Electricity in the Limelight:
It may seem odd that theater-goers in the 1930s would think an enjoyable night on the town might include attending a vaudeville-like production on the history and evils of the power industry, but the American public had long been fascinated and outraged by the subject of electric power. In depression-era America electricity was not simply a taken-for-granted convenience; electricity meant progress and modernity. Since the Progressive Era, a pitched battle over the meaning and control of electricity had engaged reformers, who saw electric power as a public good, and business interests, who saw electricity as a commodity. By the beginning of the 1930s, cooperative or municipally owned and operated utilities were on the decline, accounting for scarcely 5 percent of the production of electricity in the United States. However, a series of sensational investigations, the collapse of one of the largest of the electric utility cartels, and the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt reinvigorated the cause for publicly controlled utilities.  Waged in the courts, in Congressional investigations, in local elections, and in massive public relation campaigns, the power struggle over power had all the elements of grand theateror so thought staff members in the Federal Theatre Project's Living Newspaper Unit.
By the 1930s, most of the electric industry in the United States had organized into vast, multi-leveled public utility holding companies, corporations that confined their activities to owning stock in and supervising the management of other companies. (See Power, Holding Company) Holding companies allowed the operating companiesthe local utility companies that produced and supplied electric power to consumersto operate with greater efficiency by pooling the costs of shared corporate services among the affiliated companies, but the size and complexity of the holding company structure left them susceptible to abuses, and in 1928, at Congress's request, the Federal Trade Commission undertook an investigation of the public utility industry. The FTC study found that holding companies often bought other holding companies, creating up to 10 layers of ownership between a utility subsidiary and its ultimate holding company. Since it was difficult to determine the true assets and liabilities of the company, this structure greatly increased the speculative nature of the holding companies' securities. The holding company structure made it virtually impossible to trace these abusive transactions. As a result, investors were defrauded, subsidiary companies were forced to pay excessive prices for services, and in the end, energy prices were grossly inflated.
In the early 1930s, much of the public's resentment towards "corporate insiders [holding] unwarranted and intolerable powers over other people's money," as President Roosevelt himself described the situation,  focused on a single individual, Samuel Insull, the electric utilities executive who had headed one of the largest utility holding company empires. A protégée of Thomas Edison and a creative technological and financial innovator in his own right, Insull had presided over the development of the industry since its earliest years, helping to establish New York City's first electric generating system, introducing the practice of electric meters to gage individual consumption of power, systemizing electric power production practices, and advocating the establishment of state regulatory commissions.
Insull also pioneered the use of the holding company for the expansion of the electric utility industry. Arriving in Chicago in the early 1890s, Insull's technological know-how and financial skills allowed him to assume control of the city's power electric utilities, including Chicago's large electric transit system, and he began to expand his empire to neighboring states. Insull used holding companies to accumulate the tremendous amounts of capital were required to expand Insull's electric railway system (in the early years of the twentieth century much of the total consumption of electric power was used to power city trolley car systems). Insull sold holding company bonds to bondholders and paid the interest on those bonds from operating company profits. As his bondholders had no vote in his holding companies, this gave Insull complete control over both his holding companies and the operating companies he controlled. (See Power, Insull's Empire)
Power consumption dropped with the coming of the Great Depression, and by 1931 Insull's financial empire was unable to meet interest payments on holding company bonds. In April 1932, New York's House of Morgan pushed into bankruptcy several of Insull's holding companies, ruining Insull and imposing a huge financial loss upon individual investors. 
While most Americans had trouble understanding the complex mechanics of public utility holding companies, many readily agreed with the humorist Will Rogers' quip that a holding company was "a thing where you hand an accomplice the goods while a policeman searches you."  As the general counsel for the Federal Trade Commission bluntly remarked, "words such as fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, dishonesty, breach of trust, and oppression are the only suitable terms to apply" to the practices of the holding companies the FTC had investigated. 
As the power industry grew, so did its public relations and lobbying organization, the National Electric Light Association (NELA). By the mid-twenties the private utilities were spending huge sums to promote private power, often through unscrupulous public relations practices. (See Power, Propaganda and "Get Norris")At the urging of U.S. Senators George Norris, Burton Wheeler and Robert LaFollette, progressive Republicans who supported publicly owned utilities, the activities of the NELA also came under the scrutiny of the Federal Trade Commission investigation, resulting in a long indictment of the utility lobby. Historian David Nye, in Electrifying America, writes:
The practices of the electric utility industry had a tremendous effect on regional development. While 90 percent of the households in urban areas had electricity by 1930, only 10 percent of rural household had electric power. Private utility companies argued that it was too expensive to string electric lines to isolated rural farmsteads and insisted that rural homesteaders pay those costs. "In addition to paying for the energy he used, the farmer was expected to advance to the power company most or all of the costs of construction," wrote Rural Electric Administration head Morris Cooke. "Since utility company ideas as to what constituted sound rural lines have been rather fancy, such costs were prohibitive for most farmers." 
