Though contemporary politicians on both sides of the aisle often either fondly praise or viciously attack the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, there really aren't that many people around who either remember or understand the impact of such entities as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), nor the many things that were created under its umbrella. Author and biographer Susan Quinn's exhaustive new book Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times offers vital information about exactly what the WPA did, who it helped and why it was among FDR's most important creations. The book also spotlights a period in American history whose links to subsequent cultural and political developments is frequently underrated.
Quinn focuses on the Federal Theater Project, which began in 1935 and was among four endeavors labeled "Federal One" and designed to employ writers, visual artists, musicians and theater workers. Hallie Flanagan, director of a theater program at Vassar, was tapped by WPA head Harry Hopkins to launch the project in Iowa. Hopkins wanted to start it in the Midwest to allay fears about elitism, snobbery or bias on behalf of larger urban cities. Hopkins and Flanagan, who had graduated a year apart at Grinnell College, also picked a week when a national theater conference was happening in Iowa City to launch the project.
From this promising start, Quinn traces the Federal Theater Project's growth, willingness to combat racial and social taboos, and recruitment of gifted but controversial personalities. All these elements resulted in plenty of behind-the-scenes drama and intrigue. Whether presenting a voodoo version of "Macbeth" or employing the likes of Orson Welles, John Houseman and Sinclair Lewis, the Federal Theater Project delighted in surprising and shocking audiences, confronting conservative authorities, and smashing boundaries and barriers in terms of expectations.
Sadly, such welcome trends as presenting plays with integrated casts, encouraging submissions and participation from black and female actors and playwrights, exploring themes of poverty and injustice in the rural South, and presenting material featuring strong protest and social justice themes proved the very things that led to the program's destruction. Though nowhere as prominent during the '30s as they became in the '50s, the "Red Scare" and paranoia about Communists infiltrating the government were becoming more commonplace.
These fears helped fuel a backlash that was most vividly expressed by Rep. Martin Dies Jr. (D-Texas). Like his legislator father, Dies was a virulent racist and xenophobe. He became chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1938, and was one of several Southern senators determined to halt such developments as anti-lynching bills and stop the rising number of immigrants coming to America. Dies made scuttling the Federal Theater Project part of a larger plan to destroy FDR's New Deal legacy. While that didn't work, he did succeed in ending the Federal Theater Project by the summer of 1939.
Still, as Quinn's volume colorfully documents, over its four-year tenure the Federal Theater Project tapped a nationwide creative energy and spirit that had previously been mostly dormant. The roots of everything from the civil rights and feminist movements to the artistic revolution of the '60s can be traced to this period, and Furious Improvisation relives these times with zest and reverence.
Ron Wynn writes for Nashville City Paper and other publications.