Weekend Bookchat

December 13, 2008

One of the most unlikely offshoots of the government’s efforts to end the Depression and get the American economy up and running again was the Federal Theatre Project, which gave a leg up to Orson Welles, John Houseman, Sinclair Lewis and scores of other actors, writers and artists. That program, and the Republican rage that finally killed it, is the subject of Susan Quinn’s terrific new book  Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times. Reviewer Scott Eyman explains:

The reaction to all this on the part of Republicans in Congress can be imagined—”boondoggle” was the most polite word employed—but the virulence spread; Ms. Quinn writes that “bureaucrats at the state level refused to cooperate across state lines, especially in the Midwest.”

And, to be blunt, a lot of the productions had to compromise with despicable local mores; in Jacksonville, a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was cast entirely with white people who blacked up when necessary, which sounds like a scene from one of Christopher Guest’s lunatic fancies.

IT WAS THE 1938 Congressional elections that brought the W.P.A to an end, with the Republicans taking 13 governorships and eight senate seats, and doubling their holdings in the House. It was a strong rebuke to Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court—easily the stupidest thing a great politician has ever done. The new Republican majority in Congress went about the long-dreamt-of business of killing the New Deal, with the Federal Theatre Project as collateral damage.

The new Congress brought the elevation of one Martin Dies Jr., a singularly uncharming man who in time would run the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dies was a Texan who praised the Confederacy because it kept the South, he said, from being overrun by “ignorant niggers.” Ms. Quinn thus makes the point that the first victim of the Red Scare was the New Deal.

With the Bush recession crippling the publishing industry and draining sources of arts funding across the board, maybe the Federal Theatre Project is an idea whose time has come — again.

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Wouldn’t you know it? For all the misery yet to come, the Bush recession has produced one benefit for . . . the Bush family! Bushology, the planned tell-all book about the Bush family from the preznit’s former sister-in-law Sharon Bush, has been shelved because of the terrible economic climate and overall drop in book sales. Bush and her agent now hope to cut a deal for a television mini-series.

Meanwhile, anyone looking for good, juicy reading about Duby and his ckan can try The Book on Bush by Eric Alterman and Mark J. Green, The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder by Vincent Bugliosi, The 35 Articles of Impeachment and the Case for Prosecuting George W. Bush by Dennis Kucinich, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas Ricks, American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush by Kevin Phillips, for starters.