The playbook A story of theater, democracy, and the making of a culture war

James Shapiro, 1955-

Book - 2024

"A brilliant and daring account of a culture war over the place of theater in American democracy in the 1930s, one that anticipates our current divide, by the acclaimed Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro From 1935 to 1939, the Federal Theatre Project staged over a thousand productions in 29 states that were seen by thirty million (or nearly one in four) Americans, two thirds of whom had never seen a play before. At its helm was an unassuming theater professor, Hallie Flanagan. It employed, at its peak, over twelve thousand struggling artists, some of whom, like Orson Welles and Arthur Miller, would soon be famous, but most of whom were just ordinary people eager to work again at their craft. It was the product of a moment when the arts,... no less than industry and agriculture, were thought to be vital to the health of the republic, bringing Shakespeare to the public, alongside modern plays that confronted the pressing issues of the day-from slum housing and public health to racism and the rising threat of fascism. The Playbook takes us through some of its most remarkable productions, including a groundbreaking Black production of Macbeth in Harlem and an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis's anti-fascist novel It Can't Happen Here that opened simultaneously in 18 cities, underscoring the Federal Theatre's incredible range and vitality. But this once thriving Works Progress Administration relief program did not survive and has left little trace. For the Federal Theatre was the first New Deal project to be attacked and ended on the grounds that it promoted "un-American" activity, sowing the seeds not only for the McCarthyism of the 1950s but also for our own era of merciless polarization. It was targeted by the first House un-American Affairs Committee, and its demise was a turning point in American cultural life-for, as Shapiro brilliantly argues, "the health of democracy and theater, twin born in ancient Greece, have always been mutually dependent." A defining legacy of this culture war was how the strategies used to undermine and ultimately destroy the Federal Theatre were assembled by a charismatic and cunning congressman from East Texas, the now largely forgotten Martin Dies, who in doing so pioneered the right-wing political playbook now so prevalent that it seems eternal"--

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New York : Penguin Press 2024.
Main Author
James Shapiro, 1955- (author)
Physical Description
xxii, 358 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Preface
  • Is Marlowe a communist?
  • The creation of the Federal Theater
  • Macbeth: The first hit
  • It can't happen here: going national
  • How long, brethern?: Radical dance
  • One third of a nation: riling Congress
  • Liberty deferred: Confronting racism
  • The creation of the Dies Committee
  • The Dies Committee v. the Federal Theater
  • The end of the Federal Theater
  • Epilogue
  • Acknowledgments
  • Bibliographic essay
  • Index.
Review by Booklist Review

Shapiro (Shakespeare in a Divided America, 2020) points out at the beginning of his fascinating, tightly written tome that the word playbook has two meanings--a book of scripts and a set of tactics employed in a competitive activity. Shapiro draws on both in his chronicle of the active but brief life of the WPA's Federal Theatre Project (1935--39). Shapiro covers the Federal Theatre's more illustrious productions--including a stage adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' anti-fascist novel, It Can't Happen Here, and Orson Welles' groundbreaking Voodoo Macbeth--and offers a compelling portrait of Hallie Flanagan, the strong-willed force behind the Federal Theatre. The most compelling chapters, though, concern Texas Representative Martin Dies Jr. and the playbook he followed as director of the House Committee on Un-American Activities to target and, ultimately, bring down the Federal Theatre Project and Flanagan. Shapiro notes that Dies' destructive tactic, using well publicized public hearings to spread hearsay, rumors, and half-truths about his targets and gain lots of press, became the model for subsequent culture warriors intent on securing notoriety and silencing unwelcome voices and dissent.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Columbia University literature professor Shapiro follows up Shakespeare in a Divided America with another captivating theater history in which politics and entertainment intersect. Established in 1935 under the New Deal, the Federal Theatre Project was a nationwide jobs program that quickly became a hotbed of idealism. Hallie Flanagan, a stagnating academic appointed to lead the program, seized the opportunity to produce challenging plays that tackled social problems ("God help me to be able to do something more vivid in life than adding to the number of Vassar girls in the world," she wrote at the time). The program's notable works include Orson Welles's all-Black retelling of Macbeth set in Haiti and an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis's antifascist novel It Can't Happen Here that opened simultaneously in almost two dozen cities. Led by Texas Democrat Martin Dies, congressmen hoping to disrupt the New Deal targeted the Federal Theatre for its blatant progressivism, and in 1939 it became "the first New Deal project... terminated" for "promot un-American activity." Shapiro's shrewd narrative revels in absurdity; during congressional hearings, committee members kept reading Federal Theatre scripts aloud, as though yearning to be actors, while Dies, a natural performer, deployed his own warped brand of showmanship to pummel Flanagan from the dais. Shapiro's exquisite backstage history also cannily reflects on present-day political implications. It's a bravura performance. (May)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

