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Volume IV
Vera Mowry Roberts
Joel Berkowitz
CUNY Graduate School
Managing Editor
Edwin Wilson
Assistant Editors
CASTA Copyright 1992
Walter J. Meserve
James Masters
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre (ISSN 1 044-937X) is
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Volume IV
Curtis R. Scott
Richard Wattenberg
David Krasner
Jack Hrkach
Table of Contents
Fall1992 Number3
The Dramatization of Native Son:
How "Bigger" Was Reborn ................. 5
Challenging the Frontier Myth:
Contemporary Women's Plays
About Women Pioneers ................... 42
Charles S. Gilpin:
The Actor Before the Emperor ........ 62
Drama Along the Turnpikes:
The Earliest Theatrical Activity
In the Villages of Central
And Western New York ................... 76
Contributors ......................................................................................... 93
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CASTA Publications are supported by generous grants from the
Lucille Lortel Chair in Theatre and the Sidney E. Cohn Chair in
Theatre Studies in the Ph.D. Program in Theatre at the City University
of New York.
Curtis R. Scott
In June of 1940, playwright Paul Green accepted a contract to
dramatize Richard Wright's recently published bestseller, Native Son.
During the summer, the two men worked together, outlining and
developing what became the first draft of the play. The following
spring the completed drama was produced on Broadway by John
Houseman and Orson Welles. Naturally, there were a number of
revisions between the first draft and the final version, but the story
behind these revisions has remained somewhat a mystery. In a letter
to one of Wright's biographers, Green outlined the details of the col-
laboration as he remembered them, though he cautioned that "I am
sure that I don't remember too accurately many details of this associ-
ation. I guess, however, that in the main things were as I report them
here" (Paul Green to Constance Webb, 9 May 1967).1 Green's dis-
claimer, however, has been largely ignored by literary critics and his-
torians, who have failed to check his statements against the facts.
Fortunately, the events are fairly well documented. Green kept
a good diary for most of his adult life, and the special collections of
the University of North Carolina libraries contain hundreds of letters,
telegrams, and papers relating to his life and work. A little digging
proves Green's assessment fair: In the main, things were as he
reported them, although some minor details were confused. (Green
says, for example, that he asked Wright to share credit for the
dramatization because "he had been so helpful." In fact, the joint
authorship and division of royalties had been worked out in contracts
signed at the beginning of the collaboration.) But as one searches
for a clearer picture of how the novel became the play, it becomes
apparent that Green was not the only person whose memory failed
In 1972, John Houseman published Run-Through, the second
volume of his colorful and engaging autobiography. Prior to pub-
lication, a portion titled "Native Son on Stage" was excerpted for the
special Richard Wright edition of New Letters, which was itself pub-
lished in book form as Richard Wright: Impressions and Perspec-
tives. Houseman originally had wished to dramatize Native Son him-
self and was disappointed that Wright chose Green instead.
Throughout his account, Houseman complains bitterly of what he
calls Green's "deliberate betrayal" of Wright's work, and portrays him-
self as the champion of Wright. He describes Green as a sort of
enlightened redneck, with a "perceptive and sensitive but essentially
Southern, rural attitude toward the race problem in America" (Run-
Through, 462). According to Houseman, Green was blind to the
message of Wright's novel and forced his own na'ive social theories
onto the play. Rather than risk a public disagreement with Green,
who was sympathetic to the Negro cause, Wright allegedly appealed
to Houseman, who argued for strict adherence to the novel. Still,
Houseman claims, Green refused to budge. Houseman says he
then met secretly with Wright and together they began "transfusing
the blood of the novel back into the body of the play" (Run-Through,
469), excising all deviations from the novel and completely rewriting
the ending. It was his version, not Green's, that Houseman claims
was performed to critical and popular acclaim the following spring
(Run-Through, 472).
Exaggeration and half-truth, supported by a misleading
chronology, form the backbone of Houseman's one-sided account.
His claims are particularly insidious in that he mixes fact and fiction in
such a way as to mislead even the informed reader. For example,
Houseman claims to have secured the production rights on his own,
then decided (much later) to .. give .. Orson Welles the job of directing
it (Run-Through, 462-69). Houseman did, in fact, initiate the negotia-
tions with Wright and his agent, Paul Reynolds, but it is evident from
the correspondence between Wright, Green, Reynolds, and
Houseman that Welles's immense publicity value was a critical factor
in securing the production rights and that Welles was included early
in the contract negotiations (Frank J. Sheil to Paul Green, 12 July
Ukewise, Houseman and Wright did work together, mostly in
early February 1941, during the two weeks before the play went into
rehearsal. And, although they revised the final scene, most of their
work involved cutting and fine-tuning Green's script. Houseman's
chronology, however, implies that major revisions continued from
late November 1940 through March 1941 , and that Green attempted
to enjoin the performance, an implication that is simply untrue (Run-
Through, 468-72). In fact, Houseman himself had made veiled
threats about delaying rehearsals until the script met with his
approval (John Houseman to Paul Green, 24 December 1940).
Houseman's account would be of little concern if it were
simply another unread book on the shelf. But as the only principal
player to have published an account of the dramatization, his version
has been enshrined as sacred truth and quoted ad infinitum in critical
anthologies and biographies of Wright and Welles. It is unfortunate
that writers who discount Houseman's credibility on some points
readily accept his word on the Native Son dramatization. Two recent
biographers of Welles, in discussing the disputed writing credit for
Citizen Kane, convincingly demonstrate that Houseman's account is
distorted and exaggerated. Yet they both unquestioningly reproduce
Houseman's story of "giving" Welles the directorship of Native Son.
An even more disturbing form of- Houseman's account
appears in Michel Fabre's award-winning biography The Unfinished
Quest of Richard Wright, one of the few critical works to discuss the
Native Son dramatization at length. In a footnote to an otherwise
evenhanded discussion of the play, Fabre quotes at length a letter
from Houseman to Green in which Houseman offers his reactions to
some of Green's proposed changes. Fabre dates the letter 23
October 1940, thus lending credibility to Houseman's claim that he
and Wright began rewriting the script in late November. In fact,
Fabre's "quote" is a paraphrase of a letter that Houseman wrote on
24 December 1940, which undercuts his claim to authorship. The
incorrect date may simply be a careless mistake. But, like many
others, Fabre appears to have taken Houseman at his word, and he
may have adjusted the date of the letter to fit Houseman's chronol-
ogy. Either scenario is possible, for this section of Fabre's book is
plagued by a wide variety of errors, ranging from inaccurate biblio-
graphic citations to misspelled names and false information. 3
Because the authors' reminiscences and the secondary
sources based on those reminiscences cannot be trusted, the only
way to piece together a reliable account of the dramatization is to
return to the manuscripts and correspondence actually written dur-
ing the dramatization. In the following pages, I have attempted to
reconstruct the events surrounding the dramatization of Native Son
from the publication of the novel to the closing of the play and
beyond. Wherever possible, I have provided specific documentation
of the sources used to determine the sequence of events. I have
indicated those places where I have relied on inference and deduc-
tion. My aim is not so much to draw conclusions about the play's
artistic merits as it is to provide a reliable starting point for future
studies of the play.
When Richard Wright's Native Son appeared on the literary
scene on 1 March 1940, it became an instant critical and financial
success. Reviewer Malcolm Cowley compared it with The Grapes of
Wrath, which had taken the country by storm the previous year.
Others saw Native Son as the literary heir to Dostoevsky's Crime and
Punishment and Dreiser'sAn American Tragedy. Wright's novel sold
over two hundred thousand copies in its first three weeks and quickly
jumped to the top of the best-seller lists. 4 With few exceptions,
critics praised the novel's uncompromising realism, and it was the
first work by a black author to be offered as a Book-of-the-Month
Club selection. As praise for the novel accumulated, so too did
offers to adapt it to the stage.
Wright's agents in New York forwarded these offers to him in
Mexico, where he was taking a long-awaited vacation. Most of the
offers were unremarkable, but one from Paul Green immediately
caught his attention. Rather than simply express admiration for the
novel, Green also voiced concerns about what he perceived to be
potential problems in adapting the novel to the stage, and suggested
that the two writers work together during the dramatization. Green's
plan fit nicely with Wright's own ideas about adapting the novel, as
he explained in his response to Green:
Some one [sic] who knows Negro life should do it, create
the dramatic structure, etc. Then I'd like to be able to go
over the script with them in relation to characterization,
emphasis, and dialogue, etc. But the main job of casting the
book into stage drama would be theirs (Richard Wright to
Paul Green, 22 May 1940).
Wright had other reasons for wanting Green to do the
dramatization. Green had developed an impressive reputation in the
early 1920s as the author of many plays for the Negro theatre. His
first full-length drama, In Abraham's Bosom, told the tragic story of
one man's fight to overcome racial oppression and his own
weaknesses as he struggled to build a school for Negroes. The play
won the Pulitzer Prize In 1927. Wright had read Green's 1936 one-
act play Hymn to the Rising Sun and was deeply Impressed by Its
powerful depiction of racial brutality in a Southern prison camp.
Wright fought for a production of the play during his tenure as
publicity director of the Chicago unit of the Federal Negro Theatre, a
New Deal program designed to relieve unemployment and promote
American drama. Indeed, I had to fight both Negroes and whites to
get them to see that the play was authentic" (Richard Wright to Paul
Green, 22 May 1940). Eventually, the play went into production,
only to be banned as immoral by city officials, and Wright was forced
to resign his position (Fabre, 131-33; Webb, 112-13).5
The experience left Wright feeling that Green was the kind of
writer who could effectively manage a controversial character such
as Bigger Thomas:
Bigger Thomas, If put on the stage, will be a kind of charac-
ter that many Negroes and whites will not like. But I think
that a great deal of the danger can be avoided by making
Bigger a character through whom the social forces of Negro
and white life flow. Because of the many threads of Negro
and white life you caught in your one-act play, and because
of the kind of insight you displayed for the Negro character
in that play, I think you can handle a boy like Bigger (Richard
Wright to Paul Green, 22 May 1940).
Wright arranged to stop at Green's home in Chapel Hill, North
Carolina, on his return to New York from Mexico. There they could
get to know each other and discuss the play in more detail.
By this time, offers had also been made to produce the play.
Eventually, the production rights were secured by John Houseman
and Orson Welles of the Mercury Theatre in New York. Welles was
just completing work on Citizen Kane and was considered one of the
most creative directors working at the time. Houseman had a long-
standing relationship with the Negro theatre and, in 1935, had been
selected, with Rose McClendon, as co-director of the New York unit
of the Federal Negro Theatre (Run-Through, 175). In conjunction
with Welles, the Harlem company had produced a series of highly
acclaimed productions, including the famous voodoo Macbeth.
Houseman had hoped to write the Native Son dramatization himself,
and was disappointed when Wright chose Green (Run-Through,
462). Still, he recognized the artistic and financial value that a play
such as Native Son would have, and he eagerly joined Wright and
Green in Chapel Hill for their planning session.
The three men met on 21 June 1940 and set to work outlining
the novel for dramatic study. By all accounts, the meeting was a
huge success, and Wright and Houseman left for New York late the
next afternoon (Paul Green, Diary, 21-22 June 1940). A few days
later, Green received a letter from Paul Reynolds, Wright's agent in
New York, that reiterated Wright's enthusiasm about the meeting and
his desire to formalize their collaboration:
Mr. Wright made it very clear in his talk with me that he
wanted you to dramatize the book with him and no one else
and that that was of paramount importance in his mind (Paul
R. Reynolds Jr. to Paul Green, 25 June 1940).
Once Wright and Green had a contractual agreement, then Welles
and Houseman could be legally committed as well. Houseman, who
managed most of the business affairs of the Mercury Theatre,
informed Welles of these plans on 25 June (Richard Wright to Paul
Green, 26 June 1940). By mid-July, the contracts were signed.
Paul Green first read Native Son at the suggestion of a friend,
who thought that Green should do the dramatization. Green wrote
that he found it horrifying, brutal, and extraordinarily vivid. Reminis-
cent a bit of 'Crime and Punishment.' Doubt I could do anything with
it (Diary, 29 April1940).
Green's uncertainty was due, in part, to his recognition of the
difficulty in translating such a complex and violent work onto the
stage. In his prefatory essay "How 'Bigger' Was Born,.. Wright
explains that he had carefully and deliberately crafted his novel to
make it "so hard and deep that [the reading public] would have to
face it without the consolation of tears" (xxvii). To "enclose the
reader's mind," he had used a limited point of view, .. restrict[ing] the
novel to what Bigger saw and felt, to the limits of his feeling and
thoughts, even when I was conveying more than that to the reader''
(xxxii, Wright's italics). Green surely recognized that the highly sub-
jective viewpoint of Wright's novel would be lost on the stage, where
the audience would be physically detached from the action and
would form their opinions based on what they saw, not on what Big-
ger saw.
This difficulty points to a larger, more fundamental problem:
Although Wright's novel is highly dramatic, much of its energy is
focused on exploding racial myths and stereotypes. In "How 'Bigger'
Was Born, Wright says he never worried about the plot because he
had "spent years learning about Bigger, what had made him, what he
meant; so, when the time came for writing, what had made him and
what he meant constituted my plot" (xxvii, Wright's italics). In other
words, the character's actions are less important than the motiva-
tions behind those actions and the consequences which result from
The scope of the problems facing Green is perhaps best
illustrated with an example. In the opening scene of the novel, we
see Bigger quarreling with his mother, who wants him to take on
more responsibility for the family. The narrator then goes on to
explain that:
He hated his family because he knew that they were suffer-
ing and that he was powerfess to help them. He knew that
the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how
they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be
swept out of himself with fear and despair. So he held
toward them an attitude of iron reserve; he lived with them,
but behind a wall, a curtain. And toward himself he was even
more exacting. He knew that the moment he allowed what
his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would
either kill himself or someone else. So he denied himself and
acted tough (13-14).6
Without the narrative explanation, we see only a lazy, inconsiderate,
disrespectful young punk causing his family unnecessary mental
anguish. The dramatist faced a serious problem. If the audience felt
no sympathy for Bigger in the relatively restrained opening scene,
how would they feel about him as a rapist and murderer? How could
he elicit understanding for a character whose actions were so violent
and seemingly devoid of "conscience"?
Although Wright said he could offer "no explanation [for Big-
ger's violence] based upon a hard and fast rule of conduct," he did
feel that "in many respects his emergence as a distinct type was
inevitable" ("How sigger' Was Born," xiii). Bigger was the product of
"a highly geared world whose nature was conflict and action, a world
whose limited area and vision imperiously urged men to satisfy their
organisms, a world that existed on a plane of animal sensation alone
(xix). In a world that denied him the means to create, Bigger could
find self-definition only through acts of destruction.
But Wright also recognized that putting Bigger on the stage
would force some changes; in fact, his statement that Green could
increase audience understanding "by making Bigger a character
through whom the social forces of Negro and white life flow" implies
that he wanted some changes (Richard Wright to Paul Green, 22 May
1940) . Green acknowledged the power of environment to shape
one's character, but he rejected the notion that Bigger was reduced
to the level of an animal. He envisioned the play as a classical trag-
edy, in which Bigger Thomas was not merely the victim of circum-
stance, but an active participant in his own downfall. In addition, he
believed that by the end of the play "Bigger Thomas should come to
the realization that he was at least partly responsible for the charac-
ter he was and therefore had some responsibility for the fate that fell
upon him" (Paul Green to John Houseman, 30 June 1973).
Green felt that such a realization was fundamental to all
human beings, that human nature included an awareness of one's
own free will, and that "in the original book-ending ... Wright's
material was faUing this truth. Therefore, as part of his agreement to
do the dramatization, Green required that aigger Thomas grow
through his stretch of endurance and not just suffer-' (Paul Green to
John Houseman, 30 June 1973).7 The exact date and details of this
agreement are not documented, but there Is little reason to doubt its
existence. During the dramatization, Green was in constant contact
with Wright and made no substantive changes without his approval.
Wright arrived in Chapel Hill around 9 July, and the two men
went to work almost immediately. Green had arranged with the
University of North Carolina to have office space on campus, where
they could work comfortably during the hot summer months. a Work-
ing from the outline that they had pieced together earlier, they would
talk through each scene, toying with new possibilities as they arose.
When they had worked out the ideas, they would rough out the
dialogue, often using passages from the novel. Finally, they would
dictate the entire scene and make revisions from the typescript
(Campbell, 22-23).9
According to Ouida Campbell, who served as secretary during
the collaboration, the characterization of Bigger was the greatest
problem for Wright and Green. Bigger's intense hatred was the driv-
ing force of Wright's novel, but it made him an unsympathetic
presence on-stage (Campbell, 22). In order to gain the audience's
sympathy for Bigger, Green felt it necessary to soften his character
and reduce the amount of on-stage violence. In changing such
potentially horrifying scenes as the dismembering and burning of
Mary Dalton's body and the bludgeoning to death of Bessie, Green
saw the opportunity to make Bigger less monstrous and more
For the murder of Mary Dalton, Wright and Green decided to
cast the scene as Bigger's nightmare remembrance. Doing so would
serve several purposes: It would lessen the shock to the audience
by removing the murder (and a sexually charged interracial scene)
one step from reality; it would effectively demonstrate Bigger's
psychological torment; and it was more interesting from a dramatic
standpoint. Wright had given the scene a drunken, dreamlike quality
in the novel, placing the "shadowy form of a white bed" in a room
draped in "hazy blue light" (83-86). Mrs. Dalton is repeatedly
described as a ghostlike "white blur floating in the shadows of the
room" (85). When he sees her, Bigger is seized with a hysterical ter-
ror, "as though he were falling from a great height in a dream" (84).
And after Mrs. Dalton leaves the room, Bigger is described as feeling
"that he had been in the grip of a weird spell and was now free" (86).
Despite his own progressive views, Green was sensitive to the
public's sense of "decency," and he attempted to convey the sexual
tension of the murder scene with a minimum of sexual contact.
