Metropolitan Playhouse Revives a 1937 “Living Newspaper”


God issued the directive, “Let there be light.” He saw that it was good, but by the 1930s, the Federal Theatre Project didn’t entirely agree. Power—an FTP play from 1937—argues that the advent of electric light provided yet another opportunity for corporations to disadvantage the citizenry. The FTP’s Living Newspaper division assigned 25 researchers to investigate—the result: 21 brisk scenes, compiled by playwright Arthur Arent, that trace the discovery of electricity, its abuse by private companies, and the attempts of the government-controlled Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to create a more ethical system of electrical supply and distribution.

Arent defined a Living Newspaper play, somewhat clumsily, as “a dramatization of a problem, composed in greater or lesser extent of many news events, all bearing on the one subject.” To ensure that so much information made for engaging theater, Living Newspaper shows such as One-Third of a Nation (about housing) and Spirochete (about syphilis) combined seriousness with spoof. Power‘s short scenes often resemble vaudeville routines—though few vaudeville routines offer so many facts about corporate malfeasance or bother to define the term “kilowatt-hours.”

With the country once again verging on a depression, the government contemplating semi-socialist interventions, and journalists and actors more underemployed than ever, it would seem a fine time to resurrect Living Newspaper plays. The Metropolitan Playhouse’s production, directed by Mark Harborth, supports that notion. Certainly, Harborth might have done more to argue for the script’s relevance—creating further analogues between the present and the past—but the action is brisk and the cast enthusiastic. He stages the scenes with minimal fuss, crowding plenty of incident onto the Metropolitan’s diminutive stage.

If the structure and content of the play are somewhat crude, they’re also genuinely effective: By Power‘s close, I wasn’t entirely sure what the TVA was, but I knew I supported it enthusiastically. Perhaps President Obama would like to earmark some funds for the renewal of the FTP—I bet they’d write some knockout shows championing his policies. Who’s for AIG: A Tragedy, With Bonus Material?

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