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Interrogating the Federal Theatre Project's Legacy

My dissertation uses the mass staging of It Can’t Happen Here (1936) as a case study into how the Federal Theatre Project operated as a national theatre and political agency. Specifically, I look at the FTP’s realpolitik strategies in advancing their political messages through tactical propaganda to combat precarity in 1930s America. I ask the question: How did It Can’t Happen Here fit into the FTP’s new vision for America? To answer that, I place the FTP in the context of the political forces at play during the Great Depression. Using Judith Butler’s Notes on a Performative Theory of Assembly as a framing device, I view the FTP as an embodied demonstration against the precarity of the American way of life. 


Using archival evidence, I demonstrate the FTP was capable of course-correcting by engaging in dissembling. In my dissertation, I situate It Can’t Happen Here within the consensus narrative of the FTP—that of the brave theatre organization eliminated out of fear—to give the history of the FTP a richer and more nuanced reading. Here, I synthesize my argument that the FTP became a politically savvy organization capable of confronting precarity head-on.  I trace my development as a scholar of this period and how this research has informed my understanding of political theatre, precarity, and the new wave populist rhetoric/authoritarianism. 


I argue if we view the narrative of the FTP only as a doomed and bullied national theatre, we lose a major factor in its relevancy as a political entity. Likewise, if we accept the assertion that there was no opposition to It Can’t Happen Here, we lose the much more compelling story of driven and politically savvy public servants.

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