West of Broadway: the Rockefeller Foundation and American Theatre in the 1930s

Given its historic role as one of the leading institutions in American philanthropy, perhaps it is not surprising that the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) was among the first American foundations to experiment with arts funding.[1] Better known are the efforts of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which provided support for arts appreciation in American schools, and above all, the Juilliard Musical Foundation, created after the death of benefactor Augustus Juilliard in 1919.[2] By contrast, the Rockefeller Foundation’s earliest ventures remain largely unknown and have yet to receive any extensive scholarly study. Its first hesitant steps in the arts offer a revealing look at the prevailing attitudes among foundation trustees and staff. Many of these assumptions or biases—especially the fear of providing direct support to individual artists—would create barriers to arts funding for the next half century. The Foundation’s efforts in the 1930s to underwrite a regional theatre movement and its related experiment in offering support directly to individual playwrights also provide an interesting case study in the evaluation of arts philanthropy. Success proved elusive and difficult to measure, if not to define, in this first Rockefeller arts program. Rockefeller insiders regarded these efforts as failures, and scholars have been content either to repeat this judgment or to ignore the entire effort.

Historians have failed to see the full significance for the arts of this Rockefeller program of the late 1930s, perhaps because it began as a simple effort to strengthen university programs in drama. To begin setting this record right, it may first be useful to stake out some broad tentative claims: First, if we exclude the Juilliard Foundation’s very specialized support for the music school of the same name and the Carnegie Corporation’s eclectic educational programs, the Rockefeller Foundation conducted the first sustained program in the performing arts by a major private foundation in the years before the second world war. Moreover, this effort predated the more celebrated work of the Ford Foundation from the mid 1950s until the 1980s and the Rockefeller’s own quite significant work in these same years.[3] A second and more specific historical claim may be ventured: while the RF’s first efforts in the arts produced mixed results at best, the passage of time makes it increasingly clear that the program in drama helped build the foundation for the flourishing non-profit, repertory theatre movement of the postwar period. At the same time, these first efforts also demonstrated the limits of that support, especially when reservations about supporting individual creative artists came into play.

In the early 1930s Rockefeller Foundation trustees were debating the organization’s basic goals. In the previous decade the Foundation had chosen the advancement of knowledge as its underlying purpose, and support for the humanities became one of its core programs. Soon, however, calls from RF board members for more practical results increased with the country’s worsening depression. While the RF trustees were willing to concede that basic research in economics might not immediately lead to solutions to unemployment and stalled growth, they could see a direct link between the work of social scientists and the country’s most pressing problems. In the humanities, by contrast, evaluation proved difficult and the connection to daily life seemed remote at best. A trustee evaluation of all the Foundation’s programs warned that the humanities were in danger of falling into a trap if they slavishly imitated the natural and social sciences:

It frankly appears to your committee that a program in the humanities, based on a cloistered kind of research, is wide of the goal which the Trustees of the Foundation should have in mind. It is getting us facts but not necessarily follow­ers. We have more detailed information about a great number of rather abstruse subjects, but that does not logically mean that the level of artistic and aesthetic appreciation in America has been measurably raised.[4]

The trustees concluded, “In our opinion the officers should be asked to study other methods by which cultural appreciation can be developed and the values of the humanities brought more directly into contact with daily living.”[5] The trustees’ embrace of the democratization of culture—“From being aristocratic and exclusive, culture is becoming democratic and inclusive”[6]—suggested that the humanities program should strike a balance between scholarly research and educational projects, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s board pushed the humanities program in particular to experiment with methods to reach a broad public audience. In practice this would mean a serious attempt to explore ways to advance the humanities through radio, film, and the mass media, and this is where much current scholarship on Rockerfeller philanthropy focuses its effort.[7]

The change in policy dictated by the trustees coincided with a change in leadership within the Foundation. Seeking someone with a similar vision for the humanities, the Foundation turned to David H. Stevens, a former professor of English and administrator at the University of Chicago, who served as Vice President of the General Education Board (GEB), an older Rockefeller philanthropic foundation, and who was now given dual responsibilities at both the GEB and the Rockefeller Foundation. To understand the emphasis the Rockefeller Foundation would place on grass-roots theatrical work, it is also necessary to consider Stevens’ broader theoretical and scholarly commitments. When he left the University of Chicago to take a position with the General Education Board, which had been the first Rockefeller fund to support the humanities, both the GEB and the Rockefeller Foundation were supporting work in the humanities that emphasized archaeology, ancient history, and and the classical tradition.[8] To the extent that the Rockefeller offices had given any attention to the question, the implicit definition of the humanities rested upon an older tradition of philology and the study of the classics, leavened with a strong American interest in the study of Semitic langauges and archaeological work related to Biblical and religious traditions.[9]

In contrast to an approach that left American culture subordinate to European-dominated scholarly traditions, David Stevens detected a “present urgent need for a larger appreciation of the American cultural heritage.” He had no patience with those who (“out of ignorance”) asserted “the poverty of the American cultural tradition” and turned their attention insistently “toward the achievements of other peoples.”[10] Stevens’ conception of the humanities meant that the Rockefeller Foundation should seek first to support “the preservation and development of American cultural traditions with a view to their continuing growth.”[11]

For Stevens, support for a program in the dramatic arts would become the major vehicle for developing a distinctive American culture and for realizing the trustees’ goal of taking the humanities from the classroom into the public arena. Because of the “broad participation that dramatic work required,” and its effectiveness as “a strong social force,” a program in the theatre was ideally suited to respond to the trustees’ instructions to enhance public appreciation of the humanities. As Stevens put it, “the arts of the theatre draw on the past as well as the present, and when successfully used have an immediate effect upon the public.”[12] In spite of the obviously greater reach of the new mass media, in the search for ways to communicate the values of American culture, support for drama and theatre came to be the hallmark of the foundation’s grant-making in the humanities.

In the 1930s the dramatic arts in the United States stood awkwardly poised on the cusp of a new era in which opportunities expanded in new directions while older theatrical traditions died. Hollywood exerted its magnetic pull for both audiences and performers, though for many actors, directors, and authors Broadway remained the pinnacle of achievement. But even though champions of the “legitimate” theatre might loudly proclaim the superiority of the live stage, theatre people knew that their industry was undergoing a sea change. Vaudeville, burlesque, and many variants of the popular theatre were dying, unable to compete with the movies and radio. Touring companies and summer stock were shrinking as well. While strong local audiences in Boston and other northeastern cities still gave Broadway producers a chance to try out an expensive production before opening in New York, the likelihood of recovering initial investments diminished at a time when demand from depression-weary audiences was weak. The number of new shows opening on the great white way dropped, and in a refrain that sounds quite contemporary still, these factors tended to limit risk and to channel energies into well-worn paths. Against this background of a changing profession, the humanities division of the Rockefeller Foundation embarked on a modest program of support for drama.

