“The Spirit of the Thing is All”: The Federal Theatre’s Staging of Medieval Drama in the Los Angeles Religious Community

by Russell Stone
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 35, Number 1 (Fall 2022)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

As the Federal Theatre Project fell under the scrutiny of Congressional investigations in its final months, National Director Hallie Flanagan relied on the significant show of public support from America’s religious communities to demonstrate the value of the Project in locally meaningful terms. When Flanagan was allowed to testify before the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities in December 1938, she cited nearly a hundred religious organizations of various faiths that had pledged their appreciation for the Federal Theatre. When asked if the Project had produced any plays that were “antireligious in nature,” she responded that the Federal Theatre had staged more religious plays than any group in the country, including church performances for Christmas programming in Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities. [1] She even asserted that although the Federal Theatre’s primary purpose was to entertain its audience, it also offered plays that “must also and can also often teach” and are capable of “inculcat[ing] religious principles.”[2] That last point had proven especially effective in winning over the country’s religious communities, whose assurances of the Federal Theatre’s value for their congregations were sent to Flanagan’s office, her regional bureaus, and the Un-American Activities committee itself. In the weeks and months ahead, as the House Subcommittee on Appropriations, chaired by Representative Clifton Woodrum (D-VA), began its own investigation to decide funding of the federal arts programs, members arguing to maintain or to defund the Federal Theatre agreed that it had won impressive support among the religious community.

This support was founded less on the artistic merits of producing, among their other offerings, obscure medieval drama—an argument that both Representatives and WPA Director Colonel F.C. Harrington made during the debate—than on the spiritual impact of the plays that religious leaders so valued for their congregations.[3]

The extent of this support attested, too, to Flanagan’s efforts since the previous year to engage the religious community in the Federal Theatre across its several regional offices. In response to Flanagan’s call for the Federal Theatre to stage drama within the community via partnerships with churches, schools, and clubs, one of her most prolific directors was Gareth Hughes, who had been assigned to lead a religious unit when the Los Angeles Project opened in December 1935.[4] A Welsh-born, promising stage actor in New York in the 1910s, a silent film star in the following decade, and an itinerant theatre player after the advent of the talkies, he had largely disappeared from the public eye before the Federal Theatre came to Los Angeles. In the Project headquarters, he spoke to newspaper reporters of the fulfillment that he found in training and collaborating with younger actors. The press wrote of his ability to recite any line of Shakespeare, his attention to his younger colleagues trying their hand at historical drama, and “his kindness that is not sentimental, his love for the theatre, [and] his enthusiasm that has awakened and stimulated his actors.”[5]

Over the next three years, these qualities would allow Hughes to become an effective advocate for Flanagan’s vision of bringing the Project into public arenas. Creating a traveling unit that brought medieval and early modern drama to community venues, Hughes adapted religious plays as pieces to be acted in churches as an extension of, and complement to, the liturgy.[6] He founded his two signature plays for the Los Angeles Project, The Nativity and Everyman, on engagement with church congregations as audience-participants, humanizing the play’s characters to foster empathy with this audience, and emphasizing the Christian tenets imbedded in the plays.[7] Through these strategies, Hughes established a production model of staging the plays within Los Angeles churches that fulfilled his personal agenda for the Project, responded to Flanagan’s call for regional offices to offer performances in collaboration with their local religious communities, and provided a line of defense against the Federal Theatre’s detractors, who perpetuated the groundless rumors that the Project had been infiltrated by Communists and was thus a government-funded, subversive enterprise. Rejecting these rumors, Hughes promoted it as a vehicle for realizing Flanagan’s vision among the smallest of audiences, especially within schools and churches. In the latter, his handling of The Nativity and Everyman as liturgical performances convinced the Los Angeles religious community that the Federal Theatre might be welcomed as a partner not merely for providing entertainment but even for augmenting the act of worship. Neighborhood by neighborhood, in its second largest market, his success in sacred venues won local support for the Project and in turn provided Flanagan with a valid, but ultimately futile, argument for the religious value of the Project in the escalating national debate over funding the Federal Theatre.

Establishing an Audience for Religious Drama in Los Angeles

Flanagan’s success in identifying an audience for the Federal Theatre, and Hughes’s particular success in appealing to the religious community in Los Angeles, relied on an ongoing reconsideration of staging Project plays. It has been well documented that the Federal Theatre’s chief audiences were those who had not previously seen live drama, and perhaps could not have afforded to do so, and those whose primary entertainment was provided by cinemas and radio programming.[8]

By mid-1937, the Project had successfully drawn these working class audiences to its performances. In Los Angeles, the second largest Federal Theatre market behind New York, over a quarter of those attending Project performances self-identified as trade or office workers.[9] According to audience surveys, a spring run of The Merchant of Venice at the Hollywood Playhouse (featuring Hughes as Shylock) was also seen by a number of teachers, students, and housewives.[10] Soon thereafter, however, Flanagan announced her intention to reverse the model of attracting audiences to commercial houses rented by the Federal Theatre; rather, she wanted also to bring the Federal Theatre to the community and stage productions within public venues.

Having founded the Project on an assurance of quality of plays,talent and the promise of live drama that would be at once entertaining, artistic, didactic, and capable of imparting an appreciation for the theatre among audiences unaccustomed to it, Flanagan wrote to her regional directors that in 1938 the Federal Theatre would have an opportunity for “growing up.”[11] She first called for an expansion of the Project beyond the commercial houses that it rented to host its productions and beyond urban areas into both rural and communal spaces, especially those that served the poor. By September 1937, the Federal Theatre had staged over 37,000 shows in parks, hospitals, schools, Civilian Conservation Corps camps for workers on relief, and public and private clubs across the country. Soon after, Flanagan began to consider how to establish permanent touring groups to stage productions in smaller cities and towns.[12]

A key stakeholder in this expansion beyond commercial houses would be the religious community,  who acknowledged the reciprocal benefits of staging religious drama and extensive Christmas programming that would bring live drama to a wider audience but would win the Project public support in turn. While her regional directors received suggestions for pieces of broad appeal, Flanagan’s more ambitious vision was to stage in select cities the late medieval mystery cycles, and the civic pageants staged to enact biblical history from the Creation to the Ascension. Frustrated at the scant amount of productions in the holiday season of 1936, she remarked to her regional directors that religious drama would offer the Project some defense against the “irate clergymen [who] storm into the office and accuse me of being anti-Christ.”[13] Then, into fall 1937, she encouraged them again to bring the holidays “into the community” by cooperating with local choirs and singing groups, churches, schools, orphanages, and homes for the elderly, broadcasting Christmas productions over the radio, and staging them at public venues.[14]

In adopting this model, Federal Theatre officials had an extensive catalog of religious plays from which to choose. The Bureau of Research and Publication was charged with researching possible plays for production, and as they compiled lists of Greek and Roman, British, European, and American plays before and since 1895, staff members solicited recommendations from both Christian and Jewish organizations.[15] Religious leaders had assisted in local planning for the Project since its inception.  As for Christmas programming, the Bureau published annotated lists of their suggested medieval and early modern religious plays. Among these pieces, the texts of miracle and mystery plays had only been made widely available in modern critical editions in the previous fifty years or so, and they had only been performed for modern audiences for just over thirty. It would be another two decades before scholarship into the plays began in earnest, and American theatre professionals were largely ignorant of medieval pieces that had not been rendered into modern English for stage performance.[16] Nor, however, were they subject to the controversies that had hindered productions of the mystery and morality plays among the previous generation, owing especially to the restrictions on the portrayal of God well into the twentieth century.[17]  For example, in 1901, the English actor William Poel was able to stage the first modern production of Everyman, because it was largely unknown to censors in the Lord Chamberlains’ Office, which still enforced sixteenth-century laws against portraying the deity and “confining the limitless and potent God to the body of an actor, to his mortal gestures and mimicry.” [18] One of Poel’s actor-managers then brought the production to New York, where its presentation of religious material was legally permitted but still controversial for an audience largely ignorant of medieval drama.[19] Nonetheless, Everyman toured across eastern and midwestern cities for two years, suggesting an interest among American audiences that would support the production of similar plays in subsequent years.[20]

