08 August 2023
Františka Schormová is a post-doc researcher at the Institute of Czech Literature, Czech Academy of Sciences and an Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Hradec Králové and was a 2023 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
To be a scholar outside of US/Canadian studies outside of North America means a transcultural perspective is a part of what we do and who we are. It allows us to think about the culture and region afresh and to reflect on our positions as mediators as scholars, educators, and public intellectuals. To be a scholar of US/Canadian studies from Central Eastern Europe and other regions outside of the usual trajectories of prestige might also mean that sources for our research are more difficult to obtain. This is why I went to the British Library to research Czech immigration to Canada.
In my previous research project, Translation and the Global Fifties: When the African American Left Went to Prague, I looked at the transnational journeys, exchanges, and allegiances between the African American Leftist intellectuals and early Cold War Czechoslovakia. One of the translators and mediators of African American literature in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Czechoslovak writer Josef Škvorecký, later became one of the almost twelve thousand people who fled to Canada after the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion to Czechoslovakia in 1968. Following Škvorecký and his wife, Zdena Škvorecká-Salivarová to Canada opened up a new set of questions for me some of which I tried to answer during my time in the British Library.
Škvorecký was awarded the Governor General's Award for English Language Fiction for The Engineer of Human Souls, a novel translated by Paul Wilson. This cultural moment became my entry point in the Canadian cultural field in the 1970s and 1980s. I explored magazines and journals I found out about in the United States and Canadian Newspaper Holdings in the British Library Newspaper Library (for example, Nový Domov: The New Homeland)1, conference proceedings from the time, fictional and autobiographical accounts of the Škvorecký’s and other Czechoslovak authors, diverse secondary sources on culture and politics of the era, multilingual sources published in various places. What I was looking for were interconnections between Canadian literature, quickly developing at this time as its own discipline tightly linked to the nation state, the official politics of multiculturalism, and the position of the so-called ethnic writers within this cultural field.
These interconnections support my broader project in the framework of which I look at how the notion of whiteness has operated within the Canadian cultural field in the late Cold War in connection to various immigrant groups coming to the country. It builds on critical whiteness studies but also asks whether these concepts can be applied and/or translated to Central Eastern European contexts. The ambiguous status of the Slavic and other groups in and from this region has been noticed by scholars such as Ivan Kalmar or Zoltán Ginelli; the historians of immigration have also noted the various ways racial discourses have transformed throughout the 20th century. The Cold War has introduced new challenges, trajectories, and allegiances, race refigurings, and vocabularies of whiteness that has shaped how both the immigrants and the domestic populations in Central Eastern Europe were perceived.
I found some of the answers I was looking for: yet I left with further questions. The British Library is its own little universe. In the weeks of the fellowship, one wanders in awe through the various reading rooms and the packed hallways. As a visiting researcher, one is not left to navigate this world on one’s own: the fellowship also gives one the opportunity to talk to the Eccles staff, people who work and research in the British Library and know many of its secrets. And while they are incredibly helpful, it is better to come prepared (the sheer quantity of the material at your fingertips can get intimidating!) but also keep one’s eyes open for surprising turns the research route might take.
Searching through my keywords one day, I found sheet music based on the poetry of Langston Hughes, the African American poet, novelist, playwright, translator, and social activist . It was a 1966 composition by the Czech composer Jiří Dvořáček with lyrics in Czech, English, and German, published in 1978 (Image 1, above). Despite having dealt with Hughes’s Czechoslovak connections extensively, I have never known this sheet music existed and I could not help but hum the melody (albeit very quietly). Hughes was one of the writers Josef Škvorecký also translated before emigrating to Canada. This multilingual, translational, transmedial cultural artifact reminded me that it is important that our scholarship can cross the linguistic, cultural, and national borders in a similar way.
Nový Domov: The New Homeland. Toronto. Vol. 9, no. 19 etc. (10 May 1958 - 21 March 1970). Imperfect. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection Microform MFM.MC271.D
01 February 2019
Last month we celebrated the life of Hallie Flanagan, director of the ground-breaking Federal Theatre Project (1935-39). This blog will look at one of the Federal Theatre’s most innovative and controversial accomplishments: the ‘Living Newspapers’. It will also share our realisation concerning the connection between Hallie Flanagan and Mary Eccles, co-founder of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies.
Flanagan first encountered living newspapers – in which social and political issues were given theatrical form – while visiting the Soviet Union in 1926. Such productions had emerged during the Russian Civil War as a means of promoting a pro-Soviet version of the news to the largely illiterate Red Army troops. Following the Bolshevik victory, this agitprop art form continued developing and expanding. In 1923 the hugely influential collective 'Blue Blouse' was founded under the auspices of the Moscow School of Journalism. By 1928 more than 7,000 Blue Blouse troupes had been established across the nation. Performances typically opened with a parade of ‘headlines’, followed by a dozen or so humorous or satirical sketches on topics as diverse as trouble in a local factory to religion and international relations. Siniaia Bluza (Moscow, 1924-28; shelfmark ZA.9.d.615) - the irregularly published Blue Blouse periodical - supported these performances, containing suggestions for staging, sets and costumes as well as librettos for skits.