In contrast to the vast literature on the federal theatre and the decline of Broadway during the same period, the Foundation’s support for theatre has only begun to attract scholarly interest and it remains a poorly understood chapter in American cultural history.[13] At the time theatre professionals debated their course of action without the vocabulary routinely used today, and as a consequence historians have perhaps failed to connect the Foundation’s work in the 1930s with the widely hailed postwar explosion of creativity in the American theatre. The little that has been published on the humanities program in the 1930s also falls into the trap of using the Rockefeller Foundation’s own awkward phrasing: non-professional theatre. For good reasons, the Foundation bent over backwards to avoid the dreaded word “amateur” to describe the theatrical organizations it supported. At the time the concept of a distinctive non-profit sector in general was only emerging, while the self-conscious, full-throated advocacy of professional repertory theatres in particular would not develop until after the second world war. Then, a significant number of free-standing new theatres, employing professional actors and staffs, usually in a repertory company, took shape within a not-for-profit organizational structure. While the Cleveland Play House shared some of these attributes,[14] including most notably its status as an independent non-profit, a true movement can be said to have started only with the founding of the Alley Theatre in Houston in 1947 and the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. in 1950. The professional repertory theatre began to reach its full maturity the following decade with a wave of new creations, beginning most notably with the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis (1963), and soon followed by the Actors Theatre of Louisville (1964), the American Conservatory Theatre (San Francisco, 1965), Long Wharf Theatre (New Haven, 1965), the Yale Repertory Theatre (1966), the Mark Taper Forum and Center Theatre Group (Los Angeles, 1967), and the American Repertory Theatre (Cambridge, 1970) among many.

Nonetheless, despite some substantial morphological differences, it is possible to see this new theatre emerging in embryo in the 1930s. Barrett H. Clark, the theatre professional who would shape the thinking of David Stevens and the Rockefeller Foundation, left the commercial firm of Samuel French and Company to champion these theatres. Clark was well aware of the problem of defining the new theatre struggling to be born. “A theatre is emerging here and there throughout the country that is neither a part of the Road, nor an imitation of Broadway,” Clark wrote prophetically in 1935.[15] Clark listed some of the many names given these theatres—“Regional, Folk, Local, Little Theatre, Community, Amateur, Civic Playhouse, Revolt against Broadway, Nonprofessional”—before dismissing most of these as “labels indiscriminately stuck to a thousand theatrical ventures which have only a few similarities in common.”[16]

The future of American theatre could be detected in a small coterie of intensely motivated groups springing to life in dozens, if not hundreds, of American communities. “The theatre I am thinking of is a group of units organized for the most part by the dramatic departments of colleges and universities and by private or semi-private corporations,” Clark wrote. “These are scattered throughout the country in large and small cities and in rural communities, and are distinguished from professional theatres in that they are chartered and operated not for profit, and pay no actors for acting.”[17] He conceded that the lack of paid actors and the absence of a commercial or profit motive could indeed be called “amateur,” but Clark settled upon “nonprofessional,” a somewhat unfortunate choice given that Clark praised the commitment of these theatre workers precisely for the sense of vocation and devotion to high standards that characterize professional activity. These not-for-profit theatres, Clark thought, embodied a new emphasis that would increasingly set them apart from Broadway and its satellites. “This difference is fundamental since it throws emphasis upon the theatre as an end in itself and not upon the making of money.”[18]

Clark excluded from his definition the great majority of the community or Little theatres. He counted approximately 1,000 such theatres at large but thought that no more than 100 at most could produce four good productions in a season, and among the 700 college and university theatre programs Clark generously estimated that perhaps 100 could be deemed of high quality. (A year or so later, Clark lowered this estimate to one percent of all these theatres combined.)[19] Yet within this limited universe of less than 200 university and not-for-profit theatres, Clark thought that the quality of productions often equalled and sometimes surpassed the professional stage. He teased readers of the New York Times with the news that he had seen performances “far above the average of Broadway” at such venues as the Cleveland and Pasadena Playhouses and at the University of Iowa, Northwestern, and the University of Washington.[20] If the trustees offered the fundamental theory for the entire humanities program, Clark provided both a rationale and the strategy for the Rockefeller Foundation’s work in drama and regional theatre. In this vein Clark forwarded to Stevens a report on his visits to mid-western and western theatres. Everywhere he went, Clark noted, depression-era students approached him for advice. “What most of them wanted,” beyond career advice, he concluded, “was a viewpoint, something to make them feel that what they were working for was really worthwhile.”[21] Clark’s message to the schools he advised and to the students he encouraged served as the rallying cry for a new non-profit theatre movement. “If you want a theatre,” Clark told an audience of theatre educators and regional theatre leaders meeting in Seattle, “make it.”[22]

If the emerging non-profit theatres offered one axis for plotting the boundaries of the new program, regionalism provided a second organizing principle. Just as Stevens rejected the prevailing Eurocentric view of the humanities, he also managed the delicate balancing act of working for an organization that personified the Establishment while kicking against the traditional dominance of Eastern institutions and elites. Wisconsin-born and a graduate of Lawrence College, Stevens seems to have shared the populist instincts of the Midwestern progressives. The first step in “the discovery of ourselves,” as he referred in one happy phrase to his proposed emphasis on American culture, lay in an exploration of American regional life. In one of his first messages to the Foundation’s trustees Stevens called their attention to the drama program at the University of North Carolina as an outstanding exemplar of regional culture. At UNC and other universities with experimental theatre programs those responsible for this work had succeeded in resisting “the cramping influence of pure scholarship in their graduate schools.”[23]

Stevens identified with those who wanted to see a strong, decentralized network of American theatres and regional companies. Attracted by the populist and democratic impulses that were revitalizing American theatre in the 1930s, Stevens looked upon the work of the Federal Theatre Project and the WPA’s cultural activities in general with interest and sympathy. Early in the Federal Theatre Project’s life, Stevens offered the director, Hallie Flanagan, a small grant-in-aid to enable her editorial group to buy color printing equipment. In 1937 the Foundation provided much more strategic aid by providing funds to Vassar College (where Flanagan had taught theatre before her New Deal post) for a summer workshop, allowing Flanagan to bring forty of her best regional directors, playwrights, and designers to the New York campus for an intensive workshop. The resulting production, One Third of a Nation, was hailed as one of the most significant productions undertaken by the federal theatre and it toured widely, arousing both critical admiration and political controversy.[24]

The Foundation’s program in drama thus moved very self-consciously from the center of the professional theatre world in New York toward the regional and amateur theatre. The program’s goals were to sustain a national movement of little theatres and university theatres, to improve their professional status and coordination (through the National Theatre Conference which Foundation grants helped reorganize), and to help these theatres find better plays for a public eager for good theatre. Pursuing this latter goal, Stevens urged Barrett Clark, who now led the Dramatists Play Service, an arm of the Dramatists’ Guild that licensed plays for amateur and collegiate groups, to make serious plays available to these theatres at reduced royalties.

The Foundation’s largest grants went to university drama programs, although two community theatres in Cleveland and Seattle received substantial support for their ambitious attempts to develop independent local theatres. One of the aims Stevens had in mind when funding university programs was the development of the next generation of leaders. Stevens singled out Yale, the University of North Carolina, the University of Iowa, Case Western Reserve, and Stanford as centers of excellence. Yale’s outstanding drama department—arguably the best in the country at the time—received funds for technical experimentation, which led to the development of a new stage-lighting system (the work of George Izenour). The University’s scholarly interest in the history of drama was encouraged by a grant to help it organize a theatre archive. Foundation funds also provided a camera unit which allowed Yale to start a film archive of its productions and at the same time use film as a teaching aid.

