Is Mr. Euripides a Communist? The Federal Theatre Project's 1938 Trojan Incident


Robert Davis


On 6 December 1938, Hallie Flanagan, Director of the Federal Theatre Project, testified before the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities. The FTP, a nationwide theatre organization funded by the government, was allegedly advocating communist propaganda. This paper takes as its starting point a key moment in the hearing when Congressman Joseph Starnes grilled Flanagan on whether or not ancient Greek dramatists harbored communist sympathies. Just six months before the hearing, the FTP had produced Trojan Incident, an anti-war adaptation of Euripides’ Trojan Women, at the St. James Theatre on Broadway. By coupling populist politics with an appeal to ancient authority, Trojan Incident was a focal point for controversy among critics, Broadway producers, and politicians.

This paper uses Trojan Incident as a case study of how ideas about Greek antiquity were applied within the institution of the FTP. It begins by tracing the production history of Euripides’ Trojan Women to a transatlantic anti-war movement at the turn of the century. In particular, it focuses on how the FTP’s adaptation strategies departed from established models of Greek play production by aggressively modernizing the source material. The struggles in and out of congress over the Trojan Incident were as much about the role of government in society as about its anti-war content. Trojan Incident, and Flanagan’s subsequent testimony, held stakes beyond the fate of the arts in America. The very identity and meaning of democracy was being fought over on the Federal Theatre stage, and, consequently, in the House of Representatives.

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