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The Great Depression and the Arts
A Unit of Study for Grades 8-12

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Poster for the San Francisco production of Power
Poster for the San Francisco production of Power. Courtesy the Library of Congress

Lesson Four: The New Deal's Federal Theatre Project

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  1. Student Objectives
  2. Background Information
  3. Lesson Activities (3 days)
  4. Extended Activities
  5. Resources

A. Student Objectives

  • To acquaint students with the New Deal's Federal Theatre Project (FTP) and the rationale for its creation.
  • To identify social, economic, and political issues which were the focus of Living Newspaper productions of the FTP.
  • To see how the arts can inform people about historical issues and events.
  • To debate the government's role in supporting the arts.
  • To analyze primary source material regarding the relationship between art and propaganda.

B. Background Information

Activity in the arts was one aspect of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Established in April 1935 and directed by Harry Hopkins, its purpose was to provide socially useful work for the unemployed. WPA programs included the construction of public buildings such as schools, hospitals and courthouses; highways; recreational facilities such as athletic fields and parks and playgrounds; and conservation facilities such as fish hatcheries and bird sanctuaries.

In addition four WPA arts projects ("Federal One") were established. "Federal One" not only provided work for artists, writers, musicians, and actors but nurtured young men and women who were embarking on a career in the arts during the Great Depression. Writers and artists such as Ralph Ellison and Jackson Pollock were among the many who were able to develop their talents during a critical period in their professional lives. The Federal Writer's Project (FWP) employed writers to produce a variety of publications. The FWP's most famous effort was a series of guidebooks for states, cities, and localities such as Death Valley. The Federal Music Project (FMP) provided jobs for thousands of musicians who performed for millions during the lifetime of the project. The Federal Art Project (FAP) had painters and sculptors create works of art and teach studio and art history classes. The Federal Theatre Project (FTP), directed by Hallie Flanagan, was created according to Hopkins as a "free, adult, uncensored" federal theater. In addition to theater productions the FTP also established radio units, dance and vaudeville and circus productions, as well as marionette and children's theater companies. Reflecting the times, "Negro Units" were established in several cities.

The FTP was controversial. Its supporters hailed it as a wonderful experiment while critics saw it as "boondoggling", a heavy handed propaganda effort for the New Deal. Mired in controversy, Hallie Flanagan came to the defense of the project declaring in an essay, "Democracy and the Drama," that the plays produced by the FTP ". . . represent the new frontier in America, a frontier against disease, dirt, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and despair. . . ."

Profound changes in the role of the Federal government wrought by the New Deal concerned many Americans. Critics felt fundamental values were being eroded by increased government involvement in all facets of American life. At the same time events in Europe and Asia suggested that fascism and communism presented serious threats to America. Hitler's rise to power in Germany, Mussolini's dominance of Italy, Japan's war with China, and the continued dominance of communism in the Soviet Union caused many Americans to fear un-American activities in the United States. It is within this context that the House of Representatives in May 1938 established an Un-American Activities Committee to investigate profascist organizations.

Under the direction of Chairman Martin Dies (D-Texas), the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was charged with the task of determining the "extent, character, and objects of un-American propaganda activities in the United States." The Chairman and its conservative members turned their attention to left-wing groups, immigrant organizations, and labor unions. Building on bipartisan opposition to the New Deal, the committee began to focus its attention on the Federal Theatre Project which had become one of the New Deal's most vulnerable creations. Members of the Committee accused the FTP of advocating the spread of communist ideology through the social themes of the plays it produced. Congressman J. Parnell Thomas (R-NJ), a member of the committee announced, weeks before the committee convened, "It is apparent from the startling evidence received thus far that the Federal Theatre Project not only is serving as a branch of the Communistic organization but is also one more link in the vast and unparalleled New Deal propaganda machine. . . ."