If Yale embodied a standard of academic excellence, the University of North Carolina, Iowa, and other institutions were chosen as “centers having a continuing influence on the cultural life of large sections of the country.”[25] Stevens saw a regional theatre as a natural, if not the principal, outlet for the expression of values that the mass media deliberately ignored in its search for a common national cultural denominator. Grants and fellowships, Stevens hoped, would help the community and university theatres develop playwrights who could employ local idioms and speak to regional needs. The outstanding example of this program was the University of North Carolina, where Frederick Koch led an ambitious program. The Carolina Playmakers toured the state, created a competitive high school program, and opened two summer theatres at either end of the state to reach prospective audiences more effectively. In many ways Koch’s work embodied what Stevens hoped to see develop at strong regional centers throughout the country. When Koch left North Dakota for North Carolina, he joined a university with a long theatrical tradition and an increasingly strong commitment to public service.[26] There, according to his admirer Kenneth MacGowan, he “found richer materials with which to fire his writers . . . and in North Carolina, even more than in North Dakota, Koch has brought forth playwrights.”[27]

At its best, then, the regionalist movement of the 1930s promised a radical democratization of culture. Both in North Dakota and North Carolina, Koch’s theatre sought to empower local groups and communities to create their own productions and tell their own stories. By the time the Rockefeller Foundation decided to back his work in 1933, Koch had 141 students in his classes and in the academic year 1932–33 they staged no less than 52 plays written by students.[28] Stevens liked to recall that Paul Green, Betty Smith, and Thomas Wolfe all worked at one time in the theatre depart­ment at Chapel Hill with its director.[29]

As David Stevens continued his exploration of American drama, he increasingly turned to Clark for information and advice, and the emerging Rockefeller program reflected a strong partnership between the two men. Among other things, Clark and Stevens agreed that there was an unmet hunger in America for good theatre. “Last year,” Stevens reported to the Rockefeller trustees in 1934, “the Federal Office of Education listed 22,000 public schools in which dramatic activity is under direction,” and there were “something like 1,000 new plays a year published by American distributors using mail-order techniques to reach buyers.”[30] Some indication of the mass market that the amateur or local theatre might on occasion reach was provided by the sales figures of the best-selling plays listed by Samuel French and other agencies. At one publishing house a serious play, Dust of the Earth, was paying all of the publisher’s overhead, while “at a lower level of theatrical entertainment” the gripping tale of Aaron Slick of Punkin Crick had been produced 50,000 times and had sold over one million copies.[31]

While the motion pictures might be killing local stock theatres and the road companies alike, it did not follow that the demand for serious drama had declined in America. “The true index to that demand is not the number of New York performances given a new play,” Stevens observed, “but the printed copies sold and the royalties paid for its noncommercial productions.”[32] Stevens’ index measured only an aggregate demand and omitted important qualitative considerations, but it pointed to another area where the Foundation might work. Stevens’ reports to the Rockefeller trustees underscored the immense vitality of the country’s theatre and the possibilities of its market—if only good material were available. Or, as the producer Theresa Helburn put it, “One thing is sure. The theatre is only as good as its plays.”[33]

Clark was ideally positioned to help solve this problem, and in the late 1930s he proposed several imaginative projects to create or identify new material for the network of theatres he and Stevens sought to strengthen. In 1936, when Robert Sherwood and other leading playwrights created the Dramatists Play Service, Clark left the for-profit sector to become executive director of the Guild’s new service for non-profit theatres and schools.[34] Clark’s work for the Dramatists’ Guild continued to place him at the center of what we would now call intellectual property issues, and he shared Stevens’ desire to improve the quality of material available to the emerging regional and not-for-profit theatrical movement. One Foundation memo called him “the only man in his profession who is in constant touch with all amateur producers and directors of university departments of drama. Mr. Clark is evidently the man to make the preliminary search in order to locate manuscripts wanted by non-professional producers.”[35]

Amid all his professional work, Clark somehow found time to pursue his interests in theatre history. With Stevens’ enthusiastic help, beginning with a modest grant-in-aid and continuing through major grants for editing and publication expenses, Clark pursued a research project intended to expand the repertoire of available plays by locating original manuscripts and printed copies of popular nineteenth-century American plays. Armed with Rockefeller Foundation grants, Clark directed the work of a small army of editors and from 1940 to 1942, serving as the executive editor, he shepherded twenty volumes into print in the series, America’s Lost Plays.[36]

At the Dramatists Play Service, Clark devised a plan to give college, university, and other non-profit theatres access to some of the best available material at a substantial discount. Given the Guild’s prestigious membership, Clark was able to offer plays by many of the leading contemporary American playwrights, including Sherwood, Maxwell Anderson, Elmer Rice, and others. Among the plays that Clark and the Guild listed for discounts to colleges and nonprofit groups were contemporary hits such as John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Claire Boothe Luce’s The Women and the popular comedy, You Can’t Take it with You, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Stevens was delighted to connect his academic network, newly organized in a rejuvenated National Theatre Conference, with Clark’s office, and he seems to have spent much of the decade attempting to broker more partnerships between the authors’ service organization and the representatives of the colleges and community theatres. Clark’s willingness to offer an immediate reduction in the rates charged to the NTC’s membership and other nonprofit groups seemed an omen of good things to come.

Support for Individual Playwrights: the Dramatists’ Guild Fellowships

Perhaps the most significant grant the Foundation made in the late 1930s in its support of drama came in an experiment with direct support to young and unproven American playwrights. This effort, the first attempt by the Rockefeller Foundation to provide support to creative artists, began in 1938 when the Humanities division provided $25,000 (approximately $375,000 in today’s dollars) to the Authors’ League for fellowships to playwrights. Administered by the Dramatists’ Guild, one of the component societies forming the League, the plan appeared to be in the hands of the best-placed professional society.

The Guild first approached the Foundation in 1937 with its plan. Once again the key figure was Barrett Clark, and the plan took shape in the course of the continuing dialogue between Stevens and Clark. Clark first outlined his idea in a letter to Stevens in 1937, asking straightforwardly, “Would the Rockefeller Foundation care to offer to the Dramatists’ Guild (and Authors’ League—they are really the same in practice) say half a dozen scholarships, fellowships, or awards per year for one, two, three years or more?”[37] The new fellowships “should be awarded to young and unknown playwrights, in or just out of college,” selected on the basis of merit, and given with “no strings attached.” Calling the idea “of the utmost importance,” Clark proposed that the selection and administration be placed in the hands of the Guild, and he promised Stevens that if the Foundation were to back the plan, the Guild could produce “a board of judges that simply dazzles.”[38] Among the names he dropped as possible judges were Eugene O’Neill, Marc Connelly, Sidney Howard, Fannie Hurst, and George S. Kaufman. Robert Sherwood, the highly successful playwright who served as the president of the Dramatists’ Guild, wrote a fervent letter to Stevens promising the Guild’s full cooperation “at the shortest notice” if the Foundation would agree to aid it in its search for promising new talents.[39]