The lack of formal censorship of religious material in the American theatre gradually allowed directors to more freely explore mystery and morality plays, which became increasingly popular through the 1910s as academic pieces suitable for both lectures and performances informed by the antiquarian sensibilities of Poel and his successors.[21] In the 1920s and 1930s, the reception of medieval drama diverged on either side of the Atlantic. In England, the Religious Drama Society, guided by a principle of “solemnity, simplicity, and sincerity,” performed biblical-themed pieces in churches and schools, and in the former they were allowed to portray divine characters, opened with prayers for the congregation, and anonymized their casts of players, all techniques that Hughes employed in Los Angeles.[22] In America,however, university campuses became popular venues for outdoor productions devoid of such liturgical elements.[23] This model evoked the origins of medieval drama as a public art to be staged within the community rather than on the professional stage, but it did not allow for the spiritual reflection encouraged by the Religious Drama Society in their church performances.[24]

A memo circulating from the Federal Theatre’s Bureau of Research and Publication through Project offices recognized, however, that the primary challenge in staging these plays remained their inaccessibility. It encouraged directors that:

Carefully studied scripts could be prepared, with business written in to interpret the characters, the lines and the action, with judicious cuttings and rearrangements of scenes, and even (though most rarely) with some word substitutions for obsolete or slang words. . . . Unlike the garbled actors’ versions of some of the plays, now in existence, the prepared scripts would give the playwright a production nearer to the original text; and the play itself would seem better on the stage than in the reading room of the library. Along with the revised play, suggestions could be made for the simplest kind of production that would allow the director to concentrate entirely upon the nature of the play.[25]

To further encourage the performance of these plays, the Bureau issued a separate report on the universal appeal of their characters and themes. The authors noted, for example, that Herod in The Nativity was a particularly attractive character, long played as a boisterous hypocrite who rants and raves about his own kingly authority being usurped by the Christ child before he is dragged off to Hell. The Deluge, a comedic narrative of Noah and his wife, “should be rollicking and perhaps burlesqued a little . . . [and was] exceedingly interesting as a humanization of a Biblical story.”[26] Everyman had a certain thematic appeal (“the troubled spirit of man and the trials and tribulations common to most of us”) and that, given its potential to evoke reflection and pathos among the audience, was likewise ideal for the holiday season.[27] These observations suggest a concern for making the characters relatable and appealing to the audience through the allegorical narrative of human life from a state of sin to one of grace that is especially apparent in the morality plays.[28] Robert S. Sturges has argued that these plays served as “mediators between theater and religion,” in that they exhorted the audience to adhere to a virtuous, faith-based lifestyle, in contrast to the various representations onstage of villainous and transgressive behavior.[29] The didactic aspects of the plays have lent them a certain timelessness, as have the characters who populate them.[30] Although the presentation of Christ as both human and God and the “ultimately imitable” figure is central to the cycles, through the mix of comedic (e.g., Noah and Joseph) and bombastic (e.g., Herod) characters, the plays successfully mingle “sacred and profane” themes and figures, and humanize their narratives by emphasizing the traits and emotions of their large casts of characters.[31]

Who the audience for the plays might be, however, took time for Project administrators to figure out. As the second largest Federal Theatre branch office after New York, both in terms of staffing and potential theatre-goers, Los Angeles was an ideal city in which to establish community partnerships and to stage pre-modern drama. Enjoying a uniquely deep pool of talent once employed in the film industry, the Los Angeles Project experimented with a wide range of genres and venues. During its first two years, it was largely distinguished by its success in drawing audiences back to the long-shuttered commercial houses rented by local administrators in Hollywood and downtown.[32] Staging medieval and early modern drama was initially left to academic-minded, veteran actors (including Hughes) through “Project 6,” a cooperative venture with the University of Southern California to stage pieces by Molière, the Jacobean duo Beaumont and Fletcher, and Shakespeare on campus in the spring of 1936.[33] Within a year, the Los Angeles Project was regularly able to sell out its five commercial houses, and whereas the productions at USC were staged for free for students and faculty, admission was charged for the shows in Hollywood and downtown, and revenue was allocated for paying rent for the theatres there.[34]

When Los Angeles administrators first assigned Hughes to produce medieval religious drama during Christmas week of 1936, they selected the Mayan, one of these downtown houses that they had revitalized. Leading a hybrid classical and religious drama troupe, Hughes himself adapted from the York, Coventry, Chester, and Wakefield cycles two pieces, The Nativity and The Deluge. He also modernized a mumming play entitled St George and the Dragon and selected the music to accompany each of the plays. In the playbill, Hughes explained that he had followed the model of Tudor scribes who sought to reinvigorate Biblical plays written three centuries before their time and six centuries before his own.[35] Despite his careful attention to staging the plays, the Christmas run of 1936 would be the only time that he directed in one of the Los Angeles or Hollywood theatres that the Project rented. Whether or not the plays appealed to a ticket-buying audience in a commercial venue must have been a question to consider, but having drawn academic audiences to USC with “Project 6” productions, Hughes may have realized the relative inaccessibility of medieval drama (compared to Shakespeare) for the general public. In the director’s report filed to Project headquarters, he included a negative review from the Los Angeles Evening News, in which the critic noted that the plays may attract those few people interested in the history of drama but did not offer much entertainment value, and he admitted the actors’ difficulty in pronouncing the archaic words of the script. Hughes suggested in the same report that the religious plays were better suited for churches, schools, and libraries, where he encouraged Project officials to stage the plays each December.[36] They evidently heeded his advice, and in the following year his unit was given the opportunity to perform medieval and early modern drama in just these sorts of public venues in Los Angeles.

The Nativity at St John’s (December 1937)

Hughes dedicated himself in 1937 to responding to Flanagan’s call for Federal Theatre directors to stage plays in partnership with the community. Away from the commercial houses, he became an ambassador for the Project and a negotiator with civic, private, and religious clubs and organizations for booking performances of The Nativity for the holiday season. Although he occasionally had to convince the city’s religious leaders that the Federal Theatre was not a Communist organization, Hughes fostered personal relationships in the community that assuaged any political concerns about the national project.[37] As he wrote to Flanagan:

As for the clergy, they are elated, and as I have said for two years, we have sorely needed a little unit like this—we have stressed the social drama too much, and too little attention paid to things spiritual. I am so happy in it all dear Ms. Flanagan especially now that I feel your co-operation and enthusiasm. I will do anything for you and it matters not a damn whether I get 94 or 175 dollars a month. The spirit of the thing is all.[38]

His strategy for creating a sustainable audience for medieval drama within the religious community was threefold. No longer playing at commercial theatres, he re-created his troupe as a traveling one that would perform on location; he staged the plays not as mere entertainment but as performances that would complement the liturgy for the congregation-audience; and he revised his productions to make church leaders and members hosts, audiences, and participants. In several houses of worship, he convinced priests and ministers to participate in the performance. Having the clergy dress in costume and reading the Banns adapted from the Chester cycle (the prologue announcing the theme of the plays), lead a procession of the actors, and even read a speech on the Federal Theatre in their Sunday services before that week’s performance all helped Hughes to gain support from church leaders.[39] Widening his network through letters, meetings, and word of mouth, Hughes led his troupe in staging twelve performances of The Nativity in churches or church-sponsored organizations of multiple denominations that December.

