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Furious Improvisation: How the Wpa and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times

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Furious Improvisation: How the Wpa and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times Cover

 

Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

“Spotlight[s] one of the most compelling periods of American theater…Quinns well-written narrative is both fascinating and frightening.”—Library Journal (starred review)

In a desperate era, FDR and his advisers had to furiously improvise to get millions of unemployed people back to work. For writers, actors, and artists, they created the Federal Theater Project. A platform for cutting-edge drama, the program defied segregation, spotlighting social injustice and ultimately leading to a political struggle that would shape American arts for decades to come.

Susan Quinn is the author of two award-winning biographies, of Marie Curie and Karen Horney, as well as Human Trials, which recounts the emotion-laden process of developing a drug for a difficult disease. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.
In Furious Improvisation, Susan Quinn brings to life the challenges of the Depression era, when the WPA furiously improvised programs to get millions of hungry, unemployed people back to work. One such program, the Federal Theatre Project, became a platform for some of the most cutting-edge theatre of its time, created by some of the greatest figures in twentieth-century American arts—including Orson Welles, John Houseman, and Sinclair Lewis. Plays like "voodoo" Macbeth and The Cradle Will Rock stirred up politicians by defying segregation and putting the spotlight on the inequities that led to the Great Depression.

Quinn's compelling story of politics and creativity reaches a dramatic climax with the entrance of Martin Dies and his newly formed House Un-American Activities Committee, which turned the Federal Theatre Project into the first victim of the Red Scare. This is a vivid and engrossing portrait of a time of national peril that produced controversial and electrifying art.

"Insightful, judiciously selective history of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), the most controversial branch of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration (WPA). There have been quite a few books about the FTP, most notably Arena, the comprehensive first-person account by FTP head Hallie Flanagan. Nonfiction pro Quinn sensibly opts to craft a focused narrative that takes a few representative productions from the FTP's sprawling repertoire to highlight the project's evolution and the difficulties that plagued it. In early 1936, Ethiopia initiated the Living Newspapers, which dealt with current events in a dramatic, experimental style, fulfilling Flanagan's vision of a truly democratic national theatre that would educate as well as entertain. The sensational 'voodoo Macbeth' spotlighted the talents of the FTP's Negro unit and the genius of 20-year-old director Orson Welles. The FTP's enlightened racial policies, Quinn suggests, enraged conservative politicians even more than its alleged left-wing sympathies. It Can't Happen Here, which opened at 15 theatres on October 27, 1936, reiterated Flanagan's commitment to challenging political theatre. But by mid-1937, when the storm over Marc Blitzstein's labor opera The Cradle Will Rock led to Welles's departure from the FTP, Flanagan could no longer count on the unwavering backing of WPA head Harry Hopkins. The New Deal did not have the same overwhelming public support that had launched the WPA in 1935. Emboldened critics ignored the diverse array of popular theatre produced by the FTP across America—nicely sketched by Quinn in several chapters about Flanagan's cross-country travels—and painted the entire outfit as a hotbed of communists in the egregiously unfair hearings held by the House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities (which later became HUAC). On June 30, 1939, to save the rest of the WPA, President Roosevelt reluctantly signed a bill that eliminated the FTP. With careful attention to the underlying political and cultural issues, Quinn cogently retells this sad story of 'a brief time in our history [when] Americans had a vibrant national theatre almost by accident.'"—Kirkus Reviews

"[An] energetic . . . account of the remarkable achievements of the Federal Theatre Project . . . Much more than the sum of its fascinating parts, Quinn's history couldn't be timelier as we face yet another time of economic hardship."—Booklist

"When Hallie Flanagan became the director of the WPA's Federal Theatre Project (FTP), no one imagined that she would use a federal relief program to offer some of the most cutting-edge and inventive theater seen on the American stage. Quinn, author of two outstanding biographies, focuses on the Roosevelt administration and the Depression, spotlighting one of the most compelling periods of American theater. Orson Welles, John Houseman, Sinclair Lewis, and others brought to audiences such controversial productions as The Cradle Will Rock and an all-black production of Macbeth for the residents of Harlem. Quinn's well-written narrative is both fascinating and frightening as politics and idealism come to metaphorical blows with the rise of Martin Dies. Under his leadership, the House Un-American Activities Committee made the FTP the first victim of the Red Scare; in 1939, Congress and a reluctant President Roosevelt eliminated funding for the FTP and other WPA programs. Recommended."—Susan L. Peters, Library Journal

