A musical production Orson Welles directed in 1937 demonstrated why there’s no business like government-sponsored show business.
by Joseph Gustaitis
It was a talented and influential group of people who gathered at a small but consequential dinner party in New York City in early 1937.
The host, Virgil Thomson, was a strikingly original composer, famous for Four Saints in Three Acts, a surrealistic operatic collaboration with writer Gertrude Stein. Thomson’s Romanian-born and English-educated friend and roommate, John Houseman, had codirected Thomson’s opera and was well on his way to becoming one of America’s leading producers, directors, actors, and teachers. Orson Welles was, at a mere 21 years of age, already a towering Broadway figure, fresh from his remarkable productions (with Houseman) of an all-black Macbeth set in Haiti and his adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus. In the latter production, Welles directed and played the title role too. The 27-year-old actor Howard da Silva was at the dawn of a shining career in which he would win fame as Jud Fry in the original production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and as Benjamin Franklin in the Broadway and film versions of the musical 1776, besides appearing in dozens of films and television programs.
Finally, there was Hallie Flanagan. She was, in Houseman’s words, “a small, forthright, enthusiastic lady with strong teeth, whose matted reddish hair lay like a wig on her skull and who seemed to take her vast responsibilities with amazing self-confidence and sang-froid.” Hers is the one name likely to be unrecognized today, but she was undoubtedly the most powerful person at the table. This 46-year-old Iowan headed one of the more fascinating–and controversial–undertakings ever established by the United States government. It was called the Federal Theatre Project (FTP).
By the time of the dinner party, the Great Depression had gripped the United States for some seven years. Following his inauguration in 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had attempted to remedy the situation with a blizzard of agencies, reforms, and legislation. One of them was the Works Progress Administration (WPA), established in April 1935 and headed by Harry L. Hopkins, one of Roosevelt’s most trusted advisors. Its mission was to provide jobs for the unemployed by building highways, bridges, and public buildings; restoring forests; clearing slums; and providing rural electricity.
The WPA also created programs that commissioned public murals, brought opera to isolated towns, and produced state and regional travel guides. For out-of-work theater people, Hopkins devised the Federal Theatre Project, and in May 1935 he asked Flanagan, director of the highly regarded Experimental Theater at New York’s Vassar College, to take charge of it. Hopkins’ choice of Flanagan also may have been influenced by the fact that they both had grown up in the Iowa college town of Grinnell and had graduated from Grinnell College just a year apart.
With the FTP, Hopkins and Flanagan saw a chance to do more than provide work. They wanted to create a national network of 100 community theaters that would bring productions to communities around the country. Flanagan also wanted to present timely productions dealing with contemporary issues, topical presentations she called the “Living Newspaper.” Above all, as Hopkins expressed it, the FTP would be “free, adult, and uncensored.”
Flanagan set to work creating regional centers in New York, Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, and Los Angeles that would send out touring productions within their respective areas and establish smaller venues. By the middle of March 1936, the FTP had 11,000 workers and 22 producing centers reaching a weekly audience of about 150,000. Inevitably, Chicago, Los Angeles, and especially New York began to dominate the FTP. In some places there were few theatrical professionals to be found, but in New York 5,000 unemployed people swarmed the Eighth Avenue headquarters following the FTP’s launch.
Triple-A Plowed Under, one of the FTP’s first New York productions, showed that Flanagan and Washington, D.C., were not necessarily going to see eye-to-eye. The production was a Living Newspaper presentation that offered a plea for the nation’s farmers and an indictment of the Supreme Court’s nullification of Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration. Where Flanagan saw information, however, others saw propaganda. Several newspapers denounced the production as “red” and “Communistic,” while a Republican congressman labeled it “pure and unadulterated politics.” Alarmed WPA officials dashed to New York, although Flanagan was able to keep them from closing the show.
Not all of the FTP’s New York productions were so controversial. There was nothing pink about the production of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, and the New York Times hailed the Welles-Houseman all-black Macbeth as “a triumph of theater art.” Macbeth’s Manhattan run sold out, and the play then traveled to FTP theaters in eight other cities. Even Chalk Dust, another muckraking production about abuses in public schools, appeared free of the taint of propaganda.