Clark admitted that the proposal was prompted in part by the Guild’s stance toward Theresa Helburn’s Bureau of New Plays, a competition aimed at young writers at American colleges and universities. Helburn served as executive director of the (somewhat confusingly named) Theatre Guild, an experimental theatre company founded by the entrepreneur Lawrence Langner, who hit upon the then-novel method of selling subscriptions to sustain the company. Though Langner and Helburn numbered Eugene O’Neill among their favorite playwrights, and though the Theatre Guild was committed to producing serious work on the Broadway stage, the need to sell tickets initially led the producers to favor works by established playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw. This emphasis irritated American dramatists, and Sherwood and many of the playwrights at the Dramatists’ Guild feuded bitterly with Langner and Helburn over rights and production issues. Elmer Rice, for example, resented their early commitment to British and European authors and wrote bitterly of Langner and Helburn’s Theatre Guild, telling Clark “there seems to be no good reason why I or any American playwright should ever submit a play to the [Theatre] Guild. The Guild in its entire career has done nothing whatever to encourage the American playwright nor to help foster an American drama.”[40]

When Helburn’s Bureau of New Plays accepted funds from the motion picture industry to re-grant to playwrights, Dramatists’ Guild leaders denounced the contracts offered by the Bureau as unfair to the authors. Helburn’s prizes, they claimed, served as a way for Hollywood to buy rights to cheap scripts from inexperienced authors who were signing away their future royalties.[41] (Clark gloated that at least two of the Bureau’s prize winners had renounced their awards, and he informed Stevens that those Dramatists’ Guild board members who had been working with the Bureau were resigning from the new group.) Nonetheless, it seems clear that the Bureau posed a serious competitive challenge to the Guild, and Helburn’s ability to offer new playwrights some modest funding worried the Dramatists’ Guild leaders. Clark confessed as much to Stevens by defending his plan in these terms: “This is the Guild’s opportunity, in the sense that the Guild stands for fair treatment to authors, yet it has been unable to give such material help as the picture interests could.”[42]

The grant awarded by the Foundation in 1938 called for the funds to be awarded to the Guild’s parent organization, the Authors’ League, with Dramatists’ Guild staff responsible for administering the funds and working with the selection committee and authors.[43] But the plan approved by Stevens and the Foundation made some serious alterations to Clark’s original sketch. Stevens told Clark and the Guild that he also expected a proposal from the National Theatre Conference requesting funds to re-grant as fellowships to young academics working in drama at the university level. Stevens threatened to delay consideration of the Guild proposal until he could compare the two plans, implying perhaps a threat to cut the baby—in this case, the Foundation’s limited grant money—in half. To avoid any such Solomonic compromises, the Guild quickly agreed to join forces with the National Theatre Conference and to accept two NTC candidates as fellows. These stipend recipients would travel to New York to work in the Guild’s offices. Meanwhile, the selection committee would be composed in part of academics from the National Theatre Conference membership and in part by professional or Broadway theatrical figures, including Guild members. With the exception of the two awards for the NTC fellows, the remaining fellowships would be reserved exclusively for younger playwrights who had previously demonstrated some promise by having one or more of their works produced, usually off-Broadway at a commercial theatre, but who were not yet capable of earning a living from their writing. The Guild’s formal proposal cited its experience providing emergency assistance to hard-pressed authors, noting that in its own modest relief program “the large majority of the applicants are living a hand to mouth existence and that at least half are at present not writing because they have been obliged to take temporary employment that prevents their doing so.”[44]

The experiment began bravely. An entry in David Stevens’ diary captures the initial high hopes. According to Stevens, the Executive Secretary of the Guild “says her experience shows a certainty every year of twelve to fifteen persons of first rate quality whose success may be determined by a year of support at a critical time.”[45] However, this first Rockefeller attempt to provide support for individual authors never found those 12 to 15 talents. In fact, the Dramatists’ Guild rang down the curtain itself and even returned some of the grant funds. From October 1938 to June 1941 the Guild awarded twenty fellowships, a total that includes four one-year renewals, to sixteen aspiring young playwrights. Looking at the careers of these sixteen playwrights, only one award appears to have gone to a playwright of undisputed talent whose work would continue to be staged years after the project ended. Two, as noted earlier, were given to candidates designated by the National Theatre Conference who were expected, it seems, to spend more time gaining professional and administrative experience than writing plays. (Interestingly, these two choices—George Milton Savage of the University of Washington and Betty Smith from the University of North Carolina—actually did write numerous, though hardly memorable plays. Smith, later famous as the author of the novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, earned some income from her playwriting, while Savage would go on to write over 70 plays and have a long career as a theatre educator at the University of Washington.)

Given the terms of the Guild’s proposal, the remaining fellowships, with perhaps a few exceptions—notably for the African-American playwright Theodore Browne (Natural Man)—could hardly be called even qualified successes. Putting aside the two NTC administrative awards, of the remaining fellowship recipients chosen for their ability as authors, the Rockefeller files identify only three who succeeded in getting their new manuscripts accepted by any theatre for even a trial production. Although Browne’s work was staged by both the Federal Theatre project in Seattle and in a New York theatre, and continues to attract scholarly attention, neither the play he wrote for the Dramatists’ Guild program or that of any of the other Rockefeller Playwriting Fellows received any extended theatrical production during the life of the grant.[46]

Consequently, David Stevens did not hesitate to rate this program a failed experiment. “In spite of this success in part,” his official evaluation of 1942 observed, “the plan has not resulted as hoped in establishing a method of encouraging young playwrights on the second lap toward arrival in the professional theatre.”[47] His final evaluation placed the blame for the experiment’s failure squarely on the Dramatists’ Guild and its selection committee. For its part, the Guild also pronounced the experiment a failure, laying the blame on a supposed paucity of new dramatists. “The committee was surprised to find out that there were so few capable new writers,” the Guild’s executive officer Luise Sillcox wrote to Stevens.[48] The Guild’s report explained its decision to return some Foundation grant because “the committee was not convinced that the awards were going to produce results.”[49]

A Failed Project?

Clearly, as this summary demonstrates, there was a well-thought out philanthropic program whose individual grants connected to one another, sometimes in intricate ways. But if there was a strategy, was there success? While admirable, Stevens’ attempts to expand the repertoire available to college and university theatre departments and other nonprofit or amateur groups met a number of setbacks. The weak sales for Clark’s twenty-volume scholarly edition of American plays perhaps indicates that the hunger for such plays was largely among a small group of theatre historians rather than active theatre directors. Moreover, the partnership between Clark’s Dramatists Play Service and the National Theatre Conference did not succeed immediately in reducing the costs of obtaining rights to the works of the popular dramatists represented by the Guild. As Clark admitted to Stevens, by the end of the decade, not one play had been sold at the non-profit rate because the NTC members had not bought sufficient quantities to trigger the discount. Clark explained to Stevens that “we agreed to make a 25 per cent royalty reduction on certain plays, provided we received a minimum number of requests through the N.T.C. To date, we have received on not one of these titles anywhere near the required minimum.”[50]

All three of Clark’s most imaginative ideas—the discounting scheme, America’s Lost Plays, and the Rockefeller/Dramatists’ Guild Playwriting Fellowships—failed to expand the repertoire for amateur and regional theatres. And judged by its stated goal – identifying promising playwrights with work ready for the commercial stage—the playwriting fellowships seemed a disappointing experiment that clearly had failed.

