The Playbook: A Story of Theatre, Democracy and the Making of a Culture War by James Shapiro - review by Alex Goodall

Alex Goodall

The Show Must Not Go On

The Playbook: A Story of Theatre, Democracy and the Making of a Culture War

By

Faber & Faber 384pp £20
 

James Shapiro’s The Playbook tells the story of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), a New Deal programme that supported around 1,200 artistic productions employing tens of thousands of theatrical workers, and the right-wing Dies Committee in Congress that sought to bring it to an end. These efforts, Shapiro argues, generated a mini culture war in 1938 and 1939 ‘over the place of the arts and especially of theater in our democracy’ comparable to the present culture war unfolding in the USA. The Dies Committee’s successful smearing of the FTP – it was cancelled after just four years – generated a conservative ‘playbook’ that has been deployed consistently in America’s culture wars ever since, Shapiro argues. ‘Martin Dies begat Senator Joseph McCarthy, who begat Roy Cohn, who begat Donald Trump, who begat the horned “QAnon Shaman”,’ he writes.

The argument is catchy but it should be qualified. Although the Dies Committee, the immediate forerunner of the McCarthy-era House Committee on Un-American Activities, merits attention, and Shapiro mines some of the literature on it well, it’s a bit of a reach to suggest that the 1930s ‘culture war’ is comparable to that of the present time, or indeed that it was much of a culture war at all. The attack on the FTP was just one part of the Dies Committee’s efforts to smear the entire New Deal programme as un-American. The Dies Committee was appealing not just to cultural conservatives, but to anti-communists of all persuasions. Today, cultural values have become a source of political conflict in themselves. The present-day discourse of ‘wokery’ would have meant nothing to the committee’s members. 

The book also doesn’t give much time to the Dies Committee’s ‘playbook’, despite its title. Its real value lies in its vivid account of the FTP itself. Across five chapters, Shapiro guides the reader through its key productions, many of them landmarks in US theatre history, in a readable, entertaining style. He covers Orson Welles and John Houseman’s all-black production of Macbeth in Harlem, the spectacularly successful dramatisation of Sinclair Lewis’s anti-fascist novel It Can’t Happen Here, the radical dance piece How Long, Brethren?, a ‘Living Newspaper’ titled One Third of a Nation that drew attention to the problems of housing in the USA, and a series of abortive efforts to stage a play on race. Chaos attended a lot of the productions, but controversy drew in theatregoers, many of whom were deeply affected by what they saw.

Shapiro is a sympathetic historian of the FTP, but he doesn’t overlook its tendency to self-harm. It was slow to get going and plagued by discordant leadership for much of its life. Its energetic and somewhat tragic boss, Hallie Flanagan, was an impressive operator, but ‘struggled to walk a fine line … between a progressive and a more radical politics’. As a result, the FTP’s core mission was unclear. Was it simply intended to provide work for unemployed playwrights, costumiers and set designers, who were as entitled to relief in the Great Depression years as plumbers or carpenters? Or was there a larger purpose behind the effort to build a ‘national theatre’, where powerful dramatists could make the case for liberalism, New Deal policies or perhaps even something more radical? 

Divisions over race dogged the FTP, and there were many disagreements over how explicitly one could indict the USA for its historical association with slavery, segregation and racial prejudice. Shapiro notes, ‘From its earliest months, the Federal Theatre … had tried to stage a Living Newspaper about racism in America. And, from early on, it repeatedly undermined its own efforts, so effectively that by the time it closed four years later not a single one of these plays was ever performed.’ Dies complained that the FTP promoted racial integration. In truth, many of its practices were ‘problematic’, to use a contemporary term, favouring white staff over black. Its plays about race and racism tended to be moderately reformist at most.

Despite its achievements, the FTP turned out to be fairly easy to kill. Ironically, because it involved relatively little state spending, there were relatively few who would lose out as a result of its closure and it failed to amass articulate defenders. But because it gave a job to many vocal liberals (and a small number of radicals), it could also be tarred as a narrow political operation. It was a cheap, underfunded unit, politically neither fish nor fowl, which conservatives could pick off without upsetting too many voters. 

Shapiro suggests that an America shaped by an enduring and responsible federal theatre might have been a richer and more mature country than the one that exists today. But even while mourning the early demise of the FTP, we should perhaps be wary of the US government getting too directly involved in the business of theatre. The chairman of The Spectator, Andrew Neil, recently told a House of Lords committee that ‘relations between journalists, journalism, media and government should always be bad’, presumably because an independent media should hold the government to account in a way that inflames and disturbs it. Forms of art that have the power to challenge us should not be under the control of governments that want us to accept their views uncritically.

Moreover, in the search for dramatic innovation, producers and performers have to be willing to take risks. Attending an experimental play is like supporting a struggling football team, given how often it doesn’t work out. Nine times out of ten, a fan will faithfully attend an event that disappoints and deflates. Seldom will an audience witness a moment of magic; the rarity of such an event will make it feel even more special. Taking a risk is something that bureaucrats are famous for avoiding. The fact that the FTP produced the hits it did, pushing the medium of theatre forward in the face of unprecedented suspicion, is little less than a wonder.

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