A clown in a red wig and a bum’s droopy pants burst into the arena at the Second Naval Battalion Armory in Brooklyn, New York, chased by a caricature cop in hot pursuit. The pair scampered around and disappeared, and when the bum reappeared he had left his pursuer in the wings. He preened in pantomime. Then the dastardly cop slipped back into sight. The clown didn’t see him. A thousand children screamed a warning, but the clown didn’t understand. He cupped a hand to one ear and looked bewildered until the cop, one exaggerated footstep at a time, crept up behind him and bopped him on the head with a floppy rubber nightstick.
As the kids shrilled their approval, a fanfare of trumpets drowned them out. A scarlet-suited band, sixty members strong, stepped onto the floor, followed by a procession of performers—first a ringmaster wearing high black boots and a top hat and cracking a long whip, then unicyclists, acrobats, trapeze artists, tightrope walkers, a strongman, more clowns, trained dogs and ponies, and two monkeys. The WPA Circus was making its debut.
For two and a half hours, spellbound children from orphanages and families on relief laughed at the miming clowns, held their breath as the tightrope walkers teetered from pole to pole under the rafters, and gasped at the dizzying feats of the aerialists on the flying trapeze. They cheered when one of the trained dogs took a fifteen-foot leap into a fireman’s net. They stood up for “The Star-Spangled Banner” and sang along with the band between bites of free peanuts and popcorn handed out in paper bags by WPA concessionaires. Admission was free, and the kids got more than their money’s worth: some of the performers entertaining them had raked in $1,000 a week during vaudeville’s heyday.
This circus performance on October 17, 1935, launched the Federal Theatre Project in New York. If there was anything missing, it was the exotic animals that were a staple of established circuses. Hallie Flanagan, interviewed for the project’s magazine, said that the show would have featured elephants except that “none were on relief.” But animal trainers were, and in time the WPA Circus in New York would add the elephant Japino for the cost of trainer Honest Bill Newton’s relief check. The aging Japino was such a popular addition that in 1937, schoolchildren successfully petitioned Roosevelt to save him from a death sentence imposed on grounds of “senility.”
Flanagan would soon have tougher crowds to please. Rolling out the circus had been easy, since it was one of the units she had inherited from the FERA jobs program. Circuses of varying compositions were performing all over the country during the WPA’s first summer. So were variety and vaudeville troupes and puppet and minstrel shows. A company whose repertoire consisted of seven of Gilbert and Sullivan’s light operas was among the most popular of these preexisting units, which took their acts into schools, hospitals, settlement houses, and even prisons.
But Flanagan had more than puppeteers, coloraturas, and former vaudevillians on her hands, and more ambition for her project than circuses and conventional repertory. New York was the center of the theater world, with a large population of actors, stagehands, dressers, set and lighting designers, playwrights, and producers who were out of work, desperate, and available. From this mix could come bold new works that fulfilled her vision of theater’s role in society. One of her first decisions was to centralize the project’s service functions—research, publicity, production schedules, and a magazine chronicling its activities from coast to coast—in the city.
Elmer Rice, a successful producer and playwright in New York, had agreed to head the project there. Consulting with Flanagan, he had set up five main units—the Negro Theatre, the Tryout Theatre that would audition scripts for commercial producers, the Experimental Theatre that would present “new plays in new manners,” a unit that would produce original plays by new playwrights that was inexplicably called the Popular Price Theatre, and the Living Newspaper, a new and unusual play format that would dramatize current news events.
Other than the circus and other carryover units from the previous relief programs, the New York operation—like those in the rest of the country—was slow getting started. One of its problems was shared by all the arts programs. Federal paymasters knew how to operate “when you want to build a road, or build an airport, but how do you put an artist on a payroll?” asked Robert Asure, a finance officer in Federal One. “Should he be paid by the hour, or by the yard, who should supervise him, what constitutes production?—it was just endless.” Flanagan also had trouble getting money out of Washington for theater rentals, causing her to rail at the “stupidity, inefficiency, and delay” of the WPA bureaucracy. And then, when the $20,000 authorized for rentals was finally released, the theater owners resisted renting their houses to the project because they saw it as low-priced competition.
Broadway tickets cost $2 to around $5 in 1935. Hopkins had decided that WPA theater ticket prices should start at a dime and go no higher than a dollar, and some offerings would be free. The New York units planned to charge 25 or 50 cents for most seats. It was not Flanagan’s intention to produce bad plays, but while it was conceivable that some of them might catch on and find an audience, realistically none of the project’s offerings was going to be a threat to Broadway. Nevertheless, owners and commercial producers tried to keep the WPA out of the ten-block heart of Broadway between 40th and 50th Streets. Finally they relented and allowed the project to rent the Biltmore, on 47th Street near Eighth Avenue.
The Living Newspapers would be offered at the Biltmore. The Popular Price Theatre got the Manhattan, at 53rd and Broadway. Daly’s, on West 67th Street near Central Park, would house the Experimental Theatre. The Tryout Theatre would stage its hopeful offerings at the Willis in the Bronx and the Shubert-Teller in Brooklyn, and the Negro Theatre would present its plays at the Lafayette, on Seventh Avenue between 132nd and 133rd Streets. The various units started moving to their respective venues in late October 1935.
Together with black actress Rose McClendon, John Houseman, then a rising theatrical director, had agreed to head the New York Negro Theatre unit. (There were also units in Birmingham, Boston, Chicago, Hartford, Los Angeles, Newark, Philadelphia, Raleigh, San Francisco, and Seattle.) Its first task was renovating the severely deteriorated Lafayette, built before the turn of the century; its windows and doors were boarded over, and rats and other vermin lurked amid the broken seats and rotting carpet in the dank auditorium. But WPA work crews assembled from lists of unemployed black stagehands ripped the old theater down to its healthy bones and had it ready for audiences by the beginning of December.