Hughes’s production decisions in staging The Nativity in these venues are evident in the multiple copies of script (his second adaptation, after the version performed at the Mayan) that he meticulously annotated for himself and others and in the detailed, descriptive letters that he sent Flanagan after each performance. Although he routinely categorized the letters as director’s reports, they were colored by his emotions and frustrations in convincing local churches to host his troupe, his attention to movement and music, and his effusive praise for Flanagan’s vision of community engagement. The signature performance of The Nativity that season was at St John’s, an Episcopalian church in the West Adams district, where Hughes’s troupe played on the invitation of the church’s dean and rector. A photograph of the opening procession that he included in a letter to Flanagan captures the scope of involvement from both Federal Theatre personnel and church members. Hughes carried a cross through the front doors and led the St John’s children and adult choirs alongside that of the Federal Music Project, while a second crucifer bore the Jerusalem cross (the medieval design of a large central cross surrounded by four smaller ones) ahead of the cast of the play and various extras recruited from the congregation. In all, one hundred and ten people from the church and the Federal Theatre and Music Projects passed along the nave to the high altar carrying all manner of props and liturgical items. Cast members brought banners representing various guilds to recall the medieval origins of the play, torches, and tapers, choir members held lanterns on poles, someone in the long line held up an ornamental star of Bethlehem to be used for the manger scene, and the pipe organist behind the altar and trumpeters following Hughes signaled the processional’s arrival. In a copy of the script that he annotated for the church’s dean, he made clear his intent for the congregation to participate. Hughes relied on “O Come All Ye Faithful” as the opening hymn, but the dean was to ask the congregation to stand and sing as well, and once the procession concluded, he was to provide the opening remarks describing the play’s subject and themes.[40]

Hughes’s opening of the play at the Mayan the previous December sheds light on how considerably his production evolved in relocating from the commercial theatre to local churches. In the script for his first adaptation of The Nativity, Hughes notes that the play was to begin with a Federal Music Project choir marching from the lobby and up the aisles on either side of the audience.[41] Singing “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,” they strode towards the lower of the theater’s two stages before exiting left and right while singing from offstage. Two actors dressed as friars and bearing lit tapers soon followed up the aisles. As the curtains of the lower stage opened, the friars stepped up to light the two candelabra there and placed oversized folios on two lecterns placed next to them. While the choir concluded the opening hymn, the friars stepped back to allow the audience to read the large, black and red scripts on the folios: “Nativity of the Child” on the left, and “Hail, Mary” on the right. A trumpet call signaled another actor to step through the curtains of the upper stage, and proclaiming himself as the prophet Isaiah, he announced the subject of the drama to come. The roles of cast members and spectators were firmly established: the one moves towards the stage while performing, and the other remains fixed in their seats as passive observers. In St John’s, however, the distinction between the two was not so rigid. Members of the church choir joined the procession, congregants sang and listened to their own church leader act in character, and continuous movement created an intimate performance space.

While in the Mayan, he had relied on these lower and upper stages as the focal points of the main action for his audience, in St John’s he made use of the larger, intricately partitioned space to continuously shift his audience’s attention. In his final director’s report for the Los Angeles office, Hughes noted that because of the constant challenge of restaging the play in cramped settings during the December run, he relied on portable screens to provide a backdrop for his cast.[42] In St John’s, however, he seems to have made strategic use of the interior of the church. As he described to Flanagan in a letter the next morning, his actors recited their abbreviated lines or pantomimed the narrative from multiple spots in imitation of the figures portrayed in the stained glass images of the stations of the cross. Hughes based his usual role of Gabriel on Edward Burne-Jones’s rendition of the Annunciation, and with long blonde hair capped by a halo and a flowing white robe layered with gold trim and embroidered with a pattern of crosses at the hem, he stood still with his hands raised as if in prayer. Mary, inspired by Botticelli’s Venus, stood on the altar with one hand towards her chest and another drawing her garments close and looked askance from the crowd.[43] He reserved the high altar as a stage for the most important, solemn scenes of the play, including the “Magnificat,” the hymn to Mary that concludes the Annunciation. Remaining still until the choir sang the first words of the hymn, “my soul doth magnify the Lord,” Hughes slowly turned away from the actress who portrayed Mary, stepped down from the altar, and along the nave. When he exited through the atrium at the front of the cathedral, behind the view of the spectators, twelve girls and boys entered and retraced his steps towards the altar and knelt at the rail where parishioners normally took communion. They then arose in unison and returned to either side of the transept, their exit timed to the closing words of the Magnificat, “glory to the Father and to the Son, / and to the Holy Spirit: / As it was in the beginning, / is now, and will be for ever. Amen.”[44]

This careful, methodical choreography of scenes with Mary, Joseph, and Gabriel was disrupted by Herod, the antagonist and comic foil of the play. As Hughes wrote in the explanatory notes that he distributed to the audience for performances of The Nativity, the role of Herod had a long and colorful history of buffoonery, involving yelling, rolling around, lashing out against his sentries, and the generally brutish and exaggerated behavior that inspired Hamlet’s line on actors who could “out-Herod Herod.” As a modern adaptor of the play, Hughes explained that he had inherited through the medieval cycles an especially prideful version of Herod that had developed in early English drama, and he allowed the character more depth and stage presence than any other in the play: he speaks in lengthy monologues, barks orders at his soldiers, and vacillates from bombast and outrage when he hears of the Christ child to grief over learning that his own son was killed in the Massacre of the Innocents.[45] The script annotations for The Nativity reveal the excitement that Herod immediately brings to the performance. Contrasting with the harps that announce Gabriel’s arrival in the Annunciation scene, for example, Herod enters the play cued by blaring trumpets and heralds, and his frequent tirades involved stomping in a fit of rage and shouting promises of vengeance against the Christ child. In his closing scene, as Herod learns of the death of his son, he delivers a final show of violent madness before acknowledging his life misspent and damnation. In a scene reminiscent of Faustus, Hughes noted that demons were to approach from the left and right to drag him away from the audience’s view.[46]

Immediately thereafter, Hughes restored order and calm. He noted in his copy of the script that upon Herod’s departure he himself delivered a benediction for the audience and began the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty.” At the closing words, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen,” the organ rang out the opening chords to “Christians Awake,” and the actors and extras sang the words of the eighteenth-century Yorkshire hymn, “salute the happy morn, whereon the Saviour of the world was born.”[47] He explained in his report to Flanagan that as they sang, he stepped down from the altar and led the recessional back towards the doors from which he had led the processional. Rather than the clergy and crucifers who had accompanied the director to begin the performance, he led the cast of characters, beginning with the actors portraying Mary and Joseph and concluding with those in supporting roles, along the nave to exit the cathedral. The actors left, while the congregation remained.

In the early hours of the following morning, Hughes wrote Flanagan that “it was the happiest moment of my life, carrying the great jeweled cross and leading my boys and girls up to the Throne of God.”[48] The dean of St John’s responded in precisely the manner that Hughes must have hoped for: “given with reverence and will all the atmosphere of religion, [the performance] cannot help but do good in strengthening the faith of all who see the play.”[49] This reaction was valuable for Flanagan as well. Having received such frequent and detailed correspondence from Hughes regarding his performances of The Nativity, she had been well aware of the significance of the church bookings for the play, which had already been scheduled when she arrived in California in the fall of 1937. During this second visit to the west coast, she was preoccupied with accusations of nepotism and bribery among the more disgruntled staff and talent in Los Angeles, but Hughes’s relationship with the religious community evidently brought her some peace of mind. As she recorded in her travel notes, “I am awaited upon by a delegation asking me to look into the moral life of our actors, but in spite of this one cloud in the horizon we are doing the nativity plays in the Episcopalian church.”[50] After her arrival, she attended a production of Hansel and Gretel and Pinocchio staged by the children’s troupe at the Hollywood Playhouse, where she found a small but vociferous group of protestors awaiting her in the lobby. They echoed the increasingly widespread accusation of the Federal Theatre’s support of Communism but confessed, when she attempted to have a conversation over their concerns, that none of them had attended a play produced by the Los Angeles Project. It was a moment of honesty that she quickly used to her advantage, and so with the holidays approaching, she advised them on her way out of the lobby to go see Hughes’s production of The Nativity and reassess their opinion of the Project.[51] Flanagan publicly and privately stated her appreciation for Hughes and his religious unit beginning in those final weeks of 1937. Beyond maintaining their regular correspondence, she intervened with local WPA and Project administrators to secure musical instruments for the pieces that he selected for the church performances and began to endorse the value of the unit’s work to Los Angeles religious leaders and school administrators.[52]

