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Friday, April 29, 2011

"One-Third of a Nation" at Metropolitan Playhouse

As any New Yorker knows, one of the greatest challenges of living in the city is making the rent. And it probably comes as no surprise that this has been the case for a very long time. The Metropolitan Playhouse—a wonderful, small theater company in the East Village that is dedicated to exploring the forgotten nooks and crannies of the American theatrical canon—has just started performances of the WPA-era play One-Third of a Nation, an exploration of landlords and tenants throughout New York’s history. On Sunday, May 22, we will be joining the Metropolitan for a talkback and Q&A after the 3:00 p.m. matinee. We hope you can join us for this fascinating look at New York's past.

One-Third of a Nation was written in 1938 by Arthur Arent as part of the Federal Theatre Project’s “Living Newspaper” unit. The Living Newspaper was designed to create jobs for out-of-work journalists, actors, and other theater professionals by telling stories that were “ripped from the headlines.” Their first production, Ethiopia, began rehearsals in 1936, but was never allowed to open. Government censors told them they couldn’t depict living people—like Italian dictator Benito Mussolini—and the production was scrapped. Their next work, Triple-A Plowed Under, focused on the hardscrabble lives of Dust Bowl farmers; Injunction Granted skewered the rich; and Power—in a shift that would also affect One-Third of a Nation—was written to overtly support New Deal policies (in this case, the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority).

Then came One-Third of a Nation, a probing look at the nation’s housing crisis. Though the narrator reminds the audience early on that this isn’t a specifically New York story, the action takes place exclusively in the city, beginning with a devastating tenement fire at 397 Madison Street, then taking the audience on a multimedia journey through the city’s housing history. The play was the Living Newspaper's biggest success and versions were produced around the country. (The poster, above, is from a touring production from 1939.) It was also turned into a film in 1939 with Sylvia Sidney, though the melodrama produced by Hollywood did away with most of the plot and all of the Living Newspaper's innovative staging.

The Living Newspaper was known for its experimental staging--including the use of projections, film, and off-stage characters heard through loudspeakers--that were cutting edge in the 1930s. The plays also featured dozens of characters (One-Third of Nation has over 100 speaking parts) in order to keep as many indigent actors employed as possible. In this current production, Metropolitan deftly divides the roles between just 13 actors.

We hope you can join us on May 22nd at 3:00 p.m. The play costs just $20 ($15 for students/seniors) and it is a small space, so reserve your seat today at

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Read more about WPA-era New York in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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