At least two Rockefeller insiders judged the entire program in drama a failure. Raymond B. Fosdick, who served as president of the Foundation during this period and who had been one of the most influential trustees directing the shift in priorities in the 1930s, thought the humanities program had not gone far enough in freeing itself from traditional academic scholarship and in reaching out to a broader public. Writing in retirement, Fosdick confessed, “We followed academic patterns although we understood in our hearts the wide gap between academic conceptions and the common life of man.”[51]

More damningly, Stevens’ lieutenant, associate director John Marshall, later told an oral history interviewer that the “work in drama by the Rockefeller Foundation accomplished relatively little” in either the development of the theatre or playwrights.[52] Stevens, Marshall thought, was far too cautious and “felt he needed to be protected in this field by confining his recommendations” to college and university drama departments and community theatres. For Marshall, this proved to be a fatal flaw, as “this restriction doomed us to work with people I regarded as rather mediocre.”[53] The leading lights of the regional movement left him unimpressed. Marshall thought Frederick Koch “something of a ham” and he also dismissed the work of the Pulitzer Prize winning author and dramatist Paul Green.[54]

Marshall’s most telling criticisms, however, pointed beyond Stevens to the general culture of organized philanthropy: The Rockefeller Foundation itself was too averse to risk taking. This attitude, driven in equal parts by the Foundation’s own conservatism and David Stevens’ academic orientation left Marshall chafing under the limitations of the program in the late 1930s. “I was always somewhat unhappy about this, and given to reminding Stevens that the theatre had its real life on the professional stage,” he later recalled.[55] Marshall’s criticism owed much to his own strong desire to see the Foundation embrace the creative arts and offer support directly to artists. When invited by Stevens to critique the existing program in preparation for a report to the trustees, Marshall wrote, “If we take the arts seriously as a means of communicating what the culture offers that may be of value to the individual, perhaps this is the weakest point in our record.”[56] Stevens saw the force of this objection, and his answer may be found in the finished report. Discussing the RF’s on-going work in radio, communication, and drama, Stevens contrasted the varying roles of the reporter, the critic, and the creative artist. “If we have done less here [i.e., in the arts] than in the less difficult fields of communication and interpretation, it is because judicious help for the artist is harder to provide than for the reporter and critic.”[57] For Stevens and many other foundation officials and trustees, the experiment simply demonstrated that fellowships for individual artists might be a poor way to subsidize the arts.

The Foundation’s cautious approach also reflected an ambivalence about support for individual artists found surprisingly even within the ranks of the Dramatists’ Guild and among other established theatre professionals. Harold Clurman, the artistic director of the Group Theatre, wrote approvingly to Stevens after his discovery that “three of the playwrights in whom the Group Theatre is especially interested have been given your assistance in the way of grants for continued creative work.” In the same breath, however, Clurman confided, “Generally, I am pessimistic about awards given to artists, as so often inferior people manage to be chosen and good people to be neglected, but I am happy in this instance, and it is true of last year’s awards as well, good things have happened to the right people.”[58]

Even Barrett Clark voiced some skepticism about the desirability of philanthropic support for authors and playwrights. “The giving of personal subsidies,” he thought, limiting his remarks to the creative arts, “should be based on rather more facts than we now have, and those who give such subsidies ought, in my opinion, to know somewhat more definitely than they do just how these subsidies work and to what extent they succeed in helping.” Clark proposed that the Foundation commission a detailed study of 100 fellowship recipients from various organizations to determine “to what extent such help has proved effective or otherwise.”[59]

Although these attitudes may have colored the evaluation of the experiment, it nevertheless remains true that the Dramatists’ Guild project failed to produce theatrical work ready for full-scale production. Given the criteria of the project, success would have been possible only if the young playwrights had had time to smooth out the rough spots in their plays and work at length on the staging with directors. In this sense, the experiment ran into the bleak realities of Broadway and professional theatres in the late 1930s, where there was little time or money to expend on uncertain new work, a situation made even more difficult with the advent of war.

At the same time a more in-depth look at the Dramatists’ Guild Fellowship calls into question the sharp black or white dichotomy of “success” and “failure.” First, it can be argued—as Stevens did in his evaluation—that even grants to those playwrights who were not endowed with genius paid some small dividends. While most of these writers are of little interest today as dramatists, it is essential to note that many did pursue successful careers. In addition to George Milton Savage and Betty Smith, several—Ramon Naya, Ben Simkhovich, Arnold Sundgaard, George Corey—were deemed by experienced producers to have talent. Another, Ettore Rella, wrote drama in verse and served the field by translating foreign works for American audiences.[60] Finally, in judging the merits of this scheme, it must be borne in mind that the program was experimental in the best sense of that word: grants for unproven talent are among the most difficult exercises to evaluate that foundations can undertake.

With these caveats in mind, a look at the work of three playwrights whose works received trial productions suggests a different standard for evaluating fellowships to creative writers. George Corey, one of these aspiring playwrights, actually got his Broadway debut through the Experimental Theatre, a production that Corey credited the RF award with obtaining for him. His play, with the ill-omened title “Not in Our Stars,” closed after a short run. Corey admitted that his play lacked something vital that not even the short trial period could supply. Nonetheless, in the proud author’s judgment the play “contained excellent material and met with most of the requirements of a good play.” Yet correcting its defects for the stage had eluded him. Until the Rockefeller-Dramatists’ Guild fellowship came, “the task was a hopeless one, for that which the play needed could only come when the author himself could see with his own eyes and hear with his own ears the play’s theatrical weaknesses.”[61] Despite this rather damning admission, Corey credited himself with a good start in the first act, but “my shortcomings as a craftsman boomeranged in the fatal third act.”[62] His critics, however, were not so kind. Even the two acts the young playwright regarded as satisfactory failed to please New York critics. One critic complained of a “long, clumsy and faltering first act,”[63] while another thought the entire play “can do with considerable rewriting, especially in its third act.” This latter critic added, “It might save Mr. Corey future disappointment if he were to toss it into a trunk and start another play.”[64]

Despite the unanimous verdict that the play was a failure, some of his critics detected promise in Corey’s work. One review hailed “a genuine playwrighting talent”[65] and even his harshest critic took care to sprinkle some compliments. This latter critic [Burns Mantle] clearly understood the purposes of the experiment, and while he dismissed the Guild project as an effort to create “synthetic or test-tube drama,” he nonetheless called Corey “a promising dramatist” and conceded that, given its goals, the experiment “may quite reasonably get him an assignment, either to write other plays, or to submit such other plays as he has already written to those producers of plays and pictures who are continually yelling for them.”[66] This prediction proved accurate as Corey did not use this experience to forge a career on Broadway, instead becoming a successful screen writer.

If Corey’s first-person story of his dashed hopes seems tinged with pathos, it may well have been representative. Two other RF-Guild fellows fared hardly better. One news story disclosed that a new play by Theodore Browne would get only one more night at another New York theatre before it too would be closed. A third fellowship recipient, whose work had been intended for the New York stage, was instead given a trial run in Boston, but there too his production closed after only a brief run.

In the case of Theodore Browne, the judgment by producers and the Dramatists’ Guild may have ended a promising career. Browne, the only African-American author selected for this program, was one of only a handful of Negro playwrights working professionally in the 1930s and 1940s, and according to theatre historian Doris Abramson, of these few he was indisputably one who “had something to say, cared passionately to say it, and had talent that could be trained to that end.”[67] Although Browne became identified with the American Negro Theatre (ANT) in New York, he first achieved some success as part of the New Deal’s Federal Theatre project in Seattle. While working on the West Coast, Browne adapted Lysistrata for the Negro unit of the Federal theatre, setting it in an African context. During this time he wrote an original play, Go Down, Moses to dramatize the life of Harriet Tubman. Finally, Browne’s Natural Man, a creative re-working of the John Henry legend, built upon his success in Seattle and prompted calls for a staging in New York where theatres in Harlem, as well as stages downtown, clamored for new material aimed at black audiences.

