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Papa’s Got a Job

ISSUE:  Spring 1939

One of the scenes of a new Federal Theater revue, “Sing for Your Supper,” comes to its climax in a number called “Papa’s Got a Job.” A cast of about one hundred and seventy-five actors, dancers, and vaudeville performers, who know what those words mean, make of the scene a funny, exciting, and profoundly moving celebration which is at once a comment on the technique of the Federal Theater and on the economic situation which brought that theater into existence.

For in 1935 papa didn’t have a job. He didn’t have a job in heavy construction, he didn’t have a job in engineering, he didn’t have a job in the professions, he didn’t have a job in the arts or in the theater. New York critics were complaining that the stage was in a decline, theaters were dark across the United States, the road company was history, and in the summer of 1935 the relief rolls of American cities showed that thousands of unemployed theater professionals, affected not only by the economic depression but by the rapid rise of cinema and radio, were destitute.

At this point, Mr. Harry Hopkins, then Works Progress Administrator, made a momentous decision. He decided that unemployed theater professionals and their fellow musicians, painters, and writers could get as hungry as unemployed engineers. He further decided—and this was much more revolutionary—that their skills were as worthy of conservation. He also believed that these unemployed artists wanted to work and that their work would be of value to millions of people, many of them in small villages or city slums, American citizens who had not hitherto been able to afford music, painting, or the theater.

So the government of the United States, upon the recommendation of Congress, gave papa a job. The result was an unprecedented outpouring of music, painting, writing, acting, some of it brilliant, some of it indifferent, but all of it together, while probably impossible for us to evaluate at present, significant in the pattern of contemporary American culture. For these actors, directors, designers, writers, dancers, musicians, receiving only the small security wage set by Congress, with no stellar billings and with a press and public at first hostile or skeptical, leaped to meet their chance, becoming, almost overnight, performers in a drama more exciting than any which has yet reached our stage. The bare statistics of Federal Theater are in themselves a drama: some nine thousand theater workers employed in forty theaters in twenty states, playing within three years before audiences totaling twenty-five million. It is not only the drama of theater successes in what is probably the world’s most critical theater center, plays such as ” . . one-third of a nation . . .”’ “Prologue to Glory,” “Haiti,” and “Big Blow,” together with earlier New York successes: “Murder in the Cathedral,” “Dr. Faustus,” “Macbeth,” “Chalk Dust,” “Battle Hymn,” “Triple-A Plowed Under,” “Power,” “Class of ‘29,” “The Sun and I,” “Emperor’s New Clothes,” “Processional,” “Professor Mamlock.” It is also the drama of the Caravan Theaters in city parks, Shakespeare on a hillside, Gilbert and Sullivan on a lagoon, the circus under canvas, opera on a truck. It is the drama of a theater for the children of the steel mills in Gary, and for other children in Cleveland, New York, New Orleans, Newark, Los Angeles. It is the drama of a theater for the blind in Oklahoma; of a repertory theater, presenting Shaw, Shakespeare, O’Neill, Fitch, and Toller, on Long Island. It is the drama of “Created Equal” in Boston, of “Let Freedom Ring” in Detroit, of “Altars of Steel” in Atlanta, of “The Man in the Tree” in Miami, of “The Lonely Man” in Chicago, of the “International Cycle” in Los Angeles, the “Northwest Cycle” in Portland, Seattle, Denver, and San Francisco.

It is the drama of the Florida Wheel, a traveling Federal Theater carrying classical repertory over the turpentine circuit to regions so remote that people came in by oxcart, came in barefoot with lanterns to see “Twelfth Night.” It is the drama of twenty-one simultaneous openings of Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here” and of the cycles of George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O’Neill. It is the drama of Federal Theater radio, reaching, through the hospitality of great radio stations, vast audiences with such productions as James Truslow Adams’s “Epic of America,” and Paul de Kruif’s “Men against Death.” It is the drama of vaudeville companies playing before amazing audiences in schools, playgrounds, camps, prisons, reformatories, asylums, hospitals. It is the drama of our National Service Bureau sending out scripts and theater research to twenty thousand schools, farm granges, and 4-H clubs in rural areas. It is the drama of ambitious youth experimenting in the fields of light, direction, design, writing, and radio, experimenting to such effect that their work is being rewarded by scholarships from universities and foundations, and by good jobs with commercial managers.