"Quinn does a superb job of recounting the rise and fall of the Federal Theatre Project, a wing of FDR's WPA meant to employ playwrights and actors while providing diversion and inspiration for Depression-ravaged Americans. Quinn shows how, under the management of the irrepressible Hallie Flanagan, the left-leaning FTP facilitated such controversial masterpieces as Triple-A Plowed Under and The Cradle Will Rock while unintentionally setting the stage for the House Un-American Activities Committee and much of the red-baiting and blacklisting of the 1940s and '50s. The Daily Worker applauded FTP projects such as a dramatization of Sinclair Lewis's antifascist novel, It Can't Happen Here. Among the actors, directors and writers sponsored by the program were John Houseman, Orson Welles, Will Geer and Meyer Levin. Experimentation thrived: Welles oversaw an all-black production of a 'voodoo' version of Macbeth that played Broadway and toured nationwide. All of this Quinn describes eloquently and artfully, summoning a not-so-distant time when a nation bled and great artists rushed as healers into the countryside."—Publishers Weekly

Synopsis:

“Spotlight s] one of the most compelling periods of American theater…Quinn’s well-written narrative is both fascinating and frightening.”—Library Journal (starred review)

In a desperate era, FDR and his advisers had to furiously improvise to get millions of unemployed people back to work. For writers, actors, and artists, they created the Federal Theater Project. A platform for cutting-edge drama, the program defied segregation, spotlighting social injustice and ultimately leading to a political struggle that would shape American arts for decades to come.

Synopsis:

“Spotlight[s] one of the most compelling periods of American theater…Quinns well-written narrative is both fascinating and frightening.”—Library Journal (starred review)

In a desperate era, FDR and his advisers had to furiously improvise to get millions of unemployed people back to work. For writers, actors, and artists, they created the Federal Theater Project. A platform for cutting-edge drama, the program defied segregation, spotlighting social injustice and ultimately leading to a political struggle that would shape American arts for decades to come.

About the Author

Susan Quinn is the author of two award-winning biographies, of Marie Curie and Karen H orney, as well as Human Trials, which recounts the emotion-laden process of developing a drug for a difficult disease. S he lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780802717580
Author:
Quinn, Susan
Publisher:
Walker & Company
Subject:
General History
Subject:
Theater - History & Criticism
Subject:
United States - 20th Century/Depression
Subject:
United States - 20th Century
Subject:
Drama -- History and criticism.
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade Paperback
Publication Date:
20090631
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
BandW Illustrations throughout
Pages:
336
Dimensions:
8.25 x 5.50 in

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Related Subjects

Arts and Entertainment » Drama » History and Criticism
Arts and Entertainment » Film and Television » General
History and Social Science » US History » 1920 to 1960
History and Social Science » US History » 19th Century
History and Social Science » US History » 20th Century » General

Furious Improvisation: How the Wpa and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times Used Trade Paper
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Product details 336 pages Walker & Company - English 9780802717580 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , “Spotlight s] one of the most compelling periods of American theater…Quinn’s well-written narrative is both fascinating and frightening.”—Library Journal (starred review)

In a desperate era, FDR and his advisers had to furiously improvise to get millions of unemployed people back to work. For writers, actors, and artists, they created the Federal Theater Project. A platform for cutting-edge drama, the program defied segregation, spotlighting social injustice and ultimately leading to a political struggle that would shape American arts for decades to come.

"Synopsis" by ,
“Spotlight[s] one of the most compelling periods of American theater…Quinns well-written narrative is both fascinating and frightening.”—Library Journal (starred review)

In a desperate era, FDR and his advisers had to furiously improvise to get millions of unemployed people back to work. For writers, actors, and artists, they created the Federal Theater Project. A platform for cutting-edge drama, the program defied segregation, spotlighting social injustice and ultimately leading to a political struggle that would shape American arts for decades to come.

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