Once he was sure the theater was going to be ready, Houseman faced creative choices. McClendon was fighting what would ultimately be a losing battle with cancer, and her frequent absences left him to decide what plays the 750-member troupe should mount. It ranged from a core of non-relief professionals—actors, technicians, and administrators—to people who had never set foot on a stage but had managed to win assignments to the project before its quota was filled. It was a ticklish time in Harlem. Riots the previous March had left heightened racial tensions, and white motives were suspect in anything that had to do with black people. But Houseman was equipped to deal with these suspicions. Harlem was not new to him. The year before, he had directed the Virgil Thomson–Gertrude Stein experimental opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, with an all-black cast on Broadway. The successful show had been preceded by months of rehearsals during which he had learned to balance the neighborhood’s competing forces—the local Communist Party on one hand and the decorous Urban League on the other. The one thing he wanted to avoid was mounting recent Broadway hits with all-black casts, or reviving popular black vehicles such as The Emperor Jones, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, or Porgy and Bess. He knew that to do this would be interpreted as patronizing, as would the revues and musicals that traditionally featured black entertainers.
Houseman decided to divide the company into two. One troupe would present plays on black subjects, focusing on contemporary issues. The other would be a classical repertory company performing Shakespeare and other great playwrights. To direct the classical arm, Houseman turned to young Orson Welles, who was only twenty but already famous for his theatrical ambitions and his flamboyance.
Welles accepted. Soon afterward, he called Houseman at two in the morning to say that his wife, Virginia, had had an inspiration: they should do Macbeth. But instead of the bleak setting of the Scottish heath, Shakespeare’s tragedy of mad ambition would take place in the dripping lushness of the Haitian jungle. There would be voodoo priestesses instead of witches around a boiling cauldron, and Napoleonic military costuming to replace Elizabethan gowns and tunics. The concept was loosely based on fact; it sprang from the wars and intrigues surrounding the struggle of Haitian slaves for independence. Henri Christophe, who had declared himself King Henri I in 1811 after conspiring in the assassination of his predecessor, was the parallel for Macbeth’s dark strivings. The plan’s boldness excited Houseman. It made him believe he could actually create art in addition to providing jobs, and he green-lighted the production. Before long he and Welles were conducting auditions in a Harlem Elks Club recreation hall. Among those winning roles were an African witch doctor and his drummers, who had been stranded in New York during a failed tour.
At the same time, Elmer Rice was moving ahead with the production of the first Living Newspaper. This was Flanagan’s concept, growing from the Russian leg of her 1926 European theater tour. She recognized that what she had seen was Soviet propaganda, the glories of the revolution dramatized for illiterate audiences, but the simplicity of the productions had appealed to her. Their basic sets and staging fit with the WPA rule directing that most of a project’s budget be spent on labor. Flanagan’s idea was to use music and lighting sparingly, and for the most part simply to put actors onstage to bring the news to life.
Among the most dramatic stories in that fall of 1935 was Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, accompanied by biplanes and bombers of the Regia Aeronautica that rained explosives and mustard gas down on civilian villages in what had once been an Italian colony. Ethiopia had been independent for forty years, but the Italian dictator, known as Il Duce, was bent on regaining Italy’s foothold in North Africa and avenging a series of embarrassments dating back to 1896 and the Ethiopian—then Abyssinian—defeat of an invading Italian force. The League of Nations protested the invasion and bombing, to no effect. In the United States, a strong bloc of isolationists in Congress, with widespread support from the public, who remembered that 116,000 American soldiers had died in the world war and wanted to stay away from any foreign conflicts, defeated Roosevelt’s request for a ban on arms exports to Italy. The Living Newspaper decided to feature this example of fascist militarism in its first “edition” and wrote a script that included a goosestepping Mussolini.
Flanagan approved the script. Hopkins, after all, had promised a “free, adult, uncensored” theater, and she, taking him at his word, thought it unreasonable for anyone, politicians included, to second-guess the content of a play. But when word of the impending production reached the White House, warning flags went up. Roosevelt sent word that depicting foreign dignitaries was “skating on thin ice” and dangerous to foreign relations.
Flanagan protested and called on Eleanor Roosevelt for help, but even her intervention failed to move the president. Jacob Baker, as yet undeposed by the coup that was to send him packing off to Europe halfway through 1936, decreed that Living Newspaper producers had to secure approval from the State Department before presenting characters that represented foreign heads of state. Flanagan weighed resigning but decided against it. Elmer Rice, however, quit with a flourish. On January 24, 1936, he invited the press to a dress rehearsal of Ethiopia, and after the curtain fell he announced his resignation with a speech comparing censorship with fascism.
Ethiopia was never seen again, nor was it the only Federal Theatre Project production to be abandoned on grounds of political sensitivity, real or imagined. While its writers were preparing their script in New York, the Chicago unit was readying a play called Model Tenement, by Meyer Levin. Rehearsals had started when word came from the Chicago office of the WPA to halt the production. Complaints that its rent strike theme was anti-landlord propaganda had gone all the way to Washington. Chicago’s mayor, Edward Joseph Kelly, was the prime suspect. He denied any role in having Model Tenement shelved; in fact, he said, he had never heard of it. But events were clearly proving that Hopkins’s promise to Flanagan that she could operate free of censorship would be impossible to keep.