In his second inaugural address, in 1937, Franklin Roosevelt pointed out that one-third of the nation was living in poverty. Two years later, Studs Terkel used this speech as a point of departure in Home Sweet Home, a radio play about life in urban slums during the Great Depression. Written under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, the play advocated the creation of government-funded public housing, a solution now decried as a tremendous failure.
“It was written 50 years ago, so it’s a little old-fashioned,” Terkel concedes. “But then it was a dream. A remarkable woman named Elizabeth Wood was the head of the Chicago Housing Authority at that time, and she felt people have to be treated with dignity and allowed to use their own imaginations.”
Home Sweet Home remains a provocative work, ironic now because it promotes an idealism that ultimately lost out to the politics of cynicism. The story follows the lives of three immigrant families whose hopes for the future are destroyed by life on Halsted Street between Polk and 22nd. Government assistance is advocated not only as an ethical solution, but also as a method by which society can act in its own best interest.
“Elizabeth Wood knew some frills were not just frills,” Terkel says. “It’s the little amenities that make life worth living. Tenant-run developments, where people who don’t behave are kicked out, could work. They worked during the New Deal. Remember the scene in The Grapes of Wrath where they come to the government camp and find it’s run by the people themselves? That was an actual phenomenon. During the Depression, millions of people’s lives were saved and their self-esteem salvaged by government projects.”
Home Sweet Home will be performed by the Equity Library Theatre on Saturday and Sunday at 2 PM in the Kraft Television Theatre at the Museum of Broadcast Communications, 800 S. Wells. After each performance, a panel discussion will be held addressing radio’s role in altering political and social agendas during the 1930s and ’40s. Terkel will appear at the Saturday discussion. Other panelists include Himan Brown, radio producer and director of The Inner Sanctum and Dick Tracy, and on Sunday Les Weinrott, producer and director of the radio program Those Websters. The suggested donation is $3. Seating is limited; call 987-1500 for reservations.