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I believe it important to take a look at The Workers' Theatre Movement of the 1920's and 1930's before examining the The Federal Theatre Project. Please continue on this page...

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The Workers' Theatre Movement

In the decade of the 1930's, the workers’ theatre movement developed, influenced at least in part by the agitprop theatre of Russian communism. The Russians used agitprop theatre, which were short pieces for mobile theatre units; they often had chants, they tried to agitate audiences to defy capitalism and accept communism and to accept the idea that the proletarian (the common worker) will rise. The Russian Communist agitprop theatre also used mass presentations, presentational acting, plotlessness (as in Epic Theatre), and montages to get their ideas across (click here for some photos).

Somewhere around 1929, the first truly agitprop theatre groups in the United States emerged: the Prolet-Büehne, a German-language troupe, and the English-language troupe calling itself the Workers’ Laboratory Theatre. By 1932, both of these groups helped form a loose-knit organization of left-wing theatres called the League of Workers’ Theatres. The League of Workers’ Theatres published a newsletter /magazine called Workers’ Theatre; by 1935, the organization became known as the New Theatre League, and their magazine was called New Theatre .  Both magazines discussed theory and practice of workers’ theatre, with a firm belief that "art is a weapon" (click here to read the lyrics of a short musical agit-prop play called "Art is a Weapon"). 
Besides agit-prop plays and, later in the decade, plays of "socialist realism" (works attempting to be of high artistic significance dealing with the heroic struggle of the proletariat and of the victory of socialism).  The workers' theatre movement also presented a number of skits/plays with music, some of which could actually be called musicals--perhaps most well-known include the following:

     The Cradle Will Rock (while rehearsed and originally funded by the Federal Theatre Project, Cradle  was actually presented without the FTP's approval--the story is on the next page -- The Federal Theatre Project).

    Pins and Needles  (click here for the lyrics to its most famous song -- and which became a sort of rallying cry for the movement),

   and Johnny Johnson  (this link will lead you to another page of links about the show).

         (I discuss workers' theatre musicals in detail in my dissertation).


Other workers' theatres arose:  the Theatre of Action/Shocked Troupe, an offshoot of the W. L. T., the Theatre Collective, and the Theatre Union, founded in 1933, and becoming the first professional workers’ theatre in 1935. We might also mention the Group Theatre, more famous for its acting training than for its left-wing theatre, but it did produce Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty, considered one of the best agitprop plays of the period. The Workers’ Theatre Movement declined after 1935; the economy was showing greater prosperity, the pro-Communism movement aligned itself with anti-fascism and the development became known as the Popular Front. Leftism merged with liberalism, and the purposes for which the Workers’ Theatre Movement developed itself seemed less pressing.


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This page and all linked pages in this directory are copyrighted © Eric W. Trumbull, 1998-2007.