One-Third of a Nation

One-Third of a Nation is a play by Arthur Arent; or more correctly a living newspaper created in 1938 by the Federal Theater Project. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing this play twice in recent weeks at the Metropolitan Playhouse in New York City. It’s been a very healthy reminder in how we dealt with the last major collapse of Capitalism here in this country.

The title comes from FDR’s second inaugural address in January of 1937 where he said:

I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

But it is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope—because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.

This was through the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), which was established in 1935 with a key stipulation that 90% of its appropriations go to wages. The project gave such luminaries as Susan Glaspell, Elmer Rice, Orson Welles, John Houseman, Arthur Miller, Martin Ritt, Marc Blitzstein, and Elia Kazan, work enacting traditional dramas, re-interpreting classics, and creating new works for the Depression Era stage.

Despite its Federal funding, the Living Newspaper remained controversial from the beginning. Its first production, Ethiopia(1936), drew criticism from the State Department for its portrayal of foreign leaders and was canceled by the WPA before it was staged. All of the plays produced set out to be at least as potentially controversial. Ultimately the FTP lost its Congressional funding.

Defending the program to the House Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities in 1938, director Flanagan painted an idealistic portrait of what she called “propaganda for democracy”. She wrote:

These Living Newspapers report the struggle of the modern man to understand the forces all about him; agriculture, power, law, housing, social disease, medicine.”

By 1939 the FTP would be history. If you happen to be in New York City between now and May 22, 2011, you can catch this gem of history at the Metropolitan Playhouse. Click here for more information. The play remains as timely as ever.

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