The radical theatre that could have prevented Donald Trump’s rise

'Young Tramps', a dance theatre production staged as part of the FTP in 1936-7
'Young Tramps', a dance theatre production staged as part of the FTP in 1936-7 - Alamy

In July 2023, The New York Times ran an article titled ‘American Theatre is Imploding Before Our Eyes’. It cited, among other events, the postponement of the Under the Radar festival (based in New York), the cancellation of the Humana Festival of New American Plays (Kentucky), and the dialling down of the Williamstown Theater Festival (Massachusetts). Broadway might be thriving, the NYT lamented, but “American non-profit theatre needs a bailout.”

For James Shapiro, professor of English at Columbia University, there’s a direct link between the state of American theatre today and what happened in the 1930s. The latter decade witnessed the rise and fall of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), a relief measure that formed part of Franklin D Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, and sought to employ artists, writers, directors and theatre workers. It began in 1935, and was shut down four years later amid a political storm.

The NYT piece argued that non-profit theatres have a national purpose, one “vital both to the survival of democracy and the enlargement of the human spirit”. For Shapiro, that very democracy was threatened by the loss of the FTP. “It is hard to imagine what America would be like today had support for the Federal Theatre continued,” he writes. “A more vibrant theatrical culture extending across the land might well have led to a more informed citizenry, and by extension, a more equitable and resilient democracy.” Instead, he thinks, America chose a path that led ultimately to Donald Trump, the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol in January 2021, and the culture wars of today’s society.

Quite the claim. But it’s true that theatregoing has supposedly, once again, become a dangerous pursuit. Look at the proliferation of trigger warnings slapped on everything from To Kill A Mockingbird to King Lear. The theatre, said the actor Joseph Fiennes earlier this year, should be shocking and disturbing: it should be “alive, and connect in the present”.

That’s what Hallie Flanagan thought, too. A former lecturer, she was employed in 1935 as director of the FTP, tasked with bringing cutting-edge, high-quality theatre to the masses. Flanagan would oversee the creation of some 1,200 productions seen by 30 million people – one in four Americans, two-thirds of which viewers had never seen a play before – in more than 200 theatres that stretched from coast to coast, employing 15,000 people, all for a comparatively modest $46 million.

A scene from the Jewish Theatre Unit (c1936-9)
A scene from the Jewish Theatre Unit (c1936-9) - Alamy

The performances ranged from an all-black voodoo production of Macbeth to a series of ‘Living Newspaper’ pieces designed to inform and, however obliquely, inflame: on slum housing and the plight of farmers. The FTP launched the careers of Orson Welles, John Houseman and Arthur Miller. It established 17 “Negro Theatre Units”, and distinguished itself for its focus on racial injustice at a time when the Civil Rights movement had yet to be born. Through theatre, Flanagan – a resolute and progressive woman who believed in the power of theatre to inspire a new social order – wanted to inspire and improve American lives.

Her zeal for doing so would be her undoing. In 1938, the House Committee on Un-American activities, headed by Texan congressman Martin Dies – a man Shapiro describes as “anti-foreigner, anti-Catholic and anti-radical political thought” – honed in on the FTP and Flanagan in particular. Citing the Federal Theatre’s promotion of racial equality, the impending threat of war, and following claims that it was a front for radical and communist activities, Congress ended federal funding as of June 30 1939. A new Right-wing playbook was born, reckons Shapiro, one based on sensationalism, misinformation and fear.

Texan congressman Martin Dies, who opposed the FTP
Texan congressman Martin Dies, who opposed the FTP - Bettmann

Shapiro’s book is meticulous and highly researched, albeit in no way apolitical. When he acknowledges the FTPs failings, it’s generally only to call it too stumbling and self-censoring for its own good. The level of detail given on the theatre, its triumphs and struggles is breathtaking although Shapiro has the gift of making it read more like a thriller than a straight piece of history: the reporting on the congressional hearing on the purpose of theatre and its place in American democracy – Shapiro’s opening chapter – reads like a cross between a political sketch and a write-up in Hansard. Dies is a somewhat one-dimensional villain: a hick, a racist and a small-minded Texan, puffed up with his own self-importance and only it in for his own glory. The goodies and the baddies are clearly delineated: what the FTP strove to do, however imperfectly, was ultimately a Good Thing, and Dies and his cronies killed more than they knew by shutting it down.

What The Playbook more richly conveys is something broader than the plight of the FTP, namely America’s permanently uneasy attitudes towards race, politics, identity and freedom of speech. Then, as now, this is a country at war with itself: on the one hand, thrillingly progressive, on the other, deeply conservative. Shapiro is right that many of the issues that divide America haven’t gone away. “As the nation changes, so have its culture wars, which have always been with us,” he writes. He’s not wrong. But the culture wars of old still ring true today.

The Playbook is published by Faber at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books