In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Lost in The Cradle:The Reconstruction and Meaning of Marc Blitzstein’s “FTP Plowed Under” (1937)
  • Trudi Wright (bio)

Many are familiar with the infamous opening night of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock on June 16, 1937. But most are likely unaware of Blitzstein’s theatrically staged rebuke of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) a mere five months later.1 Blitzstein, so infuriated with the FTP and its direct censorship of The Cradle, turned to the most powerful weapon he knew: his pen. He wrote the musical skit “FTP Plowed Under,” which satirized the professional silencing he experienced at the hands of the federal government. The skit premiered on November 27, 1937, in the second act of Pins and Needles (1937–41), a revue featuring a cast of amateur garment workers and an arsenal of young, politically aware writers who created the script and music. Included in this highly talented creative team alongside Blitzstein were Harold Rome, the show’s main composer and Broadway newcomer; Emmanuel Eisenberg, a writer for the Theatre Union and press representative for the Group Theatre; Arthur Arent, the editor of the Living Newspaper and a playwright; David Gregory, a writer, director, and actor of leftist theater; and Charles Friedman, a set and scenery designer turned director who worked for the Theatre Union and Theatre of Action. Pins and Needles was produced, performed, and funded entirely by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union [End Page 344] (ILGWU), an organization that was all too willing to bring Blitzstein’s message of worker mistreatment to the public. At a time when, according to Michael Denning, “‘politics’ captured the arts” and government censorship threatened to silence many of the country’s best and brightest visual and performing artists, Blitzstein would not be silenced.2 His voice was heard loudly and clearly through the dynamic medium of satirical theater.

The main character of “FTP Plowed Under” is a young composer named Hippity Bloomberg, who represents Blitzstein. Bloomberg has been invited to meet four more characters, who represent the directors of the Federal Theatre Project, Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, and Federal Writers’ Project. (These characters are supposed to represent people such as Hallie Flanagan and Nikolai Sokoloff.) The skit’s comic dialogue is a negotiation meeting between the directors and Mr. Bloomberg concerning his new play, which they hope to produce. As the scene unfolds, the directors claim to love all the composer’s ideas but then declare, for one reason or another, that they are unable to stage the majority of his script due to its “inflammatory” content. Through comical song, scathing dialogue, and movement, “FTP Plowed Under” boldly expressed Blitzstein’s disgust of the mounting censorship that the federal arts programs doled out—censorship that threatened to silence him and his socially significant ideals.

Blitzstein named his sketch after the successful Federal Theatre Project production Triple-A Plowed Under, which was part of their ongoing series the Living Newspaper. The series featured dramatizations of current events and social issues, which typically included appropriate suggestions on how to solve them. This type of agitational production was popular in Russia and began there during the Revolution of 1917. The Living Newspaper plays also became part of the epic theater tradition initiated in Germany during the 1920s by Bertolt Brecht, Erwin Piscator, Kurt Weill, and others.3 When the Federal Theatre Project began to produce Living Newspaper performances, it found great success with Triple-A Plowed Under, a show about the plight of Dust Bowl farmers. “Triple A” referred to the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which was ruled unconstitutional (i.e., “plowed under”) by the Supreme Court on January 6, 1936.4 With his title, Blitzstein publicly compared the government’s censorship of his show to the cessation of government funds to American farmers.

Although not the breakout hit of Pins and Needles, “FTP Plowed Under” was frequently mentioned by critics of the period due to its stinging wit and topical nature. As the show gained popularity and continued its eventual three-and-a-half-year run, however, its creators saw the need to update its content in order for Pins and Needles to maintain its cultural...