We Need Free Theater for All

Writers are striking to save film and TV from destruction by corporate giants. New Deal-era schemes like the Federal Theatre Project and the Group Theater offer a tantalizing glimpse of how entertainment could be run as a public good, not as a business.

A group of actors rehearse for the Federal Theatre Project production. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

The romantics of theater in wartime have often gripped the imagination: from Susan Sontag’s production of Waiting for Godot in besieged Sarajevo, to the Freedom Theater in Jenin, or a recent Hamlet in Yemen. While these exceptional performances are widely lionized, left unsung is the heroically everyday theater that advances social consciousness and raises up its audience along with its art. Yet, as entertainment writers strike — making a last stand for creative content in the face of the oblivion of formulaic and sterile corporate products — it’s high time to recall a moment in America when theater, activism, and the union movement were branches of the same tree.

Traces of worker solidarity and capitalist critique can be found all over trailblazing experiments of the 1930s. Such were the cases of the Group Theater, the Federal Theatre Project, the succès de scandale of Marc Blitzstein’s proletarian musical The Cradle Will Rock, and Clifford Odets’s “strike play,” Waiting for Lefty. Brief but blazing, this moment of theater collectivism and activism tilled a soil rich in nutrients out of which emerged the greatest film ever produced by Hollywood, Citizen Kane, and the dominant force in American drama in the postwar era, the Actors Studio.

A Theater for All Americans?

The prospect of a centralized national theater for America had always been elusive. Befitting the legacies of Puritanism and slavocracy, the United States had gone a century without any theater at all, and twice as long without any living theater that worked from American materials and content.

Unlike most other countries, there was no repertoire of history plays to tell a common story about the past. Instead, the widespread growth of theater in the Gilded Age was pursued mostly with imported European texts. The crisis of capitalism in the Great Depression forced the government’s hand, with many thousands of theater workers unemployed. It was to be the only time America seriously attempted a national theater.

Remarkably similar to Germany’s social democratic Volksbühne (people’s stage), entry was finally guaranteed at low cost and central theaters in big cities finally had viable regional satellites. At just the same time but going one step further, the Soviet Union, guided by the principle of theater provision as state obligation, installed them everywhere, even in log cabins in the smallest and most benighted hamlets. This theater frenzy was to be crowned by a supreme complex in Kharkiv, a supersized mix of four outdoor and indoor state theaters that could accommodate at one time thousands of actors and tens of thousands of spectators.

However unlikely given America’s past, when New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) reached out to encompass theater it embraced the argument, key to the projects mentioned, that theater is a public good and an essential channel for giving voice to people. Intended as emergency relief for those already in the guild, the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) was established in a 1935 program with branches across the country meant to retrain the old and guide the young.

Its launch owed to former college classmates Harry Hopkins, head of the WPA, and Hallie Flanagan, the first woman awarded a Guggenheim grant. Perhaps the only time in US history when masses of workers and the poor came to the theater, with almost 65 percent of productions free of charge, it is estimated that one-quarter of the US population saw their productions. Compare that to the approximately 2 percent of US citizens said to see Broadway theater every year nowadays.

The Federal Theatre Project provided a long sought-after stability for live theater. Unlike other forms of entertainment and culture, it cannot be easily forced into mass production. Especially unlike film, type casting and monopoly do not work well, and publicity and advertising can only go so far. Remarkably while more than three-quarters of all Broadway productions were said to fail, the FTP brought the success rate up to 53 percent.

Plays tackled labor relations and housing problems, and notable works included one on the great Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture and another that imagined a pacifist female US president. There was an entire initiative dedicated to African American theater and another program dedicated to what was called “living newspapers.” A theatrical means to bring the news alive in a humane and accessible manner, this unsurprisingly ended up under fire from politicians, with the mayor of Chicago saying he didn’t like “people talking on stage as they did in real life.”