Wright agreed. His experience in Chicago had taught him that,
although some controversy might help a play, too much might kill it
altogether. In the novel, Bigger becomes sexually aroused by the
touch and scent of Mary's body (80-83). Her own arousal is less pro-
nounced, but she offers no resistance as he kisses her and fondles
her breasts (84). In the play, it is Mary who is the aggressor, stroking
Bigger's hair and touching his cheek, drunkenly contemplating their
mutuallostness as he struggles to free himself (MS1, l.iv.4-5).11 But
Bigger is unable to let go, both for fear that Mary will fall and because
he is strangely fascinated by the things that she is saying. Mary
passes out in his arms, crying for her mother, and "for a moment Big-
ger does not move." Finally, in a strange mixture of attraction and
repulsion, he kisses the unconscious girt, crying out Nl lost too--like
you--dunno where to go-nothing but darkness to take me home" as
he "jerks his face away" (MS1, l.iv.5). Bigger then carries Mary to her
bed, where he kneels for a moment in prayerlike supplication to
Mary--first "Miss Mary" but then "Mary--mother of Jesus hanging on
the wall," a reference to the religious painting on the wall of his
mother's tiny apartment (MS1, l.iv.6). As Bigger rises to leave, he
hears Mrs. Dalton approaching and calling to Mary. To prevent Mary
from crying out again, Bigger covers her face with a pillow. By the
time Mrs. Dalton leaves the room, Mary has suffocated.
The rest of the scene deviates only slightly from the novel.
Naturally, the play version relies more on spoken passages to
express Bigger's fear and panic as he realizes that Mary is dead.
And the play does not include the gruesome dismembering and
burning of her body. The roar of the furnace is sufficient to Indicate
Bigger's intentions as he awakens, terrified, from his dream.
In the scenes with Bessie, Bigger's girlfriend, Wright and
Green made similar modifications to paint Bigger in a more favorable
light. Wright had drawn Bessie as a pathetic figure, hiding from the
reality of her pitiful existence in an alcoholic haze, enduring Bigger's
abuse because he keeps her from being alone. She tries to break
away after he admits that he killed Mary, but he threatens to kill her if
she doesn't help him escape. Hiding in the cold and darkness of an
abandoned building, Bigger seems to show a compassionate side as
he draws her near. Instead, he rapes her. And as she drifts off into a
troubled sleep, Bigger concludes that Bessie's life is endangering his
own. Then, in what may be the most brutal and horrifying scene of
the novel, Bigger takes a brick and pounds her head into a bloody
He lifted the brick again and again, until in falling it struck a
sodden mass that gave softly but stoutly to each landing
blow. Soon he seemed to be striking a wet wad of cotton, of
some damp substance whose only life was the jarring of the
brick's impact (222).
When he is certain that she is dead, he drops her body down an air
shaft. The death of Mary Dalton had been accidental, the burning of
her body an act of panic. But here were no mitigating circum-
stances. This was cold-blooded, premeditated murder.
In the play, Wright and Green portrayed Bessie as less
pathetic and more tragic. She is supportive and steadfast; even as
she and Bigger hide in the abandoned building, she fusses over him,
urging him to eat something and to keep wann. Bigger, too, is less
abusive, though he still treats Bessie with indifference. In the play,
there is no rape, only soul searching as Bigger imagines himself a
kind of black god whose crime has empowered both himself and
black people everywhere (MS1, ll.iii). And, most significant, Bigger
does not kill Bessie. She is accidentally shot to death by the police
as they close in on Bigger.
The first draft of the play also included a second scene in the
bedroom of Mary Dalton, where the police have reconstructed the
crime in an attempt to force a confession from Bigger. Although this
scene did nothing to advance the plot, it provided the dramatic equi-
valent to the novel's sensational newspaper accounts, which Wright
had used to convey the societal prejudices and assumptions that
convicted Bigger long before he set foot In a courtroom. Further-
more, it illustrated the coercive tactics used by the police to obtain
information from "uncooperative" Negro boys. Wright had described
this stereotypical situation in "How 'Bigger' Was Born":
A crime wave Is sweeping a city and citizens are clamoring
for police action. Squad cars cruise the Black Belt and grab
the first Negro boy who seems to be unattached and home-
less. He is held for perhaps a week without charge or bail,
without the privilege of communicating with anyone, includ-
ing his own relatives. After a few days this boy "confesses"
anything that he is asked to confess, any crime that handily
happens to be unsolved and on the calendar. Why does he
confess? After the boy has been grilled night and day,
hanged up by his thumbs, dangled by his feet out of twenty-
story windows, and beaten (in places that leave no scars--
cops have found a way to do that), he signs the papers
before him, papers which are usually accompanied by aver-
bal promise to the boy that he will not go to the electric
chair. Of course, he ends up by being executed or
sentenced for life (xxviii).
Wright shows this type of coercion in the novel when Buckley, the
state's attorney, forces Bigger to sign a lengthy confession (281-88),
and when the police take Bigger to the Dalton house and urge him,
under the watchful eyes of the news media, to "show us just what
happened that night" (310-12).
The play, too, followed the routine outlined by Wright. Before
Bigger is subjected to the re-enactment, he is interrogated by Buck-
ley and Britten, a private investigator. When their leading questions
fail to trap .Bigger, and Britten's physical abuse fails to frighten him,
Buckley casually lifts the window curtains and looks outside:
BUCKLEY. Bigger, there's a crowd of people gathered in the
streets. You want to talk, or don't you want to talk?
(His voice is hard and metallic)
BIGGER. They can't hurt me.
BUCKLEY. If we turned you loose out there--you'd find out.
BIGGER. They can't hurt me.
BRITIEN. My God, he is nuts (MS1, ll.iv.8).
This, too, failing, they proceed with the re-enactment.
Buckley's ghoulish re-creation of the crime, complete with a
wax figure of the dead gir1, was based in part on the courtroom re-
enactment in the novel, in which Buckley has a group of workmen
transport the furnace from the Dalton basement and reassemble it in
the courtroom:
Buckley [then] had a white girl, the size of Mary, crawl inside
of the furnace "to prove beyond doubt that it could and did
hold and burn the ravished body of innocent Mary Dalton;
and to show that the poor girl's head could not go in and the
sadistic Negro cut it off." Using an iron shovel from the
Dalton basement, Buckley showed how the bones had been
raked out; explained how Bigger had "craftily crept up the
stairs during the excitement and taken flight" (352).
In the play, Buckley carefully reconstructs the murder scene based
on information recorded in Bigger's cell as he talked In his sleep. A
movie camera is provided to capture Bigger's confession, or, as
Buckley notes, "if he doesn't talk we'll have a picture of his actions.
We'll show that to the Court" (MS1, ll.iv.4). Buckley narrates for Big-
ger the events of the murder, complete with visual and sound effects.
Bigger resists at first, but is slowly drawn in by the sound of his own
voice and the sight of the "sleeping girl:
BIGGER. (As if impelled by a force beyond his control, Big-
ger moves slowly towards the figure. Whispering, as if
timidly waking a sleeping child) Miss Mary, Miss Mary-
(A note of joy dawns in his voice) It's you--It was a
dream. That is right, and you ain't dead. You are just
sleeping, sleeping. (His face caught in a breaking light)
Thank God! Thank God! (MS1, 11.4.11-12)
But Bigger's illusion (and possibly his mind) is shattered as he
reaches out and touches the cold hand of the figure on the bed.
BIGGER. Your little hand is cold, cold. (Leaning over her-
horrified) You is dead! That ain't you. (Holding his
manacled hands in front of his face) Hide it from me-
hide-- (Shrieking) And I killed her-and I killed her-and
she's burned up in that furnace-and gone forever--take
me away- (MS1, ll.iv.12).
Buckley has his confession, and the play moves on to the courtroom
As stated above, the re-enactment scene was both sensational
and, in terms of the plot, repetitious. But sensationalism and repeti-
tion were part of the point of this scene. In the novel, Wright had
illustrated the public's lurid fascination with Bigger's case at the
coroner's inquest, where the raped and mutilated body of Bessie was
exhibited not to convict Bigger of those crimes, but as "evidence" in
the Mary Dalton case (305-07). In the trial scene of the novel, Wright
demonstrated the prosecution's overkill with a seemingly endless
parade of witnesses: Fifteen newspapermen, five handwriting
experts, six doctors, four colored waitresses who knew 8 igger, two
of his former teachers, his best friends, sixteen policemen, five
psychiatrists, Jan Erlone, and the entire Dalton family--sixty people in
all-are called to the stand in order to convict a young man who has
entered a guilty plea (350-52). The re-enactment scene of the play,
sensational and repetitious though it was, managed to convey at
least a sense of the impossible odds facing someone like Bigger.
The "first working draft," twelve scenes in two acts, was fin-
ished on 12 August, and Wright returned to New York. In addition to
the scenes discussed above, the new script contained several other
noteworthy changes. The left-wing defense attorney, Boris Max, and
Mary Dalton's communist boyfriend, Jan Erlone, had been blended
into one character. Bigger had gained a thoughtful, introspective
side and an awareness of his own humanity, though he had delu-
sions of grandeur that hinted at a sort of schizophrenia. In the final
scene in the death cell, Jan's probing questions begin to penetrate
Bigger's hard, protective shell, and Bigger concludes that he hadn't
wanted to kill Mary: He killed her because that is what the white
people say black people are supposed to do:
BIGGER. Seem like I heard voices, saw things. Yeh, heard
voices--talking to me ... telling me all the things they
say about us in this world ... all the terrible things they
say we do--seem like something made me act, made
me behave just the way they say we black folks
behave-and I was two people, two folks inside me ...
like somebody else walking inside my shoes, some
other arms inside my arms, made me go to the bed,
made me take that pillow-yeh, like I was dreaming or
something-and doing things in a dream I didn't want to
do (MS1,
Jan's faith in humanity is thus restored, and he remarks that "no man
is really bad if left alone--he wants the good, he wants to go up,
wants to mean something" (MS1, But Bigger is confused by
Jan's remarks and tries to place his own life within their context:
BIGGER. Now it come clear! I see it .... [A]II the peoples and
all the killings and the hangings and the burnings, inside
me, kept pushing me on--up and on to do something
big--something great--to keep my head up ... and all
the bad I done--it was right (MS 1, II. vi. 7).
Killing Mary was his only chance "to do something big," and he is
glad that he did it. Jan/Max is left to implicitly posit .. the truth," as
Bigger slips into insanity, that the Bigger Thomases of the world can
be changed only H the world itself changes.
They had hurried to finish the first draft while Wright was still in
Chapel Hill, and Green, apparently dissatisfied with the final scene,
marked the manuscript "Ending to be changed."
FALL 1940
The "first rough working draft," as the authors called it, was
completed in a little more than one month. But it would be many
more months before the play was ready for production. During the
fall of 1940, Green devoted much of his energy to revising and
improving the play. He made several trips to New York, where he
and Wright continued to work on the script, first in Green's hotel
room, and later in an office at Harper's. Some of the hotel guests, it
seems, had complained about a black man riding the elevator up to
the guest rooms (Diary, 29 September 1940; Paul Green to Con-
stance Webb, 9 May 1967).
When the first draft was completed, Wright and Green had
assembled a two-page list of "correction notes" as a starting point for
revisions. The notes offered a scene-by-scene analysis of the play,
providing both such specHic stage directions as "Mrs. Dalton should
greet Erlone" (l.iii) and such general items as "characterize Vera
more (l.i). StUI, both men realized that potential changes to the final
scene would be the most signHicant-and the most troublesome.
The ending already had proved to be difficult. Of the novel,
Wright said, At last I found out how to end the book; I ended it just
as I had begun it, showing Bigger IMng dangerously, taking his life
into his hands, accepting what life had made him" ("How 'Bigger'
Was Born" xxxiii).
But one might argue that, whether or not Bigger accepted
what life had made him, his life had been taken out of his hands
when the court sentenced him to death. Green was determined that
the play should end with Bigger accepting not "what life had made
him, but ,hat he too as a human being had participated in his own
fate, and this meant giving Bigger some kind of choice.
In their notes, Wright and Green had outlined several new
options: "Possibility of Mrs. Dalton appearing in final scene, perhaps
through her husband's power having secured a reprieve for Bigger.
A question of Bigger's possible suicide" (Correction Notes for First
Working Draft).
Wright had mentioned a failed reprieve in the novel (381-84),
but only as a means of conveying the hopelessness of Bigger's posi-
tion. Green saw a successful reprieve as the means by which they
could once again make Bigger the master of his own fate. But,
having done so, would Bigger's suicide provide a meaningful--or
plausible--conclusion to the play?
There are countless examples of heroic/tragic suicide
throughout literary history, from Antigone and Brutus to Othello and
Anna Karenina, with reasons for their deaths as varied as the exam-
ples. There was no question that Bigger's suicide could provide a
powerful and meaningful ending to the play, but was it something
that he actually might do? To answer this question, Green returned
to Wright's novel for clues about Bigger's psyche.
As mentioned above, the opening scene of the novel shows
Bigger "acting tough" to disguise his tremendous fear. The narrator
then explains that He knew that the moment he allowed what his life
meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill him-
self or someone else" (14).
In the novel, the killing comes first. Mary's death terrifies Big-
ger, but it makes him feel alive. He doesn't know why; he knows only
what he feels. Similarly, Bigger views Bessie's murder as necessary
self-preservation: "He would have to kill her. It was his life against
hers" (222) . Later, after he is captured, i g g ~ r realizes the futility of
his struggle and that he can never be a part of the world around him:
The feelings of his body reasoned that if there could be no
merging with the men and women about him, there should
be a merging with some other part of the natural world in
which he lived. Out of the mood of renunciation there
sprang up in him again the will to kill. But this time it was not
directed outward toward people, but inward, upon himself.
Why not kill that wayward yearning within him that had led
him to this end? He had reached out and killed and had not
solved anything, so why not reach inward and kill that which
had duped him? (255)
Green was convinced that suicide was a definite possibility with Big-
ger. Wright, too, was receptive to the idea, as he indicated in a letter
to Green: "The more I've thought of your idea of ending the play with
Bigger killing himself, I like it. . . . If you'd like my working with you to
complete the ms., just say so (Richard Wright to Paul Green, 3
October 1940). Green continued to work on the script, but for the
most part, he worked alone.
During the fall, Wright and Green kept Houseman informed of
their progress. At the end of November, Green visited New York,
where he met with Houseman and continued typing and revising the
first draft script (Diary, 25 November 1940). At this time, it seems, he
also gave copies of the unfinished script to both Houseman and
Wright. Wright wrote to Green the next week saying, "I've been ill
with a cold and have not had time to read the ms" (Richard Wright to
Paul Green, 2 December 1940). Houseman, too, was prevented from
replying Immediately, as he was in rehearsal with another play. But
by Christmas, he had read it "a number of times": "Generally speak-
Ing, I liked it when you read it to me that day in New York long ago,
and I like it now just about the same. Indeed, I do not see that it has
changed to any considerable degree since that day'' (John
Houseman to Paul Green, 24 December 1940).13
Although he had been passed over for the job of dramatizing
the novel, Houseman undoubtedly still had his own ideas about how
the play should be presented. In a detailed letter to Green,
Houseman explained that he felt that the murder scene would be
stronger if it occurred .. in a scene of reality and not a scene
weakened by the gauzes and hazes of a theatrical dream wortd." He
disliked the idea of combining Jan and Max, mainly because he felt
that Jan lacked ,he weight necessary for the courtroom scenes and
the last act together. More significantly, he felt that the reprieve and
suicide were implausible and seemed to prove "something entirely
different from Wright's conclusion in the novel." He believed that the
play should end with Bigger's version of ,he truth" (that his life had
no meaning before he killed; that he killed because he wasn't allowed
to live), and that the audience should be left to sort out the truth for
themselves. Houseman ended his letter by rather pointedly remark-
ing that
years of bitter experience have forced me to a determination
not to pJace a play in production until the script is as near
complete and perfect as I believe possible. I would like to
produce NATIVE SON as soon as I am through with my pre-
sent work, which should be by the end of January. However
that means that the script would have to be completed some
weeks before that. Wright, I believe, is also upset by the
delays and feels that he has lost a great deal of time and
does not want the matter to drag on much further. I know
how terribly busy you are yourself. What do you think we
should do about it? (John Houseman to Paul Green, 24
December 1940)
Wright was indeed upset by the delays. He had expressed his con-
cern a few weeks earlier in his brief but desperate note to Green:
I [had] a long talk with Houseman. His attitude seems to be
this: He Is absolutely opposed to any consideration of
rehearsals until after the play is finished. I'm almost positive
that he'll not back down from this position. What do you
suggest? (Richard Wright to Paul Green, 2 December 1940)
At the time of these letters, several scenes were still under revision,
but Houseman's thinly veiled threat to hold up the production until
the script met with his approval was something neither Wright nor
Green had anticipated. They expected Houseman to produce the
play as they had written it, not according to his own set of guidelines.
Houseman's letter highlights a serious misunderstanding in
the Native Son collaboration. The contracts had outlined such
details as the division of royalties and time limitations on the col-
laboration, but it did not provide specific job descriptions for the
people involved. Each man understood his primary function, but
secondary responsibilities were unclear. In "How 'Bigger' Was Born,"
Wright said, "in the writing of scene after scene I was guided by but
one criterion: to ten the truth as I saw it and felt it" (xxx).
Any of the men involved with the Native Son production might
have said that: Wright, Green, Houseman, or Welles. Each man had
his own idea of what that truth was, and each man believed that he
had ultimate authority for what appeared on stage.
Green was understandably disturbed by Houseman's threat to
delay rehearsals. But, because he too was not yet satisfied with the
draft version of the play, he decided to continue with his revisions in
hopes that the finished product would be something upon which they
could all agree. He divided the new script into a three-act format,
roughly corresponding to the "Fear," "Flight," and "Fate" sections of
the novel. In an effort to trim the play to a reasonable length, he cut
the scene at Ernie's Kitchen Shack, where Jan and Mary force Bigger
to eat with them. To appease Houseman, he removed the dream
sequence from the murder scene, though most of the dialogue and
stage directions remained the same. (This did not involve a lot of
cutting since the dream portions formed a frame around the murder
scene.) The police re-enactment scene was also removed, though in
its place Green created a new scene of psychological drama.
The new scene was set in the anteroom of the state prison a
week after Bigger's capture, where the resurrected lawyer, Max, tries
to understand Bigger and prepare some grounds for his defense.
Much of the scene is transcribed from the similar scene in the novel,
where Jan and Max ask Bigger about his childhood, his dreams, his
ambitions in life, his hatred of Mary, his abandoned faith, and his
future (320-32). Bigger's answers point invariably and inevitably to
death: "We are whipped," he says, "our throats is cut before we are
born" (MS2, lll.i.S).
