What is a Living Newspaper?
A 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, therefore, realistic 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.
What is The Federal Theater Project?
Under 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 distrusted 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.
Why Triple-A Plowed Under ?
By interacting with scenes from Triple-A, students will understand more clearly the “documentary impulse” of the 30s—how America viewed itself in the turbulent and apprehensive moments of the Great Depression. Dealing with the strikes preceding the repealing of AAA legislation, Triple-A Plowed Under presents issues that are often hard for students to grasp (inflation, deflation, and other economic trends) as well as a window into the frustration, despair, and distrust of the government that characterized the zeitgeist of the Great Depression. The Living Newspaper, therefore, offers a unique pathway into studying primary and secondary sources as well as a means to consider how history is constructed: is the dramatization of Triple-A subversive, nationalistic, or both? More importantly, how does it comment on today's issues, and does it matter to students' lives? By combining all the elements of this exercise, we are making history come alive.
**for an extended account of Triple-A Plowed Under and the Federal Theater Project click here
1. Hallie Flanagan, Introduction , Federal Theater Plays ed. by Pierre de Rohan (New York: Random House Pub., 1938) vii.