Off-campus UMass Amherst users: To download campus access dissertations, please use the following link to log into our proxy server with your UMass Amherst user name and password.

Non-UMass Amherst users: Please talk to your librarian about requesting this dissertation through interlibrary loan.

Dissertations that have an embargo placed on them will not be available to anyone until the embargo expires.

Date of Award


Access Type

Campus Access

Document type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program


First Advisor

Jenny Spencer

Second Advisor

Harley Erdman

Third Advisor

Ron Welburn

Subject Categories

American Literature | American Studies | Theatre History


Built on original archival research, this dissertation elucidates how the Federal Theatre Project's (FTP) dramas of Depression-era poverty functioned as proselytism for class-conscious social reform. Through a combination of unique narrative structures and mimetic depictions of class struggle, these "poverty dramas" questioned the viability of the American Dream and its related concepts of upward mobility, limitless possibility, and the idea that America functions as a meritocracy.

Chapter one discusses the Federal Theatre's relation to the American workers' theatre of the early twentieth century, particularly the ways in which the transactional re-lationship between artist, worker, and artistic production evolved from the theatre of the Progressive era to the emergence of the poverty dramas in the late 1930s.

Chapter two discusses two of the New York Federal Theatre's plays. Triple-A Plowed Under critiques class disparity and calls for a more class-conscious American ideology. Class of '29 is read through the work of Pierre Bourdieu to show how the play makes visible the performative aspects of economic class.

Chapter three examines the Philadelphia Federal Theatre's rewrite of the famous New York production of One-Third of a Nation . This chapter shows how the Philadelphia production encouraged a more racially pluralistic view of "the people" and a more nu-anced understanding of lived poverty in America.

Chapter four shows how the Los Angeles Federal Theatre's The Sun Rises in the West simultaneously represented the conservative American ideology of the nation's dust bowl farmers while allowing for the expression of the play's left-leaning playwrights. The chapter argues that the play's multiple ideological threads, which at first appear in conflict, are in fact compatibly bound through the play's engagement with and re-working of a persevering American myth structured by a Frontier Archetype.

The epilogue broaches the topic of what it means to undertake archival research so as to speak directly to the complex if occasionally problematic relation a researcher has with archives. The epilogue also briefly addresses one aspect of the Federal Theatre's legacy: its redefining of the theatre as a "people's art" rather than a cultural event reserved for the cultural and economic elite.