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Book Review, Vol. 30 No. 2

Stage for Action: U.S. Social Activist Theatre in the 1940s

Stage for Action: U.S. Social Activist Theatre in the 1940s. Chrystyna Dail. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2016; Pp. 194.

In Stage for Action: U.S. Social Activist Theatre in the 1940s, Chrystyna Dail reveals a significant piece of theatre history and asserts its rightful place in the canon of American drama. Dail begins the book by arguing that the claim often made by theatre historians such as John Gassner that social activist theatre died in the 1930s, only to resurface in the 1960s is a false one. Engaging with Douglas McDermott’s political performance continuum, Dail contends that the group Stage for Action (SFA) created a new kind of socially conscious theatre that served as a propaganda machine for the progressive left, as well as a megaphone for civil rights, workers’ rights, the fight against fascism, and more. For Dail, SFA did more than raise awareness about these issues; it was “diligently involved in theatrical praxis,” demanding and proposing solutions to social justice problems of the day (22).

Dail breaks down her historical study of SFA clearly and concisely containing just enough cultural, political, and economic history to contextualize fully the work of SFA. Dail first offers a chronicle of its creation, arguing that SFA became a “reimagining of progressive performance, both during the War and after, and as an underappreciated model for social activist theatre in the United States” (15). Founded by four young women—Perry Miller, Donna Keath, Berilla Kerr, and Peggy Clark—SFA began as a tool to support the War effort in Europe and to bring attention to the “menace of native fascism” (33). In its brief three years, SFA amplified the voices of the some of the most radically anti-racist, anti-fascist, and pro-union thinkers of the era; was one of the earliest racially integrated theatre groups in the US; and became an integral part of Henry A. Wallace’s failed 1948 presidential campaign. Dail argues that what started as a small New York-based volunteer theatre group became the breeding ground for a multitude of progressive causes nationwide. To buttress this argument throughout the book, Dail highlights particular plays within the SFA canon that exemplify the progressive politics of the group.

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