The New Deal's FTP was an easy target in part because of the public perception that arts were an unnecessary frill and questioned government expenditures for the production of plays. Playing on public concerns, members of the committee aroused popular sentiment against the FTP by charging that writers, actors, and stage hands were members of the American Communist Party. The legislation establishing the art project specifically stipulated that political affiliation could not be used to discriminate in hiring. Although Congress had the two major parties in mind when the legislation was written, the law had the unintended effect of protecting members of the Communist Party. Director Hallie Flanagan explained in her testimony that the law simply prohibited a political test in hiring. This however did not satisfy committee members who demanded to know the party affiliation of the FTP personnel. During testimony before the committee Director Flanagan quoted Christopher Marlowe. One congressman interrupted demanding to know Marlowe's political affiliation. Flanagan's explanation that Marlowe was one of England's greatest dramatists of the Shakespearean era failed to discredit the inquisitors who played on public fears.

The Living Newspaper, at the focal point of most of the controversy, was one of the more creative forms of the FTP. Each play identified a social problem and called for specific solutions. According to Brooks Atkinson, a New York Times drama critic, writers were "to shake the living daylights out of a thousand books, reports, newspaper and magazine articles" to create documentaries based on current news stories. Living Newspapers were collective efforts in many ways. The project involved a staff similar to that of a large city newspaper, with editors, reporters, and copyreaders. News gathering and research were paramount. The factual material gathered by reporters and researchers was given to dramatists, directors, stage technicians, and actors who would create dramatic material for presentation to an audience. Dialogue in each of the plays often footnoted newspaper and magazine articles to lend authenticity to the script.

Actual productions also used a variety of creative techniques. Stages had aprons, ramps, runways, and different levels. Frequent scene changes meant actors often carried props on and off stage. Scrim, a translucent curtain, could be illuminated so that action could be in front of or behind it, altering the dimensions of the stage. Animated cartoons, movies, photographs, headlines, charts, and other visual effects were projected onto the scrim, various backdrops, or portions of scenery. The offstage loudspeaker, "The Voice of the Living Newspaper," provided descriptive narratives, identified characters, or conveyed a variety of sound effects.

Electrification, David Stone Martin, 1940. Fine Arts Collection.
Electrification, David Stone Martin, 1940. Fine Arts Collection (General Services Administration).

The Federal Theatre Project provides an opportunity to see how the New Deal addressed the Great Depression. It provided employment for hundreds and it established a federal government presence in the arts. Through this promotion of artistic expression the New Deal impacted the cultural life of the Depression years and contributed significantly to changes in American life during the 1930s.

C. Lesson Activities (3 days)

The two Living Newspaper productions in this lesson, Power and One-Third of a Nation, illustrate the Federal Theatre Project's concern for social issues. These Living Newspaper productions represent examples of "the documentary impulse" with their emphasis on facts. Each identified a significant social problem, explored the issues surrounding that problem, and suggested possible solutions. Power focused on electrification and the ownership of public utilities while One-Third of a Nation dealt with the problem of housing.

Introduce the lesson by providing some background on the Federal Theatre Project and specifically, the Living Newspaper dramas. Select one or both of the plays to use in class. If both plays are used, you may wish to divide the class into two groups and have each examine a different play. Before distributing the play scripts, have students research issues on which the dramas are based. For Power, students should read text accounts of the Tennessee Valley Authority and Roosevelt's message to Congress calling for the establishment of TVA along with notes he later wrote regarding the program. For One-Third of a Nation have students examine text readings and oral histories to determine the affects of the depression on people's lives, especially focusing on the affects of the continuing economic depression which stimulated the inauguration of the Second New Deal. Students should also read excerpts from Roosevelt's second inaugural, his address to a Democratic Party victory dinner, and the Fireside Chat of March 9, 1937. The documents in this lesson along with text readings provide a basis for analysis of the issues raised in each play. Questions with each of the documents may help to focus student discussion.