Everyman at St Joseph’s (September 1938)

Encouraged by the reception of The Nativity among the local religious community, Hughes turned his attention the following year to developing for the Federal Theatre what he described to Flanagan as “a real 14th[-]century production” of Everyman.[53] Unlike The Nativity, whose script he had adapted himself, the Bureau of Research and Publication provided him with a version of Everyman suitable for his desired production. In early 1936, just a few months after the Federal Theatre had been established, the Bureau had purchased the rights to a straightforward translation of Everyman newly completed by a Father Clarus Graves, a Benedictine priest and university professor from Minnesota. Hughes’s plans to stage the play came to fruition that summer, when his contact at St Joseph’s Cathedral, where he had staged The Nativity the previous December, wrote that while he looked forward to the biblical play for Christmas, he hoped, too, to host the premiere of the morality play.[54] The invitation provided Hughes with an opportunity for another signature church performance to follow the performance of The Nativity at St John’s the year before. St Joseph’s Cathedral was to celebrate that fall its Golden Jubilee, the fiftieth anniversary of the parish, and Hughes’s troupe was invited to stage their latest featured play on the opening night of the festivities in early September. As Hughes wrote to Flanagan, he considered his Federal Theatre production of Everyman as opportunity for his own redemption. Over the previous twenty years, professional productions of Everyman in Los Angeles had relied on a translation by the American poet George Sterling of the adaptation by the Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Sterling’s translation was commissioned by the Polish director Richard Ordynski, who recruited Hughes himself to play the titular role in a 1917 production at Trinity Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles. When Hughes accepted the invitation to stage Everyman at St Joseph’s, he wrote Flanagan that the version of the play used by the Project offered him a chance to return to “the glorious old original” of the text and atone for the “mess that I created in the English speaking world under Ordynske [sic]” two decades earlier.[55]

Hughes’s preference for the Federal Theatre version stemmed from its faithful treatment of the source, whereas the earlier adaptation had effectively departed from its source for an early-twentieth-century audience. The Project’s version preserved the comedic elements of the play (when a number of would-be companions find excuses to abandon Everyman) and its physical display of penance (Everyman’s self-flagellation and wearing of a sackcloth), while keeping the narrative’s focus on the main character’s emotional and spiritual progression. In the preface to his translation, on the other hand, Sterling argued that von Hofmannsthal had “vivified and humanized” a play whose performance had bored Sterling himself with its “bleak and not always intelligible passages” that necessitated the translator’s task of modernizing the text and narrative:

The appeal of ‘Everyman’ to the medieval mind must have been vast, for it was a child’s mind, and therefore one to be moved far more greatly by things seen than by things preached. But though the moral pill was deftly enough sugar-coated for the audience of those distant days, ‘Everyman’ can but seem a somewhat crude and unconvincing affair to the pampered and sophisticated public of today.[56]

Besides revising the language of the play, the von Hofmannsthal-Sterling adaptation supplemented the narrative with a fuller backstory for the protagonist, portrayed as a hedonistic young man who enjoys banquets and camaraderie, a forlorn lover who quarrels with his partner, and a headstrong son who refuses to listen to his mother’s warnings about his lifestyle. With this translation, Ordynski offered a version of Everyman that challenges the audience to empathize with the eponymous protagonist. This is largely due to the recreation of that protagonist from a universal human figure to a symbol of materialism and greed born from wealth (the von Hofmannsthal-Sterling adaptation was subtitled “The Play of the Rich Man’s Death”). The result is an Everyman that may be recognizable to the audience not as a mirror of themselves but as a portrayal of a higher social class, and so his character is removed from the allegorical intent of the medieval original.[57]

Much attention is given in Sterling’s translation to Everyman’s material world, constructed around an interpolated backstory in which we see him ordering his cooks to prepare feasts, scorning his poor neighbors seeking alms, constructing a pleasure garden, courting his lover, and lording over his estate. Contemporary reviews of the production comment on the staging of elaborate scenes to display this opulence in the first half of the play.[58] Appropriately amongst this setting, Everyman is a hedonistic landowner who admires his opulence and sermonizes on the power of material wealth to elevate a man’s status above others: “Money lifts the world above/All mean exchange and barter,” he explains to a friend, “and each man/In his own sphere is as a lesser God.”[59] In the second half of the play, when Everyman should repent this previously sinful behavior, the von Hofmannsthal-Sterling adaptation is oddly ambiguous. It is the protagonist’s newfound sense of morality that strengthens Good Deeds and sets up the resolution of the play, but empathy of the poor and the field workers, the men whom Everyman had previously scorned but who now take pity on him. Such a reaction is not so easy for the audience. Given Everyman’s arrogance and petulance as the titular “rich man,” he can equally be cast as the object of  their empathy as well, the intent of the morality play as a genre, or desire to see him punished and stripped of the material possessions that he flaunts, a reaction made possible by the modern revision of the play. Both receptions rely on the moral caveat that even one who is socially and financially superior to the audience will suffer the same fate.

Nearly twenty years later, in September, 1936, the von Hofmannsthal-Sterling adaptation of the play served as the script for another, far more ambitious Los Angeles production.[60] Daily features in the Los Angeles Times hinted at the extravagant staging of the play by the Danish director and actor Johannes Poulsen at the Hollywood Bowl, where Everyman was billed as “the greatest spectacle ever offered in Hollywood” and “an epic of humanity, with comedy, drama, thrills, and throbs,” Poulsen’s Everyman presented three spaces to the audience.[61] Golden-painted gates opened to reveal heaven erected on a platform high above the stage, where a queen presided over an angelic court, a medieval village housed the initial scenes, in which Everyman surrounds himself with friends and entertainment, and a glimmering Byzantine cathedral towered above the audience’s gaze. The cathedral served as Everyman’s initial destination, the place to which he follows Good Deeds before continuing to heaven above, and it rested upon a series of steps representing the progression of history before the late medieval composition of Everyman – presumably a suggestion of the passage of time and universal nature of mortality that the protagonist must accept, as well as the triumph of Christianity. Poulsen had conceived of his adaptation of Everyman as a festival play that would be produced as if it were a motion picture, especially in its elaborate costume, lighting, ballet numbers, and the musical accompaniment provided by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. On the opening night, red flares lined the streets surrounding the venue, and multiple spotlights drew attention to the seating area, where Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and a host of celebrities from the entertainment industry and civic leaders arrived along a red, velvet carpet leading to their choice seats near the stage, beneath Poulsen’s monumental settings.[62]

As the Federal Theatre Bureau of Research and Publication noted, Everyman relies not on spectacle but emotional investment from the audience. The structure of the text, beginning with God’s lament and subsequent summoning of Death to fetch Everyman, ensures that this audience is privy to a divine plan of which the protagonist is ignorant and so allows them to scoff at his futile attempts to evade his own mortality.[63] As the narrative progresses, they must be encouraged to empathize with Everyman, respond to his sorrowful displays of emotion when he is abandoned by his friends, and take heed of his willingness to adhere to Knowledge and Good Deeds, who advise him towards redemption. Through this empathy, Everyman as a morality play relies on the assumption that an audience would be motivated to receive the protagonist as an exemplar of the human condition and reject the behavior represented by those who would lead them astray.[64] Poulsen’s handling of this adaptation suggests an exaggerated notion of what John McKinnell underscores as a central aspect of staging Everyman: ensuring that the audience becomes distracted by the revelry of the protagonist’s hedonism earlier in the narrative to the point that they forget his transgressions and thus the pending return of Death at the play’s end.[65] It is reasonable to assume that the more the audience is entertained by sights and sounds on stage, the more they forget about this overarching structure of the play that begins with God’s anger and disappointment in humanity and concludes with Everyman foreswearing all of the worldly entertainments presented to the audience.

