Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times
By Susan Quinn
Walker, 325 pages, $25.99
Imagine a country where the president uses the full faith and credit of the government to put people to work in hard times. Imagine a country where artists are not regarded as expendable froufrou, or as dangerous provocateurs, but as crucial contributors to a nation’s psychological and moral health.
Imagine, then, a country like the United States in 1935, when desperation impelled a government to do things that no American government would do today no matter how desperate.
Susan Quinn’s Furious Improvisation—a great title for an excellent book, a model of narrative history—tells the story of the Federal Theatre Project, an offshoot of F.D.R.’s Works Progress Administration.
Predominantly, the book is the story of Hallie Flanagan, a tiny South Dakotan who indefatigably rode the waves of political reaction as if she were in one of Bruce Brown’s surfing documentaries. Along for the ride are the various artists who were given a leg up by the Federal Theatre: Orson Welles, John Houseman, Marc Blitzstein, Richard Wright, Sinclair Lewis and several thousand others, with special guest appearances by Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan.
Among the Federal Theatre Project’s successes were Welles’ voodoo Macbeth, his Faust, his and Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock and Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, a timely, still resonant warning about homegrown fascism. The Lewis play opened simultaneously in 21 theaters across the country, including productions in Spanish and Yiddish.
George Bernard Shaw was so impressed by the sheer chutzpah of the Federal Theatre Project that he handed Hallie Flanagan the rights to all of his plays, in spite of the fact that the Federal Theatre Project paid only $50-a-week royalties to authors.
Along with the rights came a Shavian prescription for proper production: "The plays will be murdered more or less barbarically all the time," Shaw wrote to Flanagan. "That happens on Broadway too; and you must take what you can get in the way of casting and direction just as if you were a fashionable manager. So far from avoiding negro casts you will be very lucky if you can get them; for negroes act with a delicacy and sweetness that make white actors look like a gang of roughnecks in comparison."
The reaction to all this on the part of Republicans in Congress can be imagined—"boondoggle" was the most polite word employed—but the virulence spread; Ms. Quinn writes that "bureaucrats at the state level refused to cooperate across state lines, especially in the Midwest."
And, to be blunt, a lot of the productions had to compromise with despicable local mores; in Jacksonville, a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was cast entirely with white people who blacked up when necessary, which sounds like a scene from one of Christopher Guest’s lunatic fancies.
IT WAS THE 1938 Congressional elections that brought the W.P.A to an end, with the Republicans taking 13 governorships and eight senate seats, and doubling their holdings in the House. It was a strong rebuke to Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court—easily the stupidest thing a great politician has ever done. The new Republican majority in Congress went about the long-dreamt-of business of killing the New Deal, with the Federal Theatre Project as collateral damage.
The new Congress brought the elevation of one Martin Dies Jr., a singularly uncharming man who in time would run the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dies was a Texan who praised the Confederacy because it kept the South, he said, from being overrun by "ignorant niggers." Ms. Quinn thus makes the point that the first victim of the Red Scare was the New Deal.
Hallie Flanagan’s autopsy of her child’s corpse seems fair enough: "[Congressmen] were afraid of the Federal Theatre because it was educating the people of its vast new audience to know more about government and politics and such vital issues of the day as housing, power, agriculture and labor. They were afraid, and rightly so, of thinking people."
Did the Federal Theatre Project make a difference in the lives of the artists it employed? Welles, Houseman and most of the others would still have had major careers if the Federal Theatre had never been devised. But it gave them a place and an environment conducive to innovation at the beginning of their careers, when they needed it most—a boost to the major leagues.
No, the ultimate beneficiary of the Federal Theatre wasn’t individual artists but the public. Ordinary people flocked to the shows, to see a subsidized theater (tickets were $1.10) that couldn’t have survived, let alone flourished, in any other form in America in those hard times—or, for that matter, in these.
Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.