Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times

Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times

by Susan Quinn

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A vivid portrait of the turbulent 1930s and the Roosevelt administration as seen through the WPA's Federal Theater Project.

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A vivid portrait of the turbulent 1930s and the Roosevelt administration as seen through the WPA's Federal Theater Project.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Quinn (Marie Curie) does a superb job of recounting the rise and fall of the Federal Theatre Project, a wing of FDR's WPA meant to employ playwrights and actors while providing diversion and inspiration for Depression-ravaged Americans. Quinn shows how, under the management of the irrepressible Hallie Flanagan, the left-leaning FTP facilitated such controversial masterpieces as Triple-A Plowed Under and The Cradle Will Rock while unintentionally setting the stage for the House Un-American Activities Committee and much of the red-baiting and blacklisting of the 1940s and '50s. The Daily Worker applauded FTP projects such as a dramatization of Sinclair Lewis's antifascist novel, It Can't Happen Here. Among the actors, directors and writers sponsored by the program were John Houseman, Orson Welles, Will Geer and Meyer Levin. Experimentation thrived: Welles oversaw an all-black production of a "voodoo" version of Macbeth that played Broadway and toured nationwide. All of this Quinn describes eloquently and artfully, summoning a not-so-distant time when a nation bled and great artists rushed as healers into the countryside. B&w photos. (July)

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Library Journal

When Hallie Flanagan became the director of the WPA's Federal Theatre Project (FTP), no one imagined that she would use a federal relief program to offer some of the most cutting-edge and inventive theater seen on the American stage. Quinn, author of two outstanding biographies (Marie Curie; A Mind of Her Own: The Life of Karen Horney), focuses on the Roosevelt administration and the Depression, spotlighting one of the most compelling periods of American theater. Orson Welles, John Houseman, Sinclair Lewis, and others brought to audiences such controversial productions as The Cradle Will Rock and an all-black production of Macbeth for the residents of Harlem. Quinn's well-written narrative is both fascinating and frightening as politics and idealism come to metaphorical blows with the rise of Martin Dies. Under his leadership, the House Un-American Activities Committee made the FTP the first victim of the Red Scare; in 1939, Congress and a reluctant President Roosevelt eliminated funding for the FTP and other WPA programs. Recommended for all large public libraries and all academic libraries. (Index not seen.)
—Susan L. Peters

Kirkus Reviews
Insightful, judiciously selective history of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), the most controversial branch of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration (WPA). There have been quite a few books about the FTP, most notably Arena (1940), the comprehensive first-person account by FTP head Hallie Flanagan. Nonfiction pro Quinn (Human Trials: Scientists, Investors, and Patients in the Quest for a Cure, 2001, etc.) sensibly opts to craft a focused narrative that takes a few representative productions from the FTP's sprawling repertoire to highlight the project's evolution and the difficulties that plagued it. In early 1936, Ethiopia initiated the Living Newspapers, which dealt with current events in a dramatic, experimental style, fulfilling Flanagan's vision of a truly democratic national theatre that would educate as well as entertain. The sensational "voodoo Macbeth" spotlighted the talents of the FTP's Negro unit and the genius of 20-year-old director Orson Welles. The FTP's enlightened racial policies, Quinn suggests, enraged conservative politicians even more than its alleged left-wing sympathies. It Can't Happen Here, which opened at 15 theatres on October 27, 1936, reiterated Flanagan's commitment to challenging political theatre. But by mid-1937, when the storm over Marc Blitzstein's labor opera The Cradle Will Rock led to Welles's departure from the FTP, Flanagan could no longer count on the unwavering backing of WPA head Harry Hopkins. The New Deal did not have the same overwhelming public support that had launched the WPA in 1935. Emboldened critics ignored the diverse array of popular theatre produced by the FTP across America-nicely sketched by Quinn in several chapters aboutFlanagan's cross-country travels-and painted the entire outfit as a hotbed of communists in the egregiously unfair hearings held by the House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities (which later became HUAC). On June 30, 1939, to save the rest of the WPA, President Roosevelt reluctantly signed a bill that eliminated the FTP. With careful attention to the underlying political and cultural issues, Quinn cogently retells this sad story of "a brief time in our history [when] Americans had a vibrant national theatre almost by accident."Agent: Jill Kneerim/Kneerim & Williams

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