My two teenaged sons are currently participating in their high school production of “You Can’t Take It With You.” The play, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, premiered on Broadway in 1936 to critical acclaim. It eventually was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and saw a film adaptation with stars Jean Arthur, Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore. The movie won the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director.
Before the show, the audience was treated to a “living newspaper” docu-drama piece about the amazing contributions of the Federal Theater Project, a New Deal program that was created (apparently) to keep out-of-work actors, directors, musicians and technicians from starving during the Great Depression. Now, I can certainly understand providing some historical context to the show, which is now close to 100 years old. But I was saddened to see such rosy, uncritical praise for this wasteful and subversive government program presented without any hint of the many controversies that attended it.
Let’s ignore for a moment that the “fixes” conjured up by Franklin D. Roosevelt and his “brain trust” came up with to deal with the Great Depression actually prolonged the Depression by about seven years. (Don’t take my word for it. Read the study by UCLA economists Harold L. Cole and Lee E. Ohanian. Or read The Forgotten Man.) The New Deal was wasteful and destructive; this is a well-established fact—except in public schools I guess.
But in spite of its charitable goals, the Federal Theater Project (like most federal programs of that era and ours) quickly became a platform for political brainwashing, progressive propaganda, and radical leftist goals. Don’t believe this? Here are some of the notable productions of the program:
“Revolt of the Beavers”: A children’s play by Oscar Saul and Louis Lantz, which has been described as “Marxism a la Mother Goose.” In the story, a worker beaver named Oakleaf leads a worker’s revolt against “The Chief” Beaver, who was exploiting the workers. Power to the beavers!
“It Can’t Happen Here”: A political hit job based on Sinclair Lewis’s subversive novel of the same name. The play was staged with the specific goal of derailing the presidency hopes of Huey Long. Of course Lewis was a socialist, but he saw Democrat Long as a fascist — which is exactly how he portrays Buzz Wandrip, the evil Long-esque character.
“The Cradle Will Rock”: Depicts the allegorical exploits of Larry Foreman to unionize the town’s workers and combat wicked, greedy businessman Mr. Mister, who controls the town’s factory, press, church and social organizations. Pure anti-capitalist leftist propaganda. This point is further emphasized by the fact that noted leftist Tim Robbins produced a “documentary” about the theatrical production in 1999. (As expected, the villains in Robbins’ movie are the evil politicians who cut the FTP’s budget, closing down the show.)
“Big White Fog”: Created for the “Negro Unit” of the FTP, it depicts the troubles of the African-American Mason family in Chicago. In their pursuit of social justice, Lester Mason helps foster a communist revolution, while his father Victor turns to militant black nationalism of the Louis Farrakhan/Jeremiah Wright variety. Just what America needs more of, right?
The leftist and anti-American nature of so many of the leaders of the FTP project prompted the newly formed House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to accuse many of the program’s leaders (notably Elmer Rice and Hallie Flanagan) of being communists. The chairman of the HUAC publicly stated that “practically every play presented under the auspices of the Project is sheer propaganda for Communism or the New Deal.”
And of course, all of this propaganda was paid for by American taxpayers, who could ill afford such extravagances.
I’m not sure where the pro-FTP morality play that preceded “You Can’t Take It With You” came from, but I was disappointed that the very controversial topic was portrayed uncritically, without any attempt to balance the propaganda by highlighting the damage that the New Deal, the Federal Theater Project, and the progressive/socialist/communist movements did to 20th-century America.