Modern Drama

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Photographer: Robert Haas. Courtesy of Western Regional Archives (via the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center). Prior permission from the State Archives of NC is required for any commercial use.

The Federal Theatre Project oversaw many high profile re-workings of classic dramas. However, there was always room made for noteworthy contemporary dramatic theatre. Focusing on establishing high quality production values, the project saw this as an opportunity to retrieve dramatic theater from wealthy, metropolitan elites and return it to the people.

Playwright, Eugene O’Neill was so impressed by these dramatic productions that he agreed to rent performance rights to many of his plays, such as Ah, Wilderness, at reduced rates. Likewise, fresh from winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Sinclair Lewis chose to work with the Federal Theatre Project over more lucrative offers from Broadway, lured in no small part by the potential of reaching a widespread national audience. At the end of its run the anti-fascist drama, over 500,000 people had seen It Can’t Happen Here.

Stressing the need for economic freedom in the South, Altars of Steel was a popular production in that region. A Miami News review from 1938 describes this modern, controversial drama as displaying an “evangelistic fury” bathed in “good old basic melodrama that keeps the audience both interested and aroused.” As the review anticipated, the play stoked controversy but demonstrated that productions navigating between heavy socially committed activism and melodramatic entertainment could appeal to a wide audience.