Radical Content

In 1938, the FTP experienced a funding cut — and once again eight thousand people were out of work in an instant. Its stunning theatrical legacy wasn’t just relief service, but artistic achievement of the greatest heights. Especially memorable is the so-called Voodoo Macbeth of 1936, an all-black production in Harlem that moved the action from Scotland to the Caribbean. An electrically revivified classic in terms both political and artistic, the director was none other than Orson Wells, who would later call the production the “great success in my life.”

Wells also made activist theater history as director of the notorious but crowning artistic success of the Federal Theatre Project, Marc Blitzstein’s proletarian musical The Cradle Will Rock. Blitzstein was a gay, Jewish, one-time Communist Party member whose last, never to be completed magnum opus was an opera on Sacco and Vanzetti.

For Cradle, Blitzstein imagined the travails of union building in a company steel town. Set around the World War I–era Red Scare, this “labor opera” features remarkable scenes of police brutality, the plight of migrant workers, and a union squashing operation of “respectable citizens” called the “liberty committee.” One of the more memorable lines sings: “Oh, there’s something so damned low about the rich! They’re fantastic, they’re far-fetched, they’re just funny. They’ve no impulse, no fine feeling, no great itch!” Blitzstein followed up Cradle with 1941’s No for an Answer, a rarely performed musical exclusively about the travails of the working class. Blitzstein would later be credited for 1954’s definitive English adaptation of Bertolt Brecht / Kurt Weill’s Weimar classic, and perhaps greatest of all Marxist works of art, the The Threepenny Opera.

Blitzstein and Cradle are today more remembered for controversy rather than content. The 1937 premiere was perhaps the only instance in American theater history of an armed intervention into the box office, followed by an audience street march that covered over twenty city blocks. Though twenty thousand tickets had already been sold and twenty-six orchestra members were sitting in the pit, armed federal guards shut the premiere down, seizing all props and costumes, with most of the cast left barricaded in the ladies dressing room.

Blitzstein, Wells, and producer John Houseman set about for a replacement theater and a rented piano. With said piano circling the block on a rental truck, the much larger Venice Theatre twenty blocks north opened its doors, and an audience march proceeded that grew ever larger in size. Now limited by force of law to just the composer calling out the scenes on a rickety old piano, something fantastical transpired. From their seats, aisles, and the back of the house, the rest of the cast, not allowed on stage, improvised the entire performance from the wings, as memorably reproduced in Tim Robbins’s 1999 film of the same name.

Wells paid for his daring with his job, he and Houseman were fired from the FTP the next day and went on to found the Mercury Theatre. Their first production there was a little-remembered “blackshirt” Julius Caesar, a full blown anti-fascist staging featuring Wells as Brutus and Blitzstein providing the music. Caesar, it will be remembered was the first Roman to declare himself  “dictator for life,” (Dictator perpetuo) triggering his assassination by Brutus and co. This staging coincided with Italy cosplaying a new Roman Empire, where all in that same year of 1937 this fascist state perpetrated: the “Yekatit 12” massacre of thousands of Ethiopians and the bombing of Guernica in Spain along with Nazi Germany.

There is a strong argument to be made for Wells as not just an anti-fascist but as an unsung trenchant critic of capitalism. Even his legendary 1938 The War of the Worlds radio broadcast and the ensuing panic were so incisive because he knowingly infused the subtext of the Nazi-Fascist invasion of ever more countries.

Taken together as a one-two punch, even his pair of filmic masterpieces, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) should rightly be seen as in no great sense separate from his years of theatrical activism just prior. Both are a critique of great wealth and its corrosive effects, one of coastal big business and the other of the bourgeois Midwestern provincial overlord. (Wells’s shorthand for Citizen was about “a kid whose parents were a bank.”)

Even his production methods could be considered progressive as he consciously paired an experienced crew with largely unknown actors, the opposite of today’s star-driven schlock. Both are horror films of capitalism, the intertextual collagen is megalomania, loneliness, and the incapability of forming genuine relationships, as the ultimate price of accumulation mania. Citizen, unencumbered by studio meddling, remains the only American film to have reached the height of a modernist novel, whereas Ambersons, mutilated by higher-ups in the editing room, thereby forever tormenting its director, transformed Wells’s career into Hollywood’s great “could have been.”