Distribute copies of the excerpts of the selected play(s) (See Documents Section) for homework reading. Have students perform the play as a readers' theater. Provide "rehearsal" time if you wish for a more dramatic performance.

Depending on time for this activity, you may wish to have students perform the excerpts provided in these documents or have them select scenes to perform for the class. If students elect to perform several scenes from the provided script, have them explain the reasons for their selection of these scenes during debriefing.

Following the readers' theater, conduct a debriefing session using the following general questions as a discussion guide.

  1. What is the issue the Living Newspaper dramatizes?
  2. What is the point of view/interpretation of the Living Newspaper regarding the issue?
  3. Based upon the knowledge you have about the issue as result of your research and study how accurate is the production's version of the truth?

Conclude the lesson by having students read excerpts of testimonies before the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities (See Testimonies). Witnesses called before the committee included actors, administrative personnel, and the National Director of the FTP, Hallie Flanagan. Although it is difficult to do justice to testimony which covers thousands of pages, excerpts can give some idea of the criticisms levied against the FTP and the Living Newspaper dramas.

Assign students roles of the nine individuals in these excerpts of the hearings. Have each read their testimony to the class. The nine persons are (in order they appear in Document 12): Congressman Martin Dies (Chairman, Texas); Mr. Wallace Stark; Congressman J. Parnell Thomas (New Jersey); Miss Hazel Huffman; Congressman John Dempsey (New Mexico); Congressman Joe Starnes (Alabama); Congressman Harold G. Mosier (Ohio); Mr. Charles Walton; and Mrs. Hallie Flanagan.

Divide the remainder of the class into groups representing different newspapers reporting on the hearings. One group should represent a liberal newspaper which has enthusiastically supported FDR and New Deal legislation. Another a more conservative newspaper which has consistently spoken out against the New Deal for advocating socialism. A third represents a middle-of-the-road newspaper. Depending on class size other groups could be assigned to represent newspapers whose editorial policy favors Gerald L. K. Smith's Union Party (including many of the followers of the slain "Kingfish" Huey P. Long); or, the American Communist Party.

Assign each group three tasks: 1) write a factual news story on the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities; 2) write an editorial on the hearings; and 3) draw a political cartoon to depict the paper's editorial policy regarding the hearing. Permit students to divide the three tasks within each group. Depending on class size you may wish to have students working in pairs. Post the student work in the classroom and discuss the differences in perspectives in the news articles, editorials, and cartoons.

Another option would be to create a news conference at which time all hearing participants would answer questions from reporters. Participants can be asked to respond to parts of their testimony. Committee members can be asked about their opinions and statements made. Reporters would need to prepare relevant questions and be able to follow-up with reactions to the answers.

As an overall assessment for this lesson have students write a reflective essay with a general synthesizing discussion about the role of propaganda and the government sponsorship of the arts.

D. Extended Activities

Identify an issue from the 1930s and create and perform a Living Newspaper play. Divide the class according to various task assignments that the FTP actually used to create a Living Newspaper. Have students create a poster to advertise their play.

Write a Living Newspaper play based on the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on the Federal Theatre Project.

Organize a debate on the government's sponsorship of drama and art during the New Deal such as: "Resolved: The FTP is "boondoggling" at its worst with productions merely heavy handed New Deal and communist propaganda."

Research the controversies over federal government support for the National Endowment for the Arts and compare and or contrast with political opposition to the Works Progress Administration's "Federal One" (art, theater, music, and writers' projects).

E. Resources

The following resources will assist in the development of this lesson:

Buttitta, Tony, and Barry Witham. Uncle Sam Presents: A Memoir of the Federal Theatre, 1935-1939. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

De Rohan, Pierre (ed). Federal Theatre Plays. New York: Random House, 1938.

Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt. New York: Random House. 1938-1941. (Materials relating to Power are in Volume 2, and One-Third of a Nation are in Volume 6.)

United States Congress. Hearings. Special Committee on Un-American Activities. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1938.

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The Great Depression and the Arts

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