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The Playbook by James Shapiro: Gripping account of theatre as cultural agent of New Deal

Federal Theatre Project in the late 1930s fused entertainment and news in productions seen by a quarter of the US population

James Shapiro: HIs book is a warning from history about how the late 1930s culture war 'took place at a time, much like our own, of economic uncertainty, racial tensions, and rising nationalism and fascism'. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty
The Playbook: A Story of Theatre, Democracy, and the Making of a Culture War
Author: James Shapiro
ISBN-13: 978-0571372768
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Guideline Price: £20

The epigraph to James Shapiro’s gripping history of the Federal Theatre Project offers two dictionary definitions of “playbook”: a book containing the scripts of dramatic plays; and a set of tactics frequently employed by one engaged in competitive activity.

These definitions serve effectively to frame Shapiro’s compelling narrative, which is similarly dual-purposed: in essence it’s about a relief programme set up under the New Deal America’s Works Progress Administration, “the Federal Theatre Project, which from 1935 to 1939 staged over a thousand productions in 29 states seen by roughly one of four Americans, two-thirds of whom had never seen a play before”.

Offering “traditional fare, like Shakespeare, mixed in with contemporary plays on issues… such as slum housing and the threat of fascism… it employed over 12,000 struggling artists”. But The Playbook is also a warning from history about the way in which the newly founded House Un-American Affairs Committee successfully attacked and abruptly terminated the Federal Theatre, and how the late 1930s culture war that made this possible “took place at a time, much like our own, of economic uncertainty, racial tensions, and rising nationalism and fascism, with new technologies transforming how entertainment and news were experienced”.

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Beginning with the spirited but ultimately disastrous appearance of Federal Theatre director Hallie Flanagan in Washington before a five-man investigative committee led by its ambitious, charismatic, bigoted chairman Martin Dies, Shapiro takes us back through the project’s history, charting its creation and focusing in detail on a handful of representative productions before rejoining Dies and his committee for a series of extravagantly theatrical confrontations.


Having established through the perceptive eyes of Willa Cather (in her early career incarnation as a theatre critic) just how embedded theatre had once been in every corner of American life before the rise of Hollywood, and how the combination of moviegoing and the Great Depression had devastated prospects for theatre workers, Shapiro introduces theatre professor and playwright Hallie Flanagan via an essay advocating for an American National Theatre. In words that would later be denounced by the House Un-American Affairs Committee, and that were in truth more politically radical than Flanagan’s own cautious blend of pragmatism and New Deal liberalism, she registered her admiration for the non-commercial workers’ theatre’s intention to “shape the life of the country, socially, politically and industrially”.

Of the productions the Federal Theatre Project staged, probably the best-known was their first and biggest hit, an all-Black version of Macbeth set in 19th-century Haiti which launched the career of its young director, one Orson Welles. Shapiro deftly punctures the various self-aggrandising myths peddled by Welles, gives credit to a unit of Black actors well-established before Welles’s arrival and examines the scepticism and unease felt about “a white man’s play done for whites by negroes” by Black writers such as Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.

When MGM cancelled its screen adaptation of It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’s bestselling novel imagining the horrors of a fascist takeover of the United States – as Shapiro tartly states, “A movie depicting the erosion of democracy through official censorship was itself censored” – the Federal Theatre saw an opportunity, not quite to turn the clock back and compete with Hollywood but to stake a claim for a truly nationwide theatre. In the face of considerable hostility from the anti-New Deal Hearst press, and with Flanagan desperately scrambling to ensure the show was not derailed by accusations of political partisanship, it was a triumph when, on October 27th, 1936, 21 separate productions opened in 18 cities across the country; the show would run for a total of 260 weeks.

Perhaps the most innovative shows the FTP produced were what FTP alumnus Arthur Miller called “the only new form that was ever introduced into the American theatre”: Living Newspapers, a form of staged documentary focused on current events or policies and now an enduring staple of the repertoire.

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What makes the account of the Dies Committee hearings so unsettlingly resonant in a contemporary context is the way in which Dies himself chose to exclude the public and play exclusively to the press, which were largely opposed to the New Deal and willing to print unsupported allegations without pushback. Scaring people with slurs and distortions was easier than building a consensus to legislate: “what was at issue was who would serve as the arbiter of culture and whose narrative would prevail”.

A sombre epilogue recounts how contemporary culture war attacks have resulted in American schools banning plays such as Three Sisters, Oklahoma and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and concludes: “… the clash between the playbooks of Martin Dies and Hallie Flanagan continues to resonate across the land, with lessons for both the right and the left”.

James Shapiro, Merve Emre and Fintan O’Toole are in conversation with Declan Hughes at Dalkey Book Festival on June 14th

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a playwright, novelist and critic