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The Playbook: A Story of Theater, Democracy, and the Making of a Culture War (Hardcover)

The Playbook: A Story of Theater, Democracy, and the Making of a Culture War By James Shapiro Cover Image
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A brilliant and daring account of a culture war over the place of theater in American democracy in the 1930s, one that anticipates our current divide, by the acclaimed Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro

From 1935 to 1939, the Federal Theatre Project staged over a thousand productions in 29 states that were seen by thirty million (or nearly one in four) Americans, two thirds of whom had never seen a play before. At its helm was an unassuming theater professor, Hallie Flanagan. It employed, at its peak, over twelve thousand struggling artists, some of whom, like Orson Welles and Arthur Miller, would soon be famous, but most of whom were just ordinary people eager to work again at their craft. It was the product of a moment when the arts, no less than industry and agriculture, were thought to be vital to the health of the republic, bringing Shakespeare to the public, alongside modern plays that confronted the pressing issues of the day—from slum housing and public health to racism and the rising threat of fascism. 

The Playbook takes us through some of its most remarkable productions, including a groundbreaking Black production of Macbeth in Harlem and an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s anti-fascist novel It Can’t Happen Here that opened simultaneously in 18 cities, underscoring the Federal Theatre’s incredible range and vitality. But this once thriving Works Progress Administration relief program did not survive and has left little trace. For the Federal Theatre was the first New Deal project to be attacked and ended on the grounds that it promoted “un-American” activity, sowing the seeds not only for the McCarthyism of the 1950s but also for our own era of merciless polarization. It was targeted by the first House un-American Affairs Committee, and its demise was a turning point in American cultural life—for, as Shapiro brilliantly argues, “the health of democracy and theater, twin born in ancient Greece, have always been mutually dependent.”

A defining legacy of this culture war was how the strategies used to undermine and ultimately destroy the Federal Theatre were assembled by a charismatic and cunning congressman from East Texas, the now largely forgotten Martin Dies, who in doing so pioneered the right-wing political playbook now so prevalent that it seems eternal.

About the Author

James Shapiro is Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He has written several award-winning books, including Shakespeare in a Divided America, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, and 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, and The New York Review of Books, among other places. He has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Public Library Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, and the American Academy in Berlin. In 2011, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He currently serves as a Shakespeare Scholar in Residence at the Public Theater in New York City.

Praise For…

“James Shapiro’s piquant and resonant history . . . is about how messy and compromised the situation can get for artists when Congress is signing the checks, how cynical the politics can be and how familiar — how Trumpian — some of the muddying tactics deployed in the 1930s now seem . . . An engrossing read.” —New York Times

“An enthralling new book about this little-known chapter in American theater history.” —​AP

“Compelling.” —The Guardian

“A vibrant history both of the astonishingly successful Federal Theatre Project and the culture wars that succeeded in quashing it. . . Its demise still resonates, Shapiro warns, with the Dies playbook revived by culture warriors noisily censoring the arts. Sharp history as cautionary tale.” —Kirkus

“Another captivating theater history in which politics and entertainment intersect . . . Shapiro’s exquisite backstage history also cannily reflects on present-day political implications. It’s a bravura performance.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Shapiro points out at the beginning of his fascinating, tightly written tome that the word playbook has two meanings—a book of scripts and a set of tactics employed in a competitive activity . . . The most compelling chapters, though, concern Texas Representative Martin Dies Jr. and the playbook he followed as director of the House Committee on Un-American Activities to target and, ultimately, bring down the Federal Theatre Project and Flanagan. Shapiro notes that Dies’ destructive tactic, using well publicized public hearings to spread hearsay, rumors, and half-truths about his targets and gain lots of press, became the model for subsequent culture warriors intent on securing notoriety and silencing unwelcome voices and dissent.”Booklist

“In his superb The Playbook, Columbia professor James Shapiro unearths a forgotten gem of the New Deal . . . it glimmers with bits of inspiration, as ordinary citizens stared down authoritarian forces within its own government . . . For Shapiro, the four-year career of the Federal Theater is no mere footnote to history but rather a link in a chain of movements that reveal the complexity and contradictions of the American Experiment, whose triumphs are often tenuous . . . The Playbook is itself a felicitous testament to how literature engages its political context; it can’t pretend to do otherwise. In this regard Shapiro’s book falls squarely in the line of our best recent narrative nonfiction, from David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon to Jonathan Blitzer’s Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here . . . Shapiro has written a rip of a read and a cautionary tale with parallels to 2024, as today’s tensions have scrambled conventional wisdom.” —​Hamilton Cain, On the Seawall​

“Renowned Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro turns his gift for charged narratives to the art and politics of 1930s America. The New Deal offered a stirring vision of economic justice, racial equality, and artistic experiment. A nationwide theater of range and daring was launched, only to be destroyed by the newly formed, ruthlessly conservative House Committee on Un-American Activities. Tragedy and farce abound, foreshadowing our current crises. Each chapter is like a play: together they form a devastating cycle in our continuing culture wars.” —Margo Jefferson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Constructing a Nervous System
“One in four Americans saw a Federal Theater production and it threatened right-wing America. Shapiro's beautiful, timely, shuddering narrative demonstrates the origins of our modern culture wars, and the simple truth that the arts are vital to the life of a democracy. Visionary, brilliant scripts, especially about race and racism, brought back to life by a great Shakespeare scholar, and now also political historian, were both the stunning achievement and tragic undoing of one of the New Deal's most sublime creations.” —David W. Blight, Pulitzer prize-winning author of Frederick Douglass
“On finishing The Playbook, one thing was clearer to me than it ever has been: Our American culture wars are not only not new, they're almost entirely unaltered from the era whose history this book evokes so brilliantly. The saga of the Federal Theater Project's creation during the depression, the program's travails and triumphs, and its ultimate demise in the birth of the HUAC Committee is an epic tale, populated by heroes and villains, artistic and political. (Shapiro's vivid account of young Orson Welles' epoch-making success with Macbeth at Harlem's Lafayette Theater is, alone, worth the price of entry.) An absorbing, necessary book—with lessons for us all, artist and citizen alike.” —Ayad Akhtar, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Homeland Elegies
“Some books illuminate the past, some feel vividly relevant to the present moment. The Playbook is one of those rare historical works that does both of these things equally brilliantly. In his compulsively readable style, James Shapiro tells a startling story of New Deal America and the Federal Theater's extraordinary attempt to place creativity at the heart of democracy. He also uncovers the hidden roots of today's culture wars, with all the cynicism, media manipulation and disinformation that shape our current political reality. This is not just a great work of theater history, it is history itself as a gripping and fiercely urgent drama.” —Fintan O’Toole, author of We Don't Know Ourselves

Product Details
ISBN: 9780593490204
ISBN-10: 0593490207
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publication Date: May 28th, 2024
Pages: 384
Language: English