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  • Is Mr. Euripides a Communist? The Federal Theatre Project's 1938 Trojan Incident
  • Robert Davis (bio)

On 6 December 1938, Hallie Flanagan, director of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), testified before the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities.1 The FTP, a publicly funded nationwide theater organization, was allegedly advocating Communist propaganda. Flanagan came under heavy fire for including socialist messages in productions like the children's show The Revolt of the Beavers (1937) in which a beaver, Oakleaf, organizes his fellow rodents to rise against the Chief, who has been mercilessly making the animals work without break on the "busy wheel."2 Flanagan, who had traveled to the Soviet Union and written approvingly of Russian theater, was especially vulnerable as a witness.3

During the contentious hearing, Flanagan parried assaults from a hostile committee investigating play selection, Communist ideology, and the purpose of theater. At one point, Congressman Joseph Starnes quoted an article by Flanagan that described what she had in 1931 seen as two opposing theaters in the United States: the "commercial theatre," which was out to make money, and the "workers' theatre," which was out to change the world with what she had playfully termed a "Marlowesque madness." Congressman Starnes concluded by asking, "You are quoting from this Marlowe. Is he a communist?" This question led to the oft-quoted exchange:

Mrs. Flanagan:

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

Mr. Starnes:

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

Mrs. Flanagan:

Put in the record that he was the greatest dramatist in the period of Shakespeare, immediately preceding Shakespeare. [End Page 457]

Undaunted, Starnes pressed on with another line of inquiry:

Mr. Starnes:

Of course, we had what some people call Communists back in the days of the Greek theater.

Mrs. Flanagan:

Quite true.

Mr. Starnes:

And I believe Mr. Euripedes [sic] was guilty of teaching class consciousness also, wasn't he?

Mrs. Flanagan:

I believe that was alleged against all of the Greek dramatists.

Mr. Starnes:

So we cannot say when it began.4

One might be surprised to find a conservative congressman arguing over the class-consciousness of an ancient dramatist, but Starnes's attacks on Marlowe and Euripides reveal a real threat to stain even the most canonical writers red. Rather than look at Flanagan's exchange with Starnes as an iconic example of the committee's notorious anti-intellectualism, I will read Starnes's pointed assault in conversation with the most recent staging of Euripides that the committee knew about: the FTP's 1938 Broadway production of Trojan Incident. Running for only twenty-six performances, the militantly antiwar Trojan Incident had closed just six months before the hearings. Although the production receives little more than a passing mention in studies of Federal Theatre, its populist politics coupled with an appeal to ancient authority ignited widespread controversies.

By examining this innovative production and the responses of critics, producers, and politicians, I will use Trojan Incident as a case study of how ideas about Greek antiquity were applied within the institution of the FTP. I begin by tracing the production history of Euripides' Trojan Women to a transatlantic antiwar movement at the turn of the century. I will focus on how the FTP's translational strategies departed from established models of Greek play production by aggressively modernizing the source material. As the FTP was part of a government agency, its artistic and political choices were subjected to wider attacks on New Deal policies. The struggles over Trojan Incident were as much about the role of government in society as about its antiwar content. I will return to the example of HUAC to anchor the production in a volatile moment that held stakes beyond the fate of the arts in America. The very identity and meaning of democracy was being fought over on the Federal Theatre stage, and, consequently, in the House of Representatives. [End Page 458]

I. Classics and International Contexts

Performed in 415 bce, Euripides' Trojan Women is set the day after the sack of Troy. As the play begins, every Trojan male has been executed. The...


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