Which brings us back to that dinner party . . .
Also present that night was a young composer named Marc Blitzstein; indeed, he was the evening’s central attraction. Born in Philadelphia in 1905, Blitzstein had been a child prodigy and a student of renowned composers Arnold Schoenberg and Nadia Boulanger. Early in his career, Blitzstein produced thorny, dissonant works that he freely admitted were only for cognoscenti. By the 1930s, however, he had embraced the aims of then-fashionable proletarian art, avowing that “music should have a social as well as artistic base; it should broaden its scope and reach not only the select few but the masses.” “Composers,” he said, “must fight the battle with other workers.” On this particular evening Blitzstein was auditioning his newest composition for the FTP’s next New York project. It was his greatest piece of social awareness, an “opera of labor” called The Cradle Will Rock.
As his small but select audience raptly listened, Blitzstein played the piano and sang every part in the score. His work had a familiar Depression-era theme. It was a “strike play”–a drama illustrating the struggles of labor unions to gain legitimacy and power through the weapon of the strike. The most celebrated strike play was Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, which recounted the woes of taxi drivers; it had clearly influenced Blitzstein, as had the leftist theater pieces of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. The characters in these plays were one-dimensional and symbolic–the heroic striker, the grasping capitalist, the suffering spouse, the corrupt politician–and so it was with The Cradle Will Rock, in which the very characters’ names revealed that they were nothing more than types. The gallant worker was Larry Foreman, the factory owner was Mister Mister, the newspaperman was Editor Daily, and so on.
Blitzstein’s plot was as one-dimensional as his characters. Mister Mister, the mighty potentate of Steeltown, had corrupted the Church, the Press, the Arts, and the Universities. The shining heroes were union organizer Larry Foreman, the Moll (the clichéd good-hearted prostitute), and an immigrant couple killed in Mister Mister’s anti-union violence. Mister Mister tries to buy off Larry but is rebuked with the not-so-veiled threat (in song) that “when the storm breaks, the cradle will fall.”
Unlike his plot, Blitzstein’s music was vigorous, imaginative, and–in songs like “Nickel Under the Foot,” “Honolulu,” and the parodistic “Croon Spoon”–catchy. Considering that 1937 saw the Broadway debuts of musicals by Rodgers and Hart and by Harold Arlen, it’s clear that Blitzstein would not make the A-list of the era’s theater composers. Yet few works by those more melodically gifted tunesmiths matched Blitzstein’s passion, commitment, and timeliness.
The group at the dinner party was electrified. Flanagan adored Blitzstein’s work, Welles acclaimed it “a new art form,” da Silva pronounced it “timeless.” Everyone concurred that the FTP would, indeed had to, put it on. Houseman and Welles were the obvious people to do it. Although their partnership would end amid mutual recriminations after Welles moved to Hollywood to direct films, the two made a good theatrical team. “Since Jack is rather shy and Orson, to put it in Anglo-Saxon understatement, not very shy, it was difficult to tell who was responsible for what,” Flanagan said. But the results spoke for themselves. Besides the acclaimed productions of Macbeth and Dr. Faustus, the Welles-Houseman team had also produced a knockabout farce, Horse Eats Hat, for the FTP.
As director, Welles launched himself into The Cradle Will Rock with characteristic Wellesian style, promising Houseman a grandiose production that would be “extremely elaborate and expensive.” It was. Welles’ vision would expand to include a 44-member chorus, a 28-piece orchestra, and a set design that used large glass carts to shift scenes. “He was inventive, witty, alternately lazy and energetic, and knowledgeable,” remembered conductor Lehman Engel. At first he preferred long lunches to rehearsing. “Later he would start at ten in the morning and often not leave the theater. He might dismiss the cast at four the next morning, but when we would return at noon, we would find Orson sleeping in a theatre seat.” At the same time, Welles had to juggle a busy lineup of radio work with his theater schedule.
