Did you know that the United States government once produced a stage play about affordable housing?

In 1938 the Federal Theater Project, part of the Works Progress Administration, produced a stage play about affordable housing. The purpose of the play is obviously to engender support for implementation of the Housing Act of 1937 (a.k.a the Wagner-Steagall Act). The play’s title “One Third of a Nation” is a direct and obvious reference to FDR’s second inaugural speech. Paramount Pictures made a film adaptation of the play in 1939.

“One Third of a Nation”

I was able to find a copy of the script. It is posted below. Incredibly, more than 200,000 people saw the play during its New York City run. The WPA Federal Theater Project went on to produce the show in 10 cities over a two year period. The play follows the plight of the not-quite-making-it poor of New York City over a one hundred year period. There are heartless exploitative landlords, unscrupulous real estate agents, and hopeful immigrants. These unfortunate souls are beset with cholera, crime, fire, and all of the other ills of inadequate housing. Although newcomers find a land of plenty (“there’s no famine here, Kate, plenty of potatoes and bread and meat.”), their toils amount to nothing because they are forced to pay exorbitant rents for rat-hole tenements. As the cast repeats again and again, “we’ve got to have a place to live.” At various intervals throughout the play, a narrator actually reads out the provisions of various laws and ordinances affecting housing! In response, a tenement house itself boasts about its noncompliance. I wish I could have seen it on the stage.

“It shall be required that there be a proper fire escape for each tenement, and there shall be one toilet for every twenty occupants.” – New York City Tenement House Act of 1867