The Red Curtain

A new play, "Project 891", puts the spotlight on New Deal theater, HUAC, and the mother of all arts-funding debates.

BRIAN: This is Brian Campbell, CBS, here at the premiere of Macbeth... For the benefit of our listening audience who can't see what's happening in Harlem tonight: The city has estimated that 10,000 people are here for the opening. Traffic's been backed up around the Lafayette for an hour, and the police are here to make sure that ticket holders can actually get into the theatre.

Turiskylie dramatizes a chorus of critics shouting their approval, using lines from actual reviews, and the exhilarated response she shows does not exaggerate the critical acclaim Welles's Macbeth received. One of the most vivid accounts she quotes comes from New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson:

The witches have always worried the life out of the polite tragic stage... But ship the witches down into the rank and fever-stricken jungle of Haiti, dress them in fantastic costumes, crowd the stage with mad and gabbing throngs of evil worshipers, beat the jungle drums, raise the voices until the jungle echoes, stuff a gleaming naked witch doctor into the cauldron, hold up Negro masks in the baleful light--and there you have a witches' scene that is logical and stunning and a triumph of theatre art.

Only one New York critic gave Macbeth a negative review: Percy Hammond of the New York Herald Tribune. In Project 891, Hammond bursts through the crowd of chattering critics and begins to recite: "This experiment goes to prove once and for all that blacks should be confined to playing only black subjects in the theater. I'll certainly be thinking of this performance when I pay my taxes."

The Herald Tribune, which also ran the Minneapolis Journal's Ruby Bae story, was part of the Hearst press, a conservative syndicate that delighted in criticizing the WPA. The treatment the FTP received from the newspapers in William Randolph Hearst's empire did not go unnoticed by Orson Welles. His megalomaniacal newspaper mogul, Citizen Charles Foster Kane, bore an uncanny resemblance to Hearst--well-documented in a wonderful PBS documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane and alluded to in the script by a simple utterance, "Damn Hearst press!"

Hammond, in his life and in the play, got his due as well. Welles had found a group of African drummers, stranded in the states by hard times, and they provided the music for the "voodoo" Macbeth. The drummers were rather displeased with Hammond's opinion, and naturally directed evil spirits his way (Turiskylie has the African holding up a voodoo doll, saying "Percy Hammond, he is bad man. He gave bad review.") A week later, Hammond contracted pneumonia and died--the kind of dramatic twist that no author could best.

In 1939, WPA's name was changed to Works Projects Administration. A clue to the motivation behind the change can be found in a line from Project 891: SENATOR: I ask you, gentlemen. The W--P--A. Works--Progress--Administration. Progress! If ever a word smacked of Communist leanings, it would be the word Progress.

By the time Progress was displaced by Project, The Federal Theatre was dead--killed not so much by government, but by politics. As the economy began to improve in 1938, tolerance for government-subsidized undertakings lessened, and a little group called the House Un-American Activities Committee, chaired by Martin Dies of Texas, took as one of its debut tasks the investigation of the FTP. New Jersey Republican J. Parnell Thomas announced that "The Federal Theatre Project not only is serving as a branch of the communistic organization but is also one more link in the vast and unparalleled New Deal propaganda machine." While he was at it, Thomas asserted that applicants for the FTP had to join the Communist Workers Alliance, and that Flanagan herself had written and produced a Communist play in Soviet Russia. None of these allegations was true--a technicality that had no effect on the fate of the FTP.

Part of what earned the FTP this attention was a proposed Project 891 production of a new play titled The Cradle Will Rock, a saga well-documented in Rosebud (David Thomson's informed, but peculiar, biography of Welles) and in the second half of Turiskylie's play. The script was written by a talented young composer--and Socialist--named Marc Blitzen. Under the advisement of one Bertolt Brecht, Blitzen had developed a small sketch about prostitution into an epic about labor strikes and capitalist abuses in Steeltown, USA, featuring fat cats, bad cops, and a whore with a heart of gold. Welles fell in love with the opera, and Flanagan approved it without reservation.

As Cradle prepared to open, steel riots were popping up all over the Midwest. The New York Times reported that the opera was a pro-union account of a steel strike, and accounts of Blitzen's political leanings reached Washington. The WPA sent guards to padlock the theater the day before the show was to open.

Cradle was not alone in catching the attention of politicians. The FTP produced a number of plays that overtly or subtly dealt with class issues. Of course, a good number of plays in the dramatic canon are about these issues, but to HUAC and the political culture it created, class consciousness spelled communism. In his interrogation of Flanagan during the HUAC hearings, Chairman Dies asked, "Do you not also think that since the Federal Theatre Project is an agency of the government and that all of our people support it through their tax money,... that no play should ever be produced which undertakes to portray the interest of one class to the disadvantage of another class..."

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