Bread and Circuses: A Study of Federal Theatre

By Willson Whitman | Go to book overview

V. DOWN IN FRONT

THE Federal Theatre is a little shy about calling itself a national theatre; its directors, if they can be caught stating an aim, prefer to speak of their ambition to make the organization a people's theatre. There is a distinction, which can be illustrated by reference to that sole remaining stronghold of commercial drama, the New York stage.

In New York, except in the very depths of depression, it is assumed that people either love plays or learn to love them. These are our hills, our woods, our starry solitudes; occasionally lions do roar -- and drink -- between our two rivers in the neighborhood of the upper Forties. In any Manhattan social gathering the accepted conversational gambit is 'Have you seen . . . ?' It is generally admitted that the whole town is stagestruck.

But those of us who were wont to believe this saw only one side of the picture. Early in its history the WPA made a survey which disclosed that in New York, only one high school student in thirty had ever seen a real live play. Questionnaires distributed to Federal Theatre audiences proved misleading because the question 'How often do you go to the theatre? was interpreted as 'How often do you go to the movies? When this was made clear it was disclosed that only two out of ten of those answering had seen living actors within five years. For eight out of ten playgoers (drama lovers if you like, since they took the trouble to discover the WPA productions) New York is not a theatrical town.

In 1934, Mr. Marcus Heiman of the United Booking office estimated that not more than 6% of the people living in the United States could be expected to afford playgoing; he based this percentage on income levels and admission costs. In the New York survey, 68% of those answering frankly admitted financial reasons for non-attendance.

In short, playgoing is a luxury for the upper classes, a fact of which some among this fortunate minority are apt to be

-53-

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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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