However, compelling the audience to do so also threatens to undermine the crucial dramatic irony of Everyman, reliant upon the audience’s knowledge of, and the protagonist’s ignorance of, the roles of God and Death. In the original narrative, any distraction offered by mundane entertainments is abruptly removed for the second half. Everyman finds himself abandoned not only by his friends but eventually, too, by the allegorical representations of his physical and intellectual qualities (Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits), a moment that also has the potential to surprise the audience.[66] In Poulsen’s staging of the play, those mundane entertainments never leave the stage, for they are intended to captivate the audience for the duration of the production, rather than for Everyman alone as evidence of his distraction from spiritual matters in the first half of the narrative. This intent to unceasingly stimulate the audience with the trappings of set design, costume, dance numbers, and lighting was Poulsen’s own, directorial interpolation, an edifice of spectacle built onto the textual additions already offered by von Hoffmansthal and Sterling. In that, he was effective. As a Times critic commented on the experience of viewing the play, “that such magic of stage craft were possible no one would ever dream.”[67]

Although Hughes had particular ideas about how his production might appear before the audience in a church setting, his focus remained on the spiritual message of the play’s narrative. In his director’s report for the Los Angeles office, he wrote of the same challenges and resolutions of staging Everyman as he had faced in staging The Nativity the year before. The venues were too small, he could never get quite the number of Federal Music Project performers that he needed, and he relied again on large screens to serve as a portable backdrop, since many venues lacked a proper stage.[68] As he had done the previous December, Hughes described many of his staging details to Flanagan in frequent letters written after each performance. To complement the simplicity of the script in the Graves translation and make the best use of the churches where his troupe performed, Hughes relied on careful positioning of his actors and props to focus the audience’s attention.[69] He again insisted on carefully choreographed movement in performing the play. When the other characters approached and departed from Everyman and thus away from the audience’s attention, the staging resembled a processional, and it has been argued that keeping the protagonist fixed amidst this deliberate, minimal movement emphasizes his isolation.[70] As he had done in St John’s, Hughes had his actors otherwise stand in “stained glass attitudes” in St. Joseph’s, a stage direction indicating that they were to deliver their lines in tableau-vivant poses reminiscent of the figures in the cathedral’s windows and stations of the cross, and rely on physical gestures and exaggerated emotions.[71]

Perhaps anticipating his audience’s lack of familiarity with the play, he also relied on embroidered titles (e.g., “Good Deeds,” “Strengthe”) across his actors’ costumes to identify the allegorical figures, as captured in photographs that he included with his director’s report for the Los Angeles office.[72] The primary characters were distinguished by these labels and their costumes: Good Deeds wore a halo, Knowledge wore a crown, and Death appeared in dark flowing robes and a veil that covered his face. As he had done just over twenty years ago on his first visit to Los Angeles, Hughes played the titular role, wearing a variegated, ornate Elizabethan costume for the majority of the play and plain white robes for the last moments, as the character prepares himself for death. Standing in place and relying on gesticulations and exaggerated manners to convey emotion, the actors remained before screens painted to resemble wood paneling, which the art director had borrowed from Federal Theatre productions of Shakespearean plays.

Whereas Everyman and the allegorical figures thus relied on movement and posturing within various areas of the church interior, Hughes kept another visual cue in the play fixed in a central location. Death is the only other constant presence in the play besides Everyman, and the Federal Theatre script calls for him to remain in place immediately after he enters the play. As Everyman opens, a messenger explains to the audience its primary themes (the transitory nature of life and the futility of sinful behavior), and the figure of God laments that humanity has devoted itself to sin and pleasure, a perverted state of the world that elicits disappointment and anger. “I hoped well that Everyman/In my glory should make his mansion,” he begins, but observes that in their hedonism and negligence of divine mercy, those collectively termed “Everyman” must be met with justice, and so he summons Death to begin the action of the play.[73] From the first lines of the play, the audience is thus made aware that death is the only outcome of the play, emphasized by the fact that the character does not leave the audience’s view.[74] Death is summoned to serve as both messenger and audience, and while he interacts with the protagonist in their dialogue early in the play, in Hughes’s staging, Death remained fixed before the front of the congregation, a passive viewer of Everyman’s vain attempts to evade the mortality of which he is a harbinger.[75] Along with the audience, Death waits to see not merely when the protagonist will die but how he will do so: that is, whether or not Everyman will earn his redemption in time, a suspense that he exaggerates by placing an hour glass and lit candle on a table in the center of the audience’s view.

The script also noted that the characters and the audience might track Everyman’s progress through the Book of Life, an inventory of his good and bad deeds that an angel places on the same table and a prop to which Death and Good Deeds are occasionally prompted to point as a reminder of man’s selfish, overly indulgent past. Everyman, too, is aware of the presence of Death and the book. In begging his family to accompany him on his dreaded journey, his cue is to look over his shoulder at the ominous figure and explain that “I must give a reckoning straight/For I have a great enemy, that hath me in wait.”[76] In examining the book with Good Deeds, he further calls the audience’s attention to the book by crying out that “for one letter here I cannot see” on the side of the ledger meant to record his acts of kindness and charity.[77] When Knowledge and Confession instruct him how to scourge his body of its sinfulness by whipping himself and dressing in sackcloth and how to pray to God for mercy, he finds his “accounts” are balanced in the book and is ready for the act of sacrament and unction offered by a priest. By the last moments of the play, Everyman, having atoned for his past transgressions and seeking the purification offered by Knowledge and Confession, looks towards the audience and delivers a reflective monologue that addresses those watching him:

Methinketh, alas, that I must be gone;

To make my reckoning and my debts pay,

For I see my time is nigh spent away.

Take example, all ye that this do hear or see,

How they that I loved best do forsake me,

Except my GOOD-DEEDS that bideth truly.[78]

As he moves towards a mock grave, he appeals to God for mercy, motivated not by fear for what the afterlife may hold for him but by the faith that he now articulates in his maker: “In manus tuas” (“in your hands”), he states, “commendo spiritum meum” (“I entrust my spirit”).[79] At this moment, Hughes had his musicians ring a bell that, as he wrote Flanagan, he bought out of pocket, because its toll suited the solemnity of playing the morality play in a cathedral and reminded him of the church bells he heard knell while walking one evening in the medieval Bavarian town of Rothenberg.[80] In the director’s report, he noted, too, that Handel’s “Dead March” from Saul would accompany Everyman’s descent into his grave.[81] Finally, at Everyman’s final words, the script prompts Death to extinguish the candle to signal the end of his mortal life, while Knowledge explains to the audience that the protagonist was successful in his journey to heaven and greeted by angels, given voice by the choir’s chanting.