Fifteen hundred people returned to jobs in private industry are a part of the Federal Theater drama, as are nine thousand who remain, working with increasing imagination in forty theaters in twenty states, lacing the intervening countryside with local and regional tours.

The drama of Federal Theater is the drama also of its audience, a vast exciting new audience of twenty-five millions of rich and poor, old and young; students in colleges, housewives in small towns, lumberjacks in Oregon, sharecroppers in the South. Federal Theater is the drama of a hundred thousand children who never saw a play before.

It has never been the Federal Theater plan to send papa back to work in just any kind of a job. His talents are too considerable for that, nor does it make sense to think that those talents can be profitably employed in exactly the same kind of theater enterprise which landed some ten thousand theater people in the lap of the United States government. Consequently, the job of those of us directing the Federal Theater Project becomes a job of exploration. I am taking for granted exploration of the dramatic medium itself with all its rich background in different ages and different countries, and with all its present implications for our own magnificent, funny, and terrifying age. Federal Theater directors and designers, like other theater producers today, are exploring the field of the theater itself, its increasing relation to radio, cinema, television; its use of choric speech, of dance pattern, of the dynamics of light, sound, and movement.

I am speaking rather of two other forms of exploration not as vitally necessary in the commercial theater as they are in Federal Theater. I refer to the exploration of the human material available to us and the varied uses to which it can be put; and the exploration of our own country, its geography, physical and spiritual, its history, and its present problems.

What do I mean by studying human material? For example, we have the good fortune, if I may speak paradoxically, to have on our rolls a great many circus performers, clowns, acrobats, trapeze artists, many of them former head-liners famous here and abroad. The training of the skilled vaudeville actor, his sense of establishing contact with the audience, his economy of acting, timing, getting laughs, all of these techniques are valuable. You have to be good to walk a tight rope, swallow a sword, bend a steel bar, or cut your wife in two. However, sword swallowing and tightrope walking seem to have palled on twentieth-century audiences. As detached gags they are worn out, but under a skilled director who cares about the human as well as the theater values concerned—and no other kind of director is worth his salt on Federal Theater—these acts can become part of magical plays for children, or of Living Newspapers where rapid-fire action, flash scenes, and black-outs are indispensable. This new type of problem play, the Living Newspaper, developed on the project, dealing with such contemporary factual subjects as slum clearance, power, labor in the courts, agriculture, makes these technical matters not only comprehensible, but fast and funny, largely through a new application of vaudeville technique.

Go to see one of the productions of our Children’s Theater, “Hansel and Gretel” or “Pinocchio” in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, or Portland, Oregon, where these performances have been given for hundreds of thousands of children. Watch the children sit entranced through the circus scenes while clowns and acrobats perform with an ardor which they could not have bettered when they played, as many of them have done, for fabulous sums in the great days of the Palace or in command performances in foreign countries. Watch the children at the moment in the last act when the sun comes up over the puppet who has earned the right to become a boy. Hear them, as the orchestra starts to play, begin to sing unconsciously and often with tears of rapture, “Happy Birthday to You.” Ask yourself whether the work of these clowns, acrobats, and musicians is not only useful but imperative. It is ironical and moving that out of the depression which made childhood no childhood for thousands of American children, a theater for youth is coming about. Laughter and tears are never far apart and all great clowns know this—none better than the brave clowns on the Federal Theater.

