Of Hallie Flanagan and Women Who Won’t Be Silent

Of Hallie Flanagan and Women Who Won’t Be Silent

by Alexis Greene

The American theater director and educator Hallie Flanagan Davis, hero of Ruth Wolff’s play Hallie, grew to womanhood during the climactic decades of American feminism’s first wave.

But the trajectory of her career evokes women’s lives at the onset of feminism’s second wave and beyond.

Born in 1890, red-haired Hallie Ferguson spent her first ten years in a South Dakota town, often staging plays in the living room with her brothers and sisters. Then her family moved to Grinnell, Iowa, and in 1911 she graduated from Grinnell College, where she majored in German and philosophy and belonged to the drama club.

Despite that education, she married college flame Murray Flanagan right after graduation and moved to St. Louis, so her husband could enter the insurance business. He worked; Hallie raised their two sons.

Only after her husband died in 1919, and she needed to support herself and her children, did Flanagan seriously pursue a career. She moved East, studied theater with George Pierce Baker at Harvard in his famous Workshop 47 and headed the Workshop’s actors group. Henry Noble MacCracken, the president of Vassar College, hired her in the early 1920s to start an experimental theater at Vassar. And in 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Flanagan to be director of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). (Roosevelt had been a Vassar trustee; Harry Hopkins, FDR’s right-hand man, had gone to Grinnell with Flanagan.)

She had remarried by now — a Vassar professor of classics named Philip Davis — but marriage no longer seemed to interfere with her ambitions. As head of the Federal Theatre Project she brought free, uncensored theater to audiences all over the country and put thousands of jobless theater artists to work. No question: the Federal Theater Project was a welcome success.

A welcome success, that is, to everyone except the United States Congress, particularly the House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities, headed by cigar-smoking, 38-year-old Texas Democrat Martin Dies Jr.

The Federal Theatre Projects’s left-wing slant, as well as Flanagan’s occasional visits to Russia to study theater, gnawed at Dies and other legislators obsessed about Communists infiltrating American society. So Dies requested that Flanagan come before his committee to answer questions about Communism in the American theater.

And that is where Ruth Wolff’s play begins.

Drawn largely from Flanagan’s 1938 testimony, the two-act “Hallie,” one of nine biographical plays in Wolff’s NOTABLE WOMEN and a Few Equally Notable Men (Broadway Play Publishing), is a taut, ironic and, at times, downright funny war-of-words between four middle-aged men and one resolute 49-year-old woman wearing a tailored suit, a stylish hat and carrying a briefcase. Other characters appear, but the play focuses on Flanagan and the men, each of whom gets his chance to grill her.

The Congressmen are comically prone to digressions and clearly uncertain about how to deal with the self-possessed lady sitting at a small table in front of them.

“I am concerned with combating un-American inactivity,” Flanagan tells Dies. “The inactivity of professional men and women who, when I took office, were on relief.”

Though she argues and defends the Federal Theatre Project, Flanagan can’t persuade her opponents that the program is not out to sabotage America, or that theater and the arts are invaluable. “[Communists] are the hidden enemy,” says Dies. “It is their job to keep their infiltration secret. The more they are invisible, the more you know they’re there.”

There will be no more funding of the Federal Theatre Project, says Dies. “We are going to get the government out of show business if it’s the last thing we do.”

It is a kind of rape, and the only thing Flanagan can do, heroically in the play’s climactic moment, is maintain that theater will last a hell of a lot longer than the Congressmen’s regressive agenda.

Any contemporary feminist will recognize that Flanagan was wrestling with a male-run system. In the world surrounding the play, Flanagan’s life and career were often at the mercy of the men she encountered. Her first husband, the president of Vassar, FDR and Hopkins, Dies’ committee — whether the men treated her favorably by bestowing jobs or disfavorably by undermining her work, this was their world to control as they saw fit.

But Flanagan did make choices and certainly spoke with a strong voice. Indeed one of the enticing aspects of Wolff’s plays — all written between 1965 and the present — is the force of her women’s voices.

These are women who will not be quiet. Hallie, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen Christina of Sweden, George Sand, Mary Shelley, Sarah Bernhardt, the second Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, the last Empress of China — they are all talkers. That’s one of the things that irritate the men in their lives. These women just will not shut up.

To be sure, the words, except for Flanagan’s and the Congressmen’s from the record, are largely Wolff’s invention. But that really doesn’t matter. Biographical drama, Wolff writes in her anthology’s fine introduction, is not narrative biography requiring documented quotes.

The torrent of language reminds us that women’s words impelled second-wave feminism. Books, articles, calls to action from public platforms — without these, where would women be today? And where will we be if we ever allow ourselves to be silenced again?

February 2, 2011

Alexis Greene writes about women and the performing arts. www.alexisgreene.com

Also see Icons, Superheroes and Fantasies a Feminist Can Love? by Linda Stein in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Also See Video: An Iconic Dancer On Her Toes After 50 Years by Ann Farmer in the Cafe