Wednesday, April 4, 2018
April 4, 2018: Theater in America: Depression Drama and Odets
[On April 6th, 1947, the first Antoinette Perry Awards for Excellence in Theatre—or the Tony Awards for short—were given in New York City. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of texts and moments in American theater—share your dramatic responses and thoughts for a crowd-sourced weekend post sure to get a standing O!]
On activist drama, in- and outside of its approved spaces.
Among the more unique and impressive of the Depression-era New Deal programs was the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). Created in 1935 as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Project included a number of innovative and compelling initiatives: the nation-wide Negro Theatre Project (NTP), including the famous New York Negro Unit that featured plays by Orson Welles, Arna Bontemps, and Countee Cullen (among others); the experimental, political, and controversial Living Newspaper productions; and more. In an era when it would have been easy to withdraw federal support for theatrical and creative works and performances, the FTP, like the WPA more broadly, instead made a compelling case for the communal and social value of such works.
In the same year that the FTP was created, New York’s innovative Group Theatre company staged the first production of Clifford Odets’ play Waiting for Lefty (1935). Set amongst a group of New York cabdrivers taking part in a fictional strike, and featuring multiple moments in which characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience, imploring them to take social and political action, Odets’ play is a thoroughly and strikingly activist work, one described in an early negative review as “a very dramatic equivalent of soap-box oratory.” Many of the FTP’s productions, especially the Living Newspaper performances, were without question political and activist—but Odets’ play, with its endorsements of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and other socialist moments, to my mind went further than any FTP productions did or (given the difference between federal and private theatre companies) likely could.
It’d thus be easy, and not inaccurate, to see Odets and the Group Theatre in competition with, or at least offering a distinct alternative to, the FTP productions—and, again, to extend that comparison to make a broader distinction between federally supported and truly outsider theater. But at the same time, it’s pretty amazing to think of all that took place in New York City drama in 1935-6: with Odets’ play opening, the first New York Negro Unit productions (including both Welles’ Voodoo Macbeth and Bontemps and Cullen’s The Conjur Man Dies) mounted, the initial Living Newspaper performances (such as the Dust Bowl drama Triple-A Plowed Under) ongoing, and more. All innovative, all activist, and all artistically challenging and engaging, these works complemented and were in conversation with each other at least as much as they contrasted, and reveal the impressive state of Depression-era American drama.
The drama continues tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other dramatic works or moments you’d highlight?