cover image The Playbook: The Story of Theater, Democracy, and the Making of a Culture War

The Playbook: The Story of Theater, Democracy, and the Making of a Culture War

James Shapiro. Penguin Press, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-0-593-49020-4

Columbia University literature professor Shapiro follows up Shakespeare in a Divided America with another captivating theater history in which politics and entertainment intersect. Established in 1935 under the New Deal, the Federal Theatre Project was a nationwide jobs program that quickly became a hotbed of idealism. Hallie Flanagan, a stagnating academic appointed to lead the program, seized the opportunity to produce challenging plays that tackled social problems (“God help me to be able to do something more vivid in life than adding to the number of Vassar girls in the world,” she wrote at the time). The program’s notable works include Orson Welles’s all-Black retelling of Macbeth set in Haiti and an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s antifascist novel It Can’t Happen Here that opened simultaneously in almost two dozen cities. Led by Texas Democrat Martin Dies, congressmen hoping to disrupt the New Deal targeted the Federal Theatre for its blatant progressivism, and in 1939 it became “the first New Deal project... terminated” for “promot[ing] un-American activity.” Shapiro’s shrewd narrative revels in absurdity; during congressional hearings, committee members kept reading Federal Theatre scripts aloud, as though yearning to be actors, while Dies, a natural performer, deployed his own warped brand of showmanship to pummel Flanagan from the dais. Shapiro’s exquisite backstage history also cannily reflects on present-day political implications. It’s a bravura performance. (May)