Flanagan attended several Blue Blouse productions in Moscow. In Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre (London, 1929; shelfmark 011805.i.61) she notes: 'At Trade Union or Factory theatres, the Blue Blouses, workers by day and actors by night, perform original acrobatic plays'. She particularly recalls attending a production in which ‘three men and three girls glorify workers of the Army, the Navy, the farms, and factories’.  Rejecting elaborate props and sets, the actors energetically climbed imaginary rigging, planted imaginary crops and controlled imaginary machinery: 'Each motif reached its climax in a refrain taken up by the audience, a refrain consisting of the repetition of a single word, Comrade – half sung, half shouted: Tovarish! Tovarish! Tovarish! The effect of this exuberance was an amazing impression of having seen, not three men and three girls in an amateur song and dance, but a forest of ships with sailors in the rigging, a battalion of soldiers, a commonwealth of farm and factory hands all linked in a comradeship of work.' 
A decade later, in one of her earliest conversations with WPA director, Harry Hopkins, Flanagan suggested the Federal Theatre could produce a series of living newspapers involving many people taking on small parts. Hopkins immediately concurred and the Federal Theatre's principle Living Newspaper Unit was established in New York City soon after. Headed by playwright Elmer Rice – who, like Flanagan, had visited the Soviet Union – the Unit included theatre professionals and out-of-work journalists. From the outset it attracted controversy. Its first production – Ethiopia, about the recent invasion by Mussolini – was issued with a federal censorship order, prompting Rice’s resignation. And its third – Injunction Granted, with its pro-union/anti-big business stance – was criticised by federal government officials and closed early. Several living newspapers were hugely successful, however; most notably, One-Third of a Nation.
Inspired by President Roosevelt's second inaugural address in which he recognised that one third of the nation were ‘ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished’, the play dramatized the living conditions – the crime, disease, and powerlessness – endured by those in urban slum tenements. It also offered some solutions. After being workshopped at Vassar under Flanagan's direction in the summer of 1937, it was staged in cities across the United States, with revisions reflecting local conditions. In Philadelphia, for example, reference was made to a city tenement house that had collapsed two days before opening night.
Everywhere, reviews of One-Third of a Nation were positive. The Detroit Tribune declared it to be: ‘… of vital interest to every Negro living in Michigan’. The New Orleans Times-Picayune called it ‘timely and shrewdly staged’. In San Francisco it ran for nearly two years. And at New York’s Adelphi Theatre over 200,000 people cheered as the life-like slum housing went up in flames and the ‘The Consumer’ cried out to the government: ‘Can you hear me, Washington? Give me a decent home!’
And it seems that Washington did hear, but in both a positive and negative way. Eleanor Roosevelt believed One-Third of a Nation achieved more than any speeches by her, Langdon Post (Head of the New York City Housing Authority), or even her husband ever could. But numerous senators were offended that their views on housing – taken word-for-word from the Congressional Record – were included in the play.
Flanagan later reflected in Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965; shelfmark X.900/3282) that: ‘Enemies made by the living newspaper were, I believe, powerful enemies, instrumental in the final closing of the project.’  Yet, she never regretted her decisions. And she never lost her conviction in the power of this art form. Indeed, in 1948 she co-wrote a new play - E = mc2: A Living Newspaper about the Atomic Age - boldly declaring in its foreword: ‘The theatrical effectiveness of the “living newspaper” was conclusively demonstrated in the productions of Power and One-Third of a Nation. This latest edition of the "living newspaper" compares most favorably with the previous ones.' (New York: Samuel French, 1948; shelfmark 011791.c.47)
Finally, we wanted to share our recent realisation that Mary Eccles – co-founder of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies – was a student at Vassar College at the very time that Hallie Flanagan established the Vassar Experimental Theatre. Colleagues at the Centre knew about Mary's doctoral thesis, 'Playwriting for Elizabethans, 1600-1605'. We were also aware anecdotally of her interest in avant-garde theatre. Yet, we had never connected Mary with Flanagan. With hindsight, it seems inconceivable that Mary would not have worked with, and surely been influenced by, this extraordinary, ground-breaking woman. In this vein, we will conclude with this wonderful, scandalous newspaper clipping about Mary (née Crapo) breaking conventions and enjoying a 'healthy drag' on a cigarette during her college years!
. Hallie Flanagan, Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre. London: George G Harrap & Co., 1929, p. 108. Shelfmark: 011805.i.61.
. ibid., p. 109.
. Hallie Flanagan, Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965, p. 221. Shelfmark: X.900/3282.
Jean Petrovic, Eccles Centre for American Studies