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Dreaming America

Popular Front Ideals and Aethetics in Children's Plays of the Federal Theatre Project

Leslie Elaine Frost

Publication Year: 2013

Dreaming America: Popular Front Ideals and Aesthetics in Children’s Plays of the Federal Theatre Project by Leslie Elaine Frost traces how the tumultuous politics of the late 1930s shaped the stories and staging of federally funded plays for children. Indeed, children’s theater was central to the Federal Theatre Project’s vision of building a national theater. Frost argues that representations of the child and childhood in the FTP children’s plays stage the hopes and anxieties of a nation destabilized by both economic collapse and technological advances. A declining economy and the first stagnant birthrate in three centuries yoked the national economy to the individual family. Profound disagreements over appropriate models of education and parenting, as well as over issues of ethnicity and class, constituted fundamental arguments over democratic values and social norms. Frost locates these plays within the immediate context of the production materials in the FTP archives, as well as within the broader culture of the Great Depression, drawing on disparate primary materials—from parenting magazines to strike literature to political journals—and referencing a range of popular events—from the Joe Louis/Max Schmeling fights to Hollywood movies. As the focus of Depression-era adult anxieties and hopes and as the embodiment of vigor, dynamism, and growth, children carried symbolic value both as the future of America and as the America of the future. Frost examines representative plays’ connections to other media, culture, and politics to situate their singular trajectories in the social history of the Federal Theatre Project and Popular Front culture.

Published by: The Ohio State University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-3


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pp. 4-5


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pp. v-7

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pp. vii-ix

This book has been one long labor of love, and for the help I’ve received both personally and professionally I am deeply grateful. For my brief moment in the footlights that made my love of theatre personal, I am grateful for Samantha Cheek Swan’s intercession on my behalf. When she was cast as a chorus girl in a local production of Tom Stoppard’s Rough Crossing, and I said, “I’m ...

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Introduction: Children's Theatre of a People's Theatre

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pp. 1-22

The 1999 film Cradle Will Rock celebrates the triumph of the eponymous 1937 Federal Theatre Project production over government censorship. But director Tim Robbins offers no illusion that the triumph is larger than one night’s heroism in an unused theatre. Crosscuts juxtapose shots of Rockefeller’s workmen swinging axes to destroy Diego Rivera’s mural Man at the ...

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1. Federal Theatre Project Dreams: Raising an Educated Audience for a Permanent American National Theatre

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pp. 23-42

In a 1936 article for Federal Theatre, Children’s Unit director Jack Rennick quotes an educator to clarify his units’ goal. “If America is ever to have a great theatre, she cannot begin too soon to train and establish an audience that will appreciate, demand, and support the best.” It is “with this objective in mind” that the children’s theatre of the FTP came into being.1 ...

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2. "We Should Have Called It Rumpelstiltskin": A Labor Fairy Tale Gets Real in The Revolt of the Beavers

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pp. 43-70

In the unprepossessing “Children’s Theatre—1937” file of the Federal Theatre Project Collection in the National Archives lies a series of prepared press releases for the Federal Theatre Project’s most controversial children’s play, The Revolt of the Beavers.1 Opening in May 1937, the production of The Revolt of the Beavers followed Charlotte Chorpenning’s enormously ...

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3. "I Looked Him Right Square in the Eye": Being African American in The Story of Little Black Sambo

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pp. 71-107

The following photo of three unsmiling African American puppeteers gazing down at three widely grinning black puppets represents the contradictory racial politics that plagued Federal Theatre Project Negro Units. While the image connotes African American control of theatrical representation, lines of control extended well beyond the stage and usually did not end in black ...

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4. "Shadows of Your Thoughts Are Marching": Anti-Fascism and Home-front Patriotism in Federal Theatre's A Letter to Santa Clause and Hollywood's The Little Princess

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pp. 108-127

By 1938, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (Dies Committee) had expanded its search for communists outward from the Federal Theatre to Hollywood. Uncritical press had given its investigations influence, but in its first turn to Hollywood the committee invited ridicule. The Washington Post later reported: “One of the most highly publicized charges aired before ...

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5. Wishing on a Star: Pinocchio's Journey from the Federal Stage to Disney's World

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pp. 128-139

Federal Theatre’s most popular children’s play was written in doggerel verse and was a production in which “everything is sacrificed to simplicity and hilarity.”1 That the newly flesh-and-blood Pinocchio would become the symbol of the Federal Theatre Project upon its demise underscores the manner in which children’s plays performed work analogical to that of children in its ...

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Conclusion: Death of a Dream

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pp. 140-148

This book began with my delighted reading of The Revolt of the Beavers playscript before any film showcasing roller-skating beavers had been made. Fascinated by the relationship the play presumed between children’s theatre, political action, and social change, I turned to other children’s plays in the Federal Theatre Project collection. Though few FTP children’s plays overtly ...


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pp. 149-176

Works Cited

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pp. 177-187


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pp. 188-197

Back Cover

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p. 209-209

E-ISBN-13: 9780814270110
E-ISBN-10: 0814270115
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814212134
Print-ISBN-10: 0814212131

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 10 photos
Publication Year: 2013