The scene also included elements of Green's first draft. Big-
ger's "seem like somebody else inside me" speech was borrowed
from the death scene, and his vision of himself walking high and free
among the clouds was taken from the scene with Bessie (now
"Ciara") .14 But, whereas in the earlier draft Bigger's words had
pointed to insanity (he shouted them defiantly as the police closed
in), now they were tragic, spoken "half to himself" as he con-
templated something he would never have:
I . . . wanted to be free, to walk wild and free with steps a
mile long--over the fields, over the river and straddling the
mountains--something in me--Yeh, cry out my words over
the roof tops, over the valleys, put my name on the hot wires
of the world- (MS2, lll.i.8).
As Bigger's family arrives, the scene shifts to a sort of religious
revival when his mother and the black preacher, the Reverend Ham-
mond, "set their God on Bigger's lost but unyielding soul" (Diary, 1
January-1 March 1941 ). Here, too, Green patterned the scene after
passages in the novel (262-69), though he wrote most of the dialogue
in standard English, not the heavy dialect that Wright had used.
Green also added the spiritual "Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit." The
preacher begins the song but then is joined by members of the fam-
Uy. The song builds in intensity and volume untU, "The group crowds
up closer around Bigger. He springs to his feet, his face working in
a convulsion of anger and grief.
BIGGER. Let me alone! Let me alone! (MS2, lll.i.17)
The scene ends as the guard clears the room and Bigger tears the
cross from his neck, throwing it to the floor.
Green also reworked the final scene, hoping to produce some-
thing close enough to the novel to please Houseman, but with some
sort of moral responsibility for the individual. Drawing from his
previous efforts, Green pieced together a final scene in which Bigger
comes to understand that what he did was wrong, though his desire
to leave his mark in the world is natural to all men. In this sense, the
play began to acquire the tragic dimensions that Green first envi-
sioned: The protagonist is placed between two overwhelming yet
irreconcBable forces, thus creating a situation that ultimately ensures
his demise. Wright, too, had described this phenomenon:
[H]e was trying to react to and answer the call of the
dominant civilization whose glitter came to him through the
newspapers, magazines, radios, movies, and the mere
imposing sight and sound of daily American life .. ..
But because the blacks were so close to the very civilization
which sought to keep them. out, because they could not help
but react in some way to its incentives and prizes, and
because the very tissue of their consciousness received its
tone and timbre from the strivings of that dominant civiliza-
t ion . .. his emergence as a distinct type was inevitable
("How 'Bigger' Was Born," xii-xiii, Wright's italics).
The bulk of the final scene is devoted to introspective dialogue
between Bigger and Max, much of which is taken directly from the
novel (385-92). Green, however, added a few lines here and there to
indicate that Bigger had accepted responsibility for his actions, and
that his actions were morally wrong:
BIGGER. (Now shouting again as he reaches out and holds
[on] to Max's hand) I didn't want to kill. But whatever
it was made me do it must have been right or I wouldn't
have done it. What I killed for must have been good,
and it was only the killing that was wrong. I didn't really
come alive until I felt things hard enough to kill for them.
It's the truth, Mr. Max, and it makes me feel better to
feel that way. Yeh, almost makes me feel right when I
look at it that way (MS2, lll.iii.9, emphasis added).
Green also added an extra piece to the end of the scene. As he says
his farewell to Max, Bigger laments the fact that he will die having
done "nothing really right yet, nothing really big, " and asserts that
'When a man's life ain't right, don't fit in, he ought to do something to
make it right" (MS2, lll.iii.10). As he is being led to the electric chair,
Bigger sees his chance and snatches a pistol from an inattentive
BIGGER. (Exultantly) Yeh. The last minute I saw it--the chance
to do something big, something right. For you, Mr.
Max, I prove myself. See, I don't kill anybody. I could
shoot you all down, but I don't. I don't hate you.
Another man I got to kill. (With a cry) Goodbye, Mr.
Max. (He shoots himself through the breast. He stag-
gers and then falls slowly down on the cot. Max bends
over him, his voice breaking in grief)
MAX. Bigger! -- Son.
BIGGER. (Mumbling) Goodbye. It's all right now, Mr. Max.
Tell everybody it's all right (MS2, lll.iii.1 1 ).
The scene fades out with Max and the guards standing helplessly
over the cot. One is reminded of Wright's words, "Bigger living
dangerously, taking his life into his hands," though here he is clearly
refusing to accept what life had made him.
Green finished the script in the middle of January 1941 and
travelled to New York to confer with Wright. They met on or around
18 January and sent a copy of the revised script (MS2) to
Houseman, who was in Philadelphia directing a Theatre Guild pro-
duction of Philip Barry's Liberty Jones. A few days later, they joined
him in Philadelphia, where they discussed the script in detail, indicat-
ing possible changes or cuts that might be made here and there.
Houseman may have expected Green to go ahead with these
minor editorial changes or he may have hoped for more extensive
revisions. Whatever the case, he sent this message to Green, via
telegram, a week or so later: "Eagerly awaiting final scrip[t] Native
Son so can go ahead preparing production. Do you think I could
have it special delivery by tomorrow?" (John Houseman to Paul
Green, 26 January 1941)
Green, somewhat confused by Houseman's request for a
"final" script, wired his reply the next . day: "Script you received in
PhUadelphia may for our present purposes be considered final ...
but will get another marked edited copy to you at earliest con-
venience. Will be glad to come up any time you need me (Paul
Green to John Houseman, [27 January 1941]).15 Green also con-
tacted Wright about the mix-up, explaining that
As soon as I arrived home I came down with the flu and have
just got on my feet again. I did a little work in bed, and wUI
send off to Housman [sic] tomorrow another script cut and
refurbished as needs be. I hope you will keep me informed
as to how things are developing (Paul Green to Richard
Wright, 30 January 1941).
Meanwhile, Wright and Houseman had begun cutting and revising
the eartier script for rehearsal, and the delays served Houseman well.
In addition to the necessary minor changes, the scene in the
anteroom was cut altogether. Moreover, Houseman still disliked
Green's ending, and with Green temporarily out of the picture, he
was able to convince Wright that the ending should be changed.
Throughout the collaboration, Wright had been remarkably
flexible about changes to his story. His attitude may surprise today's
readers, for whom Wright holds an established place In the pantheon
of great American writers. But in 1941, the thirty-two-year-old Wright
was himself somewhat overwhelmed by the success of his first novel.
Suddenly, he found himself in the company of writers and artists
whose work he deeply admired, among them Paul Green. At the
time of the Native Son collaboration, Green was widely regarded as
one of America's greatest playwrights. Wright respected his
opinions, trusted his judgment, and was receptive to his ideas, and
so was reluctant to alter the script significantly.
Houseman was insistent, however, and Wright deferred to his
greater theatrical experience. Together, they cut most of the intro-
spective dialogue between Bigger and Max, focusing instead on Big-
ger's coming to terms with his fear and his impending execution.
Some of Bigger's self-revealing statements remained, but, without
Max's questions, they seemed inconsistent with his usual brooding
reticence. And without the anteroom scene, where Max had grad-
ually drawn Bigger out of his hard and fragile shell, such statements
as "I was all right--then you come and start talking, digging into me--
opening up my guts" seemed unrelated to the previous action of the
Bigger tells Max that he didn't mean to kill; he killed because
he was scared. But after he killed, he felt "high and powerful and
free." Max tries to explain that that is not what he meant by "fighting
against fear," but Bigger is absorbed in his own thoughts. He sends
Max away, instructing him to "Tell Maw and the others I was all right .
. . wasn't crying none. See?" They shake hands and say goodbye as
Bigger grasps the prison bars. He looks straight out holding
on to the bars. Max turns away from him and walks down
the corridor and off right. The lights start to fade. Bigger just
stands holding on to the bars, looking straight out. The
lights fade out completely. The curtain falls.
The scene was very brief and, with no doubt as to Bigger's fate,
lacked dramatic intensity. Bigger's epiphany, his acceptance of his
fate, is sudden and largely unexplained. Coming as it did
immediately after the powerful courtroom scene, it seemed
inadequate, almost anticlimactic.
In a letter to Green, Wright almost apologetically informed him
of the changes:
Houseman and I finished cutting the play . . .. I don't know
just how you will like the last scene, but we recast it in terms
of the book. It is short, effective, I think, and forms a good
conclusion to the play (Richard Wright to Paul Green, 12
February 1941).
Green had fully expected to be in New York to assist with the cutting.
On Tuesday, 11 February, several days before he received Wright's
note, Green had wired Houseman that he would be in New York "this
weekend" and that he wanted to discuss the script. His plans,
however, fell through. Several days later, Houseman wired back that
rehearsals were scheduled to begin Monday, 17 February, but that

he need not come to New York for another week (John Houseman to
Paul Green, 15 February 1941).
By this time, Green had received Wright's letter of 12 February
indicating the changes to the final scene. But Green trusted Wright
and Houseman and he considered their alterations tentative, so his
response was remarkably restrained:
Thanks for your note, and I am glad to know that you and
Houseman are progressing right along with the play .... I
now plan to be up that way this weekend, and hope to have
a look at a swell cast (Paul Green to Richard Wright, 17 Feb-
ruary 1941 ).
Perhaps he had forgotten Houseman's stated belief that a script
should not be changed once It is in production. Or perhaps he
thought Houseman meant "well into production. Whatever the case,
he saw no cause for alarm. The remainder of his letter dealt with
publishing details, and he urged Wright to get some sort of script
over to [Edward C. Aswell, Wright's agent at Harper's,] for his con-
sideration right away. a
Two days later, as his apprehension rose, Wright sent this
message to Green: Reynolds [Wright's literary agent] acting today
on pubUcation of play with Harper's. Anxious for you to see script"
(Richard Wright to Paul Green, 19 February 1941 ). By the t i me
Green got to New York, rehearsals had been underway for a week,
and there was a new force to be reckoned with.
Orson Welles arrived in New York in the middle of February,
riding the wave of controversy surrounding Citizen Kane.17 The
twenty-five-year-old director plunged into Native Son with his cus-
tomary enthusiasm and dominated the production from the moment
he arrived. He was willing to exploit the play's dramatic (or
melodramatic) elements at the expense of its message, and,
despite Green's protestations, he supported Houseman's cuts to the
script. Welles's position, however, was more pragmatic than
ideological: He wanted to shorten the play so that It could be per-
formed without intermission, as an unbroken series of scenes depict-
ing the life of Bigger Thomas.
When Green saw a run-through of the play, he felt that it
lacked the moral responsibility he had tried so hard to convey. Years
later, he stHI vividly recalled his clash with Welles:
Rehearsals began, and then I ran smack into Orson Welles'
theory of tragedy--pathos rather than true tragedy.
1 want this play to end, he said, with Bigger Thomas
behind the bars standing there with his arms reached out
and up, his hands clinging to the bars--yes, yes, the crucified
one, crucified by the Jim Crow world in which he lived." And
so on (Paul Green to Constance Webb, 9 May 1967).
Green then turned to Wright, hoping to gain an ally in discussions
with Welles and Houseman. But as much as Wright admired Green,
he was overwhelmed by Welles. In a piece that he wrote for the New
York World-Telegram, Wright joked that
[Welles] is not a man, but a sort of creative engine! Indeed,
I'd like to issue a warning to all governments now engaged in
war: One Orson Welles on earth is enough. Two of them
would no doubt bring civilization itself to an end. If there
were ten thousand Orson Welleses, society would fly apart
like an exploding bomb!
Wright now found himself in the awkward position of having to
choose sides. During the last week of February, he agreed, some-
what halfheartedly, to assist Green in rewriting the final scene.
The first portion of the new ending stayed fairly close to MS2.
Green kept the question-and-answer format between Max and Big-
ger, though he cut some of the superfluous introductory dialogue
(e.g. such exchanges as "How're you feeling, Bigger?" "I'm all
right:). From the anteroom scene, Green salvaged what he con-
sidered two critical passages: the first, where Bigger explains why
he hated Mary, and the second, where Max discovers that Bigger
didn't kill Clara. And, Green again made it clear that Bigger accepted
responsibility for his actions and that his actions were wrong:
BIGGER. That day and night after I done killed her-when all of
them was looking for me--hunting me--that day and
night for the first time I felt like a man. (Shouting) I was
a man!
MAX. (Loudly) You don't believe that, Bigger.
BIGGER. (Lowering his head) I'm all right now, Mr. Max-l'm
all right. Don't be scared of me. I'm all right. You go
on. I don't feel that way now. It didn't last.
MAX. It never lasts, Bigger (MS3, x.10).
Green changed the last part of the scene--the suicide--which he had
added to show Bigger accepting ultimate authority for his life. When
Max, still holding out hope for a possible reprieve, whispers, "There's
still a chance," Bigger responds that "Living or dead, they don't give
me no chance .. (MS3, x.10-11) . But, when the governor refuses to
stay the execution, Bigger curiously remarks, "Maybe that chance
come. Still one chance, Mr. Max" (MS3, x.12). As the guards come
to take him away, Bigger grabs one of their guns:

BIGGER. Yeh, at the last I do it--1 see my way . . .. Now I hold
your life in my hands! But I ain't going to kill you. I
ain't. I give it back to you. (Wildly) Mr. Max! Mr. Max!
(Max slowly raises his head and turns his eyes upon
Bigger.) Tell ' em--tell 'em--for Bigger. I died--free--at
the last--my own man.
(His voice dies out, and a great shudder passes over
his frame. He closes his eyes an instant, swaying with
weakness. Then letting the pistol fall he starts moving
toward the death house on the left. The guards relax
their tension, their lips shut in an awed silence, as they
watch him go. The death lament among the prisoners
begins again as if of its own volition. The door to the
death house opens and a flood of light pours into the
scene. Bigger lifts his eyes, straightens his shoulders
and moves toward its sunny radiance like a man walk-
ing in a deep current of water. The guards quietly fol-
low him, their heads bent.)
MAX. (Staring after him, his big white face wet with tears)
Goodbye, Bigger.
PRIEST'S VOICE. (Intoning from the shadows) I am the
resurrection and the life.
(The death chant of the prisoners grows louder. The
door to the death house closes.)
(MS3, x.12-13)
The scene was finished on 1 March, Wright approved it, and Green
returned to Chapel HUI. The next day, Green sent a copy of the
scene to Welles, along with a letter explaining that
the all-important thing, it seems to me, is to keep this play
morally responsible to the wortd and to the individual as well
as dramatic .. .. I will be back in New York Friday morning
of this week and will see you then (Paul Green to Orson
Welles, 2 March 1941).
The next morning, perhaps realizing that his cause was hopeless,
Green sent this telegram to Wright's agent, with copies to Wright,
Welles, and Houseman:
Since I am unable to be in New York at this time, and in
order to help Native Son towards as complete presentation
as possible, I wish Wright to take over the authority as author
for the production of the final scene there, and likewise I will
take the authority for the published script of the last scene,
the rest of the play standing in joint responsibility as is . .. . It
is understood that he and I will continue our mutual aid on
the show in any and every way possible (Paul Green to Paul
A. Reynolds Jr., 3 March 1941).
The irony was that by now there was no "authority as author for the
production" to be had: The play effectively belonged to Welles.
Wright admitted that he felt out of place in the theatre, and he
attended only three or four rehearsals of Native Son (Birdoff, 81 ).
By "giving" away authority that had, in effect, been taken from him,
Green had discovered a diplomatic way of washing his hands of the
production, while at the same time assuring that he would have sole
authority over the printed version.
When Green returned to New York on Friday, 7 March, it was
primarily to finish the proofs for publication. But after watching the
play in rehearsal, he found himself torn between wanting the play to
be internally consistent and wanting it to be morally responsible. In a
long letter to Welles, Green conceded that
From the way you are building the show, I can see that our
disagreement on the last scene no longer stands. In fact, I
might say you have absorbed the dramatic form into an
intensity of illustration. The entire play now strikes me as a
sort of fierce close-up in which the biography of Bigger
Thomas is the only thing that really counts. That being true,
the spill-over into the last scene ought to carry--whether we
are able to find a dramatic deed or not (Paul Green to Orson
Welles, 1 0 March 1941).
In terms of the production, Green's re-evaluation of the play
amounted to little more than a belated blessing. For the publisher,
however, it was a nightmare. The same day that he wrote to Welles,
Green sent a similar letter to Wright's agent:
After considering the method--a kind of fierce close-up
intensity--which Welles is using in producing the show, I
came to the conclusion that the script had best adhere
somewhat to that, since the matter of a well-rounded, well-
constructed play was already through the window. So I
limped the ending across the goal line as best I could.
Wright and I agreed that if the critics and the public agreed
too strongly that the play let down after the capture of Big-
ger, we could do something about revision in the acting ver-
sion, which we hope [publisher Samuel) French will consider
issuing later (Paul Green to Paul A. Reynolds Jr., 1 0 March
The problem for the publisher was that, in an effort to publish by the
scheduled 17 March opening night, no page proofs were submitted.
As soon as the corrected galley proofs of the first eight scenes were
submitted, they were plated and ready to print. As a result, Green's
last-minute changes to the early scenes were not included, though
his agent at Harper's promised him that "the text will be just exactly
the way you want it in any subsequent printing" (Edward C. Aswell to
Paul Green, 12 March 1941). The final two scenes had not yet been
plated, but the corrections that Green made to the galleys were .. so
extensive and involved so much resetting, that every schedule
[Harper's] made had to be abandoned" (Edward C. Aswell to Paul
Green, 13 March 1941).
About this time, Green also received a telegram from Wright,
who had written a piece about the dramatization. Wright's anxiety
about the article, evident in the text of the telegram, is underscored
by the fact that he sent it on the same day that he married Ellen
Wrote article for NY Times on our collaboration discussing
problem of hero in US drama. Gave your views and mine
tried desperately to be objective and fair. Maybe they wont
[sic] use it then will publish elsewhere (Richard Wright to
Paul Green, 12 March 1941).
Green wired back the same day:
I am sure your article for the Times is a good one, but
wonder whether it is wise to make public at this time any
past difference of opinion between the authors. Since the
published ending is so nearly in line with the stage version
except for a little cutting here and there don't you think we
had better stand or fall together on the production? later
when the play is safely established for a run or not then it
won't matter so much (Paul Green to Richard Wright, 12
March 1941).
Wright's article was never published, though he later repeated much
of the text in a radio broadcast. 20
When the play finally was published on 28 March, the final
scene was a compromise between the version that Welles produced
and Green's third revision. The script stayed fairly close to MS3 up
to and including Bigger's '1or the first time I felt like a man .. speech.
But, in the new version, Bigger makes no attempt to grab a weapon.
On the contrary, he "stands with his face lifted and set in its tense
concentration .. (Bk, x.143).
