Saturday, April 04, 2009

Power, by Arthur Arent

A Living Newspaper Revived in Alphabet City

Recently I was shocked to see a column likening Barack Obama to Mussolini. The comparison turns out to be mostly (but not entirely) in terms of economic policies, but I suspect that it is part of a political smear campaign that is desperate to erode Obama's popularity and protect the United States from real or imagined threats to the wonderful life the citizenry enjoyed during the preceding years of corporate malfeasance.

This sort of attack is not unprecedented. Look back to the Depression years in the United States, where FDR's political opponents also tried to undermine his proposals by labeling him a socialist as well as a fascist.

These days one can learn much from the lessons of the Depression—and the current Metropolitan Playhouse revival of Arthur Arent's 1937 play Power is very much like an urgent message from that part of the past.

Power was a Living Newspaper production of the WPA's Federal Theatre Project (FTP), a government program that put theater people (including Marc Blitzstein, Susan Glaspell, John Houseman, Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller, and Orson Welles) to work amidst assorted political controversies from 1935 until its disbandment in 1939. A period promotional photo for Power can be seen on the right.

A play that backs up its script with citations to books, journals, newspapers, and other sources, Power offers a series of scenes that skim over the development of the electrical power industry and then zero in on tensions regarding the development of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the FDR-era public power project that put citizens to work bringing economic development in the Southern Appalachian region. The TVA plans brought hope to the impoverished people of the region, but power companies that had neglected the area resisted the TVA as a threat to their business.

As presented by a cast of nine under the direction of Mark Harborth, Power offers us a rare opportunity to see a staging of a topical Depression-era play that its own creators might have thought would only be of ephemeral interest. As it turns out, the play's depiction of the relationship of technology, business, government, and the citizenry is especially of interest today, as Barack Obama tries to navigate the nation away from economic hard times while many of his opponents maneuver to interfere with any possible successes that might boost his political standing. The production's didacticism sometimes gets the upper hand over its entertainment value, but for the most part it still retains much of the relevance and energy that the play must have had when it was originally produced. I only wish Metropolitan Playhouse had offered more detailed program notes, but at least today we have the Internet to help us answer questions that the production raises.

Get there soon (it runs through April 12) and get there early (to have your pick of the seats) to take a journey into the past that may inform your appreciation of the present and future.

Promotional photograph by Harry Shaw for the Seattle FTP production of
Power. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

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