Date of Degree
David T. Humphries
African American Studies | American Studies | Arts and Humanities | Cultural History | Labor History | Theatre History
leftist culture, racism, children's theatre, Depression, "red scare", HUAC, New Deal
My thesis explores and analyzes the Federal Theater Project’s cultural and political impact during the Depression, as well as the contested legacy of this unique experiment in government-sponsored, broadly accessible cultural expression. Part of the New Deal’s Works Projects Administration, the FTP aimed to provide jobs for playwrights, actors, designers, stagehands, and other theater professionals on relief in the stark period from 1935 to 1939. But the project became a nationwide political and artistic flashpoint, spurring fierce debate over the leadership, politics and impact of this “people’s theater.” The FTP gave professional theater an unprecedented reach into working-class and black communities. The project was marked by the participation of many prominent leftist and Communist writers, performers, and technicians, but its productions did, nonetheless, reflected a broadly rebellious, economically desperate, culturally inclusive popular spirit sparked by the Depression. Refuting charges that the FTP was a thinly veiled, subversive propaganda tool, the project’s leaders countered that its work was educational “propaganda for democracy.” As in today’s political and artistic conflicts, the dispute centered on which principles and ideals actually constitute core American values. I examine the FTP’s achievements and controversies, which centered on the purported mutually exclusive contradiction between education and entertainment, and the boundaries of acceptable political discourse in publicly funded arts. I include two case studies that exemplify these artistic and political conflicts: the Negro Theater Project and the Children’s Theater Project, through, respectively, the Big White Fog and Revolt of the Beavers. During its short lifespan, the FTP was derided as discredited, dogmatic propaganda with scant artistic merit. But it left an honorable legacy grounded in democratic American principles and values. Perhaps such a grassroots cultural phenomenon that celebrated ordinary, struggling people, and explicitly confronted racism and economic deprivation could only flourish under extreme circumstances like the Depression. But the Federal Theater Project, with its subsidized, high-quality, innovative and widely accessible performances, stands as a compelling reminder of a unique moment in our country’s cultural history.
Gellen, Karen E., ""Propaganda for Democracy": The Vexed History of the Federal Theatre Project" (2017). CUNY Academic Works.