About this Exhibit
Rediscovering America
Celebrating The People
Work Pays America
Activist Arts
Useful Arts

Activist Arts
Part 2

Children in Democracy... by Dorothea Lange

"Children in a democracy. A migratory family living in a trailer in an open field. No sanitation, no water. They come from Amarillo, Texas."
By Dorothea Lange, Bureau of Agricultural Economics, November 1940

National Archives, Records of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics

One-Third of a Nation by Arnold Eagle and David Robbins

From the "One-Third of a Nation" series, New York City
By Arnold Eagle and David Robbins,
New York City Federal Art Project, May to August 1938

National Archives, Records of the Work Projects Administration

New Deal photographers were instrumental in exposing the human pain of the Great Depression to a wider audience. Their images of rural and urban poverty, which were sometimes manipulated for political and artistic effect, laid bare the economic exploitation of farm workers, uncovered poor living conditions in city tenements, and put a human face on the Depression. Their photographs remain some of the most compelling visual documents of the era.

Most Federal Theatre Project (FTP) productions were classical dramas, vaudeville, or light comedy. But FTP Director Hallie Flanagan also encouraged dramatists and directors to experiment and especially to address the social and political issues of the day. Fostering experimental and socially relevant theater, however, also embroiled the FTP in several very public controversies. These productions served as prime examples of what opponents of the Federal Theatre Project saw as radical influences within the project and made the FTP the lightning rod for opponents of government-sponsored art within Congress.

Poster: "Revolt of the Beavers"

Poster for The Revolt of the Beavers
By an unknown WPA artist, 1937

Music Division, Library of Congress

The Federal Theatre Project produced a variety of children's plays. The great majority were warmly received. The Revolt of the Beavers, however, stirred political passions from the moment it premiered. In the play, two small children are transported to "Beaverland," where society is run by a cruel beaver chief. "The Chief" forces the other beavers to work endlessly on the "busy wheel," turning bark into food and clothing, then hoards everything for himself and his friends. With the help of the children, a beaver named Oakleaf organizes his brethren, overthrows The Chief, and establishes a society where everything is shared. The show played to packed houses during its brief New York City run, but its message drew fire. Theater critic Brooks Atkinson labeled it "Marxism à la Mother Goose."
Scene from "Revolt of the Beavers"

"The Beavers gather under Oakleaf's (Jules Dassin) flag to discuss the overthrow of the Chief." A scene from The Revolt of the Beavers.
By an unknown photographer, 1937

National Archives, Records of the Work Projects Administration

Poster for "It Can't Happen Here"

Design for poster for It Can't Happen Here
By an unknown WPA artist, 1937
Pencil, gouache, and colored pencil on board

National Archives, Records of the Work Projects Administration

Scene from "It Can't Happen Here"

Shad Ledue, leader of the fascist "Corpos," beats Doremus Jessup, a Vermont newspaperman who has been opposing the dictatorship in his newspaper.
A scene from It Can't Happen Here at the Blackstone Theatre, Chicago, IL, October 1936

National Archives, Records of the Work Projects Administration

Based on a bestselling novel by Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here describes America under the control of a fascist dictatorship similar to the ones ruling Germany and Italy. On October 27, 1936, the Federal Theatre Project took advantage of the interest in Lewis's book and launched 22 simultaneous openings of the play across the country, including Yiddish, Spanish, and all-black productions. By the end of its run, It Can't Happen Here had been seen by almost 500,000 people nationwide. In some cities, local authorities refused to allow the play to open because of its controversial content. Republicans charged that the date for the show's mass opening had been selected to whip up support for Democrats in the 1936 elections.

National Archives and Records Administration