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Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times Hardcover – July 8, 2008

ISBN-13: 978-0802716989 ISBN-10: 0802716989 Edition: First Edition

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company; First Edition edition (July 8, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802716989
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802716989
  • Product Dimensions: 1.1 x 6.1 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,158,393 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Quinn (Marie Curie) does a superb job of recounting the rise and fall of the Federal Theatre Project, a wing of FDR's WPA meant to employ playwrights and actors while providing diversion and inspiration for Depression-ravaged Americans. Quinn shows how, under the management of the irrepressible Hallie Flanagan, the left-leaning FTP facilitated such controversial masterpieces as Triple-A Plowed Under and The Cradle Will Rock while unintentionally setting the stage for the House Un-American Activities Committee and much of the red-baiting and blacklisting of the 1940s and '50s. The Daily Worker applauded FTP projects such as a dramatization of Sinclair Lewis's antifascist novel, It Can't Happen Here. Among the actors, directors and writers sponsored by the program were John Houseman, Orson Welles, Will Geer and Meyer Levin. Experimentation thrived: Welles oversaw an all-black production of a voodoo version of Macbeth that played Broadway and toured nationwide. All of this Quinn describes eloquently and artfully, summoning a not-so-distant time when a nation bled and great artists rushed as healers into the countryside. B&w photos. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

It’s often said that politics is theater, and theater certainly is political, especially in times of extreme hardship and tumult. Quinn illuminates both sides of the coin in this energetic and adeptly detailed account of the remarkable achievements of the Federal Theatre Project, one particularly vital facet of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s altogether revolutionary Works Progress Administration. A celebrated biographer, Quinn relishes the complex temperaments of the key players, beginning with the outspoken head of the WPA, Harry Hopkins, and Hallie Flanagan, the spitfire director of Vassar College’s influential experimental theater who took on the complex, unprecedented national program and broke new sociopolitical and artistic ground. Paralleling the ravages of the Depression with daring advances onstage, Quinn tracks the rapid coalescence of each wildly controversial production, most famously Orson Welles’ “voodoo” Macbeth and The Cradle Will Rock, and charts the arc from electrifying theatrical successes to the crushing attacks of the HUAC. Much more than the sum of its fascinating parts, Quinn’s history couldn’t be timelier as we face yet another time of economic hardship. --Donna Seaman

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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This book is a real page turner.
Mark Twain
In the story of Hallie Flanagan, Susan Quinn explores a transformative movement in American theater history.
D. Weisgall
I read it in one sitting...I couldn't put it down!
Dave Feranchak

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Mary E. Mitchell on August 20, 2008
Format: Hardcover
There are writers who can give us an accurate account of a time in history, and then there are those rare and gifted ones who can take us by the hand and deliver us to the sights, sounds, politics and emotions of another time. Susan Quinn is such an author, and it is no wonder she receives starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and others for this wonderful book. Quinn's tales of Hallie Flanagan and the Federal Theatre Project are vital, colorful and immediate, almost as if you are reading their stories in today's paper. The courage and creativity of Flanagan and others participating in this great experiment are vividly portrayed. I could feel the hunger and dust of the Great Depression in my own throat. Susan Quinn's book is amazingly well-researched and full of great photos, but what makes it special is the passion with which it is written. Furious Improvisations is just right for readers seeking an inspiring, true story taken from the pages of our nation's history. I highly recommend it!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By D. Weisgall on August 21, 2008
Format: Hardcover
In the story of Hallie Flanagan, Susan Quinn explores a transformative movement in American theater history. A young widow blessed with drive and confidence and luck in love and friendship, Flanagan organized the New Deal's Federal Theatre Project. She fostered liberal ideals: theater of the people and for the people, drama that was immediate and commented on politics, that dealt with situations, including those faced by immigrants and African-Americans, that reflected the range of the American experience. Quinn's meticulous research brings the enterprise vividly to life; it achieved enormous successes, while its boldness made fatal enemies. Hallie Flanagan's project left a legacy of openness and inclusiveness that persists today; Quinn's book is an important contribution to American cultural history.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Jan Schreiber on August 19, 2008
Format: Hardcover
There are many stories of the government's response to the crisis of the depression, and even many that tell how writers were served (and how in turn they created a lasting legacy), but Susan Quinn fills an important gap by giving us the story of the federal theatre project and the lifeline it threw to actors, playwrights, directors, producers, and many others for whom the stage was everything. Focusing on the extraordinary Hallie Flanagan, who ran the project over its brief four-year lifespan, Quinn brings the characters, the politics, and the associated temperaments to life. Prominent in her engrossing story is the important effect of the program on audiences across the country, many of whom lived far from cities where plays were traditionally performed. And highly relevant to our time is the difficulty - perhaps impossibility - of balancing artistic autonomy against political sensitivities. Quinn has a delicious story to tell, and she delivers it with confidence, nuance, and panache.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Ross E. Mitchell on August 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover
It's not surprising that Marie Curie's biographer would write a scholarly and well-researched book about the WPA's Federal Theatre Project, but it was for me, a pleasant surprise to discover just how engaging Susan Quinn has made this story. I felt like I was present for the events she describes, gaining not only an understanding of the times but a genuine experience of them as well. If you're interested in art and politics, and how each influences the other, I highly recommend this book.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By S. J. Makielski on January 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
With the nation, and the whole world, wondering if we are about to repeat the Great Depression of the 1930s, Furious Improvisation gives a vivid portrayal of one effort to deal with that econimic catastrophe. The WPA provided for theater workers, including writers, actors, directors, and technicians to produce works that would otherwise fail to win an audience, or financial backing.
The Theater Project became a seedbed for many of the talents that were to dominate American theater and film in the decades to come: Orson Welles and John Houseman are but two with whom most readers would
be familiar. There was plenty of controversy about the Theater Project, with both ends of the political spectrum deeply suspicion of what was being done and why. Nonetheless, it was an exciting effort to do
"something" to help America's out-of-work artists and to respond to an unprecedented economic and political crisis. For those interested in the theater or film, the book will be a delight. For those curious about how we did
try to cope with those terrible times, and some lessons to be learned, the book is a valuable text. Well-written, witty, sharp in its characterizations, this is a book truly worth the reading.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Larry A. Portzline on September 17, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've read a lot of books about the WPA, the four "Federal One" arts programs, and the Federal Theatre Project in particular. Most of these titles are solid, historical and scholarly works, but Susan Quinn's is by far the best on the FTP. It vividly covers a wide range of facts, anecdotes and personalities, and provides a Depression-era context that the average reader will appreciate. It's quite a nice achievement -- the new "go to" book on the subject.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on January 25, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Thinking I would love the subject matter-the theatre-what I discovered was the eerie connection to how our economy got where it is today. What great value it would for the contemporary world to discover its own Hallie and a revival of the Federal Theater project.
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