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DURING THE DEPRESSION years of the 1930s, the Federal Works Progress Administration began the Federal Theatre Project to afford employment to thousands of jobless actors and actresses. The Federal Theatre featured a variety of programs meant to appeal to a wider spectrum of the public--to strengthen the flagging theatre industry by encouraging more theatre-goers. In addition to the then-standard productions of vaudeville shows, children's theatre and the classics, new experimental forms were explored.
One of these forms, dubbed the Living Newspaper, was designed to dramatize the news, or as an official of the project said, "to shake the living daylights out of a thousand books, reports, newspaper and magazine articles." But the Living Newspaper was more than just current events acted out. As the director of the Federal Theatre during the '30s, Hallie Flanagan, put it, "the Living Newspaper from the first was concerned not with surface news, scandal, or human interest stories, but rather with the conditions back of conditions."
"The conditions back of conditions" would seem to imply a political perspective. And it often did: some of the Living Newspaper plays provoked controversy for their political content, and an official of the theatre group resigned in protest over a censorship dispute.
One of the old Living Newspaper plays, "Power," dealt in part with one citizen's struggle to understand the social and economic conditions that shaped his life; another, "Spirochete," dramatized the medical struggle against syphilis; and "One-Third of a Nation" was about slums and the poor in America during the Depression. But while these plays exposed social ills, they failed to offer any definite theoretical framework in which to consider them.
OVER A YEAR AGO a collective of Boston-area actors and political activists decided to revive the Living Newspaper form and take it a step further by making explicit a political analysis of current events. While the Cambridge-based Living Newspaper has followed the tradition of the 1930's Living Newspaper by producing whole plays on specific subjects--they have written and produced a play about the nuclear power industry and are presently working on a drama about polyvinyl chloride poisoning to be called "The Tip of the Iceberg"--their weekly productions at the Red Book Store near Central Square are mostly a series of short skits, each illustrating some item in the preceding week's news. The format tends to change from week to week, and in April the one-hour show will expand to three hours.
Last Tuesday the Living Newspaper included seven short dramatizations. One centered on new regulations for nuclear plant security that are used to justify surveillance and harassment of anti-nuclear groups and leftist organizations. Another touched on recent Supreme Court decisions that seem to limit the rights of minority groups.
After each skit one of the actors presented an unrelated news item from what the troupe calls the "Is Dis a System? Department." These items generally revealed the inconsistent, contradictory way in which the capitalist system often works. For instance, one such item related how the president of a local engineering firm had gone on record to recommend that the Arab boycott of businesses dealing with Israel should be strongly opposed. Then the official, who is Jewish, signed a substantial contract with Saudi Arabia in which his company complied with the terms of the boycott. After this was announced, the six actors chanted in unison, "Is Dis a System?"
By using imagination and pantomime instead of props to accentuate their messages, the actors sometimes achieve poignant and amusing effects. One especially memorable segment dealt with sexism in children's textbooks. The two male members of the troupe, Tom, a professional mover, and Ira, a bearded former research scientist, wore scarves and comically portrayed little girls. The four female members, Judith, Kristen, Cass, and Lydia, donned baseball caps and portrayed tough little boys.
The troupe acted out various scenes from text-books, illustrating the sex-role stereotypes forced on school children. In one scene, the little boys blew on their pinwheels to make them spin, while the little girls waited in vain for the wind to make their pinwheels go. "Maybe there'll be wind tomorrow," the wide-eyed and gray-bearded Ira says sweetly, as he holds up his imaginary pinwheel.
Some of the other skits were hard to follow. Even the actors, who read from scripts, seemed to lose their place at times, and much of the show was improvised. But while the amateurism of the production is allowable--because it is compensated for by the enthusiasm and humor of the troupe--the amateurism of the political presentation is not so easily dismissed. As is too often the case with much leftist rhetoric, their pronouncements were marked by oversimplification of the social issues.
Circumstances that lead to social oppression seem to be presented as a simple matter of personal conspiracies. For example, one item from the Is Dis a System? Department told how Blue Cross and Blue Shield recently decided to limit coverage for radical mastectomies because more women were now requesting them. The presentation seemed to imply that the administrators of Blue Shield were consciously out to torment women.
But in fact Blue Shield is a business, and although it is nonprofit, it must still compete to some extent with other health insurance plans. To remain solvent it can provide medical coverage only in those areas it can afford, or it can raise its rates and risk losing business to competing health plans. Granted, it is not clear that Blue Shield's decision to limit coverage for breast reconstruction was based solely on economics. But if that were the case, it would merely illustrate the fact that the social utility of programs like Blue Cross-Blue Shield is limited by the system under which they are organized--capitalism--and not necessarily by the personal prejudices or greediness of those who administer the program.
This is a simple point, often made, but so often ignored by some leftist propagandists, who find villainous individuals who live in mansions built with the blood and sweat of others a much easier target then the intangible "system" that nourishes them. This point is important, because the over-simplified "good guy versus bad guy" theory of society only serves to discredit and alienate many people who might otherwise be sympathetic to the left.
This superficial political analysis did not damage the production too much, because each of these inter-skit presentations is brief. But some of the longer skits had more serious problems. One, entitled "The Fuehrer's New Clothes," attempted to equate the 1930's Nazi persecution of the Communists with present-day West German discrimination against leftists. The argument seemed to depend mainly on the use of German accents by the actors.
And when the Living Newspaper put out the sign for the skit "Sexism in the Schools," in which the "x" in "sexism" was represented by a swastika, it was an insult to thoughtful social analysis. The left makes far too much use of such facile, irrelevant references to fascism. Turning x's into swastikas may make good graffiti, but it's lousy politics.
In spite of these drawbacks, for the most part the material chosen was timely and effectively dramatized. The energy of the presentations seemed to infect the largely sympathetic audience. The evening's finale, which was accompanied by enthusiastic, rhythmic handclapping by the audience, was a song called "Solidarity Forever Rock," sung to the tune of the rock 'n roll song "Locomotion." It seemed to be a light-hearted self-parody of the radical leftist style. Yet troupe members assured me afterwards that they were in total earnest:
Everybody's doing a brand new dance now
Come on comrades, do the liberation
I know you'll get to like it if you give it a chance now
Come on comrades, do the liberation
Don't let the oppressors ever get control
Reactionary rhythm is bad for your soul
So come on, come on, do the liberation with me
There's never been a dance that's so important to do
It helps to set us free and other people too
So come on, come on, do the liberation with me
They belted it out, as if liberating the world were in fact as easy as learning a new dance.
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