Book Review: ‘The Playbook,’ by James Shapiro

In “The Playbook,” James Shapiro offers a resonant history of the Federal Theater Project, a Depression-era program that gave work to writers and actors until politics took center stage.

THE PLAYBOOK: A Story of Theater, Democracy, and the Making of a Culture War, by James Shapiro

A week before Election Day 1936, when a landslide vote would keep Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House for a second term, the antifascist play “It Can’t Happen Here” opened nationwide: 21 productions in 18 cities, from Los Angeles to New York.

Adapted from Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel of the same name, the show became a hit for the Federal Theater Project, a jobs-for-artists division of Roosevelt’s Depression-era Works Progress Administration.

But it was a chaotic scramble to get the play onstage. Long before the advent of email or even fax machines, the show’s text was still evolving as opening night approached, the script changes mailed cross-country to the various companies.

The Federal Theater, meanwhile, was so nervous about being perceived as partisan that it had prohibited the play and its publicity materials from directly mentioning fascism or real-world political figures. Posters in Detroit depicting a military man resembling Hitler were ordered, by telegram, to be destroyed.

Ambitious, civic-minded and self-sabotaging, the whole enterprise moved fast, fast, fast. The Federal Theater, which lasted just four years, spent its brief life in that mode. Its final months were devoted to trying to fend off the wild accusations of a Communist-hunting congressman, who in headline-grabbing hearings smeared it baselessly, ruinously, as un-American.

With the American theater struggling to regain the vitality it had before Covid-related shutdowns, some creators and critics have called for a new version of the Federal Theater to come to the rescue. The U.S. government is hardly a spendthrift with arts dollars, but what if it were to pony up for the industry again?

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Source: Theater -


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