What is a Living Newspaper?

scene 17: Supreme CourtA Living Newspaper is a theatrical genre conceived and created by the Federal Theater Project in the 30s in order to dramatize current and historical events. To generate an “authoritative dramatic treatment,” Hallie Flanagan, head of the FTP, created a staff of the Living Newspaper which “was set up like a large city daily, with editor-in-chief, managing editor, city editor, reporters and copyreaders.” (1) The process was composed of three steps. First the researchers would gather information pertaining to the subject, all of which would be footnoted in the script. Secondly, the research staff and the dramatists would discuss the implications of the material and suggest further avenues of research. After refining the material, the dramatists would “distill the essence” (2) from the information and develop the script. Living newspapers are, in effect, social allegories. The first uncensored Living Newspaper, Triple-A Plowed Under tells the story of the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the plight of the farmers. The next three pages will take you through scenes of the play and demonstrate how the Living Newspaper combined factual representation with drama. To gain a sense of social context, however, we must pay attention to the Federal Theater itself and the vibrant vision of its director, Hallie Flanagan.

What is The Federal Theater Project?

WPA signUnder the aegis of the WPA (Works Progress Administration), The Federal Theater Project was the most influential and controversial effort by the U.S. government to provide relief for the unemployed during the Great Depression. Unlike the more long-lasting, prosaic work-relief programs which built roads, schools, and public spaces, the FTP and other arts projects harnessed the power of the arts to dramatize and expose social issues. It, therefore, epitomized what William Stott has called “the documentary impulse” of the 1930's: the urge to “record and clarify for the American people aspects of their experience, past or present, main-current or side-stream.” (3)

By domesticating the very idea of “culture,” (4) the New Deal arts programs catalyzed a new-found sense of cultural nationalism and brought everyday people in touch with what had been previously considered “high”art. Some Americans mistrusted this fusion of culture with American democracy, fearing that an “emphasis on numbers would inevitably lessen quality.” (5) Harry Hopkins, head of the WPA, however, was convinced of the necessity to democratize and celebrate American culture and, seeing that it made no sense to put an actor to work filling holes in a highway, developed a way to employ thousands of unemployed actors through federal patronage of the arts.

The problems that arose from this marriage of government and art are the subject of this introduction. By briefly examining the tensions that characterized the Federal Theaters brief but potent life-span, one can theorize on how Triple-A Plowed Under, the first uncensored FTP Living Newspaper and the subject of this website, attempted to “do” its cultural work. One can probe the tenuous balance between objectivity and agenda, populism and communism, professionalism and amateurism to interrogate the very ideal of authenticity toward which the Federal Theater project was striving.

Hallie Flanagan, head of the Federal Theater Project and a former classmate of Hopkins ', was an energetic visionary, a college drama professor who believed in the potential of the Federal Theater to both “entertain and instruct.” (6) She set out with a plan to create a new and dynamic style of theater, one that would accommodate the liberties and limitations of the work-relief context. Each benefit, however, presented challenges. A surplus of actors meant that Flanagan could mobilize a diverse and democratic cast to dramatize “the struggle of many kinds of people to understand the natural and social and economic forces around them and to achieve through these forces a better life for more people.” (7) Thus, the fact of an unemployed surplus fed the democratic ideal. To effectively employ them all Flanagan insisted on a national, decentralized theater and chastised actors who crossed state lines to apply for welfare.(8)

scene 10: Farm and City FamiliesWith an increase in numbers, however, maintaining professionalism became a concern. To be eligible for theater payroll, one had to qualify for unemployment, thus a tension evolved between having talent and qualifying for relief. Though theaters could “exempt up to 10 percent of their employees from this relief qualification in order to address specific requirements of production,”(9) the maintenance of good talent was always an issue. One manner of accommodating the plethora of amateur talent was to develop a form of drama that dealt with the stylized representation of masses of people and social trends. Rather than having one actor carry the play with a few well-delivered monologues, the Living Newspapers like Triple-A Plowed Under would present short scenes in rapid-fire succession to make the news come alive. Thus individual talent was not as important as the holistic presentation of the play. Some actors were incensed over this preference. A rebellion which occurred in the ranks of the Triple-A cast during a particular rehearsal revolved around this very problem. The disgruntled actors filled Flanagan's ears with

impassioned speeches explaining why this swift, pantomimic, monosyllabic, factual document was not drama and why no New York Audience would sit through it. They complained that there was no plot, no story, no chance to build up a character, no public interest in the subject matter. Who in New York cares about the farmer, about wheat, about the price of bread and milk? (10)

To pacify them, Flanagan extolled the possibilities of a new form of theater that would “supplement and stimulate, rather than compete with commercial Broadway productions.” She argued that people today are interested in facts, as proved by the enormous increase in circulation of newspapers and news sheets and by the March of Time,” but promised to drop all plans for future Living Newspapers if the play failed.