In the weeks leading up to the preview, scheduled for June 16, 1937, Houseman sensed “strange, prophetic stirrings in the air.” It was a decisive time for labor and for the WPA. As unions revived and expanded, strikes were frequent, and often violent. In 1934 autoworkers, truckers, and longshoremen had weathered police and vigilantes to gain valuable concessions. The Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) had been formed in 1935, as had the United Auto Workers; together they coordinated a momentous and successful six-week sit-down strike against General Motors in early 1937. The political situation was tense. Right-wing senators, who had abhorred the FTP from the start, saw the new production as proof of infiltration by “Communistic elements.” Soon Welles heard rumors that The Cradle Will Rock was considered “dangerous,” even as the FTP itself was slowly being whittled away by funding cuts. A WPA official who came from Washington to preview the opera, however, pronounced it “magnificent,” but the bough on which Cradle rested was by no means secure.
On June 12, four days before the first preview and with 14,000 tickets already sold, Flanagan received a communication from Washington. “Because of cuts and re-organization,” it read, “any new production scheduled to open before July 1, 1937, must be postponed.”
Welles and Houseman interpreted this to mean that Cradle would not open, ever. Welles would not accept it. “If the play cannot open as advertised under Government auspices,” he thundered, “then Houseman and I will put it on ourselves!” On June 14 the production, its fate still uncertain, held a dress rehearsal at the Maxine Elliot Theater before an audience of supporters–the only people to see the Cradle as it was meant to be staged. “After they had left,” wrote Houseman, “the lights were turned out and the doors of the theatre were locked. For us, they never reopened.”
The evening of june 16 arrived–and the theater doors remained locked, with guards posted outside. The WPA had paid for the production, and the WPA had decreed that the show would not defy agency policy. Despite a visit by Welles to headquarters in Washington, the WPA had not lifted the ban. To make matters worse, the Actors Equity union prohibited its members from defying the WPA by performing in the show. The irony of the actors’ union preventing the cast from appearing in a production about unionism triumphant was inescapable.
Undaunted, Welles and his partners huddled in the ladies’ room of the Maxine Elliott, determined that the play would go on, even if Blitzstein performed it solo. Welles dispatched an assistant to begin a hectic search for a piano, while he and Houseman tried to find another theater. The assistant found a piano and a truck to haul it–but no one knew where to bring it. The new venue was still in doubt when the audience began arriving at the theater around 7:00 p.m. At about 7:20, some of the actors began performing scenes on the sidewalk while the truck bearing the piano circled the block, and Howard da Silva made one last attempt to get inside the theater. “I made a big fuss, threatened to storm the barrier single-handedly, principally because my new toupee was in my dressing room and I loved it,” he said. Finally, a theatrical agent offered the vacant Venice Theater, which was 21 blocks uptown and rentable for a mere $100. The truck was dispatched northward, and the crew went outside to announce that the show–or some version of it–would go on after all, just in a different location.
Then commenced one of the most celebrated episodes in Broadway history as the audience, cast, and crew rambled uptown by public transportation, taxi, and on foot, offering free seats in the larger new venue to bystanders who joined the throng. By the time everyone arrived at Seventh Avenue and 59th Street, the mood in the packed theater was euphoric. Blitzstein set to work removing the front of the piano so it would better project in the large theater, and lighting director Abe Feder hurriedly set up a spotlight. Just after 9:00, “like partners in a vaudeville act,” Houseman and Welles took the stage to introduce the play.
“I could hear an enormous buzz of talk in the theater and when the curtains opened and I looked, I saw the place was jammed to the rafters,” Blitzstein recalled. “The side aisles were lined with cameramen and recorders. And there was I, alone on a bare stage, perched before the naked piano in my shirt sleeves, it being a hot night; myself, produced by John Houseman, directed by Orson Welles, lit by Abe Feder, and conducted by Lehman Engel, who had rushed home, got his winter overcoat, and returned to smuggle my orchestra score out of one theater and into another.” It appeared that Blitzstein alone would be the entire show, as he had been at that dinner party.
