During the New Deal the United States federal government undertook to support a wide range of projects related to the arts through a series of special programs. The goal of this federal funding was to keep various creative professions viable during the worst of the Great Depression – one of the more interesting of these efforts was the Federal Theater Project. From 1935 to 1939 this program underwrote a series of live performances to provide individuals with low to no income a chance to experience the theater and also to keep live theater viable as an art form in the United States. This productions took on all sorts of forms but one of the most common, and most enjoyed by the general public, were called Living Newspapers were clippings from newspapers discussing issues taking place in the 30s were turned into short plays performed on stage.
Unfortunately the Living Newspaper productions rapidly ran afoul of the Congress because those in charge of writing and staging the productions often took a critical view on government policies they disagreed with and the performances often swung to the political left when discussing issues. The Living Newspaper also caused tension for the federal government when it tackled foreign affairs, often putting a particular “spin” on events that ran afoul of the federal governments efforts to avoid entanglement in the deteriorating political situation in Europe. The performances though covered a wide range of performances, including more traditional stage shows and presentations. One of the most famous of these though was a performance titled The Cradle Will Rock.
This performance angered many because of its attacks on capitalism, political corruption, opportunism, and its strong pro-union message. In essence this musical was focused on how a major steel capitalist (named Mr. Mister) owns and runs the entire social and political structure of the town in which his company operates. The play focuses on efforts to unionize the towns workforce combined with flashbacks showing how Mr. Mister built up his empire of influence. The musical also touches on themes of corruption and crime in 1930s America. Initially blocked just before opening by the Works Progress Administration – the overall group funding the Federal Theater Project – the cast got around the ban by the director of the show playing music on stage and the cast singing their parts from the audience.
Eventually the Federal Theater Project had its funding entirely cut by 1939, mainly due to the political nature of the performances. However it remains an interesting moment in U.S. history, when the federal government for a short window put considerable funding behind public theater aimed at mass consumption. Also, apparently, it funded circuses too: