We don’t think a good musician should be asked to turn second-rate laborer.
—AUBREY WILLIAMS, WPA DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR
No one who has seen these thousands of theatre workers rehearsing…'spending far more than the required hours, working with energy and devotion…'can believe that the Federal Theatre as it gathers momentum will be any less potent because it has the remembrance of hunger in its stomach.
—HALLIE FLANAGAN, FEDERAL THEATRE PROJECT ADMINISTRATOR
The potential for artistic outreach and creativity that Harry Hopkins had described so enthusiastically to Hallie Flanagan on their rail trip to Iowa had been largely realized by the end of 1936. The WPA’s Federal One had freed the arts from their need to please commercial tastes and elite patrons. With the government funding artists and actors, playwrights and musicians, their work had spilled out of haute temples in big-city theater districts and gallery rows into parks, schools, churches, and community centers. Millions of Americans, many for the first time in their lives, thronged to concerts and plays and studied paintings and drawings, much of the time without having to take a penny from their pockets. They were sending their children to free art and music classes, and attending these classes on their own. After a year and a half, the WPA’s mission to take the arts to the people and keep arts workers out of breadlines was by most measures a complete success.
Federal One had by now spent approximately $40 million and employed a total of some 40,000 workers. Both figures were minuscule portions of the WPA’s total funding and jobs, but the arts projects had already received an outsized share of attention and publicity—and notoriety. Some critics, among them the New York Times, objected on principle to the idea of paying artists to create art rather than build roads. “Their usefulness has been widely doubted,” the newspaper wrote in a September 1, 1936, editorial decrying the 25 percent of the WPA budget spent on the arts and other white-collar projects in New York. Such “boondoggling,” it went on, “tends to bring the engineering projects into discredit with it,” and ought to be abandoned. The maverick nature of the arts in general and of artists in particular—their “bohemian” lifestyles, often leftist politics, and insistence on “artistic freedom”—had generated a stream of corrosive coverage that placed the projects on the defensive.
It was certainly true that firebrand arts workers, particularly in New York and San Francisco, had spent as much time in protests and radical activities as they had in making art. The latest of these actions was a round of sit-ins and marches that greeted the layoffs made in the wake of the 1936 elections. Protests such as these, and the news stories they generated, reinforced the anti–New Deal right’s conviction that it was correct to view the arts as dangerous, anti-American, and not worthy of support. As time went on these views were to intensify.
Artists had had high expectations when the projects started. Douglas Lynch, in Portland, Oregon, had been eking out a living painting scenic backdrops for department store window displays. When he heard the news it was as if “we artists had received a commission from the Medicis.” Printmaker and lithographer Will Barnet was brought into the New York project to improve the quality of the print division’s work. He viewed Federal One as overdue recognition by the government that the arts deserved public support. “It was one of the greatest efforts in history to make a democracy a democracy,” he said years later. Artists took it as a natural evolutionary stage in the nation’s development; it was finally following the lead of European countries in providing the arts with public subsidies.
The directors of the four programs held this view as well. They were a mix of styles, personalities, and backgrounds. Flanagan, Hopkins’s Grinnell College classmate who headed the Theatre Project, was, according to director John Houseman, “a wild little woman who believed and publicly stated her conviction that ‘the theatre is more than a private enterprise; it is also a public interest which, properly fostered, might come to be a social and an educative force.’” Holger Cahill, the Icelandic immigrant appointed to lead the Art Project, was fiercely defensive of his vision for the project, which was to extend the educational reach of art through local galleries and art centers and magnificent murals adorning public spaces. The director of the Music Project, Russian-born Nikolai Sokoloff, was less fiery but more vain than either Flanagan or Cahill, and adamant about his goal of “enlightening” musical audiences through a steady diet of classical music. Henry Alsberg, the New Yorker at the head of the Writers’ Project, commanded allegiance through the rumpled authority and deep respect he brought to the writers under his command, and like Cahill he had an instinct for political survival.
Jacob Baker, after losing control of professional projects to Ellen Woodward, had remained in charge of Federal One for its first year. But he believed the arts programs, and their budgets, should be turned over to the state WPA operations instead of run out of Washington. While this may, as Baker thought, have been a better arrangement for political and administrative reasons, the project directors were convinced it would dilute artistic standards. They also were certain that because artists, writers, and performers were clustered in a handful of cities, only federal control could direct them as needed to areas that lacked strong arts communities, both to perform and to teach. Baker had pressed his plan with Harry Hopkins, complaining that the arts people were “haughty” and “uppish” and “won’t listen to anything,” but in July 1936, Flanagan and Cahill, with tacit support from Alsberg and Sokoloff, revolted. They had Eleanor Roosevelt’s ear, and it was she who in turn suggested to Hopkins that “the problem might be Mr. Baker.” Hopkins resolved the conflict by sending Baker off to study cooperatives in Europe, and Federal One and its directors, with Woodward’s loose hand on the reins, continued to run their programs out of Washington.
It had been a rough time; long afterward, Cahill remembered the contest over control of the arts projects as both bitter and personal. He had been in Atlanta, “taped up from shoulders to navel” after an automobile accident, when his assistant summoned him back to Washington in a desperate bid to fight off Baker’s plan. Meeting Baker later, after he had left the administration, a still very angry Cahill told him, “Damn your heart. You stabbed a knife right between my shoulder blades and you said, ‘That’s the end of you and Hallie Flanagan.’ But we destroyed you, you bastard.”
Of the four projects under Federal One, Flanagan’s Federal Theatre Project was the most insistently politically outspoken. It was this insistence that would bring down the wrath of conservatives upon it. But it also recognized that its first duty was to entertain, and long before the New Deal’s enemies saw red in a few selected play scripts, the project launched its debut performance not on a stage but in a sawdust ring, its only purpose to send an audience of children into shivers of delight.