The triumph and downfall of a groundbreaking theater. Award-winning Shakespeare scholar Shapiro, author of Shakespeare in a Divided America, creates a vibrant history both of the astonishingly successful Federal Theatre Project and the culture wars that succeeded in quashing it. Under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, from 1935 to 1939, the FTP "staged, for a pittance, over a thousand productions in twenty-nine states seen by thirty million…two thirds of whom (according to audience surveys) had never seen a play before." However, rabid conservatives, led by "charming, bigoted, and ambitious" East Texas Rep. Martin Dies, condemned the project as "dangerously progressive," promoting a racially integrated, pro-union vision of America. The Dies Committee hearings, a precursor to the House Un-American Activities Committee, went on virulent attack against plays such as It Can't Happen Here, based on Sinclair Lewis' anti-Fascist novel; a production of Macbeth--the largest to ever tour America--with an all-Black cast, set in Haiti, incorporating voodoo, and directed by Orson Welles; and One Third of a Nation, an exposé of the dangerously substandard housing that beset many American cities. A critic in New Orleans called One Third "a dramatic bombshell." Shapiro looks at the creation and reception of these plays and considers two others that were focused on racism: How Long, Brethren?, a dance performance featuring "Negro songs of protest," and Liberty Deferred, which was never staged. With Dies as the book's villain, Hallie Flanagan, a Vassar professor with a stellar background in theater, who was appointed FTP director, is the hero. Committed to mounting productions that exposed racial, religious, and political persecution, she battled "red tape, local politicians, censorship of various kinds," and "dreaded" requisitions forms to keep it alive. Its demise still resonates, Shapiro warns, with the Dies playbook revived by culture warriors noisily censoring the arts. Sharp history as cautionary tale. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