Virgil Geddes, Hallie Flanagan and Harry Hopkins in lobby of Experimental TheatreAnother difficulty arising from the fusion of government and theater involved matters of freedom and censorship. To counter worries over the government's potential to stifle creativity, Harry Hopkins promised Flanagan “free, adult, and uncensored theater.” This guiding principle of the Federal Theater Project, however, came under immediate fire with the production of the first Living Newspaper, Ethiopia. Wanting to use radio broadcast speeches of Haile Selassie and FDR, Morris Watson, head of the Living Newspaper staff, telephoned the White House to ask permission and ignited a crisis. Roosevelt 's secretary, Steve Early fired off a memo, stating “If this is a government production, we are skating on thin ice when dealing with international affairs.” (11) Though Flanagan argued that the play did not caricature Selassie and stayed free from political bias, Early remained intransigent and eventually kept the play from opening publicly. Coupled with the fact that Hopkins had been trying to get Flanagan to make the project more politically valuable to the administration, Flanagan had begun to feel that this political censorship threatened to sink the Living Newspaper entirely.

Remarkably, the Living Newspaper moved on into an equally thorny issue that was more near-to-home: “a history of the economic difficulties of the farmer” which “received impetus from the recent Supreme Court decision invalidating the New Deal's Agricultural Adjustment Act.” (12) The dramatization of this controversial issue was bold in light of its politically polarized character and what had happened with Ethiopia. It also raised the issue of objectivity: in the current open warfare between the Supreme Court and the New Deal, the play took political risks. While some called it New Deal propaganda and resented the use of a documented quotation by the Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace in which he calls the Supreme Court Decision “the greatest legalized steal in American History,” others criticized the play for including a speech by Earl Browder, the Communist party's candidate for President (1936), juxtaposed to one by Thomas Jefferson. Furthermore, the play's call for farmers and labor to unite echoed the Communist agenda for the formation of a farm-labor party, causing Communists throughout America to extol the virtues of the play. This warm-embrace eventually proved fatal when the House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities became wary of the politics of theater. When testifying before the committee, Flanagan remembers the exchange:

Was it true that Earl Browder appeared as a character in Triple-A Plowed Under?
Yes.
Did he expound his theory of communism?
He did not; he appeared as a shadow on a screen along with Al Smith, Senator Hastings, and Thomas Jefferson.
Was I in sympathy with communistic doctrines?
I am an American and I believe in American democracy. I believe the Works Progress Administration is one bulwark of that democracy. I believe the Federal Theater, which is one small part of the large pattern, is honestly trying in every possible way the best interests of the people of this democracy. I am not in sympathy with any other form of government. (13)

Opening NightWord got out about the play's politics before its opening and brought tension to the last week of rehearsal. Rumors were afloat that “an organization called the World War Veterans threatened to close the show on the ground that it was unpatriotic” and that “performers would be hauled off the stage and into patrol wagons.” The actors' fear of arrest coupled with their mistrust of the genre itself made the backstage atmosphere unsettling. As Flanagan notes, “opening night found the actors full of misgivings, the audience full of tension, and the lobby full of police.” (14)

In its attempt to represent a cross-section of American thought, Triple-A's inclusion of quasi-communistic rhetoric was merely a result of its democratic sampling of diversity, formulating a rhetoric that is “of the people” by means of sharp and myriad juxtapositions. Having identified the conflicts and tensions surrounding the opening of the play, we can now examine particular scenes that illustrate the mechanics of dramatic journalism-- how the Living Newspaper acted out its cultural statement.

 


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1. Hallie Flanagan, Introduction , Federal Theater Plays ed. by Pierre de Rohan (New York: Random House Pub., 1938) vii.

2. Cheryl M. Cardran, The Living Newspaper: Its Development and Influence (MA Thesis, University of VA, 1975) 19.

3. William Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973) 105.

4. Ibid 103.

5. Robert S. McElvaine, The Great Depression (New York: Times Books, 1984) 269.

6. Witham, The Federal Theater Project: A Case Study ( New York : Cambridge University Press, 2003) 2.

7. Stott 108.

8. Ibid. 3.

9.Witham, The Federal Theater Project: A Case Study ( New York : Cambridge University Press, 2003) 3.

10. Hallie Flanagan, Introduction , Federal Theater Plays ed. by Pierre de Rohan (New York: Random House Pub., 1938) ix.

11. Memorandum, Early to Baker, January 11, 1936 , Flanagan Papers.

12. Jane DeHart Mathews, The Federal Theater (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967) 70.

13. Hallie Flanagan, Arena (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1940) 343.

14. Hallie Flanagan, Intro, Federal Theater Plays x.