The Time and Place
For a New American Theatre
October 5, 1935 — National Office of the Federal Theatre Project, McLean Mansion, Washington DC
This place in which we meet, at first glance so strangely inappropriate, becomes upon reflection one key to the situation, an epitome of one element in our American life which caused the situation.
Here we meet to discuss the problem of thousands of artists, no longer able to live in America except on charity; we meet to form a plan whereby people will again become enough interested in the work of artists to make such work a salable commodity. Behind us, hidden by a discreet panel, there is a carved wood serving table, imported from Italy, which cost $25,000. At the end of the hall, again cautiously veiled from the vandal or the irreverent, a buffet which cost $32,000. The hideousness of the chandeliers in the great ballroom, the busts and statues in the court, the gold faucets o the gigantic bathtubs, are only equaled by their excessive cost. In short, the McLean mansion, like man similar edifices throughout America, is a monument to the period of American culture in which the value of a work of art was measured in terms of its cost and the distance from which it was imported.
Irrespective of the merit of its art treasure, the McLean mansion represents the conception of art as a commodity to be purchased by the rich, possessed by the rich, and shared on occasional Wednesday evenings with the populace who, gaping in ecstasy, were allowed to file past the accumulated treasures.
The End of an Era
During the first days in this house I was haunted by a sense of having gone through this experience before; gradually that memory became focused upon the golden palaces of Soviet Russia now turned into offices and orphans’ homes and theatres for the Russian proletariat. I remembered a theatre meeting in the great Hall of Mirrors in Leningrad where reflected from every side in those mirrors which once gave back the image of the Empress, and later the execution of her officers, I saw the faces of Stalin, Litvinov, Lunachiasky, Petrov and other leaders of political, educational and theatrical life. They met to discuss their mutual problem: how the theatre could serve in educating the people and in enriching their lives.
I do not at this time wish to press the parallel or to argue as to its prophetic implications. I merely wish to say that the present state of this house, with typewriters clicking where once musicians played in the long galleries, with out of work painters and sculptors carefully averting their eyes from various art atrocities while they ask Mr. Cahill for jobs, is characteristic of the decline of a certain period in American art and life. For it is not only bad collections which have had their day, but all collections. Holger Cahill, director of the federal art project, came to this job after several years spent in disposing of art collections of the Morgans, and the Rockefellers, for whom he had previously assembled such collections. Mr. Cahill also feels that with the passing of the private art collections one whole period of American culture ends. Personally I cannot work up any regret over the demise. That works of art in America today would belong in small collections to individuals who care about them and share them with their friends, or to the museums, which are doing an increasingly good job of making art intelligible and exciting to everybody, seems to me a very satisfactory state of affairs.
I only wish we had a method of play distribution as satisfactory: perhaps it is our job to find one.
Unfortunately the theatre, more than any of the arts, still clings to the skirts of the 19th century. A recent advertisement in The Stage, for example, reads:
The first ten rows are the people, the alert, challenging people whose opinion makes or breaks a play. These are the people whose opinion makes or breaks a play. These are the people who possess the gowns, the jewels, the furs, the country estates, the town cars — in short, all the appurtenances of find living around which the smart world of the theatre revolves.
In the economic fallacy of such a statement lies one reason for the decline of the stage.
That the stage is in decline is obvious. Mr. Lee Shubert said the other day, with a bewilderment which I found rather touching,
“Once the stage was the dog, and the movies were the tail; now the movies are the dog, and we are the tail.”
And who should know better than Lee Shubert?
That the decline of the stage is not entirely due to the economic depression is one of the basic facts which we must consider. For if we attempt to put people back to work in the theatre enterprises which are defunct, we are engaged in temporarily reviving a corpse which will never be alive again.