CHAPTER ONE Is Marlowe a Communist? On December 6, 1938, for the first and perhaps only time in U.S. history, the purpose of theater and its place in American democracy was hotly debated in a congressional hearing. The fraught exchange took place on the second floor of the Old Congressional Building in Washington, D.C., where the recently formed House Un-American Activities Committee questioned its witnesses. The venue, with high ceilings and large chandeliers, its walls lined that day with theater exhibits, resembled a stage set for a courtroom drama. Two long tables had been arranged in the shape of a T. At its foot was a solitary witness chair. An audience of stenographers, reporters, photographers, and cameramen sat behind long tables on each side of the room. They were drawn there in part by the committee's theatrics, vividly described in the Washington Star : "Under a blinding glare of spotlights and a bombardment of photographers' bulbs," committee members "shout insults at each other or at witnesses, who retort in kind. Spectators and witnesses exchange taunts. More than once the audience has been permitted to rise and cheer a pronouncement of the chairman." Sitting at the head of the T that Tuesday morning were five members of the investigative committee: J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey, John J. Dempsey of New Mexico, Joe Starnes of Alabama, Harold Mosier of Ohio, and its chairman, Martin Dies, a tall and charismatic Texan in his late thirties who worked his way through eight cigars in the course of a day's hearing. While officially known as the Special Committee on Un-American Activities, everyone, including reporters, referred to it as the Dies Committee. Its other members struggled to be more than a supporting cast. The committee, authorized by Congress on May 26, 1938, was due to present its findings in less than a month. Its budget had been a measly $25,000, perhaps half of what it needed to hire enough investigators, signaling Congress's uneasiness with authorizing this special committee, which it hamstrung by underfunding it. This meant that the Dies Committee lacked both the time and manpower to look into its ostensible targets, Nazism and Communism. So it reached for lower-hanging fruit, public relief, which many Americans had grown weary of, focusing its attention on one of the more controversial divisions of the WPA's Federal One, a program that had put to work thousands of unemployed writers, musicians, photographers, painters, and actors. It wasn't easy attacking murals adorning public libraries, or concerts, or photographs, or tourist handbooks. Theater offered a richer target, in part because it had become remarkably popular; in part because it was easy to find and then read aloud incriminating passages from plays that sounded obscene or subversive; and in part-and this is what justified linking it to un-American activities-because it attracted many on the political left who hoped, at a time of massive unemployment, racial division, and income inequality, that plays could expose and help change what they found wrong in America. Back in August, at the end of its first week of hearings, the Dies Committee had heard from a half dozen or so witnesses who, based on hearsay evidence and unchallenged allegations, had traduced the Federal Theatre as communistic and its plays as subversive of American values. The accusations were front-page news. Subsequent reports of the wild and unpredictable hearings, which Americans seemingly couldn't get enough of, had generated growing public interest. With only weeks left before the committee members had to submit their report to Congress, they had not allowed any officials representing the Federal Theatre to respond to these accusations, despite repeated requests to do so. The previous day the committee finally invited, then grilled, the first of these, the formidable Mississippian and high-ranking WPA administrator Ellen Sullivan Woodward, and that hadn't gone well. Woodward had turned the tables, deriding their biased proceedings as "un-American," and accused them of giving "widespread publicity to testimony given before your committee" by "unqualified, irresponsible, and misinformed" witnesses. She was admonished in turn: "You are not here to ask the committee questions. You are here to answer questions." Dies had made a tactical error in rebuffing Thomas's request to skip Woodward entirely and turn directly to the testimony of a more vulnerable witness who worked under her, forty-eight-year-old Hallie Flanagan, a professor at Vassar College who had risen to national prominence in 1935 when chosen to run the Federal Theatre. From Dies's perspective, Monday's outcome must have been a disappointment, if not a potential disaster, especially after the New York Times headline had declared "WPA Plays Upheld at Dies Hearing," and the anti-administration Chicago Tribune had not even bothered running a story. Since August, Flanagan had sought to appear at the hearings to defend the Federal Theatre, but until now the Dies Committee had stonewalled her. The committee couldn't hold off any longer on allowing her to speak; and Roosevelt's administration, having told Flanagan not to respond in public, had reversed course as well, belatedly recognizing the damage already done by this strategy. Flanagan had come prepared, reports and affidavits in hand. Nobody knew the Federal Theatre more intimately or could speak about it with greater passion. She was possessed of considerable poise, but, unlike Woodward, a veteran politician, had never found herself in such a hostile environment. Her mission was to defend the Federal Theatre; Dies's was to trip her up, vilify her program, and, in so doing, make national news and extend the life of his committee. What Flanagan failed to grasp-and it would haunt her to her dying days-was that the hearing room (which to her producer's eye looked "like a badly staged courtroom scene") offered a different sort of drama than she had ever encountered. That shopworn set masked a nascent form of American political theater far more dangerous than the one she had come to defend. Dies entered the Old Congressional Building that morning bolstered by a successful weekend of politicking in New York City. On Saturday he had spoken at a luncheon at the Hotel Pennsylvania for six hundred members of the nationalist American Defense Society. Before this sympathetic crowd, risking President Roosevelt's wrath, Dies lashed out against Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins for having "gone to great lengths to 'ridicule and destroy' his investigation." His strategy was to play the victim while wrapping himself in the flag: "The enemies of this country . . . have been stupid. Their tactics of ridicule, misrepresentation, lies, abuse, etc., have done more to arouse the patriotism of this country to the seriousness of the situation than all the testimony we have heard." Dies's hosts were furious that no radio station had covered the popular congressman's speech (though Dies had not asked any station to do so, and he had been on NBC radio alone seven times since April). Arnold Davis, cochair of the society, wondered aloud, "Who had the power to do that?"