BIGGER. (In a fierce convulsive whisper) There she comes--
Yeh, I hear you. (Far above in the night the murmuring
throb of an airplane motor is audible. Bigger's voice
bursts from him in a wild frenzied call) Fly them planes,
boys--fly 'em!--Riding through--riding through. I'll be
with you! I'II---
FlRST GUARD. Come on, he's going nuts! (He quickly un-
locks the cell and they enter)
BIGGER. (Yelling, his head wagging in desperation) Keep
on driving!--To the end of the world--smack into the
face of the sun! (Gasping) Fly 'em for me--for Bigger
(Bk, x.144).
What the guards mistake for insanity is actually Bigger's declaration
of freedom. His words hark back to an earlier scene, where Bigger
and his friends had marveled at the sight of an airplane "writing on
the sky":
JACK. (Reading-afar off) "Use Speed Gasoline"--
BIGGER. (Exultantly) Speed! That's what them white boys
GUS. (Whispering) Daredevils--
BIGGER. Go on, boys, fly them planes, fly 'em to the end of
the world, fly 'em smack into the sun! I'm with you ....
(He stares up, the sunlight on his face)
GUS. (Unable to let well enough alone, doffing his cap in a
mock bow to Bigger) Yessuh! If you wasn't black and
if you had some money and if they'd let you go to that
aviation school. you might could be with 'em (Bk, ii.33-
In death, Bigger sees his chance to be rid of all the "ifs" of the white
man's world, and he is at peace. The guards lead him to the death
house as Max says a tearful goodbye. From the shadows comes the
voice of the priest intoning, "I am the resurrection and the life." And
as "the death chant of the prisoners grows louder, [t]he door to the
death house closes, cutting off the light" (Bk, x.148).
Although the published version of the play did not correspond
exactly to the version produced on Broadway, it did convey the same
sense of injustice and oppression. And, while Welles's cuts and nar-
rowing of focus made for exciting drama, they oversimplified.
Without the psychological exploration, Bigger's actions became the
most important feature, and the consequences of his actions were
viewed only in terms of the way they affected him: Bigger became a
victim and the story became a melodrama.
After being delayed for a week by technical problems, Native
Son opened to a sell-out crowd on 24 March 1941.21 According to
Green's agent, who attended the opening night performance,
The curtain rose about nine o'clock, and there were no inter-
missions. The play was over at eleven o'clock. There was
not a dull or waiting moment in the whole proceedings. The
audience was most enthusiastic and applauded vigorously
after every scene, and at the end of the play there were at
least fifteen curtain calls (Frank J. Sheil to Paul Green, 25
March 1941).
There was talk of ,he Pulitzer, and Welles himself told the cast he
was sure that the play would run for at least three years (Paul A.
Reynolds Jr. to Paul Green, 2 April1941).
Although the public responded enthusiastically, reviews of the
play were mixed. Most critics seemed to follow the formula of PM's
Louis Kronenberger, who suggested that '7he soundest way to
review Native Son, I think, is to review it twice: first as a thing in itself,
and then in comparison with the novel from which it was adapted.
As the brightest star in an otherwise lackluster season, Native
Son received high marks from the New York critics for its strong
acting and powerful staging. Welles was credited for his "imaginative
and resourceful directing (Watts, New York Herald Tribune), which
gave the play its finer quality as a theatre experience (Mantle, New
York Daily News). On 25 March, Sidney Whipple pronounced Welles
,he greatest theatrical director of the modem stage. though four
days later he also noted that Welles had excised from the text any
phrases. passages or situations that might tend in the
slightest degree to block the action of his play or soften its
Impact. ... The play is not, therefore, a study of social
causes and results. It is a study of character and action, and
Mr. Welles strives only for effects that will spell good theater
without bothering his head about humanitarian theories
(New York World-Telegram) .
Canada Lee earned wide recognition for his powerful portrayal
of Bigger Thomas. Richard Watts wrote of his performance: [l]t is
so honest, moving and generally impressive that it gives the play not
only force but dignity and a wry sort of pity" (New York Herald
Tribune). Even Hearst's New York Journal American, which printed
an otherwise scathing review, praised Lee's eloquent and vivid per-
formance" (Anderson). 22
The critics were much less kind, however, when comparing
the play to Wright's novel. John Mason Brown questioned the wis-
dom of exposing Wright's novel to the limitations of the stage, and
flatly stated that "'Native Son' at its best on the stage is as nothing
compared to 'Native Son' at its crudest in book form" (New York
Post). In addition, most reviewers lamented the loss of the novel's
psychological dimension:
Without sharing Bigger's thoughts and with only the
chronicle of his actions before us, "Native Son" is bound to
seem a mere skeleton, a noon-time shadow, of its former self
(Brown, New York Post).
The last scene, in his death cell, shows a change in Bigger
but (unlike the book) scarcely explains it (Kronenberger,
There are often too many words. Bigger explains himself
with uncharacteristic eloquence--the stage's unsatisfactory
substitute, this, for the novel's analysis of character (Lock-
ridge, New York Sun).
Without the subjective background their defense of Bigger
Thomas's ghastly crime in the court-scene sounds like
generalized pleading. It lacks the stinging enlightenment of
the last third of Mr. Wright's novel (Atkinson, The New York
The critics' comments go to the heart of the Welles-Green
controversy. For Welles, cutting the character analysis enabled him
to present a focused, unambiguous, emotional tour de force. But to
Green, discarding the novel's psychological dimension ultimately
meant discarding its complexity. In a letter to a friend, Green
described the play as "partly good, but not entirely" (Paul Green to
Percival Wilde, 7 April 1941). His diary entries, too, show an
uncharacteristic bitterness over the play: "Native Son, bastard and
mutilated as it is, [is] doing well with the public. Can't get much
pleasure out of seeing it succeed since one edge of its truth has
been chiseled and blunted off' (Diary, 13 March-16 AprU 1941 ).
Yet there was no denying that the play was doing well with the
public, and it continued to do well for the rest of the season.
Attendance finally dropped off as the temperatures began to rise,
and after ninety-seven performances, Native Son closed on 28 June
The closing marked a number of other significant endings as
well. Welles and Houseman never worked together again. They dis-
solved their Mercury Theatre, each to pursue separate careers in
Hollywood--Welles with RKO and Houseman with David 0. Selznick
Productions. Native Son was one of the last plays Green wrote for
Broadway and the only one he wrote in collaboration. The rest of his
career was devoted primarily to "symphonic drama"--the historical,
outdoor plays that he considered to be the future of American folk
drama. Although Green and Wright never saw each other again, they
remained on good terms and kept in touch from time to time.
Despite the success of Native Son, Wright never returned to
Broadway. Instead, he turned his attention to the movies, which he
said he preferred because "peoples' [sic] lives are like the movies
(Birdoff, 81). Wright received many offers to film Native Son, most
seeking to change the story in some way, some bordering on the
absurd. One even suggested recasting Bigger Thomas as a member
of a white ethnic minority (Fabre, 336). In 1948, Wright finally
accepted an offer from French producer Pierre Chenal, who agreed
to follow the novel. Wright saw the project as his opportunity to
translate onto film the same powerful message that he had conveyed
in the novel. When Canada Lee was unable to do the film, Wright
decided to play the part of Bigger Thomas himself.
Because of pressure from the United States government,
which looked with disfavor on Wright's story of racial and political
oppression and which exercised considerable influence in Europe at
the time, most of the filming took place in Argentina. The bulk of the
fUm was shot from October 1949 to June 1950, using a screenplay
written by Wright and Chenal, which, interestingly enough, contained
a series of flashbacks and dream sequences designed to heighten
the dramatic suspense. The film premiered in November 1950 and
was well-received in Argentina and Europe. But U.S.
censors cut more than a quarter of the film, and what remained suf-
fered under the inevitable comparisons to the novel and the play.
Unscrupulous business partners, unrealistic budget projections, and
a lukewarm U.S. reception of the film ensured a financial loss for
Wright, who had paid $6,000 to buy back the rights from Green,
Houseman, and Welles (Fabre, 336-51). In addition, Wright lost a
great deal of time that might have been spent furthering his literary
career (Warren). AJI in all, It is not unfair to say that he viewed the
experience in much the same way that Green viewed the Broadway
collaboration-as a project of great promise that yielded only frustra-
If the fdm was Wright's chance to retell the story of Native Son,
Green's opportunity came years later. In the fall of 1965, Green was
approached by producer Sidney Bernstein, who was planning a
revival of the play. Green approved the proposal and suggested that
the script be "rework[ed] here and there to take away certain out-
dated references and substitute more topical and up to the present
ones" (Paul Green to Sidney Bernstein, 25 November 1965). Con-
sequently, the revised version was set in "the present" and included
contemporary references--to Castro, rock 'n' roll, Black Power--
intended to heighten the play's immediacy. But, with many of the
original elements remaining (the coal furnace, the labor unions), the
new references seemed anachronistic. Although the play was never
produced (Bernstein died suddenly in the summer of 1966), portions
of the revised script were published in the North Carolina Anvil
(1967), and, later, In an anthology called Black Drama (1970).24
Once again, it seems, the ending proved troublesome to
Green. The final scene of the 1967 revision combined elements of
MS2 (most of the dialogue) and MS3 (the pistol-renunciation ending),
whereas the 1970 version ended with a defeated Bigger Thomas
accepting the responsibility--and the punishment--for his actions.
When the revised dramatization was published in 1970, Wright's
widow, who shared the copyright for the play with Green, issued a
statement critical of the revision, which was written without her
knowledge or approval (Brasmer, 71-72). But Green was to have still
one more chance.
In 1978, the University of North Carolina completed the con-
struction of a new, professionally equipped theatre to be named in
Green's honor. Green was asked to select one of his plays to be per-
formed at its dedication and he chose Native Son. For the dedica-
tion, however, Green decided to revise the play once more, and this
time he was careful to consult Ellen Wright.
Green made a number of minor changes to the earty scenes,
though substantively they remained the same. He resurrected the
anteroom scene (now set in "a hearing room of the City Courthouse")
to show Bigger's alienation from his family and their religion, though
he removed the spiritual singing. The final scene now vaguely
resembled a trim version of the 1967 revision up to Bigger's "I ain't
never wanted to hurt nobody" speech. From that point, the play
began to reflect what Ellen Wright called
Bigger's groping awareness of himself within a social con-
text, that is, the dawning of his concern for himself as
inextricably linked up with the fate of others, who, victims of
the same inequalities, might wind up like him (Ellen Wright to
Paul Green, 4 September 1978).25
Max's words of encouragement enable Bigger to see his death not
just in terms of his own freedom, but as a means of setting others
free as well. . And with Max to play his Horatio, Bigger walks
resolutely into the death chamber.
The play premiered 29 September 1978 with both Green and
Mrs. Wright in the audience. In 1980, it was published in paperback
by Samuel French. In forty years, it seems, the play had come full
circle, with Bigger once again the "martyr who was going to die that
his race might be recognized as human beings" (Campbell, 22). The
dozens of changes brought to bear in those intervening years attest
to the story's power to stimulate discussion and challenge basic
assumptions about racial and political freedom in the United States.
And if the value of a literary work can be measured by its continued
ability to fascinate, then Native Son has certainly stood the test of
time. Sadly, the relevance of Wright's story today indicates that we
cannot yet consign it to the category of "historical artifact.
List of Abbreviations
Bk Native Son {The Biography of a Young American): A Play in
Ten Scenes, by Paul Green and Richard Wright. First edition
of the play published by Harper on 28 March 1941.
MS1 "First Rough Working Draft," twelve scenes in two acts, com-
pleted 12 August 1940, by Paul Green and Richard Wright.
MS2 Revised version, eleven scenes in three acts, completed in
mid-January 1941. The date "Feb 24/41, in Green's hand,
appears at the top of the first page of the final scene (Ill .iii);
the date, however, refers to longhand emendations made
by Green to the final scene as he began work on MS3.
MS3 Third revision of final scene, designated "Scene 10. Written
by Paul Green in consultation with Richard Wright, it was
completed 1 March 1941 (see Paul Green to Orson Welles, 2
March 1941 ).
The draft manuscripts of Native Son, by Paul Green and Richard
Wright, are located in the North Carolina CoUection of the University
of North Carolina Ubrary at Chapel Hill. Excerpts are reprinted by
arrangement with the Paul Green Foundation.
Works Consulted
Aaron, Daniel. "Richard Wright and the Communist Party: Richard
Wright: Impressions and Perspectives. David Ray and
Robert M. Farnsworth, eds. Ann Arbor: University of
Michigan Press, 1973, 35-46.
Anderson, John. 'Native Son' Unks Red, Racial Themes. Rev. of
Native Son, by Paul Green and Richard Wright. New York
Journal American, 25 March 1941, city ed., 12.
Atkinson, Brooks. Native Son, ' by Paul Green and Richard Wright,
Put On by Orson Welles and John Houseman." Rev. of
Native Son, by Paul Green and Richard Wright. The New
York Times, 25 March 1941, late ed., 26.
Avery, Laurence G., ed. A Southern Life: Letters of Paul Green,
1916-1981. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,
Birdoff, Harry. "Personal Impressions," Richard Wright: Impressions
and Perspectives. David Ray and Robert M. Farnsworth,
eds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1973, 81-84.
Brady, Frank. Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles. New
York: Scribner's, 1989.
Brasmer, William, and Dominick Consolo, eds. Black Drama: An
Anthology. Columbus: Merrill, 1970.
Brown, John Mason. "Orson Welles Presents Mr. Wright's 'Native
Son.'" Rev. of Native Son, by Paul Green and Richard
Wright. New York Post, 25 March 1941, 12.
Campbell, Ouida. "Bigger is Reborn." The Carolina Magazine, no.
70 (October 1940), 21-23.
Cowley, Malcolm. "The Case of Bigger Thomas." Rev. of Native Son,
by Richard Wright. New Republic, no. 102 (18 March 1940),
382-83. Apt. in Reilly 67-68.
Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. Isabel Bar-
zun, trans. New York: WUiiam Morrow, 1973.
Green, Paul. Paul Green Diaries. North Carolina Collection.
University of North Carolina Ubrary, Chapel Hill.
Hymn to the Rising Sun. 1936. Five Plays of the South. John
Gassner, ed. New York: HUI and Wang, 1963.
. Paul Green Papers. Southern Historical Collection. University of
North Carolina Ubrary, Chapel Hill.
---, and Richard Wright. Native Son. Unpublished mss. of early
drafts. North Carolina Collection. University of North
Carolina Ubrary, Chapel Hill.
---, and Richard Wright. Native Son (The Biography of a Young
American): A Play in Ten Scenes. New York: Harper,
---, and Richard Wright. Native Son: The Biography of a Young
American (A Play in Eleven Scenes to be Performed Without
Intermission). New York: Samuel French, 1980.
Houseman, John. "Native Son on Stage." Richard Wright: Impres-
sions and Perspectives . David Ray and Robert M.
Farnsworth, eds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press,
1973, 89-100.
---. Run-Through: A Memoir. New York: Simon, 1972.
Isaacs, Edith J. R. The Negro in the American Theatre. New York:
Theatre Arts, 1947.
Kenny, Vincent. Paul Green. New York: Twayne, 1971.
Kronenberger, Louis. "The Tragic Saga of Bigger Thomas Make Vivid
Theater... Rev. of Native Son, by Paul Green and Richard
Wright. PM [New York, NY] 25 March 1941,21.
Learning, Barbara. Orson Welles: A Biography. New York: Viking,
Lockridge, Richard. "Richard Wright's 'Native Son' Is Offered at the
St. James Theater ... Rev. of Native Son, by Paul Green and
Richard Wright. New York Sun, 25 March 1941, 16.
Mantle, Burns. Native Son' Stirs Audience to Emotional Pitch at the
St. James ... Rev. of Native Son, by Paul Green and Richard
Wright. New York Daily News, 25 March 1941, 37.
-, ed. The Best Plays of 1940-41. New York: Dodd, 1941.
"Paul Green and Native Son: North Carolina Anvil, 2 May 1967, 1 +.
Reilly, John M., ed. Richard Wright: The Critical Reception. N.p.:
Burt Franklin, 1978.
Rosenthal, Jean . .. Native Son--Backstage: Theatre Arts, no. 25
(June 1941), 467-70.
Schumann, Marguerite. The First State University: A Walking Guide.
Revised ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,
Warren, Virginia Lee. Argentina Doubles as Chicago Locale for 'Na-
tive Son.' .. The New York Times, 21 May 1950, late ed., sec.
Watts, Richard, Jr. "Killer at Large." Rev. of Native Son, by Paul
Green and Richard Wright. New York Herald Tribune, 25
March 1941, late ed., 14.
Webb, Constance. Richard Wright: A Biography. New York: Put-
nam, 1968.
Whipple, Sidney B. Native Son Stark Drama Stamped With Genius.
Rev. of Native Son, by Paul Green and Richard Wright. New
York World-Telegram, 25 March 1941, 14.
-. -welles Strives Only for Effects. Rev. of Native Son, by Paul
Green and Richard Wright. New York World-Telegram, 29
March 1941,7.
Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper, 1940 .
. Native Son. With an Introduction, How 'Bigger' Was Born, by
the Author. New York: Harper, 1987 .
. -rheatrical Folk Seem Odd to the Author of Native Son. New
York World-Telegram, 22 March 1941, 6.
1 All references to correspondence, unless otherwise noted,
are taken from the Paul Green papers in the Southern Historical Col-
lection of the University of North Carolina Library at Chapel Hill.
2See Barbara Learning, Orson Welles: A Biography, 203-4,
212; and Frank Brady, Citizen Welles, 235-39, 294.
3The article that Wright wrote for the New York World-
Telegram is cited incorrectly (see my "works consulted" for correct
information); Herman Mankiewicz, a business partner of Welles and
Houseman, is referred to as "John Mankievicz"; Wright and Green are
said to have met in Washington in January 1941, although they
actually met in New York (and later Philadelphia); and Bynum Hall,
where Wright and Green wrote the first working draft of the Native
Son dramatization, is incorrectly identifed as a former slave quarters
two miles outside Chapel Hill. Bynum Hall, which was built in 1904,
is located near the center of the UNC campus and originally was a
gymnasium. It was later converted to office space and today
houses, among other things, the Affirmative Action Office
(Schumann, 58). The number and kind of errors in this section of
Fabre's book indicate that he did not verify his sources of informa-
40n 25 March 1940, an advertisement in The New York
Times boasted that Native Son was "Selling 2000 a day!.. Sales were
especially strong in the South, where the novel received excellent
reviews in many of the larger newspapers, and in Chicago, where
heavy advertising helped make it the city's number one best-seller
("Success Story," The Publishers' Weekly, 6 April 1940, 1387-88;
"'Native Son' Sells Rapidly," The Publishers' Weekly, 16 March 1940,
5The exact reasons for banning the play are unclear. One
high-ranking official is said to have characterized it as too sexy"
(Webb, 113). A more likely explanation is that the WPA found it diffi-
cult to justify spending taxpayers' money on a play that attacked the
American "justice" system in such an offensive manner. At one point
in the play, a young white prisoner, Bright Boy, is flogged for
expressing sympathy for Runt, a black prisoner who has been con-
fined to a sweat box for eleven days as punishment for masturbation.