Critical reaction to Browne’s work at the time was largely favorable, and he remains of interest to scholars and practitioners in African-American drama. One of the founders of the American Negro Theatre judged Natural Man to be the “best and most significant play” of all those presented by the ANT in its short-lived inaugural season.[68] Browne’s production for the ANT was also the first of its productions to be reviewed in the mainstream press, though Brooks Atkinson faulted Natural Man for its sketchy script. More recently, Quita Craig has credited Browne with writing a multi-layered work that can be read on the surface as the re-telling of the familiar story and more deeply as a work communicating in a specifically black idiom, whose political overtones audiences would have understood as the playwright “completed the transformation of the ‘brute Negro’ into a black revolutionary hero.”[69] Despite the producers’ intention to revive the production later in 1941, the resources for a specifically African-American theatre dried up quickly along with the larger federal theatre project. Browne never got another chance to stage his work and although he seems to have been exactly the type of talent the Rockefeller project aimed at identifying and promoting, his career as a playwright never recovered from this early cancellation.

A third fellowship recipient, whose work had been intended for the New York stage, was instead given a trial run in Boston, but there too his production was closed after a brief run. Like George Corey, this playwright left an account of his trials and tribulations, and again like Corey, he credited the fellowship with giving him the vital opportunity to see first-hand the problems of translating stage directions into a workable theatrical piece. “Probably no man has ever written for the theatre with less foreknowledge of it,” the young author confessed, adding, “As rehearsals progressed it became more and more apparent that if nothing else needed fixing, the ending of the play certainly did.”[70]

The third act did prove to be the fatal flaw, but not entirely in the sense the author meant. In addition to the development of the plot, the play also experienced a number of production problems. Although the play was set in the South, the producers chose a British director who had never been there and who was more familiar with Shakespeare than Faulkner. Fears that Boston’s legendary censors might also take offense at the script also proved well-founded, even if the actual changes came long after opening night. But in the end the flaws in the script were upstaged spectacularly in the third act by the production’s technical crew. The climax of the play called for a fire to destroy the little country store where the action was set, but in rehearsal the smoke pots used to simulate a fire produced only some very unconvincing wisps of smoke. On opening night the production literally increased its fire power, and theatre patrons in the first rows were soon gasping for breath and fleeing the theatre.[71]

Despite this staging fiasco, the critics were surprisingly kind. A critic writing for the Boston Post described the evening as “the maddest night of melodrama” and wondered in print whether “the happenings on stage were not the aftermath of the glorious celebration in the imaginative brain of a genius who celebrated gaily but a little too well and was removed for quiet to that famous ward at the Bellevue Hospital.” [72] The play, Battle of Angels, ran for two troubled weeks but never recovered from the opening night debacle, and perhaps needless to add, never received its New York production. However, as we know, the playwright, who had taken to signing his works as Tennessee Williams, went on to much bigger and better things.

Although Tennessee Williams conceded that Battle of Angels did not work for the stage, he also left accounts that suggest the Rockefeller grant was indeed a defining episode in his career.[73] The financial support came at a crucial juncture in his career, and Williams’ notebooks, early essays and later memoirs all point to the same conclusion: the recognition by the Rockefeller Foundation was of decisive importance for the transformation of the awkward Thomas Lanier Williams into the flamboyant Tennessee Williams. At the same time, too much should not be claimed for the grant, as the desire to write was deeply embedded in the young playwright. In his first account of the Boston production, Williams wrote, “My conversion to the theatre arrived as mysteriously as those impulses that enter the flesh at puberty. Suddenly I found that I had a stage inside me.” Williams recognized the theatre as his vocation, adding that he had been writing since he was 12, and concluded, “for me there was no other medium that was even relatively satisfactory.”[74]

Given this deep-seated need to write and to write specifically for the stage, no one could seriously argue that young Tom Williams would have failed to develop into a writer and a playwright had the Rockefeller Foundation/Dramatists’ Guild program not provided him money. But the Rockefeller grant clearly did mean something important to the aspiring young playwright. The Rockefeller money enabled him to move to New York and begin the career he dreamed of—though at $100 a month, Williams soon had to take another job to stay there. Years later, when he wrote his autobiography, his first ten pages were devoted to this prize and to the sense of triumph it gave the struggling young writer. Williams recounts with evident pleasure the fact that all of the daily newspapers in St. Louis interviewed him. His father, with whom he had waged an epic battle for respect, was now forced to concede that his fay son had some talent after all.[75]

If it seems clear that at least some of the fellowship recipients had genuine talent, why did the RF-Dramatists’ Guild project collapse in such disarray? It seems clear that both the Foundation and the Guild had serious reservations about the desirability of providing direct support to individual authors, and the failure of all but a handful of the fellowship recipients to get their work produced even for a trial run must have confirmed both organizations in their skepticism about support for individual writers. At the Rockefeller Foundation, at least, it appears that this experiment colored internal discussions about the arts for years to come. However much John Marshall may have wanted to see the Foundation offer support to composers, playwrights, and creative writers, the immediate result of the Dramatists’ Guild experiment was to make this type of support less likely.

Yet the premises on which this experiment was based were not entirely unrealistic as the experience of more recent playwriting schemes demonstrates. A comparison with contemporary experiments in identifying new plays, such as the Fund for New American Plays or the Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, is instructive.[76] Initiated by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and administered by the Kennedy Center, the Fund for New American Plays had an excellent track record in identifying talented young playwrights whose work would go on to commercial as well as critical success. (Among others, this project provided early support to such writers as Tony Kushner and Wendy Wasserstein and helped develop new work by more established writers, including August Wilson.)[77] The key difference between the Rockefeller Foundation’s experiment and these more recent projects appears to be that efforts such as the Fund for New American Plays provided financial support not only to the authors but also to the non-profit theatres that agreed to sponsor new productions. These recent ventures in playwright development depended, therefore, on nonprofit theatres whose mission and whose budgets permitted more extended development of new work.

Producers in the 1930s clearly understood this need. “Much can be done in teaching the fledgling playwright technique,” Theresa Helburn wrote, “But without the practical workshop of a tryout—of seeing the play in actual production and the shortcomings of the work, whether dramatic or structural, whether in development of convincing characters or of dialogue, whether in faulty timing or in lack of tension—the playwright simply cannot learn the basic principles of his craft.”[78] The Dramatists’ Guild’s fellowship competition for playwrights was an imaginative attempt to produce such conditions in the shadows of Broadway. Theatre directors and authors in the 1930s also understood that they needed a laboratory for new work. While the Theatre Guild and other partners attempted to set aside funds and time for experimenting, the harsh realities of recouping investments on Broadway meant that new works had to show promise immediately. “Five weeks is not long enough to prepare a complex play,” Williams complained after his effort went up in smoke. Asking rhetorically why his play had to be cast, rehearsed and rewritten in such a short time, Williams wrote tersely, “Answer: Money.”[79]

While the Rockefeller Foundation may have been well-equipped to supply that need, it was less successful addressing another and no less real problem: in the 1930s there was no strong organizational framework in either the professional or the nonprofit theatres to mount sustained experimental work. No Foundation grant could remedy that absence quickly. Casting about for an alternative, one writer from the period could see few avenues other than those already identified by Clark and Stevens. “It appears that the universities and their theatres are the most hopeful places to look for such a new wave of creativeness,” Irving Pichel wrote in 1936.[80]

A careful consideration of the evidence, then, suggests that David Stevens and the Rockefeller Foundation were not wrong, as Stevens’ colleagues later maintained, to look to the university drama departments and community theatres for future leaders or to offer grants to strengthen emerging regional playhouses. If the Rockefeller Foundation failed to find a way to link the commercial New York theatre that Marshall hailed with the emerging regional centers that Clark championed, it must be quickly noted that this chasm has never been easy to bridge. Stevens’ support for the leading university programs of the day provided crucial support during the depression for a generation of young theatre professionals, while the for-profit status of most of the Broadway theatrical organizations would have ruled them out as grantees of the Foundation. The appeal of the plan that Clark and the Dramatists’ Guild crafted came precisely because it promised to provide opportunities for all sectors of the theatrical community.