While in no sense explicitly leftist, the majority of Group Theater members shared in the general anti-fascist consensus. Unlike other explicitly proletarian theatrical outfits like the Workers Laboratory Theatre, the Group, founded in 1931, eschewed direct agitprop. Some like Mary Virginia Farmer left the Group and created a more radical alternative, the Theater Collective. Yet the Group Theatre pursued something akin to artistic communism in practice: no stars were allowed and every member had to work at every role, including custodial.

Familiar as the antecedent of the Actors Studio of Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, the Group pursued a theater of improvisatory resourcefulness with the greatest heights in vitality. Inspired by the work of Konstantin Stanislavski in both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, they brought to America the notion of theater as a serious art of impassioned humanism. Though one of their members, Clifford Odets, was sought out as director for the more purely proletarian and politically dogmatic Theater Union, which put out plays like “Peace on Earth,” on capitalism and war, he chose to stay with the Group to pursue playwriting.

Other Group members, such as Strasberg, continued to give classes for the Workers Laboratory Theatre. A high point of their cooperative efforts was the most vital nonmusical success of this seminal period of theatrical activism. In forty electric minutes, Odets’s Waiting for Lefty tackled racism, strikes, commercialism, poverty, and even bioweaponry. At the premiere in 1935, the ovation ended up longer than the play itself. Though later banned with actors arrested in Boston and Newark, Odets soon had three plays up and running on Broadway all at the same time. His follow up, Til the Day I Die, told of a communist violinist in the anti-Nazi underground, a prescient reckoning with Hitlerite violence.

Written Out of History

Just a few years after the heights of the 1930s, Group members had to face down that American Inquisition of McCarthyism. Some, like almost Odets himself, had to pay that fatal price for activism: to be written out of history. Tellingly, Odets’s The Silent Partner, his never-published “lost play,” tackled precisely this dilemma. The effective cooperation of liberals and leftists of the Popular Front era was twisted into an all-consuming paranoia generator. Even the more commercial, West Coast spin off of the Group Theater, the Actors; Laboratory Theatre, was tarred as “red” and attacked by government authorities right after World War II. Meanwhile, the Hollywood Ten went to prison and the Supreme Court refused to review their convictions.

For those who refused to cooperate with probes of outright zealotry, taking the Fifth amounted to a “self-deportation” from the world of work. Many Group members’ careers ended prematurely, as did a shocking number of lives: Philip Loeb committed suicide and Joe Bromberg died of heart failure during the process, after a doctor’s affidavit was ignored.

Odets and Elia Kazan ultimately cooperated, the former unwillingly, the latter with infamous gusto, even taking out newspaper ads to justify his participation. Fittingly, it would be Kazan’s films of the 1950s that spotlighted individualist, introverted moody intensity (à la Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront and James Dean in East of Eden, both Actors Studio students, incidentally), an aesthetic betrayal of the collectivism and solidarity of the Group.

The success of the Group Theater and their theatrically activist contemporaries proved that politics does not necessarily come at the price of art; rather, a sensible harmony of the two may enhance artistry to levels unforeseen. Practically speaking, these artistically activist initiatives also proved that economic dignity and creative development can and even ought to go hand in hand.

Sadly, the prospect of a full-time working theater company devoted to contemporary issues seems less of a viable prospect today than it did almost a century ago. Members of the Group Theater were famous for saying “we still do not have theater in the US.” Perhaps that is still true, and while public discourse justly moves today to speak of free transport, we should remember the Federal Theatre Project and speak also of free theater.

The activist projects of the 1930s joined in the conviction that theater is not the froth of a society but its lifeblood. As an old grandmother in a small town who had never seen theater before remarked, “theaters are not a bad idea at all, they make you understand things better.”