3. THE CURTAIN RISES

Ethiopia was to have been the New York project’s first original production. The Negro Theatre filled the void with Walk Together Chillun! by Frank Wilson, a well-known black actor. Houseman didn’t like the play, but it was politically inoffensive; it opened to lukewarm reviews on February 5, 1936, and ran a month before modest audiences. Another New York unit mounted a poor production of The Comedy of Errors—so inept that Flanagan thought Shakespeare’s title could be applied across the board to all of the early New York productions. The worst of these laughable embarrassments, in her view, was Jefferson Davis, a biographical play forced on her by the Daughters of the Confederacy, who were sponsoring its southern tour.

But March saw quick improvement. That month, eight productions opened at the various New York project theaters and in community spot bookings, and they brought both crowds and reviews that ranged from decent to enthusiastic. Everyman, a noted fifteenth-century morality play, started traveling to schools and churches. The Tryout Theatre opened Woman of Destiny, and one of the Hollywood studios paid $25,000 for an option on the script. Chalk Dust, the first of the Experimental Theatre offerings, depicted bumbling teachers and high-handed administrators as a way of calling for reforms in public education. The Yiddish Theatre, another of the New York project’s units, opened The Idle Man to community spot bookings. Conjur’ Man Dies, a comedy mystery filled with inside jokes that black audiences appreciated, drew huge crowds at the Lafayette and rocked the house with laughter. In Heaven and Earth followed A Woman of Destiny at the Tryout Theatre and won critical applause. The poetry of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral at the Manhattan revived the 300-year-old story of Archbishop Thomas à Becket’s assassination at Canterbury Cathedral.

The Theatre Project was allowed only limited advertising, another of the rules designed to ease the commercial houses’ fear of competition. It could list its offerings only in the theater classifieds—no display ads—and only on Mondays, when theaters traditionally were dark. But Halsted Welles’s direction of Murder as “a kind of religious ritual” and Harry Irvine’s performance as Becket won rave reviews and word of mouth. The buzz, plus the fact that it was a limited run, made it the hottest ticket in town. Well-heeled Broadway crowds snapped up the 50-cent and $1 tickets. So did scalpers, who resold them for going Broadway prices.

March also saw the first opening of a Living Newspaper. This time, the writers turned their attention homeward. Its title, Triple-A Plowed Under, referred to the Supreme Court decision invalidating the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act, placed against the backdrop of recent farm history—the overproduction that had killed prices, land and equipment mortgaged to produce still more, drought and dust storms that had destroyed 50 million acres of farmland, the mortgage sales that evicted families from their farms and homes, and the middlemen who squeezed the farmers and jacked up prices to consumers that the AAA had tried to regulate. And with all this material to work with, the writers still took dramatic license, raising the stakes with a real-life tabloid tragedy.

A young mother, Dorothy Sherwood, was the centerpiece of this depression parable. Born in a small town in the West, she lost her mother at nine and spent the next seven years between orphanages, her itinerant father and his succession of wives, and Salvation Army foster homes, working as a household drudge and receiving “scattered and interrupted schooling.” At sixteen, she became a chorus girl in traveling shows in the Midwest. At nineteen, she met and married a stage electrician named Fred Sherwood, and at twenty bore a daughter. The family settled in Newburgh, New York, a small city on the Hudson River. Her husband worked in a movie theater, and they had a second child, a son who they named James. Then Fred Sherwood contracted tuberculosis. He was sent to a sanitarium, and his mother took their daughter, while Dorothy moved to a rooming house with her young son, leaving him in the landlady’s care while she waited tables in a restaurant. Fred Sherwood died in April 1935. Soon another man appeared who promised to take care of her and raise her son. He fixed a date that he would take her away, back to the West, and she packed, quit her job, gave notice to her landlady—but her savior never came. Weeks passed as she tried to find another job. She and the boy grew hungrier, and she could not pay the rent. On the morning of August 20, 1935, the landlady gave her notice of eviction. At around noon, she put two-year-old James into a stroller and walked three miles to nearby New Windsor, to a spot where a brook ran near the road.

Later that day, a Newburgh lieutenant looked up to see the twenty-seven-year-old woman standing at his desk, holding a toddler dressed in a clean suit. She held him out to the officer and said dully, “Here he is.”

“You killed him?” said the shocked lieutenant when he realized the boy was dead.

“Yes, I drowned him.”

“What did you do that for?”

“I couldn’t take care of him any longer and I thought he would be better off dead.”

The Living Newspaper played this moment for more drama still. Triple-A Plowed Under gave its audience short scenes in quick succession, using pantomime, skits, and radio broadcasts, among other techniques, to recount the devastation of the farms. Drought was conveyed by a farmer repeating a forecast of dry, hot days and then letting soil trickle through his fingers to his defeated exclamation, “Dust!” Dorothy Sherwood, played by a relief actress named Jane Johnson, handed her dead son to a policeman, but she was angry, not defeated, when she said, “He was hungry, I tell you. Hungry, hungry, hungry!” The real Dorothy Sherwood may never have heard of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, but conflating her son’s suffering and his mercy killing with the ruling striking down the AAA amounted to accusing the Supreme Court of murder.

Upping the ante proved effective. The cast had wondered whether New York audiences would care about problems in the faraway farm belt, but when Triple-A Plowed Under opened at the Biltmore on March 14, it attracted an audience that was not only younger and more aware of social issues than was typical for Broadway but also less reserved. By the time the black-robed actors playing the Supreme Court took the stage, the house was primed, and greeted them with waves of boos and hissing.

Brooks Atkinson, the theater critic for the New York Times, applauded the show’s conviction, contrasting it to Broadway’s usual reluctance to take stands on social issues. He called it “hard-hitting” and “frequently brilliant.” The Hearst newspapers, predictably, decried it as Socialist propaganda. But it was a hit, proving to Flanagan that the Federal Theatre could make drama from complex events. Her conviction would produce more plays that dramatized, as she put it, the “struggle of many different kinds of people to understand the natural, social, and economic forces around them and to achieve through these forces a better life.” It was inevitable that they would draw political reaction.

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