If the Rockefeller Foundation proved adept in supporting universities and community theatres, it clearly stumbled over the problem posed by individual artists as the Dramatists’ Guild fellowships painfully illustrates. Yet, a project that sets free the talents of a Tennessee Williams poses some interesting questions about this first, halting effort to promote individual talent in the arts. Even though all the contemporaries, including Williams, regarded the RF/Dramatists’ Guild fellowship project as a failure, must historians join in this chorus? In retrospect, it seems worth asking whether an experiment that gave validation to one of the greatest dramatists of the twentieth century really should be deemed a failure at all. Perhaps one genius among 20 grantees is not such a bad percentage for any philanthropic foundation willing to take risks to advance the arts. Seen from a vantage point decades later the experiment illustrates a paradox in philanthropic support for the arts: sometimes a foundation or patron’s greatest success, like that of all creative artists, comes only when they are willing to fail repeatedly first.

Malcolm Richardson is an independent scholar who has written on American philanthropy, support for the arts and the humanities, and international cultural exchanges. Over a long career he has worked for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Before completing graduate studies at Duke University, he worked briefly as the drama and film critic for the Memphis Commercial Appeal.


[1] The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers whose comments helped improve and shape the presentation of this paper’s argument.

[2] Andrea Olmstead, Juilliard: A History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999). Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, The Politics of Knowledge: The Carnegie Corporation, Philanthropy and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 99-122, offers a brief overview of Carnegie’s support for the arts. Abigail Deutsch, “Investing in America’s Cultural Education,” Carnegie Reporter 6, no.1 (Fall, 2010): 16-25 describes the best-known Carnegie programs in arts and music education. Although her work does not examine Carnegie arts programs in detail, Patricia L. Rosenfield, A World of Giving: Carnegie Corporation of New York—A Century of International Philanthropy (New York: Public Affairs, 2014) provides the most comprehensive look at the Carnegie Corporation’s leadership and grant-making strategies.

[3] On those efforts see Richard Schechner, “Ford, Rockefeller and Theatre,” in The Tulane Drama Review 10, no.1 (Autumn, 1965): 23-49.

[4] Report of the Committee on Appraisal and Plan, Rockefeller Foundation records at the Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 3: series 900, box 22, folder 170.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Raymond B. Fosdick, The Story of the Rockefeller Foundation (New York: Harper & Row, 1952), 241. Fosdick, who wrote much of the trustee committee’s report, elaborated on this thinking after he became president of the Foundation in 1936: “The conquest of illiteracy, the development of school facilities, the rise of public libraries and museums, the flood of books, the invention of the radio and the moving picture, the surge of new ideas—and, above all, perhaps, the extension of leisure, once the privilege of the few—are giving culture in our age a broader base than earlier generations have known.” This quote also from The Story of the Rockefeller Foundation, 241.

[7] William J. Buxton, ed., Patronizing the Public: American Philanthropy’s Transformation of Culture, Communication and the Humanities (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2009).

[8] See Fosdick, Story of the Rockefeller Foundation, 237-51, for an overview.

[9] James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[10] David H. Stevens, Memorandum: “Program in the Humanities,” March 1934, Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 3, series 911, box 2, folder 9.

[11] “The Humanities in Theory and Practice,” 31 March 1937, Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 3, series 911, box.2, folder 10.

[12] Ibid.

[13] William J. Buxton, “RF Support for Non-Professional Drama, 1933-1950,” Research Reports from the Rockefeller Archive Center (Spring, 1999), 1-5. Stephen D. Berwind, “Raising the Curtain: Rockefeller Support for the American Theatre,” in Angels in the American Theatre: Patrons, Patronage, and Philanthropy, ed. Robert A. Schanke (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007), 225-41, comes in only during the second act, so to speak, by focusing on post-1945 developments. The essay by Julia L. Foulkes, “‘The Weakest Point in Our Record’: Philanthropic Support of Dance and the Arts,” in Patronizing the Public: American Philanthropy’s Transformation of Culture, Communication and the Humanities, ed. William Buxton (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2009) is also valuable on the development of Rockefeller Foundation arts grants.

[14] Jeffrey Ullom, America’s First Regional Theatre: The Cleveland Play House and Its Search for a Home (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[15] Barrett H. Clark, “West of Broadway,” New York Times, 27 October 1935.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. Later RF documents captured this definition by substituting “non-commercial” for “non-professional” theatres.

[19] “Playwright and Theatre,” in Our Theatre Today, ed. Herschel L. Bricker (New York: Samuel L. French, 1936), 175.

[20] However, he conceded, “True, I have yet to see anything there as finished as the Moscow Art Theatre, the Theatre Guild at its best, or the best productions of such directors as Arthur Hopkins or Jed Harris.” “West of Broadway,” New York Times, 27 October 1935.

[21] Clark report, 7. Appended to letter to Stevens, 25 February 1935, Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 1.1, series 200, box 210, folder 2513.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “Program in the Humanities,” dated “March, 1934,” record group 3, series 911, box 2, folder 9.

[24] Hallie Flanagan, Arena: History of the Federal Theatre Project (New York: Limelight Editions, 1985 reprint); and Joanne Bentley, Hallie Flanagan: A Life in the American Theatre (New York: Knopf, 1988).

[25] “The New Program in the Humanities,” 10 April 1935, Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 3, series 911, box 2, folder 10.

[26] See Archibald Henderson, ed., Pioneering a People’s Theatre (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1945).

[27] MacGowan, Footlights Across America (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929), 209.

[28] Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report, 1933, 329.

[29] Stevens, A Time of Humanities: Recollections of David H. Stevens as Director in the Division of Humanities, Rockefeller Foundation, 1930-1950 (Madison: Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, 1976), Robert H. Yahnke, ed., 82-83.

[30] Stevens, “Program in the Humanities,” March 1934.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Theresa Helburn, A Wayward Quest: The Autobiography of Theresa Helburn (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960), 97.

[34] On Sherwood’s leadership of the Guild, see Harriet Hyman Alonso, Robert E. Sherwood: The Playwright in Peace and War (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), 195-6.

[35] “Detail of Information,” attached to the signed authorization for the grant-in-aid, 4 March 1936, Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 1.1, series 200, box 210, folder 2513.

[36] The series, originally published by Princeton University Press, was reprinted as Barrett H. Clark, General Editor, America’s Lost Plays (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963-65), 20 volumes.

