American Theater, 1920-1945

Like everyone else with my training, I have read Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front, which defines the “proletarization” of American culture during the New Deal/Popular Front years.  The Popular Front refers to the strategy among communists, during the 1930s and 1940s to united with democratic states in opposition to fascism.  The strategy worked.  International communism survived and fascism was defeated.  Denning argues that the New Deal, active socialist and communist parties, and the rise of militant labor unions, such as the CIO had cultural consequences, reflected in the emergence of working-class themes in music, film, literature,  and theater.  With this background, I had expected a stronger place for working-class theater in this section of the anthology American Stage but what we find is fascinating enough.  We encounter the influence of the Harlem Renaissance on American stage, the rise of the great American writers and directors (O’Neill, Kaufman, Herne, Wilder – these figures seem to restore an American theatrical tradition threatened by the behemoth of European modernism), and the influence of New Deal-era values.

These two clips suggest some of the themes of New Deal culture: egalitarianism, class conflict, and solidarity.

In an earlier article, Mark Twain discussed the American tradition of the minstrel show.  Of them, he wrote: “We have the grand opera; and I have witnessed and greatly enjoyed the first act of everything which Wagner created, but the effect on me has always been so powerful that one act was quite sufficient; whenever I have witnessed two acts I have gone away physically exhausted; and whenever I have ventured an entire opera the result has been the next thing to suicide.  But if I could have the nigger show back again in its pristine purity and perfected, I should have but little future use for opera.” (84)  The minstrel shows were, of course, forms of vaudeville, usually performed by white actors in black-face, reflecting assumptions about African-Americans.  Constance Rourke famously suggested the minstrel was one of the three comic troupes at the heart of American popular culture.  Here is a “stump speech” from one (these were common skits used in minstrel shows):

One effect of the Harlem Renaissance was the creation of a stage tradition run by blacks, with plays by black writers, that challenged or contextualized the stereotypes proliferating in the minstrel shows.  Alain Locke made this point directly: “The art of the Negro action has had to struggle up out of the shambles of minstrelsy and make slow headway against very fixed limitations of popular taste.  Farce, buffoonery and pathos have until recently almost completely overlaid the folk comedy and folk tragedy of a dramatically endowed and circumstanced people.  These gifts must be liberated.” (352)  And the writers of the Harlem Renaissance affected this liberation by creating a “Negro Theatre.”  Locke introduces his reader to artists like Charles Gilpin and Paul Robeson and the artistic entrepreneurs like Raymong O’Neil, a white director, who founded the Ethiopian Art Theatre and directed works by black writers.  Locke believed that drama would be especially liberating.  “Art must serve Negro life as well as Negro talent service art.  And no art is more capable of this service than drama.  Indeed the surest sign of a folk renascene seems to be a dramatic flowering.” (356)  Langston Hughes reminds us of the struggles blacks had in being accepted as equals in the dramatic world.  He shows how in Washington, black artists performed to white audiences because the popularity of the play Green Pastures.  For Hughes, this situation reflected the broader Jim Crow divisions in which “they had no scruples about making a large profit on the week’s work of the Negro actors, they just couldn’t permit Negroes to sit in their theatre.” (420)  It also, of course, was not what Alain Locke was looking for in a “Negro Theatre” since it was fundamentally a white vision of black life.

Hallie Flanagan suggests some of the radical potential of New Deal era theater.  She ran the Federal Theatre Project.  The editor quote Flanagan on the role of theater “[it] depict[s] the struggle of many differnet kinds of people to understand the nature, social and economic forces around them and to achieve through these forces a better life for the people.” (456)  Her plays targeted people of all ages and remained in the community (no touring).

The selection by Flanagan relates mostly to her audience before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where she tried to defend the Federal Theatre Project from charges of communist infiltration.  Flanagan seems to me to have been trying to achieve the potential of a democratic American theater by rooting it into the communities, which if fully successful would have undermined the power of New York and Broadway on American culture.  Today Broadway shows some to communities but people rarely see shows that reflect their local concerns or promote their local identity and values.  The Federal Theatre Project was certainly a centrally-funded project but in its implementation, it proposed a de-centralized, grassroots culture.

Thornton Wilder suggests the dilemma of democracy in the American stage in his article “Some Thoughts on Playwriting” (1941).  He reminds his readers that theater is a collaborative art.  In this sense, Flanagan’ s vision has hope.  The entire community can be involved in the creation of a play, as writers, actors, audience, and stage workers.  Unlike the novel, which assumes a single great mind, no play can be understood strictly through a single text.  In this, theater is simply more participatory, democratic, and cooperative than any other art form.  However, the same force means that theater is “addressed to a group-mind.”  “A group-mind presupposes, if not a lowering of standards, a broadening of the fields of interest.” (469)  The problem here for freedom is that it seems to make individual expression difficult and undermines the values of erudition.  Individual talents and idiosyncrasies are difficult to maintain in a popular art form like theater.    Its presentism gives it a life, and dynamic, also lacking in other forms of literature.  The dilemma Wilder is pointing out is the one I am most worried about in popular culture (and I here I cannot say much that Adorno does not), the same force that allows everyone to participate – at least as an active audience member – tends to lead things down the path of “lowest common denominator.”  Does this necessarily lead to bad karaoke contests where people phone in votes?  Can Wagner live in an era of American Idol or Les Miserables (the musical and now musical-movie and soon to be musical-movie-soundtrack).

One last point on my selections for today.  One fascinating article by Elia Kazan called “Audience Tomorrow” envisioned the war as creating a more diverse and democratic audience.  Reflecting on the Soldier Show program he wrote of the audience: “They were the citizens soldiers of democracy: tow heads, red heads, Italians, Negroes, Greeks, Irish.  The mood was congenial, the night soft, all about was harmony.”  (477)

Well, my ambivalence on this will not be resolved today or over my next two blogs on this volume.  I pray for the reader’s aid.


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