In Hughes’s handling of the play, Everyman is thus portrayed as the embodiment of sinful but ultimately pensive humanity, rather than an individual wealthy man whose atonement is sudden and unconvincing. He is not quite an innocent or passive victim, for the play suggests that he has lived life according to his own terms before Death’s arrival, but neither is he an arrogant figure whose redemption can be called into question, as he had been presented in the von Hoffmanstahl-Sterling adaptation.[82] The Federal Theatre script underscores the qualities of Everyman that compel the audience to associate themselves with him: when confronted by Death, he seems ignorant of his own mortality, and after realizing that he cannot bribe his adversary, he quickly realizes that his fate is not merely the act of dying but of dying without having recorded many good deeds in his book of recompense (“my writing is full unready,” he explains to Death, as a bell tolls and the book remains in full view).[83] From the moment the two meet, Everyman acknowledges his isolation, and although his subsequent abandonment by the allegorical representations of both his material wealth and his physical senses (Beauty, Strength, and Five Wits) is hardly a surprise for the audience or the character himself, the emotional impact of these scenes is still poignant.[84] When Everyman cannot compel the latter group of figures to enter the grave with him at the play’s end, he addresses the audience, per the script’s direction, to explain, “how they that I loved best do forsake me,” except for Good Deeds, who carries his book of reckoning into the grave.[85] Hughes’s Everyman also shows a justified range of emotions. He is understandably afraid at the unexpected arrival of Death, he is hurt by the rejection of his companions, and he earnestly seeks to understand how to get to heaven, once Good Deeds, Knowledge, and Confession explain how to do so. Under Hughes’s direction, Everyman presented its title character as an archetype of the human condition that was especially suited to a church performance: beginning the play in sin, he concludes it in a state of grace, a maturation of the character that provides an exemplum for the audience.[86]

New Audiences for Religious Drama

Following the performance, Hughes added Everyman to his troupe’s repertoire for local high schools and colleges. Applying the same model to Los Angeles school administrators as that which he had established within the religious community, he wrote letters, held meetings with educators, and attended charity events where he was asked to speak on Flanagan and the Federal Theatre. His troupe frequently performed scenes from Shakespearean plays (often The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, and Hamlet) for high schools and charitable organizations, and Everyman served as a feature play for the drama department at Los Angeles City College a few weeks after the performance at St Joseph’s. Without a proper office for audience research (the Los Angeles branch had been closed in mid-1937), Hughes both created his own audience in the community and inspired them to provide feedback.[87] Among the thank-you notes from local clergy, principals, and faculty, none appeared in an official Federal Theatre report. Rather, these individuals wrote personal letters to Flanagan in Washington, WPA’s California offices, and Los Angeles Project headquarters.

Their letters attested to Hughes’s fulfillment of a foundational tenet of the Project to those who could not otherwise see live drama: it impacted them emotionally and intellectually. The Diocese of Los Angeles and San Diego wrote the Los Angeles Project, for example, that a performance of The Nativity for one of its impoverished neighborhoods had “brought a glimpse of beauty rare in their lives,” while a faculty member at Los Angeles City College noted that students were keenly interested in Hughes’s performance as Shylock, in that he “swung the sympathy of the audience back to a racial sympathy at the end.”[88] Flanagan replied to the college’s Department of English that she considered Hughes’s work in the community more impactful for the Project than those performances drawing large audiences downtown and in Hollywood. His traveling troupe, built within a network of churches and schools, required a resolve for which she expressed her “greatest admiration and affection.”[89] These anecdotal testimonies may have been written in support of Hughes and his troupe, but they had applications well beyond Los Angeles. By spring of 1939, when the Los Angeles Project had been largely dismantled, Hughes resigned as director of its Shakespeare and religious unit ahead of the official closure of the Federal Theatre. However, he soon found other avenues for pursuing his belief that the mystery and morality plays could still be staged as narratives embedded within the religious service and performances intended to supplement the liturgy and inspire spiritual reflection.

On 30 November 1944, just over five years after the termination of funding for the Federal Theatre, Hughes wrote Flanagan from the isolated village of Nixon, Nevada. He explained to her that he had taken up missionary work on the Paiute reservation that spanned the northern part of the state. He confided in his longtime correspondent that he found the work to be fulfilling yet lonely, and he admitted how he often reflected on the Federal Theatre, Flanagan’s leadership, and “the untimely end of our beloved project.”[90] Responding two weeks later from Smith College, Flanagan suggested that Hughes’s new career was hardly a surprise to those who knew his personality and work ethic, and when she recalled in turn their accomplishments in the Project, she was particularly thankful for his “beautiful religious plays.”[91] He became a working, if not ordained, minister, applying the role that he had begun in the Federal Theatre—an actor and director who considered himself a spiritual leader when staging medieval drama within the religious community—to the tribal community in Nevada. A reporter in Los Angeles wrote that Hughes approached his missionary work in Nevada “as though he had stepped back into the 14th century, using the patterns of teaching that inspired the early [biblical drama] of the Church,”[92] and Hughes explained to a friend that he still performed (presumably playing multiple parts) The Nativity at Christmas and Everyman during Lent.[93] As Hughes wrote of these performances, “when produced in church or theatre in a spirit of reverence and with a minimum of stage ‘business,’ these glorious little plays have unbelievable beauty, power, and exquisite poetry.”[94]

This steadfast belief that elaborate costume and staging might distract the audience from the text and the reflective, solemn experience that it offered was fundamental to Hughes’s success in the Federal Theatre. Situating performances of the medieval plays as an extension of the liturgy, he found in the religious community the opportunity to use live drama as a spiritual teaching tool for the audience. So successful were these performances during Hughes’s tenure as a Project director in Los Angeles that they ultimately provided evidence for Flanagan in her argument before the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities in December 1939. As she explained to the Committee, the Federal Theatre had proven that plays could not only entertain but even, within its religious offerings, instill spiritual values in their audiences. In the two years leading up to that testimony, Hughes had directly responded to her call for Project leaders across the country to introduce live drama beyond commercial houses and engage with religious communities, in particular. Flanagan’s original directive was not without its political aims, given that she needed religious leaders to show public support for the Project. However, Hughes relied on the mystery and morality plays to sermonize to his audience-congregation, an objective that she had not articulated in addressing her directors in 1937. In so doing, his productions of medieval religious plays helped Flanagan both realize and expand on her vision for what the Federal Theatre could accomplish at the local level.

Russell Stone is Assistant Provost for Academic Assessment at Boston University.  As a scholar of the classical tradition, he has published widely on the reception of Alexander the Great in medieval Europe.  His current research focuses on a more recent legacy of that tradition, the staging of classical and medieval drama within the Federal Theatre Project.

[1] 76 Cong. Rec. vol. 84, pt 7, 2,866–867 (1939).

[2] Ibid, 2,869.

[3] Ibid., 8,089. For the references to Everyman and The Nativity, see ibid., 7,291 and 7,372; Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives, 114 (1939).

[4] Hallie Flanagan, Arena (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1940), 276.

[5] Sanora Babb, “The Los Angeles WPA Theatre Project,” New Theatre 11, no. 6 (1936): 23.

[6] In referring to his sources for The Nativity, Hughes used the term “mystery” plays for the cycles of biblical drama, whereas the Federal Theatre Project used the term “miracle” in newspaper advertisements. As Meg Twycross, “Medieval English Theatre: Codes and Genres,” in A Companion to Medieval English Literature and Culture c.1350c.1500, ed. Peter Brown (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), 456, notes, the designation “miracle” for the genre did not remain in widespread use beyond the late Middle Ages.

[7] John R. Elliott, Jr., Playing God: Medieval Mysteries on the Modern Stage (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1989), 56, writes that the Religious Drama Society in Hughes’s native Great Britain produced religious plays in England in a similar fashion.

[8] John O’Connor, “The Federal Theatre Project’s Search for an Audience,” in Theatre for Working-Class Audiences in the United States, 18301980, ed. Bruce A. McConachie and Daniel Friedman (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985), 171, and Cecelia Moore, The Federal Theatre Project in the American South: The Carolina Playmakers and the Quest for American Drama (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2017), 9.

[9] O’Connor, “The Federal Theatre Project’s Search for an Audience,” 174.

[10] “Merchant of Venice: Audience Survey Report (Los Angeles, CA)” 14 May 1937, RG 69, Box 254, 2287303, National Archives (NA).

[11] Hallie Flanagan, “Design for the Federal Theatre’s Season: In which the director of the FTP states some plans for the year in 1938,” FTP, Series 1, Box 4, Folder 2, George Mason University Libraries (GMUL). See Bonnie Nelson Schwartz, Voices from the Federal Theatre (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 2003), xii. Hallie Flanagan, “Brief delivered by Hallie Flanagan before the Committee on Patents, House of Representatives,” 8 February 1938. Federal Theatre Project Collection (1932–1943), ML31.F44, Container 5, Library of Congress (LC), pledged that no plays “of a cheap, trivial, outworn, or vulgar nature” would be produced.