After the flogging, the tyrannical warden orders Bright Boy to sing
"America" in honor of the Fourth of July. His song ends weakly as
Runt's stiffened corpse is pulled from the box.
6AJI references to Native Son are taken from the 1987 edition
of Wright's novel and are followed by page numbers in my text.
7Jn a letter to one of Wright's biographers, Green says that,
during negotiations with Wright's agent, he agreed to undertake the
dramatization provided that "I be allowed freedom in making the
Communist matter in the book more comic than Wright had it, and
further that I have freedom to introduce some new characters if
needed, and still further that before Bigger Thomas died he should
come to some sort of recognition that he too as a human being had
participated in his own fate" (Paul Green to Constance Webb, 9 May
1967). Green's letter to Houseman, quoted in the text, was written
after reading the one-sided account of the dramatization given by
Houseman in Run-Through, an account that Green characterized as
"full of inaccuracies and gapped with omissions. In his letter, Green
chided Houseman for, among other things, failing to mention this
agreement in his book.
8According to Green, the University chancellor said he was
pleased to have a nationally recognized author associated with the
school; moreover, because the campus was not crowded during the
summer, he did not expect the "color question .. to be an issue. As
Green tells it, they worked in peace until the last day of Wright's visit.
The night before, Green's secretary, who lived in a small town several
miles from campus, had given a party in Wright's honor. Some of the
neighbors, apparently offended by the idea of blacks and whites
mixing socially, complained to the University and actually organized
a group of men to run Wright out of town. Green went to where the
men were meeting and eventually defused the situation. Wright
returned to New York without knowledge of the incident (Paul Green
to Constance Webb, 9 May 1967). The account does not appear in
Green's diary, but there are no entries at all from 22 June to 12
August 1940.
91n my discussion of the dramatization, I refer to some
literary features as Green's and some as Wright's. This is done not to
assign credit to one author or the other, but rather to highlight dif-
ferences between the novel and the play. Firsthand accounts of the
dramatization make it clear that many ideas were developed in joint
discussions, particularly during the writing of the first draft.
O'fhe next season, Life magazine was flooded with angry
letters when it printed a picture of black actor Paul Robeson, as
Othello, with his arm around white actress Uta Hagen, who played
Desdemona (Life, 31 August 1942).
11 Passages from the manuscripts are cited in this manner:
Manuscript number, act, scene, page number. For a full description
of the manuscripts and my abbreviations, see the list of abbreviations
at the end of this article.
2Wright was involved with several projects during the fall,
among them: an independent theatre group that would put
authentic Negro life on stage; Twelve Million Black Voices, his folk
history of American Negro life; and the national elections (Fabre,
218-19; Richard Wright to Paul Green, 3 October 1940).
3Houseman's phrase, New York long ago, may have been
a sarcastic reference to their meeting at Thanksgiving, implying "You
haven't done much since. It is more likely, however, that Houseman
was referring to one of their early meetings in September, since the
script in question was a polished version of the "first rough working
draft ...
At some point during the fall, Wright and Green decided
that too many of the characters' names began with the letter "8," and
that this might prove confusing during rehearsals. Consequently,
Bessie became Clara, Bertha Thomas became Hannah, and Boris
Max became Paul (later Edward).
15Aithough Green's file copy of the telegram is undated, he
specifically mentions it in his letter to Wright dated 30 January 1941.
16Excerpts from this version of Native Son are taken from
Burns Mantle's The Best Plays of 194(}-41, which provides a synopsis
of the p i ~ as it was performed on Broadway.
1 The 14 February opening of Welles' s film had been
suspended by the RKO Radio Pictures board of directors, pending a
legal investigation designed to determine whether the film would
expose them to a libel suit from publishing magnate William
Randolph Hearst, who said that the film was a personal attack on him
(Brady, 285-86).
18Green later told of leaving the theatre on his way to Penn
Station: 1 noticed a sign painter working up on the outer wall. ...
He had already painted 'Native Son' in big letters and under that the
splashing names of Green and Wright as authors of the drama. I
learned that a day or so later Orson saw this and let out a scream.
He had our names erased and in still bigger splashing letters 'Orson
Welles' NATIVE SON' was put up" (Paul Green to Constance Webb, 9
May 1967). Although the details cannot be verified, this anecdote
effectively illustrates just how combative the artists had become,
each trying to put his own special stamp on the play.
191n an article titled "Theatrical Folk Seem Odd to the Author
of Native Son," Wright says, "Honestly, I don't think I'd ever become
accustomed to the theater or grow to feel at home in it. . . . To a man
who has steeped his mind in prose, there is something just a little bit
shameful and embarrassing about the theater, and no doubt to a
theatrical personality a writer who is chasing words and trying to fas-
ten them upon paper is engaged in a rather isolated and ridiculous
pursuit" few York World-Telegram, 22 March 1941).
ONative Son: From Novel to Play, by Richard Wright,
WNYC, New York, 8 April 1941.
21Houseman wired Green that they had postponed the open-
ing in order to get the show "running fast and smooth" (John
Hous[e]man to Paul Green, 15 March 1941). Welles insisted on rapid
set changes between scenes, and according to stage manager Jean
Rosenthal, a complete shift took only forty-five seconds ("Native
Son-Backstage," 467 -68).
22John Anderson's review of Native Son conspicuously failed
to mention Orson Welles. Hearst, who was still attempting to block
the release of Citizen Kane, had ordered that there be no publicity,
articles, or mention of any kind of any RKO film" in any of his papers
(Brady, 278). Presumably, this gag order also included any mention
of Welles.
23The show continued to play for some time afterward, with
successful runs in most of the major northern cities. Green saw a
performance in New York in December 1942, and still regretted the
murder being presented as reality and not as Bigger's nightmare
remembrance--as Wright and I first conceived it (Paul Green to Paul
R. Reynolds Jr., 13 December 1942).
Paul Green and Native Son, North Carolina Anvil, 2 May
1967, 1 +; Paul Green, Native Son: A Revised Dramatization, Black
Drama: An Anthology, William Brasmer and Dominick Consolo, eds.,
(Columbus: Merrill, 1970), 69-1n.
25The new ending included revisions suggested by Mrs.
Richard Wattenberg
During the 1980s, such American women playwrights as Beth
Henley, Marsha Norman, Tina Howe, and Wendy Wasserstein had
successful Broadway productions, and Henley, Norman, and Was-
serstein won Pulitzer Prizes. While such triumphs suggest a widen-
ing of the traditionally male-dominated American playwriting elite to
include diverse new voices, some feminist critics claim that accept-
ance Into the theatrical "establishment" precludes radically new
approaches to aesthetic or gender issues.
Mainstream women
playwrights may indeed avoid radical innovations, but they have
challenged traditional cultural myths. Moreover, these challenges
may indicate a shifting sense of national identity. Such a shift seems
to underlie a recent set of four frontier plays, all written by women
and developed and performed in major regional theaters: Karen
Hensel, Patti Johns, Elana Kent, Sylvia Meredith, Elizabeth Uoyd
Shaw, and Laura Toffenetti's Going to See the Elephant (first per-
formed by the Los Angeles Repertory Theatre in August, 1982); Molly
Newman and Barbara Damashek's Quilters {originally developed and
produced by The Denver Center Theatre Company and first staged in
New York City at the Jack Lawrence Theatre in September, 1984);
Beth Henley's Abundance (first produced by the South Coast
Repertory Theatre in April, 1989, and subsequently produced in New
York by the Manhattan Theatre Club in October, 1990); and Darrah
Cloud's adaptation of Willa Cather's novel 0 Pioneers! (work-
shopped at Seattle Repertory in 1989 and produced at the Hunting-
ton Theatre, Boston, in January, 1990, and the Center Stage,
Baltimore, in November, 1990). While writing for mainstream
theaters, the authors of these four plays have entered a previously
male domain, the "Old West," and have significantly contributed to
the creation of a "revisionist Western" genre,
which challenges that
bastion of orthodox American-ness, the popular frontier Western
In confronting the popular Western myth, these playwrights
have aligned themselves with a new generation of women historians
who are rewriting Western American history. Since the late 1970s,
such historians as Julie Roy Jeffrey, Joanna L. Stratton, Sandra L.
Myres, Lillian Schlissel, and Glenda Riley have contested traditional
assumptions about pioneer women. 3 Exploring primary sources
such as the letters, diaries, and memoirs of women settlers, these
historians have noted the inaccuracy of such conventional images of
frontier women as "the weary and forlorn frontier wife" or "drudge;
"the sturdy help-mate" or "Gentle Tamer, and "the bad woman or
"Calamity Jane figure.
The playwrights discussed here also have
rejected stereotyped images of women pioneers, but while such his-
torians as Myres and Riley have tried to refute stereotypes by calling
attention to facts that contradict them, the playwrights have--not
surprisingly--taken a different approach. Paralleling the Aristotelian
separation of poetry from history, the playwrights represent "what
may happen as opposed to "what has happened.s Rather than
focus on specific historical events, "the particular, they imitate
actions that are "significant" insofar as these actions follow generic
patterns that provide the frontier experience with a new mythical
shape. In short, these playwrights formulate a frontier myth that is
more relevant to late twentieth-century concerns than is the tradi-
tional frontier myth.
This now dated traditional frontier myth is closely related to the
tum-of-the-century essays of Frederick Jackson Turner. Beginning
with "The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1893),
Turner argued that "the existence of an area of free land, its con-
tinuous recession, and the advance of American settlement
westward, explain American development. "6 He held that this area
of free land," this frontier, was "the outer edge of the wave--the meet-
ing point between savagery and civilization .. . the line of most rapid
and effective Americanization.
Here, American democracy was
created from the interaction of Eastern pioneer and Western environ-
ment. At first, Turner wrote, "the wilderness masters the colonist ....
He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so
he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. -a
Once adapted to the frontier, the pioneer begins to tame it: Uttle by
little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old
Europe. . . . Here is a new product that is American . ..g This new
product: American democracy, was thus born of the union or mar-
riage" of Eastern civUized pioneer and Western savage environment.
Turner's interpretation of frontier development can be expli-
cated by reference to Northrop Frye's typology of mythical patterns
in literature. Indeed, Turner's frontier marriage of pioneer and
environment can be viewed in terms of what Frye called "the mythos
of spring, comedy. For Frye, comedy was one of four narrative
categories-also including romance, tragedy, and irony or satire--
each identified with a "mythos or generic plot that represents a
single phase of an encompassing super-myth depicting the cyclical
movement within the order of nature. "
0 Comedy is the first phase of
this super-myth. The plot of comedy centers on the efforts,
eventually successful, of a hero to overcome a series of obstacles
that separate him from the heroine he adores. Frye claims that ''the
movement of comedy is usually a movement from one kind of
society to another. . . . At the end of the play the device in the plot
that brings hero and heroine together causes a new society to crys-
tallize around the hero .. . . "
1 According to Frye, the advent of this
"new society" at the play's end is often celebrated by a "party or fes-
tive ritual," and, of these celebrations, weddings are most com-
mon."12 Such a symbolic marriage heralding a "new society" seems
to underlie Turner's understanding of the "marriage" of Eastern civi-
lized pioneer and Western savage locale--a marriage that heralds a
new democratic American society.
This frontier "marriage," however, is not as simple as it may
appear. Underlying it are a series of binary oppositions: Euro-
pean/Native American, EastjWest, civilization/savagery, and individ-
ual/environment. Moreover, as deconstructionist critics suggest,
such oppositions are hierarchical.13 One pole represents the center,
the ground; the other the margin, the unnecessary. Just as Frye's
"new society" crystallizes "around the hero" (my emphasis), Turner's
"new society" crystallizes around the European pioneer-purified of
unnecessary "civilization" and thus, having been returned to a natural
state, embodying the more valued poles of the various other opposi-
tions at work within this myth: West, savagery, individualism. As
revisionist historian Patricia Nelson Limerick writes, "English-
speaking white men were the stars of (Turner's] story."1
romanticizing Western savagery, the tum-of-the-century frontier myth
expressed the exuberant confidence of white males benefiting from
the nation's past century of unprecedented geographical and indus-
trial growth.
A Turnerlike version of the frontier myth emerges in such late-
nineteenth-century, popular frontier melodramas as Bartley Camp-
bell's My Partner (1879), which, inspired by Bret Harte's stories,
appeared even before Turner proclaimed his "thesis," and in such
tum-of-the-century plays as Owen Wister and Kirk La Shelle's adap-
tation of Wister's The Virginian (1904), David Belasco's The Girl of
the Golden West (1905), and William Vaughn Moody's The Great
Divide (1906). However, while Turner envisioned a "marriage" of civi-
lized pioneer and savage environment, these playwrights present the
frontier "marriage" of civilization and savagery as a literal marriage of
characters representing a savage West and a civilized East. Camp-
bell's play, for instance, concludes with the marriage of a cultivated
Eastern heroine and a rough-hewn Western hero that heralds a future
of peace and harmony.
5 A similar development underties Moody's
play. Here, the New Englander, Ruth Jordan, is abducted in Act 1.
from her Arizona home by the Western outlaw Stephen Ghent.
Ghent's devotion to Ruth soon transforms him, and--after she over-
comes her Eastern-bred moral scruples--Ruth embraces Ghent and
Western freedom. The play ends with the promise of future joy for
the two characters and, by implication, for the entire nation.
Tracing the romance of a "savage" hero and a .. civilized"
heroine, Moody, like Campbell, employs traditional--If now dated--
gender types to enact the .. marriage" of Western "savagerY and East-
ern "civilization." In accordance with late-nineteenth-century gender
expectations, the men are rough outdoorsmen who are or become
hard-working miners, and the women are refined domestic creatures
who personify civilized ideals.
These culturally derived gender
associations effect a displacement in the form of the frontier myth.
The focus is no longer on a male pioneer interacting with a savage
locale but on a "savage" male pioneer interacting with a "civilized"
female. Even so, the outcome is the same: A democratic "new
society .. established by white male pioneers is the result of a mar-
riage of civilization and savagery. Although female/civilization and
male/savagery are poised as equal opposites, this opposition is
again hierarchical, as, not surprisingly, ~ h device in the plot that
brings hero and heroine together causes a new society to crystallize
around the hero." In such plays as Campbell's and Moody's, as well
as in such others as The Virginian and The Girl of the Golden West,
period gender constructs serve to legitimize a simplified version of
Turner's frontier myth--a version that places ultimate value not only
on the male but also on a romanticized frontier savagery.
The view of the frontier that underlies this "marriage" of oppos-
ing gender /region principles has been challenged during the
twentieth century. Attitudes about the frontier changed dramatically
during the 1930s when socio-economic crises undermined faith in
the Turner frontier myth.
9 Depression-era doubts about the frontier
myth permeate such plays as Robert Sherwood's The Petrified
Forest (1934), John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937), and Wil-
liam Saroyan's The Time of Your Ute (1939). Questioning the myth
has continued to be a theme in mid- and late twentieth-century plays
as diverse as Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949), Arthur
Kopit's Indians (1968), and Sam Shepard's True West (1980). Ironi-
cally, the interaction of civilization and savagery still seems to be
central to many of these twentieth-century plays, but rather than
climaxing with a marriage of opposites, they frequently end
ambiguously--leaving civilization and savagery unsynthesized. The
joyful marriage of male/savagery and female/civilization implying an
optimistic American future often gives way to an irreconcilable oppo-
sition of a feminine male/civilization and a masculine male/savagery
(such as the Austin/Lee opposition in True West) intimating the con-
tradictory American present. 20 Although women become largely
irrelevant to the action, the feminine element remains. In fact, the
principle polarities of the traditional frontier myth go unchallenged.
The frontier myth is an issue in the above mentioned twentieth-
century plays, but the tendency in these plays is to deal with frontier
themes within post-frontier settings: Except in Indians, the Old West
is not presented. 2
Quitters, Going to See the Elephant, Abundance,
and 0 Pioneers (the play) are, however, each set in the Old West--
but not Turner's Old West. While, as Sandra Myres has claimed,
Turner's pioneers "were explorers, fur trappers, miners, ranchers,
farmers, all of them male . . . , "
the pioneers in these plays are, for
the most part, women, and the frontier West that is presented is
viewed primarily from their perspective. In moving women from the
margin to the center, these plays effect a deconstruction of the old
frontier myth--overcoming the civilization/savagery opposition so
important to it.
The shift of women from margin to center is very evident in
Newman and Damashek's Quilters. Presenting more than the
actions of a single group of fictional characters, Quitters offers a
composite portrait of the "pioneer woman." Sarah McKendree Bon-
ham and her six daughters are portrayed by a cast of seven, but
within the play's various scenes, the seven performers "transform into
.. . different characters. "
A musical montage rather than a "straight
Quilters dramatizes a wide-range of experiences drawn from a
variety of sources, including the studies of pioneer women written by
Schlissel and Stratton (5).
A rationale for the play's loose structure is offered at the start
of the play: The montage form is modelled on quilt construction.
The play dramatizes Sarah's Quilt":
My name is Sarah McKendree Bonham. I've lived a long
time and I've made a heap of quilts. But this last one that I'm
making, this one's gonna be my best effort ever. It's like a
family album. Each block means something special to me.
My grandmother's patterns is in this quilt, and my marna's . .
. my aunt's, my daughters', my sisters', my friends' and
many more. They're all here and so's this great prairie that
we all lived on (7).
Quilters traces a history of life on the prairie from Block One, "Rocky
Road," dealing with the migration west, to Block Two, "Dugout,"
focussing on the first rough abodes, to Block Thirteen, "Log Cabin,"
revolving around the construction of more sophisticated dwellings.
But, more important, the play traces the life ltpatternlt underlying the
pioneer woman's experiences on the frontier. Presenting in sequen-
tial order scenes concerned with birth, childhood, puberty, marriage,
domestic responsibilities, aging, and death, Quilters dramatizes the
biological, social, .and psychological development of a composite
pioneer woman.