-intimating that Roosevelt's administration was conspiring to subvert Dies's investigation. National papers jumped on the conspiracy theory, several running a version of the headline that appeared in the Los Angeles Times the next day: "Six Radio Stations Refuse Time to Dies." The press also reported that those at the luncheon voted unanimously to urge "Congress to appropriate sufficient funds for continuation of the investigation." While this was a vote of confidence, the need for one was a sign of how vulnerable Dies's committee now was. Dies told the crowd that "long before he undertook the investigation . . . he was advised by a friend not to begin it because a concerted attempt would be made to 'smear' it," hinting at an even deeper and long-standing conspiracy to silence him. Buoyed by this response, on Sunday he spoke to an admiring crowd of over three thousand at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where he declared (in a barely veiled attack on Communists in the country) that anyone "who advocates class hatred is plainly un-American." He was still struggling to find effective ways to attack the Communist threat, since there was nothing illegal about being a member of the Communist Party in America. So he had to find a better way to persuade people that Communist values were fundamentally un-American, and at the same time quietly absolve fascism, which he had been far less keen on investigating. That evening Dies tried out a fresh argument, suggesting, as the New York Herald Tribune reported, that "property rights were closely linked to human rights," and that history has shown "if you lose one you lose the other." By this logic, to oppose private corporations and to advocate for public programs-socialized medicine, say, or state ownership of utilities-was by default un-American, as well as against human rights. This crowd, too, adopted a resolution "asking Congress to increase the appropriation of the Dies committee." His fellow speakers at the event praised Dies, and one of them, George Harvey, the Queens borough president, even "suggested him for the Presidency." Heading back to the nation's capital either late that night or very early the next morning, what did Dies think was more likely: his nomination to succeed Roosevelt in the Oval Office or his failure to secure his committee's future? At that moment it was anyone's guess. The newly established Gallup poll was at this very moment tabulating its findings about what Americans thought about his committee; the results of that survey were as yet unknown. Flanagan came prepared to share with the committee how much the Federal Theatre had accomplished in its short life as well as to defend it from accusations that it was promoting Communism. She was progressive in her worldview and believed that theater should be "a thorn in the flesh of the body politic," but she had never imposed an ideological agenda on the Federal Theatre, and had pushed back against radicalism in her organization. The overwhelming majority of the hundreds of productions she had approved were unobjectionable-classical and modern drama, religious plays, vaudeville acts, marionette shows-though a few contemporary plays had not shied away from controversy (and had angered those across the political spectrum, from the Roosevelt administration to its foes in Congress, the latter far more often). The cost to American citizens for all this was negligible: less than 1 percent of money allocated for all federal work relief. The price tag over the past three years or so had amounted to-as Flanagan herself would put it-the cost of building one battleship. The committee made Flanagan wait. Before allowing her to testify, there was a warm-up act: they first wanted to hear from Howard Stone Anderson, minister of the First Congregational Church in Washington, D.C., who was invited to speak about "the best ways and means to promote Americanism." Anderson spoke uninterrupted and interminably about "the spiritual lethargy and moral indifference" threatening America, and recommended that radicals should be dealt with "by force or persuasion, by confinement, or deportation." If Flanagan thought she was going to be treated with similar courtesy, she was in for a surprise. She, too, had planned to read from a prepared statement, but the committee had other ideas. J. Parnell Thomas and Joe Starnes, either out of impatience or to see whether they could rattle her, began peppering her immediately with questions as soon as she was sworn in. The New York Times reported that they "heckled" Flanagan and "interrupted each other in their eagerness to question her": "Their questions tumbled out so fast that she had to juggle with two or three at a time and was continually cut off from completing her sentences." They were ill-equipped to deal with the hard-earned authority of professional women like Woodward and Flanagan who refused to defer to them. Dies, who allowed this spectacle to go on for too long, at last intervened, started things over, asking Flanagan what her duties were as head of the Federal Theatre. Unwilling to cede to the committee members who defined what was American, or for that matter un-American, Flanagan in her reply flipped the script, a bit too wittily: "Since August 29, 1935, I have been concerned with combating un-American inactivity." Dies misheard her and replied: "No. We will get to that in a minute." Flanagan had to repeat herself: "Please listen. I said I am combating un-American inactivity." A confused Dies responded, "Inactivity?" Flanagan explained: "I refer to the inactivity of professional men and women; people who, at that time when I took office, were on the relief rolls; and it was my job to expend the appropriation laid aside by congressional vote for the relief of the unemployed as it related to the field of the theater." Starnes, impatient, jumped back in, cherry-picking Flanagan's official correspondence, trying to drive a wedge between the two goals of her project that had always been in tension with each other: providing relief to thousands of unemployed actors and staging first-rate productions. Flanagan, despite his interruptions, held her ground, repeatedly placing the snippets he was quoting within larger and inoffensive contexts. She just as deftly refuted Starnes's accusation that her goal was creating a national theater. There were a few reasons why she had to do so. The first was that the name was taken. On July 5, 1935, a bill authorizing the "non-political, non-sectarian" and not-for-profit American National Theatre and Academy (assigning "sole and exclusive rights" to the name) had been signed into law. The new organization asked for no financial support; it was simply dedicated to stimulating public interest in theater, securing the best actors and plays "at a minimal cost," and encouraging the study of drama. Having wealthy donors spend their own money to support drama was something Congress had no trouble rubber-stamping, and it was only "national" in the sense that it was intended to benefit the entire country. After the Federal Theatre was created later that summer, Flanagan was visited by one of its members, who warned her "that the expression 'national theatre' had been pre-empted." Flanagan replied that she "had no intention of using what would be an inaccurate title." Though she hoped that the two organizations might collaborate, they wanted nothing to do with her project, and since then little had been heard from the American National Theatre. The term "national" for Flanagan was also inaccurate insofar as it conjured up images of, as she put it, "a national theatre in the European sense of a group of artists chosen to represent the government." There really wasn't much difference, practically speaking, between a federal and national theater in an American context, once it was clear that the Federal Theatre bore no resemblance to French or German models. When Burns Mantle, the theater critic for the New York Daily News , toured theaters across the country in the spring of 1938, he concluded that he looked forward to the day "when we quit thinking vaguely of a national theatre as a marble building housing a golden-voiced stock company, and begin to think of it, as we should, in terms of a circuit of national theatre units." That's fairly close to what Flanagan aspired to, though she was also careful to avoid the term "national" because it conjured up-especially for Southern congressmen like Starnes of Alabama and Dies of Texas-the threat of a centralized government encroaching on states' rights. A civil war had in part been fought over this in living memory. Excerpted from The Playbook: A Story of Theater, Democracy, and the Making of a Culture War by James Shapiro All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.