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Suspicion of Subversion: Congressional Conservatives Attack the Federal Theater Project

by Eric Bentley

Part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) was one indication of the breadth of that program. Perhaps best known for its trenchant political satire and innovative presentations, the FTP actually represented a much broader range of activity. But the FTP’s mandate proved fragile. When the House Committee on Un-American Activities was established in May 1938, one of its first targets was the FTP, which it labeled a subversive organization. When FTP director Hallie Flanagan testified before HUAC in December 1938, she fought back against these attacks. But the FTP still fell victim to the Congressional cuts.

THE CHAIRMAN: In other words, you have reached approximately twenty-five per cent of our population with your plays?

MRS. FLANAGAN: Something like that. One of the great problems, if you will permit me to speak for just a minute—

THE CHAIRMAN: Yes, ma’am.

MRS. FLANAGAN: One of the great problems is that, while in the other art projects it is possible to establish them in every state in the Union, which we would also like to do here, it is not possible with us, because, while an artist can paint or a musician play or a writer write if there is no audience or only one or two people involved, we cannot set up theaters except in states where there are twenty-five or more people of satisfactory type on the relief rolls. So that one of our problems is this centralization of the theater industry.

THE CHAIRMAN: Where have your audiences been? What localities have you played mostly?

MRS. FLANAGAN: We have played, I think I am safe in saying, the widest variety of American audiences that any

theater has ever played.

THE CHAIRMAN: In what localities, Mrs. Flanagan?

MRS. FLANAGAN: The chief localities are, first, New York City, and next Los Angeles and Chicago, because that is where the greatest unemployment exists. They are the three largest cities. But if you are speaking now of the audiences themselves—I want to pick up that point, if you don’t mind—

THE CHAIRMAN: I merely want to know the places where you have played, but if you want to discuss audiences, it is all right.

MRS. FLANAGAN: I do want to discuss them, because that allegation was made here by one of your witnesses, which I would not like to remain in the minds of any of you around this table. My impression is that you are trying to get at all the facts.

THE CHAIRMAN: That is correct. And if this statement is untrue, we want you to refute it.

MRS. FLANAGAN: I want to quote from her allegation. Miss Huffman says, “They couldn’t get any audiences for anything except Communistic plays.” Now, gentlemen, I have here the proof that that is an absolutely false statement. We have, as sponsoring bodies for the Federal Theater, lists of organizations covering twenty pages of this brief, which I intend to write into the record; and I will summarize them for you. Two hundred and sixty-three social clubs and organizations, two hundred and sixty-four welfare and civic organizations, two hundred and seventy-one educational organizations, ninety-five religious organizations, ninety-one organizations from business industries, sixteen mass organizations, sixty-six trade-unions, sixty-two professional unions, seventeen consumers' unions, twenty-five fraternal unions, and fifteen political organizations. Note, gentlemen, that every religious shade is covered and every political affiliation and every type of educational and civic body in the support of our theater. It is the widest and most American base that any theater has ever built upon, and I request you not only to write that into the record but to read the list of public schools and universities and churches and the civic and social groups that are supporting this Federal Theater.

MR. STARNES: I want to quote finally from your article “A Theater Is Born,” on page 915 of the Theatre Arts Monthly, edition of November 1931.

MRS. FLANAGAN: Is this the same article, Mr. Starnes?

MR. STARNES: Yes. “The power of these theaters springing up everywhere throughout the country lies in the fact that they know what they want. Their purpose—restricted, some will call it, though it is open to question whether any theater which attempts to create a class culture can be called restricted—is clear. This is important because there are only two theaters which wants to make money; the other is the workers‘ theater which wants to make a new social order. The workers’ theaters are neither infirm nor divided in purpose. Unlike any art form existing in America today, the workers' theaters intend to shape the life of this country, socially, politically, and industrially. They intend to remake a social structure without the help of money—and this ambition alone invests their undertaking with a certain Marlowesque madness.” You are quoting from this Marlowe. Is he a Communist?

MRS. FLANAGAN: I am very sorry. I was quoting from Christopher Marlowe.

MR. STARNES: Tell us who Marlowe is, so we can get the proper reference, because that is all that we want to do.

MRS. FLANAGAN: Put in the record that he was the greatest dramatist in the period immediately preceding Shakespeare.

MR. STARNES: Put that in the record because the charge has been made that this article of yours is entirely Communistic, and we want to help you.

MRS. FLANAGAN: Thank you. That statement will go in the record.

MR. STARNES: Of course, we had what some people call ‘Communists’ back in the days of the Greek theater.

MRS. FLANAGAN: Quite true.

MR. STARNES: And I believe Mr. Euripides was guilty of teaching class consciousness also, wasn’t he?

MRS. FLANAGAN: I believe that was alleged against all of the Greek dramatists.

MR. STARNES: So we cannot say when it began.

Source: Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938–1968 in Eric Bentley (ed.),Thirty Years of Treason. Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938–1968.(New York: The Viking Press, 1971), pp. 24–5.

See Also:"It Was a Wildly Exciting Time": Milton Meltzer Remembers the New Deal's Federal Theatre Project