Federal Theatre Project - Background

Background

The FTP was established August 27, 1935, after a legislative and administrative prologue. Hallie Flanagan, a theater professor at Vassar, was chosen by WPA head Harry Hopkins to lead the FTP. She was given the daunting task of building a national theater program to employ thousands of unemployed artists in as little time as possible. Hopkins added to the difficulty of her job by promising the FTP would be "free, adult, and uncensored." At the time, this statement appeared to FTP directors as a green light to all FTP projects, regardless of their political or social content. Soon, however it would come back to haunt Hopkins, Flanagan and the FTP as a whole.

Living Newspapers were plays written by teams of researchers-turned-playwrights. These men and women clipped articles from newspapers about current events, often hot button issues like farm policy, syphilis testing, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and housing inequity. These newspaper clippings were adapted into plays intended to inform audiences, often with progressive or left-wing themes. Triple-A Plowed Under, for instance, attacked the U.S. Supreme Court for killing an aid agency for farmers. These politically-themed plays quickly drew criticism from members of Congress.

Although the undisguised political invective in the Living Newspapers sparked controversy, they also proved popular with audiences. As an art form, the Living Newspaper is perhaps the FTP's most well-known work.

Problems with the FTP and Congress intensified when the State Department objected to the first Living Newspaper, Ethiopia, about Haile Selassie and his nation's struggles against Benito Mussolini's invading Italian forces. The U.S. government soon mandated that the FTP, a federal government agency, could not depict foreign heads of state on the stage, for fear of diplomatic backlash. Playwright and director Elmer Rice, head of the New York office of the FTP, resigned in protest.

Many of the notable artists of the time participated in the FTP, including Susan Glaspell who served as Midwest Bureau Director. The legacy of the FTP can also be found in a new generation of theater artists whose careers began with the FTP. Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, John Houseman, Martin Ritt, Elia Kazan, Joseph Losey, Marc Blitzstein, Arthur Arent and Abe Feder all became established, in part, through their work in the FTP. Blitzstein, Houseman and Welles collaborated on the controversial FTP production of The Cradle Will Rock.

The FTP was the most expensive of the Federal One projects, consuming 29.1 percent of Federal One's budget. (However, this budget was less than three-fourths of one percent of the total WPA budget.)

On June 30, 1939, the FTP was ended when its funding was canceled, largely attributed to strong Congressional objections to the overtly left-wing political tones of many FTP productions.

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