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Federal Theater Project

Author John Cech
Air Date 1/28/2000

Federal Theater Project Transcript

The recent film by Tim Robbins, “Cradle Will Rock,” which has been receiving a great deal of attention in the past weeks, is based on a musical by Marc Blitzstein about the workers’ right to strike that was not allowed to open in 1937 because of the objections of a congressional committee that was busy ferreting out allegedly “unAmerican” activities–a preview of the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s.

Blitzstein’s play, directed by Orson Welles, was funded by the Federal Theater Project, a division of the WPA (the Works Progress Administration) to give work to struggling members of the theater community during the Depression. The Federal Theater Project also gave us our first (and to date our only) national children’s theater, through its support of children’s theaters in every major city in America. These wildly popular theater units offered serious, high quality, inexpensive drama to young audiences and their parents, many of whom had never been to the theater before. Most of the productions were based on classic material like Cinderella, Aladdin, Hansel and Gretel, Peter Pan, and Treasure Island.

But the Federal Theater for Youth also hoped that its plays would be educational, in the deepest sense. For example, its version of The Emperor’s New Clothes emphasized the need to challenge the arrogant self-centeredness of some authority figures. One of the Federal Theater for Youth’s most celebrated clashes with America authority figures occurred over a play called The Revolt of the Beavers, about the struggle of hard-working beavers who are being tyrannized by their bosses, other beavers who have bestowed on themselves the privilege of eating ice cream and moving around on roller skates that are forbidden to the long-suffering workers. One well-known drama critic labelled the drama “Mother Goose Marxism” and quite quickly the play was shut down in New York City.

The Federal Theater for Youth closed for good in June of 1939 with the cutting off of funds for the Federal Theater Project as a whole. And Yasha Frank, one of the guiding spirits of the FTY, whose production of Pinocchio had inspired Walt Disney to make his cartoon feature of the tale, took the occasion of the last performance of this play in New York City to ask the salient political question. Instead of ending the play with the puppet becoming a boy, Frank closed the performance with the demolition of the sets and the puppet appearing for the last time on stage in a simple pine coffin, which was taken by the crowd–actors, stage hands, audience–from the theater to Times Square, as they chanted, “Who killed Pinocchio?” And at the rally they held there, on 42nd Street, while the flashbulbs popped, they read off the list of the congressmen who had voted to close the Theater Project and put the puppet out of work. What a piece of theater.

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