[12] Frederic H. Bair, “Educational Aspects of the Federal Theatre Project,” 12–15 September 1937, FTP, Series 1, Box 16, Folder 16, GMUL; Hallie Flanagan, “FTP Policy Board Meeting,” 12 April 1938, Hallie Flanagan (1890–1969) Papers, T-Mss 1964-002, Series 1: Federal Theatre Project, Sub-series 2: Administrative Files (1935–1939), Box 8: Administrative Files, New York Public Library Archives and Manuscripts (NYPL).

[13] Hallie Flanagan, “Talk at the Meeting of Regional Staff,” 19 August 1937. FTP, Container 962, LC.

[14] Hallie Flanagan: “The Christmas Program for the Federal Theatre – To the Regional Directors,” 14 October 1937, FTP, Container 2, LC.

[15] Katherine Clugston, “Reorganization of the Play Bureau,” September, 1936, FTP, Series 1, Box 4, Folder 15, GMUL; “Religious Letters of Commendation,” FTP, Container 1, LC.

[16] Stanley J. Kahrl, “The staging of medieval English plays,” in The Theatre of Medieval Europe: New Research in Early Drama, ed. Eckehard Simon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 130–48

[17] Katie Normington, Medieval English Drama: Performance and Spectatorship (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), 84.

[18] Sarah Beckwith, Signifying God: Social Relation and Symbolic Act in the York Corpus Christi Plays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 3. Poel still took care to have an actor read the role of God (renamed Adonai) from offstage. Susanne Rupp, “Performing Heaven: The State of Grace in Seventeenth-Century Protestant Theology,” in Performances of the Sacred in Late Medieval and Early Modern England, ed. Susanne Rupp and Tobias Doring (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), 131, argues that the prevailing theological concept behind these concerns over presenting God on stage was a sacrosanct “tension between [human] knowledge and [divine] secret [ensuring] that the fundamental difference between God and his creature is maintained.” See also Alexandra F. Johnston, “English community drama in crisis: 1535–80,” in Drama and Community: People and Plays in Medieval Europe, ed. Alan Hindley (Turnhout: Brepols, 1999), 265, for Protestant receptions of the plays’ Catholic heritage and Murray Roston, Biblical Drama in England: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day (London: Faber, 1968), 109–15, for the Puritans’ objections to the humanization of God onstage. The laws were rescinded in 1951.

[19] Elliott, Jr., Playing God, 42–62. See also Katie Normington, Modern Mysteries: Contemporary Productions of Medieval English Cycle Dramas (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2007), 24–25.

[20] Robert Potter, The English Morality Play: Origins, History and Influence of a Dramatic Tradition (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), 224.

[21] Claire Sponsler, Ritual Imports: Performing Medieval Drama in America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), 156–65. See also John Marshall, “Modern productions of medieval English plays,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, ed. Richard Beadle (Cambridge, 1994), 290.

[22] Elliott, Jr., Playing God, 57; Sponsler, Ritual Imports, 167, and Gerald Weales, Religion in Modern English Drama (Philadelphia, 1961), 111-12. There is no surviving evidence suggesting that Hughes was directly influenced by member of the Religious Drama Society, but he was likely aware of their church performances by the late-1930s. Hughes was an ardent theatre scholar, and he had kept abreast of live drama in England since his professional days in London, notably through his friendship and correspondence with Iden Payne, director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and admirer of the Federal Theatre.

[23] Sponsler, Ritual Imports, 169.

[24] Although Johnston, “English community drama in crisis: 1535–80,” 248–49, notes that the plays could be staged for any number of practical reasons (e.g., festivals, fundraising), Simon Shepherd and Peter Womack, English Drama: A Cultural History (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 11, argue that the procession of the plays through the streets of a given city was intended “to consecrate the everyday environment.”

[25] Federal Theatre Project, Play Bureau, “Suggested Repertory of Classic English Plays,” Records, RG 69, Box 348, 2385588, NA.

[26] Federal Theatre Project, Bureau of Research and Publication, “Publication Report,” Records, RG 69, Box 161, 2526405, NA.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Lawrence M. Clopper, Drama, Play, and Game: English Festive Culture in the Medieval and Early Modern Period (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 210, argues that the plays emphasize for the audience a moral interpretation of biblical history, founded on the “virtues of obedience and faith.” See, too, Christine Richardson and Jackie Johnston, Medieval Drama (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1991), 98, for the central theme of the progression from sinfulness to grace. Claire Sponsler, Drama and Resistance: Bodies, Goods, and Theatricality in Late Medieval England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 79–80, argues of the morality plays that, although this moral teaching of sin and salvation lay at the heart of the narrative, their “flamboyantly bad behavior . . . is by no means entirely subordinated to the plays’ themes of repentance.”

[29] Robert S. Sturges, The Circulation of Power in Medieval Biblical Drama: Theaters of Authority (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 136–40.

[30] Margaret Rogerson, “Medieval Mystery Plays in the Modern World: A Question of Relevance?”, The Yearbook of English Studies 43 (2013): 362, notes that the 2012 revival of the York cycle used the allegorical nature of the plays to recast the narrative of Adam and Eve through child actors, who are replaced by adults after the Fall.

[31] Christina M. Fitzgerald, The Drama of Masculinity and Medieval English Guild Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 145; David Bevington, Medieval Drama (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), 240; See Lynette R. Muir, The Biblical Drama of Medieval Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 4, and Ruth Harriett Blackburn, Biblical Drama under the Tudors (Boston: De Gruyter Mouton, 2015), 17.

[32] John Musgrove (Federal Theatre Project Research Bureau), “Theatre Buildings in Los Angeles,” Records of the Work Projects Administration (1922–1944), Records, RG 69, Box 242, 2319732, NA.

[33] Katherine T. von Blon, “Government Subsidy for Drama Seen,” Los Angeles Times, March 1, 1936, California State Library (CSL).

[34] Susan Quinn, Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times (New York: Walker & Co., 2008), 214; Stacy Claire Brightman, “The Federal Theatre Project in Los Angeles” (PhD diss., University of California, Davis, 1999), 79–80.

[35] “Program Notes Regarding the Miracle Plays,” FTP, Container 1046, LC.

[36] Production Records (“Miracle Plays”), FTP, Container 962, LC.

[37] In December, 1937, he reported to Flanagan that leaders in the local Baptist community had asked him whether the Federal Theatre supported Communism, and then in October, 1938 he notified her that certain educators among Los Angeles’s Catholic community would not host his troupe, owing to the same suspicions of the Project. See Letters, Gareth Hughes to Hallie Flanagan, December, 1937 and October, 1938, Flanagan Papers, Sub-series 1: Correspondence, Box 6: Miscellaneous A:Z (1935–1958), NYPL; Elizabeth A. Osborne, Staging the People: Community and Identity in the Federal Theatre Project (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 9.

[38] Letter, Gareth Hughes to Hallie Flanagan, 8 December 1937, Flanagan Papers, Sub-series 1, Box 6, NYPL.

[39] Letter, Gareth Hughes to Hallie Flanagan, December 1937, Flanagan Papers, Sub-series 1, Box 6, NYPL.

[40] Hughes, The Nativity, Records, RG 69, Box 306, 2315596, NA.

[41] Hughes, The Nativity, Federal Theatre Project Scripts (1935–1939), Box 8, University of Southern California Libraries Special Collections (USCL).

[42] Production Records (“The Nativity”), FTP, Container 1046, LC.

[43] Letter, Gareth Hughes to Hallie Flanagan, December, 1937, Flanagan Papers, Sub-series 1, Box 6, NYPL.