I have used the illustration of vaudeville and circus talent directed into the channels of Living Newspapers and Children’s Theaters to indicate that Federal Theater always starts with the human element rather than with artistic theory. It is my belief that this does not mean that the artistic quality needs to surfer. When our productions are poor, as they often are, it is because we have lacked power or imagination; or because we have let ourselves be hurried, by people who still think of the theater in terms of a stock company, into the ridiculous scramble to do half a dozen inferior shows instead of one good one; or because of other reasons which make us as Federal Theater directors no less fallible in judging material than any other theater director. But failures should not be blamed on either the human material at our disposal or the governmental framework in which we operate; nor should our failures be blamed on the fact that nine out of ten of our people must come from relief rolls and nine out of every ten dollars go for wages, leaving only one dollar out of ten for scenery, costumes, royalties, theater rentals, advertising, and all other theater expenses. These are the constants in the equation which it is our job to solve.

Let me further illustrate the relation between art and necessity, a relationship which lies at the root of Federal Theater—a relationship which I believe is developing on our project not only a new technique of theater direction, but a new intensity of performance. In Los Angeles I listened to one of our orchestras rehearsing music composed on the project for Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra.” Afterward I said to the composer: “The flute motif is unusually beautiful —so fleeting that you always want more.” He said: “In composing the score I had to take account of the fact that while my flutist is very gifted he has a tremor which makes it impossible for him to sustain for more than one bar at a time.” It is the job of those of us directing Federal Theater to compose for every production in such a way that the tremors developed through years of unemployment, privation, and despair, become, in the final theater product, not liabilities but assets.

Our exploration of the dramatic medium is not only thematic but geographic. Ours is not a national theater in the sense that we are called upon to decide what themes, actors, or methods of production are representative of our vast country and our diverse population. Federal Theater is rather, as the name implies, a federation of many theaters, each responsible for exploring its own dramatic possibilities, yet each seeing its activities as a part of a nationwide pattern.

Such variety of types of production, talent, and communities to be served requires centralized planning, and in this planning, which must become increasingly broad, imaginative, and exploratory, lies the future of Federal Theater. Neither Washington nor New York should dictate arbitrarily to New Orleans, Denver, or Detroit; therefore the policy board of the Federal Theater includes the directors of each region: the East, the West, the Midwest, the South, together with the directors of the three large city projects, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and the directors of radio and the National Service Bureau. This board meets every four months, deciding on the program for the ensuing four months. At this time each director brings in the plan he has worked out with the various directors of companies in his region, the plays he wants to do, how he wants to do them, and each plan is considered in its relation to the whole national picture.

Out of this centralized yet geographically conscious planning, great regional theaters are developing, each with its own types of production and its own local celebrations. For example, in the South we have theaters in cities as diverse as Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Atlanta, Miami, Tampa, Jacksonville, and Roanoke Island. Each has its own theater, its own program. Jacksonville has a touring company, traveling by bus to high schools throughout the northern part of the state with a classical repertory which last year consisted of a Plautus comedy, “Everyman,” “Twelfth Night,” “She Stoops to Conquer,” and “Girl of the Golden West.” The high schools, believing this activity to be a valuable part of the school curriculum, pay transportation and other-than-labor expenses. The part this traveling company plays in the lives of the audience is perhaps indicated by the fact that when our company returns after a month’s absence the children in the street call the actors by their play names—”Hello, Malvolio,” “Hello, Olivia,” “Hello, Sir Toby Belch.”

New Orleans has stressed particularly local festivals such as the dedication of the Azalea highways and has also been interested in developing religious drama. Roark Bradford and Lyle Saxon are now considering a dramatization of Louisiana history and are planning extensive tours of the company through rural areas.

Atlanta and Miami are both examples of companies in which various activities go on: each has a marionette unit and an educational program in addition to a dramatic unit doing several major productions a year, some of them dealing with Southern material. Both of these theaters, for example, won high critical praise with their very different but equally exciting productions of “Altars of Steel,” a play by a Southern writer dealing with a subject important to the South.

In Oklahoma, Federal Theater has a program which consists largely of giving professional direction to community theater groups, assisting them to make their dramatic performances of real benefit to the community.

