“In this little town where I am going tomorrow there ain’t no reds,” he said. “A red can’t live there because he can’t eat, and therefore he can’t holler.”

Communists had nothing to do with the desperate actions of the hungry farmers in England, Arkansas. But the discontent of farmers in the South, and the impotence of the federal government in the face of it, created opportunities for Communist organizers. Not long after the England event, the Communist party distributed leaflets in the drought area charging that “the Red Cross, headed by Hoover, is deliberately starving toiling people to death.” In March, a young party member named Whittaker Chambers used the event as the basis for a short story in the leftist monthly New Masses called “Can You Make Out Their Voices?” And that story, in turn, became the basis of a play written and staged by the fiery and energetic director of experimental theater at Vassar College, a woman named Hallie Flanagan. Flanagan, along with co-writer Margaret Clifford, called their play Can You Hear Their Voices?, and turned it into a less preachy and more powerful evocation of the desperate plight of farmers.

The main character of their play, Ed Wardell, is a self-professed Communist, and some of his neighbors resist him as a troublemaker. But as their cows die and their families grow hungrier, many come around to his point of view. The climactic moment comes when a young mother, unable to find milk for her baby, smothers it in a blanket rather than see it “tortured to death by inches.” When they can stand it no longer, Wardell and his supporters sweep into town in their flivvers and stop in the middle of the street. The men with their guns and the women with their babies storm the Red Cross relief office, the stores and the landowner’s barn for food and milk. To increase the impact of the play on their middle-class Vassar audience, Flanagan and Clifford introduced a parallel story, involving a very rich Congressman Bageheot and his daughter Harriet, who is about to come out at a debutante party costing $250,000. Harriet Bageheot is a social butterfly, but not without some awareness of what is going on in world. She finds her parents’ plans for her coming out party excessive. “Look here, Father,” she says at breakfast, “doesn’t it seem a little incongruous to be giving parties with the country in the state it is? With people standing in bread lines and dying of hunger?”

Her father’s reply is that it would be selfish not to spend. “The thing to do is to keep money in circulation.”

In her final scene, at the debutante ball, Harriet rises drunkenly to speak. The crowd, thinking she’s going to announce her engagement, shouts out “Who’s the lucky man?”

“No there’s nothing tender about this,” she says. “I want to tell you something important. I want to tell you about the drought.”

The crowd responds. “Hurrah! The drought! Is there a drought?”

“There’s a drought,” Harriet insists. “In the United States—In the South. It’s a terrible thing—It’s killing the crops—It’s making people hungry—It’s making people thirsty—And you know what it is to be thirsty, my children.”

How the WPA and a cast of thousands made high art out of desperate times

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