The Red Curtain

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

HUAC's attention made WPA officials uncomfortable at the same time as they were scheduled to appear before the House Appropriation Committee, as explicated in Jane DeHart Mathews's history The Federal Theatre 1935-1939. The dramatizations of these transactions in Project 891 are absurdly comical--and straight from the record.

CONGRESSMAN STARNES: Chairman Dies, may I take this moment to quote again from an article written by Mrs. Flanagan in which she states, 'The worker's theatres intend to shape the life of this country, socially, politically and industrially. They intend to remake a social structure without the help of money--and this ambition alone invests their undertaking with a certain Marlowesque madness.' You are quoting from this Marlowe. Is he a communist?

HALLIE: I am very sorry. I was quoting from Christopher Marlowe.

STARNES: Tell us who Marlowe is, so we can get the proper reference, because that is all we want to do.

HALLIE: Put in the record that he was the greatest dramatist in the period immediately preceding Shakespeare.

In Turiskylie's play, and in history, Flanagan spends much of her time in front of government committees explaining the mysterious nature of theater to suspicious government officials who take "social significance" to mean communist leanings. The modern-day resonances of such an inquisition are unspoken in Project 891. Yet they remain the silent core of a production that takes place a month after the NEA was neutered by a Supreme Court ruling. Yesterday's communism has become today's standard of decency. (Indeed, the story of the FTP is being made into a film called The Cradle Will Rock written and directed by Tim Robbins, who based the screenplay loosely on a script Orson Welles wrote shortly before his death.)

Turiskylie says, "As we work on this play, people have asked me, 'So what's your take on arts funding?' The bottom line is, I don't know. The play is very timely, certainly. I'm hoping that the play leaves it open enough for people to form their own conclusions. I don't want it to come across as an episode of The Facts of Life. I do know, though, that if we hadn't had government funding in the FTP, we wouldn't have had Citizen Kane."

At the time the House voted to cut back on relief programs in 1939, WPA officials were all too willing to sacrifice the FTP and its political embarrassments. And when Roosevelt eventually signed the 1939 relief bill which eliminated the FTP (a veto would have ended the entire WPA) he said, "This singles out a special group of professional people for a denial of work in their profession. It is discrimination of the worst type."

DeHart Mathews documents that at the very end of the last performance of Pinocchio at the Ritz Theatre in New York, instead of becoming a real boy, Pinocchio died as a wooden marionette "while the cast chanted, 'So let the bells proclaim our grief/That his small life was much too brief.' In full view of the audience, stagehands knocked down the sets and actors intoned: 'Thus passed Pinocchio. Born December 23, 1938, died June 30, 1939. Killed by Act of Congress.'"

Rest in peace.

Project 891 runs at the Southern Theater Thursdays through Sundays through August 30; call 340-1725.

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