subsidized by the government can be kept free from censorship, and I say yes, it is going to be kept free from censorship. What we want is a free, adult, uncensored theatre." On March 25, 1937, Flanagan moved her headquarters to New York City.

Sinclair Lewis wanted to write an anti-fascist play, but the FDR administration cancelled his production of "Ethiopia" because it might offend Italy. Lewis wrote another anti-fascist fantasy called "It Can't Happen Here" that opened Dec. 1936 in 21 locations and became one of the most popular FTP plays grossing $80,000 in 4 months from an audience of 275,000 that paid $.30 admission. The FTP paid actors and writers $22.73 per week with an additional $3 per day for expenses. Only one member of a household could be employed by the WPA.

Orson Welles was only 21 years old when he and John Houseman produced a version of "Macbeth" using black actors and set in Haiti during the era of Napoleon. Welles also adapted a version of Christopher Marlowe's "The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus" for the Living Newspaper. The "Revolt of the Beavers" was a children's fairytale about exploited beavers who rose up against a cruel chief beaver. The problems of the nation's public schools was the topic of "Chalk Dust" that became a popular play. Marc Blitzstein wrote "The Cradle Will Rock" but it's premier was cancelled in 1937 due to a steel strike and a cutback in government funding.

Conservatives in Congress opposed the liberal themes of many FTP plays and began to cut funding for the program. On June 10, 1937, the FTP was ordered to cut the New York project by 30%. This would contribute to the closing of Blitzstein's play as well as the end of the Federal Theatre Magazine and the firing of a thousand workers in 1937. Clifton A. Woodrum led the anti-theatre efforts of the house Committee on Appropriations. Martin Dies conducted hearings of the new House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities (HUAC) created in May 1938 to investigate subversion. The Committee began hearings on the Federal Theatre Project in August 1938. Witnesses included Hazel Huffman and her husband Seymour Revzin who had been fired from the WPA for lying and soliciting money. Flanagan testified Dec. 6, 1938, with Ellen Woodward of the WPA.The Committee branded most playwrights in the history of theater as communists, including Christopher Marlowe and Euripedes. Congress voted to end funding for the FTP, effective June 30, 1939. After destroying the FTP, the next target of Martin Dies would be Hollywood.

page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

History Department | Filmnotes | revised 1/22/2000 by Schoenherr