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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Flanagan, Hallie
(August 27, 1890–July 23, 1969)

—educator, playwright, and administrator of the Federal Theatre Project—was born Hallie Ferguson in Redfield, South Dakota. Although her parents suffered considerable economic hardship, both understood the value of education and pushed their daughter to reach her full potential as a woman and as an artist. She attended Grinnell College in Iowa (Class of 1911), where she befriended classmate Harry Hopkins and other future New Dealers Paul Appleby, Chester Davis, and Florence Stewart Kerr. After she lost her husband, Murray Flanagan, in 1919 and then a son in 1922, she threw herself into a career centered on the theater. She received her A.M. from Radcliffe College, then taught for a short while at Grinnell and then at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. She later married Philip Davis.

    Dedicated to developing the American theater into more than just an art form, she believed it could be a bulwark of democracy and an effective means of communication. Her innovative approach to theater as a social and political force drew both admiration and criticism. In 1926 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which she used to travel to Europe to study new theatrical methods. There Flanagan became involved in the experimental theater in the Soviet Union and was much impressed with how the medium had been used to establish a new social order. She returned to Vassar, inspired by what she had learned, and established the Vassar Experimental Theatre in 1928.

    With the onset of the Great Depression, Flanagan began to use her talents to focus attention on the plight of unemployed workers and destitute farmer In 1935 she found common ground with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in this endeavor. She and Roosevelt hoped that they could create a relief program that would also enrich the cultural life of Americans. Harry Hopkins, who was head of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), had just created Federal One, the controversial and expensive program designed to provide jobs for unemployed artists, musicians, actors, and writers. Hopkins and Flanagan had kept in touch over the years and had much in common when it came to attitudes toward relief. When he asked his old college chum if she would run the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), Flanagan accepted because she hoped that not only would she be able to ameliorate the effects of the economic crisis for theater people, but also that she would be able to create a national theater that would outlast the Depression.

    On August 27, 1936, Flanagan began the arduous task of putting thousands of people to work and at the same time realizing her artistic goals within a government bureaucracy in the midst of an economic crisis. She quickly created six theaters in New York City, established the Living Theatre, started Federal Theatre (the official magazine of the FTP), and opened a Bureau of Research and Publication.

    The FTP productions of Ethiopia, Triple A Plowed Under, Injunction Granted, Valley Forge, and One Third of a Nation brought the wrath of conservatives and accusations that the agency and its leader had been caught up in the Popular Front. In 1938 the House Un-American Activities Committee, headed by conservative Democrat Martin Dies, attacked the FTP as propagandistic and a branch of the Communist Party, and accused Flanagan of plotting a Communist takeover of the country. In addition to such attacks, disruptive labor disputes further weakened the FTP. Although Hopkins remained supportive of her work, Flanagan lost much of her earlier influence within the Roosevelt administration. The FTP lost its funding and was ended on June 30, 1939.

    Hallie Flanagan believed that government-sponsored theater could become a dynamic force in adding to the cultural wealth of the nation. The FTP, under her direction, brought live theater to about a million people each month in 40 cities and 22 states. At its peak, the FTP gave about 100 performances per day throughout the nation and provided work to unemployed actors, directors, playwrights, stagehands, and other theater people who had been forced onto the relief roll. However, even more than providing work for unemployed actors, Flanagan's work with the FTP was concerned with establishing a national theater that would bring the magic of actors on a stage to the American public.

    After the FTP closed down, Flanagan returned to Vassar, where she wrote her book, Arena. In 1941 she became dean of Smith College. After being diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, she retired in 1948 and died in 1969.
Sources The Hallie Flanagan Papers, ca. 1923–1963, are housed at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. For more on Flanagan, see Joanne Bentley, Hallie Flanagan: A Life in the American Theatre (1988); and Hal-lie Flanagan, Arena: A History of the Federal Theatre (1940; reprint 1965).
Contributor: June Hopkins

Cite as: Hopkins, June. "Flanagan, Hallie" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 17 December 2017