Greenbelt – The Art Deco Utopia

GreenbeltTheatreGREENBELT – “Beyond these houses, the elm-beset meadows ended in a fringe of tall willows, while on the right hand went the tow-path and a clear space before a row of trees, which rose up behind huge and ancient, the ornaments of a great park.” So writes William Morris in “News from Nowhere,” a late 1800s novel describing a utopia dedicated to living in harmony with nature. Living in planned utopias blending human society with nature was a common theme then and continues to the present day, and many planners have attempted to put this goal into practice.

Few would suspect a utopia lies in our midst in Prince George’s County, but the city of Greenbelt was built as a utopian experiment by the U.S. federal government. This is now the district of Historic Greenbelt, celebrated for its Art Deco buildings among appropriately named institutions evoking the era, such as Roosevelt Center and the New Deal Café. It was a planned community with many features in mind, including sensible living quarters with parks and walkways between cooperative dwellings and nearby shopping and entertainment. I recently had a chance to tour the historic Greenbelt district with Atlas Obscura, a national society dedicated to the exploration of unique, little-known places.  

In the planned community of Greenbelt there are modest, sensible living quarters with geometrically planned walkways under large trees, calling to mind Morris’ description of the utopian shire-like dwellings in “News from Nowhere.” The Greenbelt Museum itself is open only on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. or by appointment.

In addition to self-guided exhibits in the nearby community center, the museum’s main feature is a modest, a reconstructed dwelling of the Art Deco period showing common household items: a vintage dress spread out on a bed, a metal can of Lucky Strike cigarettes, an ashtray of the 1939 New York World’s Fair with its emblematic Trylon and Perisphere and similar vintage items.

The modesty of the exhibits reminds us of the austerity of New Deal America, and Atlas Obscura noted in the tour promotion: “Greenbelt, Maryland, is a living New Deal time capsule unlike any other.” Indeed, many of the dwellings and facilities of the era are still in use.  

The exhibit raises interesting questions about whether communities should be artificially planned and what is the role of government in such planning. I reserve judgment as to whether Greenbelt has succeeded as a utopian community, but it is certainly an arts-oriented one.

Art Deco style continues in the Old Greenbelt Theatre, with its steam-stack logo above the marquee and streamlined features evident everywhere. There is also Greenbelt Arts Center below the Old Greenbelt Theatre. One can project oneself into the past, strolling along the path of houses below tall, neatly lined trees to see “Hound of the Baskervilles” a Sherlock Holmes novel-turned-movie which likely played at the Greenbelt Theatre in 1939. Holmes and his partner and chronicler Dr. Watson are called upon to investigate a case, “the Baskerville demon of legend:” in which a mythical beast is blamed for mysterious deaths occurring within the cursed Baskerville family. Now, in our own era, a stage version, “Baskerville,” is playing at the Greenbelt Arts Center from April 13 through May 5. As reimagined by Ken Ludwig, this version is a comedic take on Hound of the Baskervilles. Four actors and one actress take on all the parts, and the quick change in costume is part of the humor. Original lines are used from the original novel of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, though the classic lines are now used to comedic effect. The stage is meant to suggest 221B Baker Street, the classic dwelling of Sherlock Holmes. If some of these references are elusive, it may be a good idea to read "Hound of the Baskervilles" or watch a film version first to fully appreciate the play. Slide projections are used to conjure up Victorian London in the rain, the English moors, and even a classic line from Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries: “The game is afoot!”

One scene was particularly memorable: the actress and actor reenacted in exaggerated, comic form the murder scene in the opera Tosca, which Holmes and Watson were watching. The crime-solving duo later attends another Italian opera, “Falstaff,” which is presented as comic in turn. The humor of the piece is enjoyable on its own, but the Shakespeare maven will see added levity in the parallels between Watson and the clownish role of Falstaff.  

Retro fare like “Baskerville” is common at the Greenbelt Arts Center, with their last feature being Angel Street, a live staging of the 1940s film “Gaslight,” while their next play will be ”return to the Forbidden Planet,” an adaptation of the 1950s science fiction film "Forbidden Planet" dealing with the theme of an ideal society on another planet…or another vision of Utopia. I look forward to reviewing that play in a future column.

Last modified onFriday, 20 April 2018 14:25
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