Thirties theater: more shows than ever seen before or since; Uncle Sam Presents: A Memoir of the Federal Theater, 1935-1939, by Tony Buttitta and Barry Withim. Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press. 249 pp. $ 20.
The Federal Theater has been the subject of several books, beginning with ''Arena,'' by Hallie Flanagan, the extraordinary woman who headed that noble but short-lived experiment. Tony Buttitta and Barry Witham offer a new perspective in ''Uncle Sam Presents,'' from the vantage point of an enthusiastic young insider. Mr. Buttitta worked on the project's magazine, in publicity, and otherwise served its valiant cause.
To use theatrical parlance, the authors divide their dramatic tale into four acts and an intermission. Since the ''plot'' of the Federal Theater - as contrived by a hostile Congress - developed into a cliff-hanger of classic proportions, the authors of ''Uncle Sam Presents'' had no need to invent a climax. The lawmakers did it for them by cutting the project off at the pass: slashing the funds that would have allowed it to continue. For all of Mrs. Flanagan's heroic efforts, there was no last-minute rescue.
Meanwhile, the project director and her band of bureaucrats, creative teams, and thousands of performers were putting on a show the likes of which the American people have never seen before or since. Theatrical landmarks were created performances like a Harlem ''Macbeth'' with an all-black cast. Sinclair Lewis's only successful play, ''It Can't Happen Here,'' premiered simultaneously in 18 key cities from New York to Los Angeles. There were also circuses (a Flanagan favorite), vaudeville troupes, and puppet plays - all part of her vision of an adventurous, educating, popular, low-priced theater.
As a New Deal venture, the Federal Theater was inevitably attacked by the enemies of the Roosevelt program. However, in a brief prepared for a 1938 congressional hearing, Mrs. Flanagan stated that only 26 of 924 plays produced were propagandistic in nature.
Buttitta and Witham offer a fresh reminder that the Federal Theater's most lasting contribution emerged in the array of talents it utilized and helped develop: producer John Houseman, actor-director Orson Welles, dancers Helen Tamiris and Charles Weidman, puppeteers Remo Bufano and Bill Baird, future film stars Burt Lancaster and Gene Kelly, playwrights Paul Green and Mary Chase, costume designer Irene Sharaff, composer-conductor Lehman Engel - to name only a representative handful.