Arts agencies consume a microscopic fraction of the $4 trillion U.S. budget. And yet government funding for the arts is controversial; calls to eliminate it never fully subside. But there was a time when the government did more than just provide grants. For a few years, the government actually had its own theatrical troupes, with Uncle Sam paying actors, directors, and playwrights to put on shows in New York, Chicago, and other cities.
“For a brief time in our history, Americans had a vibrant national theatre almost by accident,” historian Susan Quinn wrote in Furious Improvisation, her 2009 book about the Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s. “What began as a relief project, without big names or one grand theatre, found a vast new audience, ready to laugh and cry and cheer and hiss and even, dangerously, to think.”
The Federal Theatre Project began at the height of the Great Depression, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was creating “New Deal” government programs to help Americans earn a living. Millions of people were unemployed, including 40,000 showbiz workers, according to one estimate. In 1935, the Works Progress Administration spent $27 million to hire artists, musicians, writers, and actors. (Adjusting for inflation, that’s $482 million in today’s dollars—almost twice as much as the federal government now spends on the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.)
The main idea was putting people to work. “You don’t think people from relief rolls would necessarily be bad actors?” federal relief administrator Harry Hopkins asked Hallie Flanagan, when he hired her to run the Federal Theatre Project. She assured him that welfare recipients were perfectly capable of putting on a good show. But from the outset, the project had another goal: creating meaningful works of theatre. “This is a noncommercial theatre,” Hopkins told Flanagan, urging her to produce “plays about American life.”
The Federal Theatre Project was based in New York, with Chicago serving as a hub for the Midwest. It almost immediately faced criticism. Victor Rice, an investment broker who lived in Chicago’s Southwest Side’s Beverly neighborhood, was appalled when his daughter, who was in college, received a letter trying to recruit her to appear in a government-funded play. Wasn’t the project supposed to hire unemployed actors? If so, why was it seeking out students to perform? “It gets my goat to learn they are having to hunt up people who are not interested,” Rice complained.
In spite of such criticism, plenty of people were desperate for a chance to work on the stage. “You’ve no idea what the Depression was like,” remembered Arnold Sundgaard, an aspiring playwright from Minnesota who hitchhiked to Chicago in 1936. “I got in line with all the other unemployed people…long blocks of people… in that dismal cold. There was a smell of fumigation, the smell of poverty.”
Amid all that misery, Sundgaard found a bright spot—the Federal Theatre Project’s offices at Rush and Erie streets. “We could drift into a rehearsal for a dance troupe or a vaudeville troupe,” he recalled. “There was a ferment there in Chicago for any young person. …one of the really exciting periods of my life.”
Working on a government paycheck, Sundgaard wrote a play titled Spirochete about an unlikely topic: syphilis. Astoundingly, it was a hit at the Blackstone (now the Merle Reskin Theatre). Even though it was largely an educational drama about the dangers of sexually transmitted disease, Chicago Tribune critic Charles Collins proclaimed, “It fulfills the average playgoer’s demand for a ‘good show.’”
Other government-funded plays in Chicago tackled topics from newspaper headlines. Angry farmers confronted auctioneers while wheat traders shouted at the Chicago Board of Trade in Triple A Plowed Under, a drama about Roosevelt’s controversial Agricultural Adjustment Administration. Power revealed the corruption of electric utility companies. And Chicago was one of 18 cities where the Federal Theatre Project simultaneously opened productions of It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, a terrifying alternate history about America falling under fascist rule when a demagogue is elected president.
In Chicago, Mayor Ed Kelly refused to allow performances of Meyer Levin’s Model Tenement, which dramatized the need for public housing. City officials apparently worried that the play’s violence was inflammatory. But when Flanagan later asked the mayor why he’d censored it, he insisted, “I never heard of the play in my life.” Another play, Paul Green’s Hymn to the Rising Sun—featuring an African-American cast—was promoted as “a powerful indictment of the brutality of the chain gang,” but federal officials stopped it from being performed after deciding that its violence was “nauseating.”
Yet the project in Chicago included an initiative to produce plays by black writers. Theodore Ward, a Louisiana native living on the South Side, dramatized the struggles of an African-American family in Big White Fog. Performed at the Loop’s Great Northern Theater, the show won high praise in the Tribune. “Its picture of life in a self-respecting Negro home on the south side is rich with realistic detail,” Collins wrote. (When the play was revived in London in 2007, the London Evening Standard critic stated, “I doubt if there exists any more enthralling or important play about the struggle of blacks to survive in pre-Second World War America than Big White Fog.”)
Another show with an African-American cast from Chicago was the Federal Theatre Project’s biggest smash. It was a jazzy reinvention of Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta from 1885, The Mikado. “Color, movement, and sound assaulted the senses,” Flanagan wrote after attending the show, which came to be known as Swing Mikado. “The music of the opera instead of tinkling in clipped British accents rolled over the audience like a tropical sea, and the audience let go and floated.”
The show ran for 22 weeks at the Great Northern, with a total audience of 170,000 people, before moving to New York. “It must be what the public wants,” the Chicago Defender wrote in an editorial. “The last few nights of Mikado in Chicago, extra police had to be called out to handle the crowds.” That black-owned newspaper saw this show as a shining example of what African-Americans could accomplish if they were given a fair opportunity. But the Federal Theatre Project ran into growing criticism in Washington. Many politicians opposed the idea of the government competing with private businesses for entertainment dollars. Others attacked the project’s plays as propaganda. They claimed that many of the people hired by the Federal Theatre Project were communists.
The critics included one of the most prominent Illinois politicians of the era, a Republican congressman from Peoria named Everett Dirksen. During a debate in the U.S. House, he denounced Federal Theatre Project plays as “salacious tripe” and “small, trashy kind of stuff.” Flanagan later recalled wondering, “Were they 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 as housing, power, agriculture, and labor?”
In 1939, Congress voted to pull the curtain down on this experiment. Flanagan was disappointed, but she didn’t sound terribly surprised. “Theater, when it’s good, is always dangerous,” she remarked.