[44] All stage directions refer to the Hughes’s own annotated copy for the December, 1937 performances: Hughes, The Nativity, Records, RG 69, Box 306, NA.

[45] “Program Notes Regarding the Miracle Plays,” FTP, Container 1046, LC; See Sturges, The Circulation of Power, 55–57, and Muir, The Biblical Drama of Medieval Europe, 107.

[46] Hughes, The Nativity, Records, RG 69, Box 306, 2315596, NA.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Letter, Gareth Hughes to Hallie Flanagan, 21 December1937, Flanagan Papers, Sub-series 1, Box 6, NYPL.

[49] Letter, Gareth Hughes to Hallie Flanagan, 21 December 1937, Flanagan Papers, Sub-series 1, Box 6, NYPL.

[50] Hallie Flanagan, Travel Notes, 19 November 1937, Flanagan Papers, Sub-series 2, Box 9, NYPL.

[51] Flanagan, Arena, 284.

[52] Ibid., 257.

[53] Letter, Gareth Hughes to Hallie Flanagan, December, 1937, Flanagan Papers, Sub-series 1, Box 6, NYPL.

[54] Letter, Father William to Gareth Hughes, 28 July 1938, Flanagan Papers, Sub-series 1, Box 6, NYPL.

[55] Letter, Gareth Hughes to Hallie Flanagan, 8 August 1938, Flanagan Papers, Sub-series 1, Box 6, NYPL.

[56] George Sterling, The Play of Everyman (San Francisco: A.M. Robertson, 1917), “Preface.”

[57] Potter, The English Morality Play, 230.

[58] “Theatre Notes,” Los Angeles Herald, 8 January 1917, and  17 January 1917, CSL.

[59] Sterling, The Play of Everyman, 21.

[60] The 1917 version was republished as The California Festival Edition of the Play of Everyman (Los Angeles: The Primavera Press, 1936).

[61] Advertisement, Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1936, CSL.

[62] “‘Everyman’ Lures Society,” Los Angeles Times, 9 September 1936, CSL.

[63] Ron Tanner, “Humor in Everyman and the Middle English Morality Play,” Philological Quarterly 70 (1991): 150.

[64] Sponsler, Drama and Resistance, 80.

[65] John McKinnell, “How Might Everyman Have Been Performed?”, in Bells Chiming from the Past: Cultural and Linguistic Studies on Early English, ed. Isabel Moskowich-Spiegel and Begoña Crespo-García (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007), 129.

[66] Phoebe S. Spinrad, “The Last Temptation of Everyman,” Philological Quarterly 64, no. 2 (1985): 192.

[67] “Fire Postpones ‘Everyman,’ Show Will Go on Tonight,” Los Angeles Times, 14 September 1936, CSL.

[68] Production Report (“Everyman”), FTP, Container 1006, LC.

[69] Letter, Gareth Hughes to Hallie Flanagan, 8 August 1938, Flanagan Papers, Sub-series 1, Box 6, NYPL.

[70] Stanton B. Garner, Jr., “Theatricality in Mankind and Everyman,” Studies in Philology, 84 no. 3 (1987): 281, observes that the allegorical figures move through the play “with an almost processional simplicity”; Yeeyon Im, “The ‘Scourge of Penance’ and a ‘Garment of Sorrow’: Catholic Reforms and the Spectacle of the Passion in Everyman,” Medieval and Early Modern English Studies 24 (2016): 137–38.

[71] Letter, Gareth Hughes to Hallie Flanagan, 8 August 1938, Flanagan Papers, Sub-series 1, Box 6, NYPL. Dunbar H. Ogden, The Staging of Drama in the Medieval Church (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003), 114, argues that the physical gestures employed in church performances were rooted in the mass; in Ibid., 165, he identifies the primary emotions of awe, joy, sorrow, fear, and anger as those to be portrayed in an exaggerated fashion within the large space of a medieval cathedral.

[72] Lesley Wade Soule, “Performing the mysteries: demystification, story-telling and over-acting like the devil,” European Medieval Drama 1 (1997): 221. Leslie Thomson, “Dumb Shows in Performance on the Early Modern Stage,” Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England 29 (2016), 28, notes that the convention was maintained into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

[73] Unknown, “Everyman,” 2, FTP Scripts, Box 16, USCL.

[74] Thomas F. van Laan, “Everyman: A Structural Analysis,” PMLA 78, no. 5 (1963): 466.

[75] Thomas Willard, “Images of Mortality,” in Death in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times: The Material and Spiritual Conditions of the Culture of Death, ed. Albrecht Classen (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), 418

[76] Unknown, “Everyman,” 9, FTP Scripts, Box 16, USCL.

[77] Ibid., 14.

[78] Ibid., 24.

[79] Ibid., 25.

[80] Letter, Gareth Hughes to Hallie Flanagan, 29 August 1938, Flanagan Papers, Sub-series 1, Box 6, NYPL.

[81] Production Report (“Everyman”), FTP, Container 1006, LC.

[82] Jérome Hankins, “Staging Everyman. A ‘Dance of Life,’ or of the use of medieval drama to re-energize our contemporary stage,” Etudes Anglaises: Revue du Monde Anglophone 66 (2013): 397.

[83]Allen D. Goldhamer, “Everyman: A Dramatization of Death,” Classica et Mediaevalia 30 (1969): 589–99, posits that a key detail suggesting the protagonist’s unawareness of mortality is the fact that he does not recognize Death when the two first encounter each other.

[84] Julie Paulson, “Death’s Arrival and Everyman’s Separation,” Theatre Survey: The Journal of the American Society for Theatre Research 48 (2007): 126, argues that this awareness of isolation is thematically unique among the morality plays, which feature an allegorical battle between virtuous and sinful behavior, rather than a character’s psychological reaction to pending death; Bob Godfrey, “Everyman (Re)Considered,” European Medieval Drama 4 (2000): 165: “the personal characteristics have been adopted to make the internal conflict of Everyman more immediately poignant to the audience. Foregrounding the physical attributes in this way makes unavoidable an empathetic response to the acting of these final moments in the play.”

[85] Unknown, “Everyman,” 24, FTP Scripts, Box 16, USCL.

[86] Potter, The English Morality Play, 53–54.

[87] O’Connor, “The Federal Theatre Project’s Search for an Audience,” 173.

[88] Letter, Gertrude Peifer to Jerome Coray, 23 December 1937, Records, RG 69, 1068204, NA; Letter, Mabel L. Loop to Gareth Hughes, 22 November 1938, Flanagan Papers, Sub-series 1, Box 6, NYPL.

[89] Letters, Hallie Flanagan to O.D. Richardson, 2 December 1938 and Hallie Flanagan to Gareth Hughes, 29 November 1938, Flanagan Papers, Sub-series 1, Box 6, NYPL.

[90] Letter, Gareth Hughes to Hallie Flanagan, Undated, Flanagan Papers, Sub-series 1, Box 6, NYPL.

[91] Letter, Hallie Flanagan to Gareth Hughes, 12 December 1944, Flanagan Papers, Sub-series 1, Box 6, NYPL.

[92] “Actor Turned Minister Comes Back for Visit,” Los Angeles Times, 15 September 1952. CSL.

[93] Letter, Gareth Hughes to Charlton Laird, Undated, Gareth Hughes Papers (1925–1965), NC803, Box 1: Correspondence, University of Nevada, Reno Special Collections.

[94] Gareth Hughes, “Mediaeval Religious Drama,” The Desert Churchman, 3, no. 5 (1945), 3.

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Table of Contents:

  • Tricks, Capers, and Highway Robbery: Philadelphia Self-Enactment upon the Early Jacksonian Stage
  • The Anti-Victorianism of Victorian Revivals
  • “The Spirit of the Thing is All”: The Federal Theatre’s Staging of Medieval Drama in the Los Angeles Religious Community
  • “An Art for Which There Is as Yet No Name.” Mobile Color, Artistic Composites, Temporal Objects


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