Black Drama of the Federal Theatre Era: Beyond the Formal Horizons

By E. Quita Craig | Go to book overview

ONE
THE FEDERAL THEATRE LIVES AGAIN

THE MYSTERY that has long shrouded an important period of black dramatic development was solved in the summer of 1974 when the missing treasure of America's first and only national theater was tracked down and once more brought to light. The recovery of this great mass of theatrical material -- the fruit of an American dramatic era -- was an event of considerable significance to American drama critics and historians, for it had been stored in great haste when the Federal Theatre was closed by Congress in 1939 and has remained in virtual oblivion for thirty-five years.

"But what was the Federal Theatre?" will, undoubtedly be some readers' first question, so before we can discuss the black drama of this period we must go back to the thirties -- to the height of the Great Depression. It was a time when more than fifty percent of professional theater people in America were unemployed, and two-thirds of the legitimate theaters in the city of New York alone, were closed for the greater part of the year. It was a time when America's performing artists were in a sorry state. Economic relief was first attempted by theater organizations, on a basis of the greatest need, and by a few scattered communities which supported local theater groups with public funds.1 Although such efforts were helpful, they were inadequate to meet the national needs, and the plight of theatrical workers grew steadily worse until the Roosevelt administration awoke to the fact that writers, artists, musicians, and actors, like the rest of America's army of unemployed, had to eat.

The President and Mrs. Roosevelt had long been interested in "the concept of a national theatrical project," and its affinity with their philosophy of social service was immediately apparent to the federal relief agencies.2 Why, indeed, shouldn't the economic plight of American artists be relieved, and their talents used to enrich the American public? To the young administration, already deeply committed to the improvement of the depressed American economy, the additional incentive of reaping dual returns on a single investment was irresistible. In 1933 the president asked Harry Hopkins, his director of the Works Progress Administration, to look into the possibility

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