In presenting a composite pioneer woman's (or, in this case,
.. Sarah's") journey through life, Quilters deals with frontier marriage
as one stage in the journey, but the play is not structured around the
climactic marriage of Frye's mythos of spring, comedy. The play
deals with the innocence of youthful dreams and adventures but is
not set within the wish-fulfilling dream wortd of Frye's mythos of sum-
mer, romance. While the play offers scenes of joyous celebration,
the frontier life cycle presented here is full of heartaches as well--the
horrors of unattended childbirth, infant mortality, natural disasters,
and desperate attempts to abort pregnancies by mothers already
over-burdened with children. In fact, the rigors of frontier life provide
a context within which the natural life cycle is stripped of romantic
Illusions regarding "civilization" and/or "savagery." This emancipa-
tion from illusion is, in Northrop Frye's words, "an emancipation
which is at the same time a restriction, because the order of nature is
present. ..
Indeed, from the perspective of Frye's typology of mythi-
cal structures, this play adopts the structure of -.he mythos of
autumn, tragedy, which, according to Frye, traces a movement from
innocence to experience. 25
Indicating the natural life process underlying all human experi-
ence, this play, like Frye's mythos of tragedy, seems to lead up to an
epiphany of law, of that which is and must be:26 During the play,
Sarah comes to grips with this .. law":
You can't always change things. Sometimes you don't have
no control over the way things go. Hail ruins the crop or the
fire bums you out. And then you're just given so much to
work with in a life, and you have to do the best you can with
what you got. The materials is passed on to you or is all you
can afford to buy ... that's just what's given to you. Your
fate. But the way you put them together is your business.
You can put them in any order you like (55).
Sarah is not defeated but realistically accepts the limits of her power
to control her own destiny.
The play presents the frontier experience as an initiatory ritual
that concludes with a new insight into and acceptance of life's chal-
lenges. This cJimax is celebrated with the singing of the play's final
line, "At evening time there shall be light light light light light!" (59).
The initiatory dimension of this play is highlighted by Sarah's last
request that the Legacy Quilt, a metaphor for the play itself, not be
buried with her but be passed along from one daughter to the next--
each keeping it for one year. Moreover, she hopes that her
daughters will show it to her grandchildren and her great-
grandchildren and "tell them the stories that are in it (58). In this
way, the frontier experiences pictured in the quilt and embodied in
the play are transformed into the material of an initiation rite to be
partaken of by future generations of women. Thus, the fulfillment of
Sarah's last request set in the play's last scene or "block," aptly titled
"Tree of Life," promises a continuity of experience.
Quilters, then, presents an initiation ceremony for women.
Celebrating the pioneer woman's experience and, at the same time,
grounding this experience in the female's natural life cycle, this play
suggests the kind of feminism that Jill Dolan calls "cultural femi-
nism"--a mode of American feminism that came to the fore in the
1970s and avows that, "because they can give birth," women are
"instinctually more natural, more closely related to life cycles mir-
rored in nature" than men, who are "removed from nature, which they
denigrate rapaciously."
Indeed, the kind of "knowledge" that Dolan
describes when writing that "the revelation of women's experience
and intuitive, spiritual connection with each other and the natural
world is idealized as the basis of cultural feminist knowJedge"28 is the
kind of "knowledge" conveyed in the initiation presented in Quilters.
The notion that the frontier experience can be understood as
an "initiation" is relevant not only to Quilters, but also to Going to See
the Elephant, Abundance, and 0 Pioneers! (the play). However,
unlike Quilters, these plays do not represent specifically female initia-
tion rites but the feminization of general initiation rites--that is, in fol-
lowing the movement from innocence to experience, each of these
three plays represents a kind of initiation that is, ironically, a modified
version of what Joseph Campbell refers to as the "traditional idea of
initiation." Campbell wrote:
When the child outgrows the popular idyll of the mother
breast and turns to face the world of specialized adult action,
it passes, spiritually, into the sphere of the father--who
becomes, for his son, the sign of the future task, and for his
daughter, of the future husband .... The traditional idea of
initiation combines an introduction of the candidate into the
techniques, duties, and prerogatives of his vocation with a
radical readjustment of his emotional relationship to the
parental images. 29
Reversing this movement from the mother's sphere to the father's,
the three plays discussed here present a movement from the patriar-
chal position inherent in the Turner frontier myth, which utilizes an
Eastern civilization/Western savagery polarity to present white male
conquest, to something similar to the kind of feminist sensibility that
is in tune with the cyclical continuity and mutability of nature.
Although these plays portray a movement toward a feminist
sensibility that is confluent with what Jill Dolan has defined as
"cultural feminism," the authors of these plays are not merely
attempting to justify women's experiences. They offer a version of
the frontier myth that--although growing out of a feminist
perspective--seems to transcend gender. 30
The movement from "the father's sphere" to "the mother's
sphere" is emphatically presented in Hensel, Johns, Kent, Meredith,
Shaw, and Toffenetti's Going to See the Elephant.31 Set in front of
the Wheeler sod house in Kansas on two days circa 1870 and
focussing on the relationship of Sara and her mother-in-law and
"initiator," Maw, Going to See the Elephant presents the last phase of
Sara's initiation into "the mother's sphere." During the play, the tradi-
tional categories, malejWestjsavagery and femalejEastjcivilization,
are introduced and then discredited both as devices for stereotyping
pioneer men and women and as elements in a larger mythical
synthesis of frontier experience.
The civilization/savagery opposition enters the play through
Helene Nichols and Etta Bailey who--besides Sara and Maw--are the
play's only other on-stage characters (Sara's husband and children
are in town shopping for an upcoming 4th of July gala). Helene, a
recent arrival from the East, embodies the values and interests of
"civilization... The authors describe her as "a lady ... gracious and
refined, or trying to be, under brutal circumstances. She would have
been fine had she stayed in New York and presided over tea parties"
(6). Educated at New York University, Albany, Helene was a member
of the New York wealthy elite. Believing that luxury hindered spiritual
growth, she and her husband came west where they had hoped to
join a utopian commune structured on Thoreau's principles. Having
found only failed promises, the Nichols want to return east but have
been forced to stay with the Wheelers because Mr. Nichols, who is
heard but not seen, is too ill to move.
Helene's foil, Etta, a visiting neighbor of the Wheelers, is
closely linked to Western "savagery." She is described as the play's
-.east educated" character "who has lived all her life on the prairies of
Kansas." She is "simple . . . unaffected and child-tike" (5). When Etta
first enters, she is "wearing man's clothes with heavy men's boots,
severely cropped hair, a knife scabbard at her waist and carrying a
bowie-type knife in her hand. She is filthy .. . " (15). Her connection
with frontier savagery is further stressed by the fact that she was a
Cheyenne captive for more than a year. Because of this traumatic
experience, Etta has the special bond with the savage West that
Richard Slatkin discusses in Regeneration Through Violence. Trac-
ing the frontier myth back to Puritan stories about Indian captivities,
Slatkin writes that Indian captivity has been viewed since the seven-
teenth century as a way "of being initiated into the life of the wilder-
Going to See the Elephant appears to have a kind of sym-
metry: Maw and Sara Wheeler are focal characters subject to the
equal pull of Eastern civilization (Mrs. Nichols) and Western savagery
(Etta). However, during the course of the play, it becomes clear that
neither pure civilization nor pure savagery exists; Mrs. Nichols and
Etta reveal themselves as mixtures of both principles. Etta's savage
appearance and past experiences are offset by her interest in things
civilized. She walks five miles just to see the Eastern Mrs. Nichols.
Moreover, hoping to lure a proposal of marriage from a prospective
beau, she asks Sara to help her make a dress from the new cloth that
she bought with her ,.rescue money.'' Thus, Etta looks forward to
functioning domestically in her own Western household. While Etta
longs for traditional domesticity, Mrs. Nichols prepares--at the play's
end- to ignore domestic responsibilities and leave her sick husband.
Her impatience to escape the West, to go back east, even at the
expense of her husband's life, strikes Maw as "savagery" itself. Maw
rebukes her: "You're nothing but a savage Mrs. Nichols. For all your
fine manners and fancy words, you're nothing but a vengeful savage.
You' re so busy trying to get back to civilization, but you ain't even
civilized" (55). Just as Etta's savagery has a civilized dimension, so
Mrs. Nichols' Eastern civilization is marred by a harsh savagery not
born in the West.
In Going to See the Elephant, the binary opposition of Eastern
civilization and Western savagery is deconstructed. On the frontier, it
is often difficult to distinguish the savage from the civilized, and so
one must embrace both. Maw may condemn Helene's behavior, but,
when a Wheeler cow is killed by wolves, she is not squeamish about
butchering the carcass herself. As she says, the pioneer needs the
vision that "is food for the soul (55), needs the dreams brought from
the East, but also must accept the onerous challenges posed by
frontier life. CivUization and savagery are subsumed within the larger
question of frontier survival.
Life on the frontier requires the kind of adaptability that Maw
has cultivated in her daughter-in-law, Sara. Like Mrs. Nichols, Sara
has suffered misfortune. She lost her first child during the "awful cold
winter of '64" (39). With Maw's help, she made it through the "terrible
silence of that winter to the spring, when one day she visited her
husband in the fields, they embraced, and she knew "we was all right
again" (40). Sara has found her place within the never-ending natural
cycle. At the play's end, Maw tries to lead Mrs. Nichols to a similar
Building something big will always break your back, and
your heart too, from time to time. But there's satisfaction
simply in surviving, and pride in living it. Nothing's ever fin-
ished out here, you gotta take your pleasure In trying, that's
the only truth I know. . . . Embrace your fear. Run towards
it, not away from it (56).
Although Mrs. Nichols rejects Maw's message, under Maw's
tutelage, Sara has learned well. Despite Sara's anxiety about her
ability to handle life without Maw, Maw is aware that .. It's time .. (49).
Consequently, at the play's end, Maw plans to head further west.
Maw's anticipated departure prevents Going to See the
Elephant from having the kind of closure typical of such
melodramatic plays as The Great Divide. Her desire to travel pro-
jects the play's action into the future. Significantly, she tells Sara:
There was a slave on my daddy's place was ... old [a hun-
dred and ten]. She worked in the fields every day and had a
lover was only fifty-five. That's what keeps you alive, work,
love and curiosity. You gotta keep turning those pages to
see what happens, for better or worse (14-15).
For her part, Sara is pregnant, and, thus suggesting the ever-
continuing cycle of birth and death, she too projects the play's action
into an unfinished future. The old frontier myth that revolves around
a climactic marriage .. of East and West gives way to a new view of
the frontier experience as an initiation that takes the novice, Sara,
beyond such narrow categories as civilization and .. savager( to an
acceptance of Maw's understanding of life as a continuous becom-
In Abundance, Beth Henley traces a similar progression.
Again the romanticized civilization/savagery opposition, inherent in
Turner's patriarchal version of the frontier myth, gives way to a vision
of the frontier experience as a continuous becoming. In Henley's
play, however, there is no Maw to offer the wisdom of the mother's
sphere. Furthennore, whUe Going to See the Elephant presents only
the last phase of Sara's initiation, Abundance presents the frontier
initiation in its entirety. Set for the most part in the Wyoming territory
during a twenty-five year period beginning in the late 1860s, this play
traces the struggle of two women for insight into their very different
frontier experiences.
At the play's start, the two women, Bess Johnson and Macon Hill,
have just arrived in Wyoming and are waiting at a stagecoach ranch
for their husbands-to-be, whom they have yet to meet. As they share
their hopes and expectations, it becomes apparent that each is
drawn to a different pole of the civilization/savagery opposition. The
timid Bess aspires to a comfortable, civUized" home and a happy
married life. Fantasizing that she and her husband will love each
other as in stories about princesses and chimney sweeps and
dragon slayers, 33 Bess promises to be a good wife, patient and
submissive .. (10). On the other hand, Macon hungers for the adven-
tures of a .. savage .. Western frontier:
"wildly," Macon delicately dances "the quadrille ... the latest dancing
fashion" (33).
Both Macon and Bess undergo a reverse .. transformation after
Bess returns from five years of captivity by the Indians. Demoralized
by the discovery that her husband and Macon are having an affair,
Bess at first resists civilization. She is, nevertheless, lured back into a
so-called civilized life by Elmore Creme, a Ned Buntline-style pro-
moter who wants to help her write about her Western adventures. In
working with Creme, who embodies the commercial imperative
underlying Eastern civilization, Bess accepts a civilization that
manufactures lies and illusions--some of the same lies and illusions
that she herself had believed when she first arrived on the frontier.
Bess' acceptance of deceit is apparent when, in order to succeed on
the Eastern lecture circuit, she adopts a persona stolen from the
adventure-hungry Macon that she first knew.
While Bess embraces a crassly commercial civilization,
which inverts the values that she once held so dear, Macon sinks into
savagery" -but, again, not the joyous, romanticized savagery" of her
earlier dreams. When Macon's farm fails and Curtis leaves her, she is
forced to abandon the settled, staid and dreamless life in which, as
Bess says, she has looked forward to things by decades (55).
Freed from civilized restraints, Macon at last can begin to live the
wild, independent life that she once desired; however, now an older
woman, impoverished and alone, she only regrets that "I got nothing.
Nothing. After all this time . ... Nothing (58).
The play's last scenes are set fifteen years later in St. Louis. Both
women have faDed to find the abundance of the play's title. Bess,
no longer the lecture circuit star, has not found the domestic bliss
that she sought, and Macon, a syphUitic, carnival fortune teller, has
not found the fulfUiment in adventure that she sought. Both began
with romantic ideas about frontier life, and both have experienced the
real complexities of civilization and savagery. In short, for Bess
and Macon, the frontier experience has been an extended initiation;
simplistic illusions are shed as they both finally confront an uncertain
reality. The vicissitudes of their separate destinies have brought
them both to an understanding of life as a ceaseless becoming. As
in Going to See the Elephant, the closure is not complete. While
these women have aged considerably and Macon speaks of her
imminent death, the play ends with Bess and Macon joining each
other in a deeply felt laugh--a laugh that expresses their shared con-
sciousness of life's limitations and the human will to endure these
In Abundance, as well as in Going to See the Elephant, the
protagonists finally embrace ,.that which is and must be; that is, their
frontier experience emancipates them from the simplistic optimism of
the Turner myth, but this emancipation is also a restriction "because
the order of nature is present." Rather than impose artificial
categories on their frontier experience, they learn to accept and work
with what the frontier gives them. Such a view of the frontier myth is
not new. It is akin to the kind of patient nurturing described by such
contemporary critics as Annette Kolodny and Melody Graulich in
their analyses of the feminine frontier myth in American fiction. 34 A
major work in this regard is Willa Cather's first Nebraska novel, 0
Pioneers! (1913).35 Given the challenge that this novel posed the
traditional frontier myth, it is not surprising that a contemporary
playwright, Darrah Ooud, has adapted it to the stage. 36
True to Cather's novel, aoud's play centers on the pioneer
Alexandra Bergson during twenty-five years of her life. As in
Abundance, the play traces an extended initiation, but here the
novice, Alexandra, is a figure of mythic proportions--a driving force in
the settlement of the Nebraska plains. Even as a youth, Alexandra
displays the kind of inner strength that inspires her dying father to
choose her to be the head of the family farm. Soon after the elder
Bergson dies, drought sets in, and Alexandra's two oldest brothers,
Oscar and Lou, want to abandon the land and move to Chicago, but
she refuses to sell and continues to prod her short-sighted brothers
on through bad times to eventual prosperity. Alexandra's successful
development of her land suggests a nurturing spirit typical of the
"mother's sphere; however, during most of the play, she depends on
the binary oppositions of the traditional frontier myth to give form to
her experience. Thus, the play, as the novel, represents Alexandra's
extended initiation into the knowledge that enables her to fully enter
the mother's sphere.
Alexandra's dependence on the categories of the traditional
frontier myth is expressed metaphorically by her close ties to two
men, Crazy lvar and Cart Linstrum, who embody the opposing poles,
savagery and civilization, respectively. The eccentric Crazy lvar
watches over the land, cares for sick animals, and generally
demonstrates an insight into nature that is unique in this play. 3
nurturer, lvar seems to belong to the mother's sphere, and yet, in his
absolute rejection of society, he defines himself as the antithesis of
civilization. Inspired by a primitive Christianity, he renounces all the
corrupting luxuries of civilization for the hardships of an untamed
savage life close to nature. While Alexandra's brothers scoff at lvar,
she remains loyal to him, relying on his advice about when, where,
and what crops to plant.
Carl Linstrum, on the other hand, is a dreamer of a different
sort. A reluctant farmer, he is unhappy digging "in the dirt in the mid-
dle of nowhere" (23). During the drought, his family moves to St.
Louis. After years of struggling in New York City as a wood
engraver, he returns. Although drawn to Alexandra, he is troubled by
her brothers' suspicion that he is a fortune hunter planning to take
advantage of her. He goes off again--this time, west to Alaska, where
he hopes to make his own fortune. Nevertheless, for Alexandra and
her fellow Nebraskans, Cari represents urban "civilization .. --about
which he has very little good to say:
In the cities there are thousands of people like me. When-
ever one of us dies, the only ones who mourn are the land-
lady and the delicatessen man. We leave nothing behind but
a coat and a pile of papers. Maybe a canvas or two. All we
ever managed to do was pay our rent. Exorbitant rent you
have to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of
things. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theatres.
We sit in the restaurants and concerts, look about at the hun-
dreds of people all around us who are just like us, and we
shudder (54-55).
Still, it is for the freedom that Alexandra assumes that city life allows
its residents that she works. Not that she will ever enjoy this free-
dom, but she hopes that her youngest brother Emil will. She con-
fesses to Cart:
I would rather have Emil grow up like you than like his two
brothers. If the world were no wider than my cornfields, if
there were not something besides this, I wouldn't feel it was
much worthwhile to work. It's what goes on in the rest of the
world that reconcUes me to this one (55).
In seeking freedom for Emil, Alexandra has sought to reconcile her
opposing loyalties to lvar and Cart, country and city, nature and
society, and savagery and civilization, but has sacrificed her own
emotional life. Although she claims that a lonely, solitary life has
made her hard like a tree (75), she is haunted by a mysterious
dream figure who appears in the play three times: in an early scene
when her loneliness overwhelms hef (39), after Carl leaves for the
second time, and, finally, late in the play. Changes in Alexandra's
attitude toward this figure, who seems to play a larger role in the
drama than in the novel, indicate stages in her initiation into the
mother's sphere. Embodying the natural law, "that which is and must
be, he at first terrifies her. On the second occasion, she "tries to get
away from him. He seizes her up in his arms. She struggles. He lets
her down. She falls to the ground, shivering. He leaves. Snow
begins to fallu (79).
