The following experiential activities are designed to virtualize the experience of the Federal Theater Project's Living Newspaper Triple-A Plowed Under, providing an avenue into American culture during the Great Depression. Involving images, audio, primary sources, and role playing, these activities are meant to present a puzzle for the student to solve-- an inferential process through which he or she will grasp general issues of historical analysis. To allow for the teacher's flexibility, the suggested questions have been divided into three kinds-- comprehensive, analytical, and interpretive--each representing different levels of understanding the material.
Furthermore, the exercises can be assigned as homework or used in class depending on how much time is allowed during the school day.
I have provided here summaries of the historical issues dramatized in each scene group, as well as the techniques implemented by the Living Newspaper in its dramatization of the news. Exercise A focuses on the events leading up to the enacting of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, while Exercise B looks at the events preceding the act's revocation.
The first scenes of Triple-A Plowed Under depict the grim situation of the American farmer after the cessation of WWI and the stock market crash of 1929. The passing of the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill in 1930 made it difficult for farmers to generate income from the surplus of agricultural products they had stock-piled to feed a war-ravaged Europe. Agricultural prices plummeted and, since many farmers could not pay their mortgages, banks began foreclosing and throwing them off their farms. Iowa was one of the most hard-hit states: "by 1933 there were eight foreclosures for every 100 farms and farmers themselves began to explore ways of taking direct action." (2) Milo Reno, president of the Farmers' Holiday Association, developed measures for organized resistance which involved "efforts to withhold products from market ... in order to secure an increase in price."(3) Though the strike was meant to be peaceful, violence often erupted between picketers and state police. When 14 picketers were shot down in Cherokee County, Reno ended up negotiating a truce with the Governor of Iowa, a move that many farmers viewed as a sell-out and the end of the holiday movement. For this reason, Scene 6 begins with the farmers proclaiming "We've been sold out!"
(scenes 5-8) ----click to hear re-enactment
Scene 5: MILK PRICES
Scenes 5 through 8 demonstrate how the play uses terse vignettes or snapshots to persuade the audience. Covering a variety of times and locations, these scenes are held together by the omnipresent Voice of the Living Newspaper which reminds the audience of setting (time/place/circumstance). Scene 5, Milk Prices, illustrates the farmer's impetus for starting the Milk Strike in late August of 1931, which was an effort to keep milk from going to market until the farmer received a measure of relief from the government. Farmer, middleman, and consumer engage in a concise and staccato dialogue which explains in simple terms the unfair economic situation in which the middleman makes all the money. He buys the milk for three cents but sells it for fifteen cents, pocketing the rest. As William Stott points out, this is a way of “representing the evidence right before the audience's eyes” (4) and is exemplary of a typical Living Newspaper scene. The price of milk is taken from an issue of the New York Herald Tribune on July 5, 1934 (see above left).
Scene 7 uses the Voice of the Living Newspaper as a means of inferring that the action on stage is occurring simultaneously across the Midwest, that peaceful picketing has turned to violent strike. The play script documents the turning over of trucks and injuring of truck drivers with an article from the New York Times on August 16, 1932 .
Scene 8: FARM AUCTION
One mission of the Living Newspaper was to give voice to diverse and myriad segments of the population. The following four scenes illustrate how the Living Newspaper formulated the opinions of women and African-Americans concerning the effects of AAA legislation. The first two scenes, in which a black cotton farmer loses his mule afforded to him by AAA payments and sharecroppers discuss unifying against the greedy farmers who have kept their AAA payments without sharing them, are footnoted as “creative,” perhaps due to a dearth of news documentation on the subject. Farmers would receive payments for not planting crops, displace the sharecroppers on their land, and then reinvest the money on less acreage to increase their income. Sharecroppers, therefore, experienced the failure of AAA in the harshest of ways.
Scene 18: WHEAT PIT
Though the Wheat Pit Scene consists of mere numbers shouted across the stage in succession, it provides the fulcrum for the following scene group. The audience may not understand the complexities of the stock market, nor the economic implications of the processing tax; but they could understand quite clearly the relationship between the weather and the steady increase in wheat prices. The Living Newspaper, therefore, presents the economic trend and then delivers a series of scenes to show its effect on various groups of people. Ironically, the article from The New York Times of August 1st, 1934, from which they extracted the price of wheat at the height of the drought was actually an article reporting not a rise, but a fall in the price of wheat due to profiteering. As we saw in scene 15, middlemen were making tremendous profits off the buying of wheat. The article entitled "Grains sent Down By Profit-Taking" reports a "downward tendency" of wheat "due to a disposition of recent buyers to glean profits." When people realized how much middlemen were making off the wheat market, they refused to buy, sending the price downward. In this scene, however, the price of wheat is on a steady yet gradual rise. Choosing to maintain dramatic continuity over precise documentation, the Living Newspaper simplifies the economic trend rather than explicate the details.
Scenes 19 and 20: COTTON PATCH and SHARECROPPERS
Scenes 19 and 20 illustrate the bind in which many African American farmers and sharecroppers found themselves when, and if, they were able to secure payments from the government. Already deeply in debt, payments did little to rectify the situation. In scene 19, Sam, a black farmer, hopes that the farm loan he received from the government will help him to get out of debt; however his means are annihilated when the sheriff takes his newly-bought mule as payment for back taxes. Many sharecroppers were helpless in the face of farmers who kept their AAA payments without sharing them with those who worked their land. With the policy of acreage reduction, many of these sharecroppers were evicted.
Scene 21: MEAT STRIKE
Back to back are two scenes that demonstrate contrasting feminine reactions to AAA legislation. Scene 21, Meat Strike, depicts housewives anger at high meat prices (a result of the AAA's reduction of supply strategy—paying farmers not to produce--and the processing tax). The furious mob of women actually injured some people attempting to buy meat, as the newspaper article quoted by the play reports (New York Times, July 28, 1935). The lines spoken by the "lead woman striker" are actually taken verbatim from the article: "Maybe Roosevelt started by killing all the little pigs and cattle. We don't know and we don't care. We aren't going to pay such high prices for meat and that's all there is to it." Since the Living Newspaper took care not to defame specific governmental personalities, the staff changed "Roosevelt" to the more non-descript "Washington."
Scene 22: DOROTHY SHERWOOD
Contrasting strength with weakness, the Living Newspaper staff then included a tragic scene involving an actual woman named Dorothy Sherwood who resigned herself to drowning her starving child because she could not feed him. She is depicted as meek and enervated: the final image of horror before the Supreme Court invalidates AAA in the next scene. This dramatically intense scene was meant to persuade the audience of the overwhelming necessity for rectifying the ineffective legislation. The narrative is based almost word for word on an account told in the Daily News on August 21, 1935 .
1. Edmund Brunner and Irving Lorge, Rural Trends in Depression Years (New York: Arno Press, 1971) 44.