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Photographic Print from New York production of Macbeth, 1936

[Detail] Photographic Print from New York production of Macbeth, 1936

The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939, offers a number of primary sources with which to analyze the history, effects, and influences of government-sponsored theatre in America. Administrative documents provide an opportunity to gain and reinforce historical comprehension of the Federal Theatre Project’s development and the economic, technical, and political obstacles that challenged the program. Analysis of the production notebooks from Orson Welles’ interpretation of Macbeth raises questions about race relations and racial stereotypes in early twentieth-century America, while the administrative documents also provide a good starting point for discussion and debate over the merits of government-sponsored art. Although the collection has no search engine at this time, its wealth of materials provide a unique opportunity to research the day-to-day workings of the Federal Theatre Project.

Chronological Thinking

The collection contains a number of tools for practicing chronological thinking and gaining further insight into the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) and its impact. The Federal Theatre Project was established in August 1935 as one of four arts-related initiatives in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). The FTP had five regional divisions, with Hallie Flanagan serving as national director (Flanagan had previously chaired the experimental theatre department at Vassar College).

When Flanagan met with regional and state directors for the first time in October 1935, her address, "Is This the Time and Place?", provided a brief history of her involvement in the development of the FTP and called for the creation of jobs in a new and vital American theatre that served the community. The state of the theatre, she claimed, could be attributed to more than the economic climate of the era. It was necessary to reinvent the theatre: “For if we attempt to put people back to work in theatre enterprises which are defunct, we are engaged in temporarily reviving a corpse which will never be alive again.”

  • What factors influenced the state of American theatre in the 1930s?
  • How does the creation of the FTP in August 1935 compare to the development of other Works Progress Administration programs?

The changes brought about by the FTP in New York City are detailed in the "Origin and Chronology of Drama Relief in New York City.. . ." which describes how “[v]arious new units and departments were established to handle the activities of the extensive undertaking.” An examination of national events and a brief biography of Hallie Flanagan are available in Lorraine Brown’s article, "Federal Theatre: Melodrama, Social Protest, and Genius", from the collection’s Special Presentation.

  • How did theatre sponsored by local government differ from the FTP programs?
  • What elements of the FTP helped to keep theatrical workers employed?
  • Were there any FTP programs that were ill advised?
  • How did the FTP evolve over its four-year existence?
  • What impact did the FTP have on the careers of theatre workers such as Flanagan, producer John Houseman, and actor and director Orson Welles?