When 'Cradle' rocked US theater

It was "the most truly experimental effort ever undertaken in the American theater," according to Harold Clurman, a contemporary director and critic.

Among those who took part were theater luminaries John Houseman, Howard de Silva, Joseph Cotton, John Huston, and Arthur Miller; composer Virgil Thomson; and Orson Welles, barely out of his teens and already an accomplished actor-director.

From 1935 to 1939 the Federal Theater Project (FTP), a tiny corner of President Roosevelt's massive New Deal, produced hundreds of plays from classics to children's fare to innovative new works all over America.

Besides bringing the wonder of live theater to the masses, it employed thousands of actors during the Depression. It's estimated that 12 million people attended its performances in New York alone.

"Cradle Will Rock," a new movie by Tim Robbins (see review, page 15), explores the fate of one FTP production masterminded by Welles and Houseman that tried to delve into the white-hot issue of unions versus management.

FTP founder Hallie Flanagan wanted to create 100 community theaters presenting dramas with current-events themes, a kind of "living newspaper." It was all too controversial for Washington's politicians; they pulled the plug.

But before its demise, the FTP premired "It Can't Happen Here" (1936) by Sinclair Lewis simultaneously in 22 cities; won critics' raves with "Swing Mikado" (1938), a jazzed-up Gilbert and Sullivan; and debuted the historical play "The Lost Colony" (1937) in North Carolina, where it still runs as America's oldest outdoor drama.

The FTP is gone, but its contribution to American arts lives on.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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