A Time for Change
All the plans for reviving the road seem to be to be born of this naïve faith in resuscitation. Of course a great actress like Katherine Cornell touring the country in Romeo and Juliet will always have an audience; but the population of Oskaloosa, Iowa, or Fort Worth, Texas, is not going to be enraptured as in days of yore by a 3rd rate touring company in a mediocre play, just because such a company comes from New York. Oskaloosa and Fort worth have been educated by the cinema and the radio. They know a hawk from a hand saw. They no longer measure art by the distance from which it was imported.
Our whole emphasis in the theatre enterprises which we are about to undertake should be on re-thinking rather than on remembering. The good old days may have been very good days indeed, but they a re gone. New days are upon us and the plays that we do and the ways that we do them should be informed by our consciousness of the art and economies of 1935.
We live in a changing world: man is whispering through space, soaring to the stars in ships, flinging miles of steel and glass into the air. Shall the theatre continue to huddle in the confines of a painted box? The movies, in their kaleidoscopic speech and juxtaposition of external objects and internal emotions, are seeking to find visible and audible expression for the tempo and the psychology of our time. The stage too must experiment — with ideas, with psychological relationship of men and women, with speech and rhythm forms, with dance and movement, with color and light — or it must — and should, become a museum product.
In an age of terrific implications as to wealth and poverty, as to the functions of government, as to peace and war, as to the relation of the artist to allow these forces, the theatre must grow up. The theatre must become conscious of the implications of the changing social order, or the changing social order will ignore, and rightly, the implications of the theatre.
Strategically, we are in a very fortunate position. Our liabilities, as is so often the case in life and art, are our assets. For we cannot subsidize existing theatrical enterprises, however excellent. The more fools we, then, if we model our new enterprises in the image of those now appealing to us for help. We cannot afford vast expenditures for scenery and costumers; another advantage, for scenery and costumes as we very well know have become too often the dog wagging the tail. We have plenty of designers — 137 on relief rolls in New York City — we have a good many spot lights, and we have 250,000 yards of plain ticking in the government’s surplus commodities; the result ought to be something pretty good, without benefit of Bergdorf-Goodman.
Putting Artists to Work
We should not be fatuous enough, however, to think that it will all be beer and skittles. If we have 6,000 theatre people on relief we all know that probably 4,000 of them are not of the caliber to experiment. However, we must keep steadily in mind that we do not work with the 6,000 alone. We work also with the 600 whom we may choose to work with them; and with the 300 whom we choose to direct them; and with as many apprentices as we can absorb from the National Youth Administration, who are ready and willing to pay underprivileged youths from 16 to 25 for studying with the various art groups.
Let us not, therefore, over emphasize the weaknesses of the material with which we work. My Hopkins, in his last talk with the directors of the various art projects before he left on the western trip with President Roosevelt, reemphasized his position: that it was quality rather than quantity which was to be the keynote of the art program. He reaffirmed that we were to turn back to the employment service people who had no chance of making a living through the theatre after this project ends. That we were to bend our energies toward creating theatre units which would be so vital to community needs that they would continue to function after our funds are withdrawn. Our best efforts must be spent in finding intelligent and imaginative theatre plans, excellent direction and adequate sponsorship for such plans . . .
The focus of most of the discussion during today and tomorrow will center, rightly , on how the theatre project can help the unemployed. Underneath this, however, let us continue to think how it can help the theatre.
In a play, “My Country Right or Left,” written by college students and produced on a college stage, there was a scene in which an intellectual, walking alone, philosophizing about art, is confronted by a woman who emerges from a motionless crowd of workers in the background.
The worker woman says, “Is this the appointed hour? Is this the time and place where we should meet?”
The intellectual, removing his hat, remarks cautiously,
“I do not think that we have met before.”
To which the worker woman replies,
“I’ve walked the world for six years. I’ve noticed you. I knew that someday you would notice me.”
It is too much to think that, for two great forces, mutually in need of each other, the federal theatre project of 1935 may be the appointed time and place?
Source: The Great Depression: Great Speeches in History, ed. Louise I. Gerdes (San Diego: Greenhaven Press) 2002, pp. 136-140.