Before Alexandra can accept this enigmatic plover," she must
complete her "initiationp--she must learn to accept her place in
nature. As Alexandra's young friend, Marie, tells her, "so little that's
new ever happens here. Things just keep repeating themselves: the
weather, the crops, the people. It's hardest on those who don't feel a
part of it. But maybe people always get what's hardest for them"
(82). What is hardest for Alexandra is the necessity of abandoning
her quest to provide Emil the freedom to "choose what he wants to
do with his life" (90)--the quest to use her work in the country to free
him in the city, to thus reconcile savagery and civilization. Reaching
beyond her power to reach, she fails to see how Emil is himself
trapped in a repeating pattern.
Emil and Marie, who is unhappily married to Frank Shabata,
are in love. Alexandra is unaware of this relationship; her emotional
restraint makes it difficult for either Marie or Emil to talk to her about
it. Trapped by a fatal desire, they live out the ever-recurring romantic
tale of futile love and death. On discovering the lovers together,
Frank- in a jealous rage--shoots them both. Emil and Marie's sordid
demise approaches romantic melodrama, but their story is sub-
sumed within the larger recognition that belongs to Alexandra. With
. the death of the two lovers dies Alexandra's hope for a vicarious free-
dom from necessity. Forced to come to grips with her sense of
responsibility for the sad events, Alexandra finally confronts and
accepts life's limits. This acceptance is embodied in Alexandra's final
dream scene: "YOUNG MAN appears, dressed in a cloak that hides
his face. She tries to stand as he beckons to her, but she can't. He
helps her up. She takes a few steps with his aid. She walks on
alone (1 01 ). Alexandra paradoxically both embraces the limits that
life imposes on aspiration and discovers the will to continue with her
To Carl, who has returned, Alexandra confesses the submis-
sion to nature that she has finally learned: "We come and go but the
land will always be here. Those who love and understand it are the
only ones who ever own it. For a while .. . " (106). Yielding up her will
to dominate land and destiny, Alexandra thus frees herself from the
"father's sphere" and fully enters the "mother's sphere." Although the
play ends with the union of Alexandra and Cart (as does the novel),
this is not the climactic marriage of civilization and savagery that
concluded The Great Divide. Here, the union is intentionally anti-
climactic: No great joy is promised--only the warmth of com-
panionship for the difficult days ahead.
Presenting Alexandra's progression of consciousness beyond
the na"ive dream of reconciling civilization and savagery, this play
provides the frontier myth with a structure that accords with what
Northrop Frye called the mythos of autumn, tragedy. Alexandra
undergoes the growth that Frye attributes to the "main characters" of
"full tragedy": She is "emancipated from dream38--that is, this play
leads to "an epiphany of law, of that which is and must be." As in
Quilters, Going to See the Elephant, and Abundance, the frontier
experience functions as an initiation into a life stripped of the false
illusions perpetuated by the Turner myth. Childhood innocence
yields to adult awareness, romanticism gives way to realism, and, as
Frye suggests in speaking of the movement inherent in tragedy,
wish-fulfilling dreams give way to experience.
In 0 Pioneers!, as in Quilters, Going to See the Elephant, and
Abundance, the frontier Western experience has been reinterpreted.
Indeed, the old frontier myth has been deconstructed. Not only is
this myth disrupted by moving women from margin to center, but the
civilization/savagery and female/male oppositions and the myth built
upon these oppositions are entirely overthrown.39 In place of this old
myth, these four plays provide contemporary audiences with a new
myth and a new way of looking at the frontier experience. They offer
the frontier experience as a model for a kind of intellectual and
spiritual growth that is especially relevant to this country in the late
twentieth century. Settling the frontier is no longer seen as a climac-
tic accomplishment but as an on-going process. Rather than glorify-
ing the past, these playwrights remold the frontier myth in order to
make it a significant shaping force for the present and near future.
Lacking the wide-open Western frontier of the nineteenth century and
the seemingly endless possibilities for economic growth prevalent
throughout most of the twentieth century, Americans, who have lost
their youthful" optimism, may find explanations and hope in this new
frontier myth-a myth for a nation that has, perhaps, at last reached
its adulthood ...
1for instance, see Jill Dolan's discussion of Norman's 'night
Mother in the chapter fermnism and the Canon: The Question of
Universality in The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press, 1988), 19-40.
2See Frank Rich, Abundance, Beth Henley's Revisionist
Western, The New York Times, 31 October 1990, C15, C19.
3See Jeffrey, Frontier Women: The Trans-Mississippi West,
1840-1880 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979); Stratton, Pioneer
Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier (New York: Touchstone,
1981); Myres, Westering Women and the Frontier Experience: 1800-
1915 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982); Schlis-
sel, Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey (New York:
Schocken Books, 1982); Riley, The Female Frontier: A Comparative
View of Women on the Prairie and the Plains (lawrence, KS:
Press of Kansas, 1988).
Myres, 2-4.
5Aristotle, Aristotle's Poetics, S.H. Butcher, trans. (New
York: Hill and Wang, 1961), 68.
6Frederick Jackson Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier
in American History," The Frontier in American History (Tucson: The
University of Arizona Press, 1986), 1.
7Turner, 3-4.
B'furner, 4.
9Turner, 4.
10Northrup Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Prin-
ceton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 161. My linking Turner and
Frye here parallels a similar discussion in my essay '"The Frontier
Myth' on Stage: From the Nineteenth Century to Sam Shepard's
True West," Western American Literature 24 {1989), 225-241.
Frye, 163
Frye, 163.
13Jacques Derrida writes, "In a classical philosophical oppo-
sition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a 'vis-a-vis,
but rather with a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs the
other ... or has the upper hand." From Positions, translated and
annotated by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1981), 41. Also, see Jonathan Culler's long chapter "Deconstruction"
in On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982), 85-225.
Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The
Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, 1988), 21.
5for a tuner analysis of the way the frontier myth is handled
in this play, see my essay Americanizing Frontier Melodrama: From
Davy Crockett {1872) to My Partner {1879)," Journal of American Cul-
ture 12:1 (Spring 1989), 7-16.
6For an earlier and more detailed analysis of The Great
Divide in terms of Turner's thesis, see Jerry Pickering, "William
Vaughn Moody, Modem Drama 14 {1971 ), 93-103.
17Regarding the kind of gender ideology that informs these
plays, see Barbara Welter, "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-
1860," American Quarterly 18 {1966), 15174. With respect to women
as "teachers of morality, basic education, and culture" in nineteenth-
century frontier melodrama, see Rosemarie Bank, "Rhetorical,
Dramatic, Theatrical and Social Contexts of Selected American Fron-
tier Plays, 1871-1906," Diss., University of Iowa, 1972, 190-1.
8David Belasco's The Girl of the Golden West, which seems
to invert the traditional gender models, follows the same pattern as
Campbell's and Moody's plays. Belasco focuses on the relationship
of the saloon-keeping Girl and the urbane Dick Johnson; however,
during the play, it is established that the Girl is the innocent teacher
of the local "academy" and Dick is a dangerous bandit.
9tn this regard, see Robert G. Athearn, "'The Dreaming is
Finished'" in The Mythic West in Twentieth-Century America
(Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1986), 78-104. Also see
Gerald D. Nash, Creating the West: Historical Interpretations, 1890-
1990 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991), 28-44,
20Qther examples of this kind of opposition from the plays
mentioned would be: Squier and Mantee in The Petrified Forest,
George and Cur1y in Of Mice and Men, Joe and Blick in The Time of
Your Life, and Happy and Bitt in Death of a Salesman. For a close
analysis of some of these plays, see my essays '"Old West'/New
'West': The New Frontier in Sherwood's The Petrified Forest (1934)
and Saroyan's The Time of Your Life (1939)," The Journal of
American Drama and Theatre 1:2 (Fall1989), 17-33, and "'The Fron-
tier Myth' on Stage: From the Nineteenth Century to Sam Shepard's
True West. For more detailed discussion of how Death of a Sales-
man manifests frontier themes, see Barry Gross, "Peddler and
Pioneer in Death of a Salesman," Studies in Death of a Salesman,
Walter Meserve, ed., (Columbus: Charles E. Merrill, 1972), 29-34,
and Ina Ray Hark, "A Frontier Closes in Brooklyn: Death of a Sales-
man and the Turner Thesis," Postscript 3 (1986), 1-6.
21The Old West has, however, appeared on the film screen
with varying degrees of popularity throughout the twentieth century.
For most of the twentieth century, film Westerns, like the twentieth-
century pulp Western descendants of nineteenth-century dime
novels, have continued to present the frontier West in terms of the
interaction of "civilization and savagery. For a discussion of the
way in which film and pulp novel Westerns treat the frontier myth, see
John Caweltl, The Six-Gun Mystique, 2nd ed. (Bowling Green: Bowl-
ing Green State University Popular Press, 1984).
22Myres, 8.
23Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek, Quilters (New
York: Dramatists Play Service, 1986), 6. Further references to this
play will ~ p e r in the text.
4frye, 206-7.
25Frye, 162.
26frye, 208.
27 JUI Dolan, 7. Sue-Ellen Case has discussed a similar con-
figuration of ideas under the heading of radical feminism. See
Case, Feminism and Theatre (New York: Methuen, 1988), 63-69.
28Dolan, 7.
29Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Prin-
ceton: Princeton University Press, 1949), 136.
301n using feminist categories metaphorically to make a
universal statement, these playwrights use the language of cultural
feminism, but they perhaps have more in common with what Jill
Dolan calls "liberal feminism" (Dolan, 3-5). Although not dealing with
women pioneers, Marsha Norman's The Holdup follows a similar pat-
tern to the plays discussed here. See my essay "Feminizing the
Frontier Myth: Marsha Norman's The Holdup," Modern Drama 33
{1990), 507-17.
31 Karen Hensel, Patti Johns, Elana Kent, Sylvia Meredith,
Elizabeth Lloyd Shaw, and Laura Toffenetti, Going to See the
Elephant (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1983). Further
references to this play will appear in the text. Although perhaps the
least-known of the four plays discussed in this essay, Going to See
the Elephant had a successful run when produced by the Los
Angeles Repertory Theatre andwas listed as one of the "Other Out-
standing New Plays Cited by American Theatre Critics Association
Members in The Best Plays of 1982-83, Otis L Guernsey Jr., ed.,
(New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1983), 62-3.
32Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The
Mythology of the American Frontier, 160()-1800 (Middletown, CN:
Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 102.
33Beth Henley, Abundance (New York: Dramatists Play
Service, 1991), 1 0. Further references to this play wUI appear in the
text. I am very grateful to Ms. Henley, Mr. Parker (Beth Henley's
agent) and Mr. Parker's assistant, Usa Schroeder, for their thought-
fulness and assistance in providing me with a manuscript version of
the play in December, 1990.
34For instance, see Annette Kolodny, The Land Before Her:
Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860
(Chapel HUI: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), and Melody
Graulich, o Beautiful for Spacious Guys': An Essay on the 'Legiti-
mate Inclinations of the Sexes'" in The Frontier Experience and the
American Dream: Essays on American Literature, David Mogen,
Mark Busby, and Paul Bryant, eds., (College Station: Texas A&M
University Press, 1989), 186-201.
35fn this regard, see Sharon O'Brien's discussion of Cather's
0 Pioneers! in Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1987), 428-442. O'Brien describes Cather's new
-vision of the taming of the land, one erasing the polarities and hierar-
chies ... male/female, culture/nature, subject/object (440).
According to O'Brien, Cather presents her pioneer heroine as one
who "mediates between ... polarities of dominance and submission,
who can assert the self and give it up, playing both the roles of
mother and daughter, creator and created" (435-6).
36The play 0 Pioneers! has not yet been published. The fol-
lowing discussion is based on a manuscript version of the play that
Peregrine Whittlesey, Darrah Cloud's agent, kindly provided me in
December, 1990. I am very grateful to Ms. Cloud and Ms. Whittlesey
for their thoughtfulness and assistance. All citations to the script in
the text refer to this manuscript version of the play.
1n his discussion of Cather's novel, 0 Pioneers!, John H.
Randall Ill has referred to the mystical bond that Crazy lvar has to
nature. In this regard, Randall calls lvar "a seer of the wilderness."
See Randall, The Landscape and the Looking Glass (Westport, CN:
Greenwood, 1960), 82-84.
38Frye, 206.
39"fhe two steps described here parallel the two phases of
deconstruction defined by Derrida: 1) the "inversion" or overturning
of the hierarchy and 2) "the irruptive emergence of a new 'concept,' a
concept that can no longer be, and never could be, included in the
previous regime (Derrida, 41-42). See also Culler, 85-86, and
Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (London:
Routledge, 1982), 31.
Call for Papers
26-28 March 1993
College of Charleston
Charleston, SC
Interested scholars are invited to submit papers on any
aspect of American theatre history before the Civil War; those focus-
ing on theatre in the South, and particularly in Charteston, will be
preferred. Papers should be 15 to 20 minutes long and wUI be pre-
sented in open session in Charleston, SC, on 26-28 March 1993.
Accepted papers will be considered for publication in the second
issue of Theatre Symposium. Please send a 150-word abstract of
your paper by 10 January 1993 to Philip G. Hill, Editor; Theatre
Symposium; Furman University; GreenvUie, SC 29613.
David Krasner
I am an invisible man. . . . I am Invisible, understand, simply
because people refuse to see me.
--Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 1947.
Although considerable attention has been given to Charles Gil-
pin's performance in The Emperor Jones, continual preoccupation
with the success of his work in this Eugene O'Neill play has obscured
the facts. Laurilyn J. Harris, in an influential biographical portrait,
proffers the opinion that Gilpin's performance in The Emperor Jones
was his "single great role," and that it was "a sad waste for a talented
actor, who, given the opportunity, could have perhaps created many
fine roles."2 It is imperative, however, that such a sweeping conclu-
sion be scrutinized so that a serious misconception does not
become part of the conventional wisdom. Charles Gilpin's career in
the theatre prior to The Emperor Jones spanned the last decade of
the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth,
when he was both a well-known solo performer and was considered
to be one of the finest character actors in the black theatre as well.
This essay Is an effort to resist the tendency to limit Gilpin's career to
a single role and to redress an injustice that his reputation need not
Doubtlessly, Gilpin's performance in The Emperor Jones took
the white theatre world by storm. In 1946, O'Neill, recalling aJI the
performers who acted in his plays, said: "I can honestly say that
there was only one actor who had carried out every notion of a
character I had in mind. That actor was Charles Gilpin as the
Pultman porter in The Emperor Jones. 3
In 1921, one year after the opening of The Emperor Jones at
the Provincetown Playhouse in New York, Charles Gilpin won the
Drama League Award, the Spingarn medal, and Crisis Magazine's
Man of the Month award.
Uninhibited praise was lavished upon him
by drama critics. Heywood Broun wrote on 4 November 1920:
The Emperor is played by a negro actor named Charles S.
Gilpin, who gives the most thrilling performance we have
seen any place this season. . . . Gilpin Is great. It is a per-
formance of heroic stature. It is so good that the fact that it
is enormously skillful seems only incidental. s
That same day, Kenneth Macgowan wrote:
Gilpin is a sustained and splendid piece of acting. The
moment when he raises his naked body against the moonlit
sky beyond the edge of the jungle and prays, is such a dark
lyric of the flesh, such a cry of primitive being, as I have
never seen in the theatre. 6
Three days later, Alexander Woollcott wrote that Gilpin's acting was
.. an uncommonly powerful and imaginative performance, in several
respects unsurpassed this season in New York. "7 James Weldon
Johnson, recognizing the superb performance, went so far as to
maintain that Gilpin reached the highest point of achievement on the
legitimate stage that had yet been attained by a Negro in America. -a
While such praise had not always been forthcoming from critics of
the tegitimate theatre, the black theatre community, as this essay
will demonstrate, recognized Gilpin as one of the finest character
actors in America long before The Emperor Jones premiered.
Charles Sidney Gilpin was born in Richmond, Virginia, on 20
November 1878, the youngest of a large family.9 His mother,
Caroline White Gilpin, was a nurse in a local segregated city hospital.
His father, Peter, worked when he could as a day laborer in the steel
mills and factories. Gilpin was raised a Roman Catholic and was
sent, up to age fourteen, to the St. Francis School for Colored Chil-
dren, while working part-time as a printer's helper for the black news-
paper, the Richmond Planet. He described events in Richmond that
would determine his eventual involvement in the theatre: t took my
recreation in those days by singing and dancing down at the music
haJI nights-sometimes for a srnaJI piece of change and mostly for the
sheer love of it.
Gilpin and two other youths began singing and dancing at
local honky-tonks. He said that he hung on to this ragged edge of
show business, [and] gradually got a little firmer grip on it. 11 Pos-
sessing a good voice, as well as a talent for dancing and telling
jokes, he considered early on the idea of following other young black
performers into vaudevUie.
By 1892, Gilpin and his mother had moved to Philadelphia,
where, at fourteen, he began to work in the mechanical department
of a white newspaper, The Philadelphia Standard. He has provided a
particuJarly succinct description: t was advancing in my newspaper
work and some of the men who didn't mind my doing the menial
work around the place objected to my encroaching on their field"
In one sense, the prejudice of those Philadelphia news-
papermen benefited the theatre greatly, for Gilpin was forced to leave
newspaper work and look for immediate employment elsewhere. He
joined a barnstorming troupe, singing in all-black minstrel houses.12
Stranded during a tour through Charlottesville, Virginia, he became a
porter in a barber shop.
3 Gradually, he worked his way north,
where, in 1896, he joined the Perkus and Davis Great Southern
Minstrel Barn Storming Aggregation.
4 After Perkus and Davis
closed in 1898 due to insolvency, Gilpin looked for work in various
professions. From 1898 to 1903, traveling troupes that he had joined
fell by the wayside, often leaving him adrift in strange towns. In 1903,
he joined the Gilmore Canadian Jubilee Singers, owned by Carey
and Carter of Hamilton, Ontario.