With all of these separate Southern activities going on, the South has also gone far toward developing its own regional festival center. For two summer seasons a thousand people a performance crowded Roanoke Island to see “The Lost Colony,” the historical play in which Paul Green, with the collaboration of the University, the Island, various civic organizations, and the Federal Theater, recreated a chapter of our American history.

Similar celebrations are now being planned for each of our regional Federal Theaters. California is at work on “Spanish Grant,” a trilogy of historic plays about California, one of which, “The Sun Rises in the West,” opened to an excellent press. The Northwest, in addition to having written and produced the Portland project’s Living Newspapers on local material, “Flax” and “Bonneville Dam,” is working on a Paul Bunyan Festival for the opening of a museum of logging antiquities to be housed at Timberline Lodge, the rest house erected by the Works Progress Administration half-way up Mount Hood.

The Midwest is making a contribution in giving us plays of authentic American material such as “Big White Fog,” a strong Negro play written by Theodore Ward, a Negro on our Chicago project; “Frankie and Johnnie,” a spectacular dance drama directed by Ruth Page; and “Spirochete,” the Living Newspaper on the fight against syphilis, written by Arnold Sundgaard, another young dramatist on our Chicago project, and produced in cooperation with the Chicago Health Department.

Federal Theater has from the first liked particularly plays of pioneer America: John Brown in “Battle Hymn” by Michael Blankfort and Michael Gold; Hoffman Hays’s “Davy Crockett”; “John Henry” by Frank Wells—these are only a few of the historic or legendary figures seen upon our stages. Sometimes it is not a character, but a whole phase of history, such as that created for Arkansas in “America Sings”; for the Indian period in Lynn Riggs’s “Cherokee Night”; for the Dunkards in Pennsylvania in Archibald’s “Feet on the Ground”; for the Southwest in Myra Kinch’s “American Exodus”; for the Midwest in Virgil Geddes’s “Native Ground.”

Perhaps this kinship with the pioneer is due to the fact that our Federal Theater is a pioneer theater. Our companies go through pioneer hardships; they play the turpentine circuit in Florida; they play the C. C. C. camps in the dead of winter in the remote Northern woods. They played the devastated areas in the wake of the flood, acting on improvised stages before thousands of homeless flood victims. We underestimate the quality called patriotism if we think it does not bring to any Federal Theater troupe a thrill of pride to portray the early days of a country which has recently, through Congressional action, given a new lease of life to the theater.

In a larger sense, also, the Federal Theater is a pioneer theater because it is part of a tremendous rethinking, re-dreaming, and rebuilding of America. Being a part of a great nationwide work project, our actors are one, not only with the musicians playing symphonies in Federal orchestras; with writers recreating the American scene; with artists compiling from the rich and almost forgotten past the Index of American Design; but they are also one with thousands of men building roads and bridges and sewers; one with doctors and nurses giving clinical aid to a million destitute men, women, and children; one with workers carrying traveling libraries into desolate areas; one with scientists studying mosquito control and reforestation and swamp drainage and soil erosion.

What has all this to do with the theater?

It has never had much to do with the theater in America before, and that may be one thing that has been the matter with that “fabulous invalid.” But it has everything to do with the Federal Theater. For these activities represent the present frontier in America, a frontier against disease, dirt, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, despair, and at the same time against selfishness, special privilege, and social apathy. The struggles along this frontier are not political in any narrow sense. They would exist under any administration. Taken collectively they illustrate what William James meant when he talked about a moral equivalent for war. In this struggle our actors know what they are talking about. In this larger drama they are themselves performers. Hence the Federal Theater, being their theater, becomes not merely a decoration or a luxury, but a vital force in our democracy. For the Federal Theater (and perhaps it is worth asking if this is not always true of any theater) will be worth no more and no less in its final evaluation as an art form than it is worth as a life force. Whatever it may be or may become, its deep and not-to-be-forgotten immediate significance for American life is that papa’s got a job.


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