When it took office in 1933, Roosevelt Administration undertook a series of initiatives that changed electricity production and consumption on a national, regional and individual level. The Roosevelt Administration went into the power business in 1933, with the passage of the Tennessee Valley Act, perhaps the New Deal's most ambitious attempt at reform and regional planning. The TVA enabled the creation of a series of dams along the Tennessee River, which ran through seven states in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the South, and brought inexpensive electricity to tens of thousands of rural households. (See Power, The Tennessee Valley) In 1935, the Public Utilities Holding Company Act (PUHCA) was enacted to control the worst excesses of the public utilities holding companies. That same year the Rural Electric Administration (REA) was created to bring electricity to rural areas like the Tennessee Valley. By 1939 the REA had helped to establish 417 rural electric cooperatives, serving 288,000 households, and the number of rural households with electricity had risen from 10 to 25 percent.
Farmers required more energy than city dwellers, which helped to offset the extra cost involved in bringing power lines to the country. When farmers did receive electric power their purchase of electric appliances helped to increase sales for local merchants. TVA set up the Electric Home and Farm Authority (EHFA) to help farmers purchase major electric appliances. The EHFA made arrangements with appliance makers to supply electric ranges, refrigerators and water heaters at reasonable prices. These appliances were sold through local power companies and electric cooperatives. A farmer could purchase appliances with loans offered by the EHFA, which offered low-cost financing.
Angered by what they considered unfair competition by the federal government in the production and distribution of energy, private utility companies challenged these New Deal initiatives in the courts, in Congress, and in the press. Advocates for public power made their case just as forcefully, and with the opening of Power, the Federal Theatre Project's Living Newspaper took the government's case for publicly owned and controlled utilities to the stage.
"Propaganda for Democracy": The Federal Theatre Project's Living Newspaper Unit
The Federal Theatre Project's Living Newspaper Unit considered itself to be a theater of social reform, in which carefully researched facts presented through a variety of theatrical devices would help audiences understand complex issues of the day. "The Living Newspaper is a dramatization of a problem" Arent wrote, "composed in greater or lesser extent of many news events, all bearing on the one subject and interlarded with typical but non-factual representations of the effect of these news events on the people to whom the problem is of great importance."  Living Newspapers covered the labor movement, the war in Ethiopia, housing, agriculture, racism, public health and other topical issues of the day. "The Living Newspaper is no superficial sheet," Brooks Atkinson, theater critic for the New York Times wrote of One-Third of a Nation.
Living Newspapers were not interested in creating psychological portraits but, rather, meant to examine Americans in their social roles. Emphasizing social problems over character development, Living Newspaper characters tended to be "types" rather than fully developed individuals. A staff report of the Living Newspaper Unit objected to a modern theater "still dominated by characters pitting 'one psychological trait against another psychological trait'." Instead, the Living Newspaper "peopled its stage with interesting characters but they are the physical, human manifestation of forces that are larger and more important than individual psychology. They are individuals whose psychology is, in fact, the product of these forces." 
The Living Newspaper Unit's inventive style was born out of necessity, created to address the New York City division's need to provide employment for the city's large cast of out-of-work actors. Recalling the origins of the unit, Federal Theatre Project director Hallie Flanagan remembers a discussion with a reluctant Elmer Rice:
Rice accepted the New York directorship and invited the American Newspaper Guild to work with the Living Newspaper Unit, creating employment opportunities for unemployed journalists as well as actors. Established in the fall of 1935 under the direction of Morris Watson, an Associated Press reporter who had been fired for his union-organizing activities, the Living Newspaper staff was organized like the staff of a daily paper, with Watson acting as Editor-in-Chief, Arthur Arent as Managing Editor, and Howard Cushman as City Editor. Arent headed a team of sixteen playwrights; Cushman supervised more than forty reporters, researchers, and copy-readers.
