The Agricultural Adjustment Act was the U.S. government's first attempt at national social control of agriculture, but was invalidated by the Supreme Court thirty-two days after its inception. (1)Triple-A Plowed Under tells the story of the farmer's plight before and after the acts implementation. From the post-WWI surplus and devaluation of crops to farm foreclosures, auctions, the deliberate destruction of crops to increase demand, the devastation of drought, the organization of farmer-consumer cooperatives, the creation of the AAA, the Supreme Court's infamous decision, and the joining of farmers with workers to combat greedy middlemen, the play presents a series of short, stylized vignettes to deliver a wealth of information in a cohesive manner.
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.
To understand how the Living Newspaper dramatized events of the day, we will listen to groups of scenes from Triple-A Plowed Under that clearly demonstrate the techniques and conventions of this highly innovative genre. By clicking on the flashing link below, the listener may hear these scenes with accompanying visual images. Many of these images were acquired from
The Federal Theater Collection, Special Collections & Archives, George Mason University Libraries. To exit from the movie just click out of the window.
click on images below for larger version and credits)
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 by 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 6: SIOUX CITY
Let down by farm holiday leader Milo Reno, farmers in Sioux City Iowa decide that their only course of action is to physically keep milk from getting to market. The "campaign of persuasion" (5) turns violent. Lines from this scene are taken from actual quotations from the newspapers.: “We've got to solve our problems clean and simple, or there are those who will solve them with bayonets” was inspired from a quotation in the New York Times on September 4, 1932 in which a farmer from Wisconsin states, “We'll solve our problems if necessary with bayonets, and I don't mean maybe.” The events related from this scene are taken from New York Times articles spanning September 1st through 4th, 1932.
Scene 7: MILK STRIKE
Scene 7 uses the Voice of the Living Newspaper as a means of inferring that the action on stage is occurring 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
quick pace of the previous four scenes is relieved by a longer, more dramatically
patient scene in which land is auctioned off as a result of foreclosed
mortgages. To help each other out, the farmers bully the auctioneer with
unbelievably low bids and keep others from bidding so that they can give
all the equipment back to the farmer whose farm was foreclosed. The play
quotes an article from the Literary Digest
of January 21, 1933 for the narrative of the entire scene, but an
article from the New York Times
on February 2,1933 for the specific bid of 12 cents. This detailed
documenting was the essence of the Living Newspaper.
1. Edmund Brunner and Irving Lorge, Rural Trends in Depression Years (New York: Arno Press, 1971) 44.
2. Dan Roberts, A Moment in Time: Iowa's Farm and Banking Crisis in 1933. http://www.ehistory.com/world/amit/display.cfm?amit_id=1373.
3. Brunner and Lorge, 41. 4. Stott 107.
5. Brunner and Lorge, 42.