Yet when the composer began to sing the first song, the Moll’s weary and touching “I’m Checkin’ Home Now,” a startling thing happened. The voice of Olive Stanton, cast as the Moll, soared out from the audience. “It was almost impossible, at this distance in time, to convey the throat-catching, sickeningly exciting quality of that moment,” Houseman wrote years later. The cast had reasoned that Actors Equity had barred them from performing on stage. Nothing prevented them from performing from the seats! As one participant put it later, “There was no audience. There was instead a roomful of men and women as eager in the play as any actor. As singers rose in one part and another of the auditorium, the faces of these men and women made new and changing circles around them.”
The night was a triumph.
Released by the FTP and now a full-fledged commercial production free of any WPA interference, The Cradle Will Rock played for two sold-out weeks at the Venice. It then went on tour and returned to Broadway for another successful run in 1938, when it became the first original-cast musical in Broadway history to be recorded virtually in its entirety.
By the time Cradle was put on record, the FTP had achieved many successes, with its performers appearing in churches, tents, mission schools, old soldiers’ homes, hospitals, public parks, university halls–even on showboats. It staged the plays of Shaw, O’Neill, and Shakespeare, as well as operettas and productions for children such as Jack and the Beanstalk and Pinocchio. The “Living Newspaper” probed such contemporary issues as the electrical industry (Power), slum life (One-Third of a Nation), Oregon flax growers (Flax), and the search for a syphilis cure (Spirochete). Out-of-work vaudevillians had staged variety shows, circuses had appeared in armories, and marionette plays had delighted children and adults. The FTP’s most successful project by far was the Swing Mikado, a jazzed-up version of the Gilbert and Sullivan warhorse that premiered in Chicago in September 1938. In fact, the FTP was too good. It so successfully competed with the commercial theater that many politicians questioned why the government was subsidizing something that could clearly stand on its own.
Nevertheless, the FTP failed to become the national theater that Flanagan wanted. In 29 states the FTP had no sponsors or projects, and in most of the others its presence was small. Half of all FTP personnel were based in New York, and nearly all the major productions were performed in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Much more ominous than the FTP’s urban myopia, however, was the sound of the knives being sharpened in Washington.
By 1938 Roosevelt’s New Deal was faltering. The president had attempted but failed to purge conservative Democrats from the party, and Republicans had made considerable gains in the Congressional elections. The WPA’s opponents were attacking it for its alleged waste, and a powerful body in Congress began looking into “subversive” activities. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had been formed in May 1938 to investigate subversion by fascists and communists, although it focused almost entirely on the latter. As expected, HUAC chairman Martin Dies, who was especially wary of labor unions and New Deal agencies, eventually began looking into the FTP. Federal investigators traveled to the FTP’s “big three” cities in April 1939, and Congressional hearings began soon after. Committee investigators dutifully reported on the “propaganda” content of the plays, the sponsorship of “radical” organizations, and the unmistakable “Communist” influence. One witness summed it up this way: the entire Federal Theatre Project was a “clever fence to sow the seeds of Communism.” Coming in for special opprobrium was an FTP children’s theater production called Revolt of the Beavers. This fable, which related how good “working beavers” staged a revolution against a cruel “Boss Chief,” might have been embraced by the government in Moscow, but Flanagan was naïve to believe that such transparent agitprop would pass muster in Washington. Even the FTP-friendly theater critic of the New York Times, Brooks Atkinson, called it “Marxism à la Mother Goose.”
Congress finally cut the FTP’s funding, making it the first of the WPA’s arts projects to get the axe, and it died on June 30, 1939. Nearly everything it had produced was innocuous, but a few excessive and headstrong productions made the headlines. Flanagan and the other directors of the FTP probably should have known better than to try so eagerly to fashion their undertaking into a vehicle for social change. But then again, it’s probably too much to ask that artists be politicians too.
Years later John Houseman remembered the experience fondly. “To those of us who were fortunate enough to be part of the Federal Theatre from the beginning, it was a unique and thrilling experience. Added to the satisfaction of accomplishing an urgent and essential social task in a time of national crisis, we enjoyed the excitement that is generated on those rare and blessed occasions when the theatre is suddenly swept into the historical mainstream of its time.” *
Joseph Gustaitis is a frequent contributor to American History. His article “The Lady of the Tower” appeared in the June 1999 issue.