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Furious Improvisation: Book summary and reviews of Furious Improvisation by Susan Quinn

Furious Improvisation

How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times

by Susan Quinn

Furious Improvisation by Susan Quinn X
Furious Improvisation by Susan Quinn
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Book Summary

A vivid portrait of the turbulent 1930s and the Roosevelt administration as seen through the WPA’s Federal Theater Project.

Under the direction of a five-foot redheaded firecracker, Hallie Flanagan, the Federal Theater Project managed to turn a WPA relief program into a platform for some of the most inventive and cutting-edge theater of its time. This daring experiment by the U.S. government in support of the arts electrified audiences with exciting, controversial productions. Plays like Voodoo Macbeth and The Cradle Will Rock stirred up politicians by defying segregation and putting the spotlight on social injustice, and the FTP starred some of the greatest figures in twentieth-century American arts—including Orson Welles, John Houseman, and Sinclair Lewis. Susan Quinn brings to life the politics of this desperate era when FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the chain-smoking idealist Harry Hopkins furiously improvised programs to get millions of hungry, unemployed people back to work.

Quinn’s compelling story of politics and idealism reaches a dramatic climax with the rise of Martin Dies and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which turned the FTP into the first victim of a Red scare that would roil the nation for the next twenty years.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. Quinn describes [the WPA’s Federal Theater Project] eloquently and artfully, summoning a not-so-distant time when a nation bled and great artists rushed as healers into the countryside." - Publishers Weekly.

"Quinn cogently retells this sad story of "a brief time in our history [when] Americans had a vibrant national theatre almost by accident." - Kirkus Reviews.

"Quinn's well-written narrative is both fascinating and frightening as politics and idealism come to metaphorical blows with the rise of Martin Dies." - Library Journal.

"Susan Quinn has gifted us with a key moment in the history of F.D.R's New Deal. Especially thrilling and revelatory is the work of the Arts Project of the WPA. Not only were there rakes and shovels, jobs and food for family, there was exhilarating and hopeful theatre, music, and painting, lifting our spirits. They gave us all hope." - Studs Terkel.

"This fine book combines elements of political history, theater lore, and a saga of social justice. In showing us a rare triumph of bold artists in league with brave public servants, Quinn rescues the idea that the imagination and government can be friends instead of strangers. Our times are desperate, too, and Furious Improvisation comes at just the right moment." - James Carroll, author House of War and Constantine's Sword.

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