[37] Clark to Stevens, 5 February 1937, Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 1.1, series 200R, box 210, folder 2519.

[38] Ibid. Most of the proposed judges were members of the Guild’s board.

[39] Robert E. Sherwood to David H. Stevens, 24 December 1937. Rockefeller Archive Center in record group 1.1, series 200 R, box 210, folder 2519.

[40] Quoted in C.W.E. Bigsby, A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama, 1900-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), vol. I, 130.

[41] Ibid. The split between the authors and producers is well-documented in Bigsby A Critical Introduction.

[42] Clark to Stevens, 5 February 1937, Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 1.1, series 200R, box 210, folder 2519.

[43] The administrative arrangements are spelled out in a letter from Luise Sillcox, the Treasurer of the Authors’ League of America and Executive Secretary of the Dramatists’ Guild, to David Stevens, 9 March 1938, Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 1.1, series 200R, box 210, folder 2519.

[44] Luise Sillcox to David Stevens, 9 March 1938. This letter, a separate document on Dramatists’ Guild stationery, served as the formal proposal. It too is found in Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 1.1, series 200R, box.210, folder 2519.

[45] David H. Stevens, diary entry for 10 January 1938, summarizing visit by Clark and Luise Sillcox, Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 1.1, series 200R, box 210, folder 2519.

[46] Although the files and reports mention only three productions, I found that at least two other Dramatists’ Guild Fellowship recipients––Ramon Naya and Alexander Greendale—received productions either during or shortly after the grant period. Greendale’s drama, Walk into My Parlor, even played at a Broadway theater for 29 performances in late 1941. Gerald Bordman, American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1930-1969 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 208. On the off-Broadway production in 1942 of Naya’s Mexican Mural, see the account by director Robert Lewis, Slings and Arrows: Theater in My Life (New York: Stein and Day, 1984), 132-4.

[47] Stevens’ evaluation, “Appraisal of RF 38053 to the Authors’ League of America,” 11 February 1942, Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 1.1, series 200R, box 211, folder 2521.

[48] Sillcox to Stevens, 24 February 1942, Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 1.1, series 200R, box 211, folder 2521.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Clark to Stevens, 8 March 1939, Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 1.1, series 200R, box 210, folder 2515.

[51] Fosdick to Francis Hackett, 31 January 1952. Papers of Raymond B. Fosdick, Princeton University Library manuscripts collection.

[52] “The Reminiscences of John Marshall,” an oral history memoir in the Oral History Collection, Columbia University, and in the Rockefeller Archive Center, 213. Hereafter cited as Marshall, Reminiscences.

[53] Marshall, Reminiscences, 208.

[54] Ibid., 208-9.

[55] Ibid., 208.

[56] John Marshall to David H. Stevens, Memorandum titled “DHS’ Draft Review of Humanities Program,” 19 June 1939 Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 3, series 911, box 1, folder 2.

[57] “The Humanities Program of the Rockefeller Foundation: A Review of the Period from 1934 to 1939,” 22, Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 3, series 911, box 2, folder 11.

[58] Harold Clurman to David H. Stevens, 2 January 1940, Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 1.1, series 200, box 211, folder 2520.

[59] Clark to Stevens, 28 June 1939, Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 1.1, series 200R, box 210, folder 2515.

[60] In addition to those listed here and the three discussed in detail in this article, the remaining fellows were Leopold Atlas, Alis de Sola, Alladine Bell, Caroline Francke, Alexander Greendale, David Howard, and Noel Houston.

[61] Corey’s first person account was published in the New York Times, 27 April 1941. (This and other clippings found in Rockefeller Archive Center, record group 1.1, series 200R, box 211, folder 2522).

[62] Ibid.

[63] John Anderson, New York Journal American, 28 April 1941.

[64] Burns Mantle, New York News, 26 April 1941

[65] Christian Science Monitor, 26 April 1941.

[66] Mantle, New York News, 26 April 1941.

[67] Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre, 1925-1959 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 156.

[68] Ibid.

[69] E. Quita Craig, Black Drama of the Federal Theatre Era: Beyond the Formal Horizons (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), 47.

[70] “The History of a Play,” in “Battle of Angels: A Play by Tennessee Williams, with a note on the play by Margaret Webster and an account of its production in the City of Boston by the author,” Pharos 1&2 (Spring, 1945): 110.

[71] Ibid. His most recent biographer concludes, “If ever the professional debut of a major playwright was a greater fiasco, history does not record it.” John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (New York: Norton, 2014), 25. Lahr follows Williams’ account (16-28). Also useful are the accounts in: Claudia Wilsch Case, “Inventing Tennessee Williams: The Theatre Guild and His First Professional Production,” in The Tennessee Williams Annual Review 8 (2006): 51-71; and Milly S. Barringer, “Battle of Angels: Margaret Webster Directs Tennessee Williams,” Journal of American Drama and Theatre 4 (Winter, 1992): 63-77.

[72] Unsigned review [Elliott Porter?] “Miriam Hopkins at the Wilbur,” Boston Post, 31 December 1940.

[73] In his notebook, Williams wrote “I wait! For the Fates’ decision. I mean the Rockefeller Fellowship Committee’s. It seems a last chance of escape. . . . I dare not think what it will be if this last, wild hope is snatched away from me.” Tennessee Williams, Notebooks, edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 167.

[74] Williams, “The History of a Play,” 110.

[75]Williams, Memoirs (New York: New Directions, 2006). See also, Donald Spoto, The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985).

[76] Jeffrey Ullom, The Humana Festival: the History of New Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008) provides an excellent overview of this venture.

[77] Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a good summary of the Fund for New American Plays. The only overview appears to be The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, “History of the Fund for New American Plays,” at http://www.kennedy-center.org/programs/theater/fnap/history.html (accessed 29 September 2015). See also, The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, Report to the President (Washington, 1992), reprinted in Journal of Arts Management and Law 23, no. 1 (1993) and Backstage, 20 February 2001.

[78] Helburn, A Wayward Quest, 254.

[79] Williams, “History of a Play,” 117.

[80] Irving Pichel, “The Present Day Theatre,” in Our Theatre Today: A Composite Handbook on the Arts, Craft, and Management of the Contemporary Theatre, ed. Herschel L. Bricker (New York: Samuel French, 1936), 152.


“West of Broadway: the Rockefeller Foundation and American Theatre in the 1930s” by Malcolm Richardson

ISNN 2376-4236

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 27, Number 3 (Fall 2015)
©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Editorial Board:

Co-Editors: Naomi J. Stubbs and James F. Wilson
Advisory Editor: David Savran
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve

Editorial Staff:

Managing Editor: Jim Bredeson
Editorial Assistant: Kyueun Kim

Advisory Board:

Michael Y. Bennett
Kevin Byrne
Bill Demastes
Jorge Huerta
Amy E. Hughes
Esther Kim Lee
Kim Marra
Beth Osborne
Jordan Schildcrout
Robert Vorlicky
Maurya Wickstrom
Stacy Wolf

Table of Contents:

  • “Twisting the Dandy: The Transformation of the Blackface Dandy in Early American Theatre” by Benjamin Miller
  • “West of Broadway: the Rockefeller Foundation and American Theatre in the 1930s” by Malcolm Richardson
  • “Arthur Miller: Reception and Influence in China” by Wu Wenquan, Chen Li, and Zhu Qinjuan


Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The Graduate Center CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue
New York NY 10016

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *