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  • A "People's Theatre" for Youth
  • John Cech (bio)
Six Plays for Young People from the Federal Theatre Project (19361939): An Introductory Analysis and Six Representative Plays. Ed. Lowell Swortzell. New York, Westport, Connecticut, London: Greenwood Press, 1986.

The closest we have come to a nationally-supported theatre for youth was the Children's Theatre Unit of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), which commissioned and produced plays nationwide during the late 1930s. Under the directorship of Hallie Flanagan, the FTP sought to create what she called a "People's Theatre" to illuminate "the struggle of a great many different kinds of people to understand the natural, social, and economic forces around them, and to achieve through these forces a better life for more people" (7). Flanagan envisioned a "dedicated theatre," one that would raise both social and aesthetic consciousness, and she unhesitatingly made children's theatre a part of this vision. "Children's plays," she remarked, "except when they were done naturally by children for their own pleasure, had always been embarrassing to me. Adults acting for children seemed to try too hard, seemed not to realize that here was an audience, ready to believe without external nonsense, ready to give as much as they were given" (9).

Flanagan's and the FTP's idealistic commitment touches all of the plays in Swortzell's volume, the material for which was drawn from the Library of Congress's Federal Theatre Project Collection. In Dorothy Hailparn's Horse Play (1936), for example, which was performed by the Children's Theatre Unit of the Negro Theatre of New York City, a poor farmer, Hiram, comes to the big city with his horse to borrow enough money to save his land from a conniving sheriff. But in return for his efforts, he is hounded by the police, a banker, and other persons of authority—the very people whose help he has sought. It is the "common" people, like the circus performers and street vendors whom he meets along the way, who eventually save Hiram. When the policeman tries to arrest him, the hawkers come to his defense:

Vendors: Say, you can't put this man in jail. He'll lose his farm. He's
a poor man. You came from a farm yourself. You got to
help this old man and his horse. [End Page 128]
Policeman: I'll crack the whole bunch of you on the head if you don't
keep out of this. This is none of your business.
Vendors: It is our business. He's a poor man. Ye got to help him.

Hailparn conveys her serious message with broad, comic strokes; her highly stylized and stereotyped characters give Horse Play the feel of a Depression-era commedia dell'arte, in which honest, hard-working, long-suffering human underdogs defeat the schemes of bullies and ultimately have the last laugh.

In Ruth Fenisong's marionette play "The Boiled Eggs" (1937), the engagement with contemporary social issues is even more pronounced. In the opening scene, the Landlord and his Wife (a kind of capitalist Punch and Judy team) gleefully congratulate each other on their methods for cheating their restaurant customers:

Landlord: I nearly got a stitch in my side when you told that poor old
artist man there was no extra charge for the fly in his soup.
Wife: What about the woman who had to pay extra for food for
her baby, because you said the rest of the guests objected
to the children!
Landlord: And all it cost us was a glass of half milk and half water.
Give nothing, take all. That's our slogan.
Wife: Small Wages, big profits. (104)

At the end of the play, the much-exploited, literally down-trodden Waiter joins a union and is receiving better wages and better treatment in a restaurant across the street. With the help of an activist lawyer, the Farmer, whom the Landlord and the Wife have tried to bilk out of several thousand dollars over a matter of a few eggs, turns the tables on them. The dishonest couple's rotten eggs explode, destroying their restaurant.

The most controversial of all the FTP plays was The...


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