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Broadway 101

The Great Depression

Part Two

In August of 1930, Cardinal Hayes, heading up the Catholic Theater League, attacked a number of productions as "obscene". In addition, Frank Gillmore, then president of Actor's Equity also spoke out against "salacious" shows. Gillmore was afraid that such shows would increase the argument for public censorship. In an effort to thwart the possibility of imposed censorship, Gillmore and others sponsored a program similar to one already adopted by Hollywood for self-censorship. Ed Wynn, who brought Simple Simon to the Shuberts' Philadelphia theater, refused to appear until the showcards for the next attraction, Earl Carroll's Sketch Book, were removed from the lobby. Wynn was afraid that the photos would upset the family trade and discourage business. This on-going war of the writers vs. the righteous would not have a specific conclusion, as we know from recent events with the production of Corpus Christi.

Though it would seem that this should have been a decade of loss for artistic theater, it was actually a period of major transformation and growth. While the economic state of the country worsened, the Broadway community rallied again. An estimated 25,000 theater people were displaced by the effects of the depression, the majority in New York. In some theaters, prices were dropped to a 25-cent minimum, with a $1.00 top price. Actors and producers experimented with repertory productions, to keep as many working as often as possible, and to keep as many productions as possible active.

Accepting a cue from Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory, Lawrence Langner and the Theater Guild were leaders in this concept. The Guild's problem with this attempted solution became particularly apparent Porgy & Besswith the Guild's 1935 production of one of Gershwin's masterpieces, Porgy and Bess, the musical adaptation of Dorothy and DuBose Heyward's 1927 play Porgy. Moving sets around from theater to theater wasn't as problematic as finding roles for the all-black cast in other productions when their production was down. The cast was out of work every other week.

As the Depression deepened, there were other "angels from within" who fought to ease some of the suffering of the ailing system. Playwright Rachel Crothers helped to organize the Stage Relief Fund to assist actors in paying for food, rent, medical necessities and utilities. Dramatic actress Selena Royle helped to initiate and run the Actor's Dinner Club, where hot meals were served nightly at $1.00 each to those who could afford it and free to those who could not. It is reported that during the leanest season of Broadway, over 120,000 free meals were served.

With her major supporters, Otto Khan and Mary Bok Zimbalist, both withdrawing their support as a result of personal financial losses, Eva Le Gallienne was forced to take her production of Alice in Wonderland to a commercial house to support her Civic Theater. She opened at the New Amsterdam Theater, and, when the show closed in May of 1933, she decided to tour the show with Romeo and Juliet in repertory. Facing the reality that the financial strain of the Civic made it an impossible dream, she sub let the Civic Repertory Theater and began the cross-country trek.

In Washington D.C., Le Gallienne met with Eleanor Roosevelt and again pushed for a "National Theater". Le Gallienne's idea was something on the order of the Comedie-Francaise, or the Moscow Art Theater. She was invited to the White House to discuss the idea with the President. FDR, who was ambitiously attempting to create government programs to bolster America's economic health, liked the idea, but felt it wasn't "comprehensive enough". Le Gallienne's one little theater couldn't employ the number of out of work theater people who needed jobs across the country. With this beginning, one of the greatest (and most controversial) programs of the WRA was created: The Theater Works Project. Le Gallienne declined heading such an ambitious project, fearing, among other things, that such a large program would dilute the quality of the resulting product.

Hallie Flannagan
The Theater Works Project was placed in the hands of Hallie Flanagan, an instructor and creator of an experimental theater at Vassar. She had studied theater in Europe and Russia in the 20s on the first Guggenheim scholarship awarded to a woman, and was fully aware of what Le Gallienne had proposed. Flanagan differed, however, in that she was willing to oversee the development of a national program with chapters throughout the country. New York, with the greatest number of unemployed theater people, would develop six chapters, with other cities developing chapters relative to the number of displaced workers. In an unexpected moment of charity and good will, both George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O'Neill offered rights to their respective works to the Project for the nominal sum of $50.00 per week while they were in production.

Following Le Gallienne's concept, each chapter was to include a school at which new talent could learn the skills of theater. Not only was acting to be taught, but also writing, direction, choreography, design, lighting, costuming and set construction - all the components of living theater. The theaters were to be experimental as well - trying new forms as well as new applications of old forms. As a result, mime and puppetry were also part of many chapters. One of Injunction, Spirochete, & Power Newspapers the most successful experiments of the Federal Theater Project was a program called "The Living Newspapers". Socially significant themes were dramatized. Everything - from labor unions (Injunction Granted) to STDs (Spirochete) to public utilities (Power) - became topics of entertainment as well as education.

In New York, the Harlem chapter at the Lafayette Theater recognized that there was an insufficient number of trained black personnel to provide the direction needed for a full program. John Houseman stepped in to develop this chapter and invited the young Orson Welles to assist. Though Houseman and Welles left shortly after to create the Mercury Theater, their creative influence helped to make the Harlem chapter one of the most successful. An all-black version of Macbeth set in Haiti, a brainstorm of Welles, was one of the first Theater Project productions to gain national (and critical) fame. After a seven month run in New York, the show toured nationally. Besides the critical acclaim it garnered, the show encouraged black chapters everywhere to experiment with previously "white only" productions like Aristophanes' Lysistrata in Seattle, and Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado in Chicago.

Conservatives who feared what appeared to be "leftist" leanings in the program and its productions, voted Federal funding for the Theater Project out of existence in 1939. The success of the four short years of its existence can be quantified. After an initial grant of $6 million, the program distributed $46 million over its four-year history. It financed over 1,200 productions of 830 works. 105 of those works were original productions. It provided employment for 12,000 people at its height, and provided training and direction for a whole new generation of theater professionals. The Project production of It Can't Happen Here was seen by over 275,000 people, and grossed in excess of $80,000, with an average ticket price of thirty cents, in a period of four months. The Welles version of Macbeth (referred to as "The Voodoo Macbeth") set new attendance records, and T. S. Eliot's verse drama about Thomas Becket, Murder in the Cathedral, which was rejected by the Theater Guild, played to packed houses for the entire run of the contract and was seen by 40,000 people.

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