During its short life span, the government-funded Federal Theatre Project (1935-39) developed a series of innovative, fast-paced, “cinematic” theater pieces, which, taking their inspiration from newspaper headlines of the day, sought to dramatize contemporary events and, in particular, illuminate pressing social and economic issues for a broad and heterogeneous audience. While FTP director Hallie Flanagan repeatedly asserted that she would not have the federal program used “politically,” the Living Newspapers were clearly designed to enable audiences to enact change on the basis of the information provided. Indeed, they often ended with fervent appeals to direct, collective action. In this regard, they present us with vivid examples of political theater, in the fundamental sense of the term. Not surprisingly, the Living Newspapers were frequently hailed by fans and detractors alike as “propaganda.”
This article examines the popular appeal of the politics and aesthetics of the Living Newspaper. It brings into focus an idiosyncratic mix of modernist and vernacular aesthetics, of leftist politics and middlebrow pedagogy, on the basis of which the Living Newspapers were able to reach out to a heterogeneous audience of leftist and conservative, working-class and bourgeois spectators alike. While borrowing from radical models of political theater (Brecht, Piscator, agitprop), it managed to combine this aesthetic with proven techniques of bourgeois entertainment. Above all, this form of political theater effectively mobilized the tropes and rhetorical strategies of American cultural nationalism by way of bridging diverse political sympathies and social backgrounds. The Living Newspaper was, in Hallie Flanagan’s words, “as American as Walt Disney,” precisely because it focused on the plight of the common man and rearticulated problems of social inequality as questions of consumer agency. In this manner, it succeeded in both critiquing capitalist excess as well advocating system-immanent solutions to the current crisis of capitalism. In the Living Newspapers, the nation’s democratic founding credo “We, the people” was effectively rearticulated as “We, the consumers.” On that basis, it asserted its faith in the perfectability of America as well as the perfectability of American capitalism.