Controversial from the start, the Living Newspaper Unit's first production, Ethiopia, was cancelled by WPA officials after the State Department expressed concern over the play's portrayal of foreign heads of state, a case of censorship that prompted Elmer Rice to resign from the FTP (See The Nation, "Mr. Rice Resigns"). New York City reporters and theater personnel, out of work and radicalized by the Great Depression, collaborated on the development of Living Newspaper projects whose viewpoints were often to the left of the New Deal's own policies for social reform. Triple-A Plowed Under (1935), which criticized the New Deal Farm program, and Injunction Granted (1936), a Living Newspaper that portrayed the labor movement from an unabashedly leftist point of view, angered New Deal officials already busy fending off attacks from the right. Pressure from FTP administrators and the shifting circumstances of Depression-era politics tempered the early radicalism of Living Newspapers; the later plays Power and One-Third of a Nation were much more in line with the reformist programs and policies of the New Deal.
Conservative critics of the New Deal, suspicious of government-supported cultural works projects, were particularly incensed by the Living Newspapers, which they considered propaganda vehicles for Roosevelt's policies. When Power opened in Seattle, to great fanfare from the backers of publicly owned utilities, the Seattle Times groused, "That Old Debbil, the Power Trust, is the villain and the TVA is the hero in as fine a piece of overdone propaganda as ever trod the boards." 
The Federal Theatre Project was also targeted by the Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, established in 1938 at the urging of Texas Congressman Martin Dies to investigate un-American activities in the United States. The Living Newspaper Unit in particular was attacked by witnesses appearing before the Dies Committee. In her written brief, Federal Theatre Project Director Hallie Flanagan defended the work of the unit in the strongest terms:
Called to testify before the Dies Committee, Flanagan again ardently defended the work of the unit. Telling Committee members that the Federal Theatre Project had been "combating un-American inactivity" since its inception, Flanagan engaged the Committee in a struggle over the definitions of its own mandate. Yes, admitted Flanagan, the Living Newspapers were propaganda pieces"propaganda for democracy"which prompted Committee member J. Parnell Thomas to ask, "What do you mean by that? Propaganda for what forms of democracy and what particular things?" 
Although Flanagan never succeeded in getting the Committee to define either the "un-American activities" or "propaganda" it was purportedly investigating, Thomas later told the New York Times that un-American activities, in his view, included "Fascism, Nazism, Bolshevism, and New Dealism." The unwanted publicity of the Dies Committee hearings, combined with Congressional pressure to roll back New Deal programs, led Congress to end funding of the FTP in June 1939. 
Power Belongs to the People: The Living Newspaper Power Debuts
The Federal Theatre Project's Living Newspaper Power begins and ends with a portrayal of events taking place on the eve of the play's opening at New York City's Ritz Theatre on February 23, 1937. Act One, Scene One presents a dramatic reenactment of a recent power failure that had shut down Newark, New Jersey, affecting nearly 1 million people. In Act Two, Scene Six, the cast awaits the Supreme Court's ruling concerning a lower court injunction on new TVA contracts, asking "What will the Supreme Court do?" The play closes as a scrim descends, a huge question mark projected upon it.
Living Newspaper researchers continued to revise the script up to a week before production. Playwright Arthur Arent was prepared to make revisions during Power's run in the event of a decision, and the published script includes the note: "The foregoing finale is subject to change when the TVA issue is finally decided by the United States Supreme Court." With an eye for breaking news, this "Living Newspaper" had all the stop-the-presses timeliness of a busy city news desk.
Power combined spare yet imaginative staging, vaudeville-style skits, statistics, projections, loudspeakers, and music with an unabashedly pro-New Deal message in support of publicly owned power and the New Deal's Tennessee Valley Authority. Electric power belonged to the people, the play proclaimed, and the people must exercise their political power to reclaim it from the private utility companies. Both educating and agitating for social change, the play explains kilowatt hours, rates charged for electricity, utility company profits, holding companies, private versus municipal ownership of electricity, utility company propaganda, governmental investigations of utility companies, the establishment of the TVA, and the reactions of utility companies and consumers to the TVA. Using evidence from Federal Trade Commission and Congressional investigations, Power argues that utilities had used bribery, intimidation, and fraud to silence opposition in the press, head off unfriendly legislation, and defeat candidates who supported municipal ownership. (See Power, Contents)
After seeing Power, WPA director Harry Hopkins went backstage and spoke to the company. "Now let's get one thing clear: you will take a lot of criticism on this play. People will say it's propaganda. Well, I say what of it? It's propaganda to educate the consumer who's paying for power. It's about time someone had some propaganda for him. The big power companies have spent millions on propaganda for the utilities. It's about time that the consumer had a mouthpiece. I say more plays like Power and more power to you."  One of the Federal Theatre Project's most popular productions, Power played on the doubleness of its title, dramatizing the story of the development of the electric utility industry as well as the struggle to control that technology. The Living Newspaper challenged its audience to take powerin both sensesinto its own hands.