When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president during the midst of the Great Depression, one of his most ambitious programs to combat the widespread poverty and unemployment of the day was the Works Progress Administration. This program was designed to upgrade and reinforce the national infrastructure, with a primary focus on construction projects involving roads, government buildings and bridges.
One of the smaller sectors within this program provided employment for artists, writers and actors. This marked the first time in U.S. history that the federal government became a benefactor for the creative and performing arts. Among the then-unknown individuals who were aided through this program were icons-in-waiting Jackson Pollock, Ralph Ellison and a 19-year-old Orson Welles who directed an all-Black version of “Macbeth” staged in Harlem.
Welles is the narrator of Wieland Schulz-Keil’s 1981 documentary on the rise and fall of this WPA program. Schulz-Keil’s film was first seen on PBS and, after too long of an absence, is being re-released in handsome digitally restored edition.
At first, the federal support of the arts seemed like a win-win situation – especially when the government recruited photographers to document the harshness of the Dust Bowl environment across the Midwest and writers to record oral histories of disenfranchised communities, including input from the thousands of elderly Black Americans who began their lives in slavery. Painters created murals that decorated public building and performers brought live theater and concerts to communities that were cultural deserts.
Unfortunately, some of the individuals who participated in this program were members of the Communist Party, and they insisted on injecting their personal politics into works where it was neither requested nor required, including a children’s theater production about a community of beavers. Not surprisingly, the radical leftist elements set off anxiety among right-wing congressmen and the program fell out of favor.
The film provides invigorating interviews with some of the better-known alumni of the program, including actors Will Geer, Norman Lloyd and Howard Da Silva, producer John Houseman, director Joseph Losey and writers Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren. The resulting work is a fascinating slice of American history and a celebration of the how the creative spirit thrived during the most difficult of times.