ANONYMOUSE ANNIE by David Arthur Walters
Many writers are possessed by the writing urge at a very young age. While some children, secure in their cocoons, fear flying, others, perhaps bored or appalled by present circumstance, spread their wings when imagination buds and seek refuge in the glories of thin air.
An anonymous playwright. whom I shall call Annie, confessed in an article entitled ‘What the WPA Did to Me’ in The Forum (Feb. 1938), that she desired to become a creative writer when she was a young girl. After she left school, she occupied herself with commercial writing jobs. The imposed work dulled her desire to do her own, creative work. Nevertheless, she felt sure she would have been a commercial writer to the end were it not for unforeseen circumstances.
“With whatever lack of interest I regarded my work,” said Annie, “I was steadily employed and did little writing for myself. Then came 1933, the bottom of the depression, and no more jobs were to be had.”
Annie had some money saved, so she wrote a novel. She agreed with the publishers that her novel was “a poor one.” She felt she was not cut out for being a novelist, “But my creative urge, long stifled and defrauded, had been given a chance to breath; now stronger than ever, it moved me to try my hand at a play. I finished it and saw that it, too, was poor.”
However, an experienced playwright encouraged her, giving her a few pointers. She decided not to waste her time and precious money looking for unavailable jobs, but to apply for relief:
“There followed three blissful months when, installed in a cold-water flat, the bare necessities of life assured me, I had nothing to do but work on my play. When it was completed, I took it to an agent, who accepted it with enthusiasm.”
Annie applied for a job with a playwriting project under the newly organized federal arts projects, submitting her play as proof that she was in fact a playwright. Her application was accepted; she was given an assignment to write a play about American history at a weekly salary of $23.86.
“I went about with a beatific expression. What a wonderful government was ours, which subsidized us to do the work we loved and then let us keep the fruits of that labor for our own!” she exclaimed.
The government lawyers, however, said plays produced on government time must be government property. The Dramatists Guild put the lid on the coffin, insisting that the artists must retain rights to their produce. Wherefore Annie’s blissful project was abolished. But not to worry, she said, for, “the government nevertheless was in agreement with the opinion that the only way to rehabilitate a man is to allow him to work at his own craft, thus to retain or recover his skill and accomplish something that may help him to be reaccepted by private employers.” Annie the play writer became a play reader for the Play Bureau of the Federal Theatre.
Annie was not very interested in being rehabilitated in order to work for private employers. However, for she managed to do her federal work in a couple hours a day instead of the usual five, and devoted the rest of her time to working on her historical drama, to which she would now have all rights. The managers wanted options on her first play, but it was too expensive to produce. Broadway took an interest in her second play, but, alas, it was not commercially oriented.
“I am not commercial-minded. I know very well what the producers want but cannot bring myself to do it. My commodity has no market. I have the will to fail,” our independent-minded WPA playwright honestly stated, knowing full well that no external economic obligations should be imposed on free artistry. After all, economy is of this grave world, the very tomb from which the butterfly takes flight to ride the wind for thousands of miles to unite with her true love. Mediocrity is painfully plain to see in some sorry art interested only in a career instead of the beloved Work painstakingly produced yet joyfully created.
Annie proceeded with her third play and finished it. Her agents said it was a fine play, but they refused to handle it because it was difficult to sell. Since she remains anonymous and her work is unknown to us, we have no way of assessing its merits. Perhaps the agents were at fault, or the public was not quite ready to make the investment.
“With three plays written and no production in sight, I have not the heart immediately to start on play number four. I am taking a breathing spell to write this article and to think.”
As for the WPA, “It has been driven home to me that mine is a talent which, had there been no WPA and no arts projects, would never have had a chance to develop. Only a person of independent means can afford to cultivate a marketless talent…But there was a WPA…that talent…was nurtured to maturity by emergency home and work relief.”
We do know what happened to anonymous Annie, whether she went on to become a successful playwright or writing teacher, or whether she failed miserably and took to drugs or drinking heavy, winding up in a institution, or whether she became a housewife or secretary or five-and-dime clerk, and so on.
“Well, can I be content again with ANY commercial job,” she said, “of whatever nature, that lasts for eight hours a day? No, by God, I can’t and I won’t. I am a playwright. The government recognizes me as such, and producers have assured me that I have an authentic dramatic talent. I have long ceased to be a hack writer…”