Bread and Circuses: A Study of Federal Theatre

By Willson Whitman | Go to book overview

IV. CURTAINS RISING

ALL theatre-goers set up their own milestones in theatrical history, performances to which they can look back, even when years have passed, with a recurring glow. Often such memorable events are products of the skill of individual stars, or great playwrights; occasionally, as in the case of the Moscow Art theatre, the Abbey players or the New York Theatre Guild in its best days, the thrill may be due to the work of an organization. Never before 1936 was such an organization in any way connected with the government of the United States.

Happily for the Federal Theatre, another thing which colors our memory of great moments is the fact that they are first moments; along with recollection of an admittedly great play or a great player we are apt to cherish our first play, good or bad; our first 'Hamlet' even if mediocre, and so on.

Over the country in 1936, it was possible for the Federal Theatre to achieve a certain uncritical success by bringing to thousands of people the first plays of any sort that they had ever seen. In more sophisticated centers of drama it was still possible to bring a 'first' experience by doing something different, and the novelty would fulfil that condition of WPA effort, no competition with established industry. This accounts for the freedom of experiment encouraged, to some extent, in all Federal Theatre units, and especially for certain New York productions -- 'Murder in the Cathedral,' 'Macbeth' and the Living Newspaper series -- which had for skeptical and startled onlookers the effect of rabbits plucked squirming out of hats.

That 'Murder in the Cathedral' could draw audiences on Broadway was a surprise to everyone. The play had been done up at Yale, and people read it in book form. But nobody who knew the intellectual range of the New York playgoer would expect him to distinguish between Thomas à Becket and Thomas à Kempis, or even between the two Eliots, T. S. and George.

Nevertheless, soon after its première people were talking about the play, and it was the sort of talk that sells tickets. In-

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Bread and Circuses: A Study of Federal Theatre
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • I. Uncle Sam Presents 3
  • Ii. Singing for Supper 10
  • Iii. Behind the Scenes 24
  • Iv. Curtains Rising 39
  • V. Down in Front 53
  • Vii. Thumbs Down 94
  • Viii. Merely Players 106
  • Ix. They Don't like It 121
  • X. Aims and Trends 134
  • Xi. Foreign Translations 146
  • Xii. What Will We Do with It? 158
  • Bibliography 173
  • Appendix Representative Productions of Federal Theatre 175
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