5 He enjoyed life in Canada, ,or no
one [there] objected to his color.16
But in the United States, because of his race, Gilpin was not
accepted based on his ability: Always I was judged, first, last, and
all the time, as a negro. And I was not only judged as a negro, but I
was paid as a negro (Mullett, 55). Actors lacking his talent--barely
amateurs--who "didn't know enough to get out of their own wat
(Mullett, 55), would play their scenes and receive half the applause,
but double the pay. He was disturbed by this inequity and seethed at
the prosperity of others whose advantages went no further than
those that racial prejudice could foster.
His big break came in 1905 when he was hired to act with the
Williams and Walker Company. Bert Williams and George Walker
were the finest and most popular African-American comics of the
early twentieth century, although it was not until a European tour
before the King of England in 1903 that their success was assured.1
When they returned from that tour, their popularity extended beyond
the traditional minstrel houses to include more "liberal-minded" white
audiences. During 1905-6, Gilpin performed in popular shows for the
WUiiams and Walker Company, notably, The Two Real Coons, and
Abyssinia.18 Abyssinia premiered at the Majestic Theatre on Broad-
way on 21 February 1906 with Gilpin as a featured player. Lofton
Mitchell described the show as troublesome to the critics: "They
liked it, but they stated bluntly that it was a little 'too arty.' It was too
Caucasian, some critics said, too serious. In other words, they
wanted a fast moving 'darky show.19
Nevertheless, Abyssinia, along with a show called Sman Set,
proved to be immensely popular and toured with a large cast
throughout the United States. Various minstrel companies were
formed out of the WUiiams and Walker group, with actors being inter-
changed like spare parts to fit the needs of each tour. In 1906, Gilpin
left Williams and Walker and joined Gus Hall's Smart Set company in
the role of Uncle Remus Bareland (Sampson, 380).
But Gilpin quickly grew tired of the minstrels, disdaining the
portrayal of members of his race as happy-go-lucky, tap-dancing
banjo players with enormous grins. While building his reputation as
a vaudeville performer, he wanted to test his talent in the realm of
serious drama and comedy. However, at the beginning of the
twentieth century, there were no opportunities for a black actor other
than in the song-and-dance comedies of the vaudeville or minstrel
circuit. Conditions in vaudeville at that time were restrictive; black
performers were limited in what they could do. During one of his
acts, Gilpin and the actress Lillian Morrison improvised, turning their
vaudeville routine into something of a story. It infuriated the theatre
manager, who objected to Gilpin and Morrison's encroachment upon
realistic, human themes. This evoked an acute perception on Gil-
pin's part:
Don't you see? We were colored! Therefore, we must not
be permitted to act. . . . Apparently, colored folks were
not supposed to be regular human beings, with knowledge
of life. They were just human eccentricities, that did certain
old tricks, wore certain kinds of queer clothes, and were
funny, the way monkeys in a zoo are funny .... Well, you
can't blame me if I wanted to be something more than a
monkey . . . (Mullett, 55).
Wanting to prove their worth, Gilpin and a group of about
thirty African-American performers arranged a program of evening
play readings in Chicago. Headed by Robert T. Motts, the company
relied on recently published plays, offering the black community a
chance to enjoy legitimate" theatre that previously had been off-
limits to them. Eventually, eleven actors formed the core of the
group, which came to be called the Pekin Theatre, with Gilpin as the
chief male character actor. It was unthinkable, said Edward A.
Robinson, -.hat black entrepreneurship could sustain such an
ambitious theatre undertaking as the Pekin."20 Yet, their existence
proved that an all-black theatre company--from the usher to the
producer-not only could succeed, but also could sustain itself finan-
cially. S. H. Dudley, a drama critic reviewing for the black newspaper
the Indianapolis Freeman, wrote:
I have never felt so proud of being a colored man as Friday
afternoon, November 23, 1906, when it was my pleasure to
sit in the only recognized Negro Theatre in the world, the
Pekin, and witness a professional matinee given by the Pekin
Stock Company.
It was at the Pekin that Gilpin acquired his reputation as one of
the finest character actors in the Negro theatre--perhaps one of the
finest of all time. Robert T. Motts, who, along with J. Edward Green,
was the theatre's producer, gave Gilpin freedom to perform various
parts, from light opera and olio to domestic comedy and serious
drama. Often, when it appeared that the company was on the verge
of collapse, it was Gilpin's energy and commitment to legitimate
theatre that sustained the spirit that kept the Pekin alive. Gilpin said:
We did good things at the Pekin, but the right people did not
come to see our serious efforts. White folks came in droves
when we did a rattling good musical comedy, but they were
not interested in our dramas and our tragedies. However we
gave one every week (Martin).
Those white audiences that did come to watch the company produce
regular plays expected, according to Gilpin, to be amused, "like
going to a darky camp-meeting" (Mullett, 55). They were pleasantly
surprised. Not only could the "negrotl actors perform serious theatre,
but they also could produce, direct and organize the theatre as well.
Gilpin said: "They remained to applaud. We proved to them negroes
can act" (Mullett, 55).
Throughout his three years at the Pekin, Gilpin shored up his
popularity while increasing his versatility, adding role after role of
variegated characters. His first recorded role at the Pekin came in
May, 1907, when he was featured in The Husbands, a musical com-
edy staged by J. Edward Green.
On 20 March 1909, he played
Fleet in Irvin C. Miller's The Man Upstairs, and on 30 April 1909, he
played Mr. Kirby in Mario Brooks' The Chambermaid--a comedy
adaptation of the French farce, Jane--in which Gilpin portrayed the
guardian of a reckless youth overdrawn in his accounts. One week
later, on 10 April, he opened in a four-act play, The Idlers, as Captain
Merryweather. In July of the same year, the Pekin returned The Hus-
bands to the repertoire, with Gilpin in the role of Dishrag. He per-
formed in several sophisticated comedies such as Bronson Howard's
Young Mrs. Winthrop, where he played the kindly old lawyer. More-
over, Gilpin was by now a regular in the Pan-American Octette, per-
forming shows "consisting of minstrel first part, olio, and illustrated
songs" (Sampson, 500). At this time, Gilpin was also building his
array of solo roles, character portrayals of differing ethnic types--a
kind of story theatre in character make-up. His portrayal of the
Deacon for the Nickols' All-Stars was reviewed in 1910 by the
Indianapolis Freeman:
Every seat was taken long before the curtain rose on Charles
Gilpin, the well -known character actor. When Mr. Gilpin
appeared to tell us some funny things about life, we at once
discovered in him one of the most polished actors now
living. In fact, we would go further, and say that we have yet
to find his superior. He is a character delineator, pure and
simple, and one who is entirely original at all times . . .. He
also has a voice, and when he sang 'My Dusty Southern
Rose' he got all the applause that any actor needs to tell him
that he had reached the top line in cleverness as an artist
(Sampson, 526).
The review clearly indicates that Gilpin was by now recognized as
one of the finest actors in the black theatre of Chicago. The role of
the Baptist Deacon became a mainstay of Gilpin's repertoire, one of
many characters that he performed in his solo act. With the help of
the poet Paul Dunbar, Gilpin worked up a series of elder1y characters
(though, unfortunately, none of these monologues remain). This not
only enhanced his versatility, but gained him training firsthand in
character work involving a diversity of roles.
When he spoke on the craft of acting, he sounded as fresh
and inspiring as any of today's actors:
I have played every kind of character: black, white, Jews,
Chinamen . . .. But I have got my characters from life, not
from seeing other actors do them on stage. . . . When I have
a certain role to play, I go out and look for real people who
are represented by that role. If it is a Chinamen, I go to
Chinatown and study the people there. If it is an East Side
Jew, I go to Grand Street and hang around watching the
people and trying to get the tricks of speech and manner ...
In Building a Character--the second book of Konstantin Stanis-
lavski's three-volume study of acting-one sees a remarkable parallel
between GUpin's detailed realism in character acting and those of the
Russian director:
Characterization, when accompanied by a real transposition,
a sort of reincarnation, is a great thing .... [A] II actors who
are artists, the creators of images, should make use of char-
acterization which enables them to become incarnate in the
This common view of acting shared by Gilpin and Stanislavski war-
rants attention. Both took up an emphasis on the inner life and dis-
passionate observation. Although it is unlikely that Gilpin knew a
great deal about the Stanislavski system, he was, nevertheless,
always eager to discuss acting theory. Gilpin was an avid reader of
biographies, searching for historic characters to portray on stage,
which prompted his friend, Jesse Shipp, to call him, eccentric but
The editor of The Amsterdam News wrote:
Charles was a lover of those books which tell of the lives of
outstanding Negroes, and we used to wax so enthusiastic
over the few which we then possessed. . . . We can even
now see Gilpin coming Into the office with a copy of the
works of Dunbar under his arm .. . . 25
Although Gilpin's career at the Pekin was a success, the
theatre dosed shortly after Robert Motts' death. The remnants of the
Pekin Players attempted to form a touring company for the 1910-11
season. Nine of the original Players were booked for fourteen weeks
in New Orleans, and, for the first month, according to Gilpin, they
played to packed houses. They performed, not in trite vaudeville,
where Gilpin described himself "as making a monkey of myself for
someone to laugh at"; rather, he was doing work that "had become
so interesting, feeling that I was developing what talent I had, trying
to depict life and human nature as it is" (Mullett, 55).
But after four weeks, the New Orleans t heatre manager
decided that it was inappropriate for black actors and actresses to
play in anything other than minstrel shows, so a "darky" show was
brought in and the Pekin Players were let go. Some returned to
Chicago to continue performing at the Pekin; Gilpin and a few others,
unable to raise the fare, were forced to stay in the South and per-
form. He said:
We hunted for a theatre, but the only one we could get was a
little place in the vilest section of the city . ... We put on a
little tabloid show for which we charged ten, twenty, and
thirty cents. We drew a crowd; and this brought business to
the neighborhood saloon ... (Mullett, 133).
It also brought a violent mob from jealous saloon owners incensed
that a rival business was attracting patrons, as Gilpin put it, by these
"Northern Yankee niggers" (Mullett, 133). Rowdies were paid to
harass the actors, and police officials looked the other way.
Gilpin returned to Chicago and, from 1911 to 1915, alternated
between vaudeville, joining the Old Man's Boy Company in 1914 and
singing for the Pan-American Octette, and performing solo. 26 His act
consisted of mixing his characters, going from Irish to Chinese,
Mexican to Jewish, with remarkable dexterity.
It was five years of
piecemeal work, living on a marginal salary and earning supplemen-
tal money doing odd jobs. But it was also a time when he honed his
craft, entertaining the black community with his now-famous
portrayals of various characters. It was inevitable that Gilpin soon
would arrive in the Mecca of theatre, New York City, to make his
During World War I, Harlem saw the beginning of a theatrical
phenomenon, the Lafayette Theatre, which was to acquire con-
siderable stature during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. In
1915, an ambitious actress named Anita Bush formed a theatrical
company in Harlem, first called the Anita Bush All Colored Dramatic
Stock Company--The New Lincoln Theatre." Bush, like Robert Motts
before her, recognized Gilpin as an actor with a versatility and a pop-
ularity that a repertory company could build upon. Devoting herself
to the production of serious dramas and worthwhile comedies, Bush
collected the best talent that she could assemble from New York and
other cities. In December, 1915, one year after its inception, she
took over the Lafayette Theatre. On 30 December, Lester Walton, a
drama critic reviewing for the New York Age, reported Gilpin's mem-
bership in the company:
Long ago in these columns Charles Gilpin was referred to as
one of the best character actors of color in the country, and
he is the finished artist of the Bush organization. He has had
a lot of experience in the acting field and in voice, gesture
and expression he gives proof of his previous schooling. 28
Over a period of twenty-six weeks, Gilpin performed at the Lafayette
Theatre on 133rd Street in at least a dozen plays. The Lafayette
elevated theatre in Harlem to an unparalleled level. Loften Mitchell
suggests that the Lafayette was probably the .. outstanding Negro
theatre group .. of the time (Mitchell, 70).
Gilpin premiered in the Lafayette's production of Over the
Footlights as ~ Bamberger, the proprietor and manager of the Folly
Theatre. In an unsigned review from Bush's files, there is the follow-
ing entry: [Gilpin] good as he has been hailed in other plays is at his
very best in this .... 29 Unable to find a white actor willing to perform
in a black theatre, Gilpin, who was accustomed to playing a variety of
white characters, was cast as the villainous Jacob McOosky in Oion
Boucicault's melodrama, The Octoroon. Lester Walton noted that a
black actor playing a slave owner would unwittingly envelop the
piece in an atmosphere of inconsistency, 30 thereby robbing it of
force and realism. But Gilpin, he said:
so cleverly makes up that he resembles the slave owner of
days gone by to a remarkable degree, investing the type with
a certain distinction even though he is the villain and plays
an unpopular role. The best compliment to members of the
cast for their fine make-up is paid by their friends, who at first
are unable to determine who he was. 31
This was not Gilpin' s first performance in white-face; it was some-
thing he had done for several years at the Pekin and in his solo act.
What troubled Gilpin was that his work in white-face was never
assessed nor given any attention by white critics:
Nobody thinks it strange that a white man should black-up
and play a negro role. But who would dream of letting a
negro make up as a white man and play such a part? I have
done It repeatedly--but where? In companies of colored
players, before colored audiences. No one else knew or
cared what we were doing. No critics came to see us or
judge the art of our work (Mullett, 54).
GUpin continued to perform in popular shows. On 6 January
1916, the New York Age reviewed the Lafayette's The Gambler's
Sweetheart, calling It "perhaps the most ambitious of all their efforts,
with GUpin "living up to his reputation as an established thesplan.32
By March of 1916, he was given roles in: Wanted-A Family; When
His Wife's Away; For His Daughter's Honor; Southern Life; The World
Against Him; Paid in Full; and Within the Law. In Within the Law, he
played Inspector Burke with great success. The new manager of the
theatre, Eugene Elmore, said of the production: "Every night the
house had been crowded to capacity and on Saturday 1 ,500 people
had been turned away. 33 Drama critic Billy E. Jones, in announcing
the inclusion of Gilpin among the Lafayette Players, echoed the senti-
ment that Gilpin was "one of the best dramatic actors of color.34
Jack Trotter, another drama critic, said that the acquisition of Gilpin
by the Lafayette "had undoubtedly played the kind of trump ...
which wUI result in Mr. Elmore's theatre having the public to pack it to
its largest capacity."35
Although Gilpin elevated the stature of the Lafayette with his
popularity and his disciplined work-habits, he is also alleged to have
harassed his fellow actors, who were not keen on his demanding
regimen. He was a firm believer in being on time at rehearsals and
being completely dedicated to quality performances. Theophilus
Lewis, an African-American critic who later became the editor of The
Amsterdam News, recalled Gilpin's efforts to get fellow-actor Andrew
Bishop to sing in the proper key during rehearsal. An exasperated
Gilpin finally demanded Bishop's discharge from the company:
"Henry Creamer, the producer, objected on the grounds that Bishop
had a contract, which could not be broken .. .. But Gilpin was
uncompromising. 'Either he quits or I quit,' he declared. 36
GUpin's rigor underscored his seriousness. It may be that he
wanted African-American actors to achieve parity with Caucasians.
Close inspection of Gilpin's life seems to confirm such a view. To
achieve this, Gilpin believed that African-American actors had to
demand more of themselves, to throw off the image of the lazy song-
and-dance performer and earn the reputation of being dedicated to
the profession. His conviction, it would appear, was that, in order to
be taken seriously, the black actor first had to take himself seriously.
It was a noble attitude, but one that also made him difficult to work
Gilpin eventually left the Lafayette Theatre. In an open letter to
the Freeman, he attributed his departure to insufficient compensa-
I was promised a bonus if I could pull this dead theatre up to
a paying basis-which I did. When it looked as though it was
going in a healthy condition, instead of a bonus, the
management offered to put me on salary which was less
than I was getting by my former management. . . . Applause
may be nice to the performer's ear, but it will not pay the
In 1918, GUpin went from working as a Pullman porter to a bar-
ber, struggling to make ends meet. But the quality of his work and
his skill as a character actor were not to be forgotten. He was hired
by the producer Lester Lonergan as a last-minute replacement and
opened In John Drinkwater's Abraham Lincoln at Broadway's Cort
Theatre on 15 December 1919 in the role of William Custis, a Negro
preacher. Lonergan, dissatisfied with a white actor in the role of
Custis, notified Gilpin on short notice to appear in Stamford for an
out-of-town dress rehearsaL Gilpin explained:
I had no rehearsal with the company. The next day, through
a mistake, I went to New Haven instead of Stamford; and
when I finally reached the theatre in the latter town. it was
after seven o'clock. and I had only time to dress and make
up before the performance began. But I got- through it all
right ... (Mullett, 134).
Gilpin was not welcomed by all the members of the cast. He
was setting a precedent: a black actor In a black role on the "legiti-
mate stage. This was no easy task. Gilpin, no stranger to racial
prejudice. described the attitudes of his white colleagues:
There may be a small part for me in something-like the part
of Custis. But do you know that it is hard for a colored man
to get a chance to play even negro parts in regular com-
panies? I played such a part in one company, and some of
the actors used to stand outside my dressing-room door and
talk . . . 'Why did they get a nigger for that part?" they would
say. "A white man could play it better than any nigger ever
born!" (Mullett, 134-35)
In spite of several difficulties with Abraham Lincoln, including
the lack of rehearsals, the pressure of breaking the color barrier on
Broadway, and a problematic script (Drinkwater knew almost nothing
about African-American speech patterns),38 Gilpin had a long and
moving scene that prompted one reviewer to write: "The sincerity
with which he played the old slave who comes to thank the Great
Emancipator was as simple as it was moving. "39
The Provincetown Players needed a black actor to play Brutus
Jones, the Emperor. Jasper Deeter, an actor with the Players
remembered seeing Gilpin in Abraham Lincoln. Deeter said he had
"a fleeting memory of him in this telling bit [and] sent the Players out
to fetch him for their first big role.40 Years later, Moss Hart, in his
autobiography, Act One, described working with Gilpin on a 1926
revival of The Emperor Jones that was directed by Gilpin:
He had an inner violence and a maniacal power that
engulfed the spectator. . . . Charles Gilpin was the greatest
actor of his race. He was limited not by his own range as an
actor, but by the limitations of the part the Negro could play
in the theatre. Had he not been a Negro, there is no doubt
that he would have been one of the great actors of his
The residents of Harlem, Chicago's South Side and other
black communities, however, were aware all along of his abilities,
and they had no doubt of his place in the history of theatre. Shortly
.after his death, a eulogy appeared in The Amsterdam News:
We saw in him a great actor and did not hesitate to shout it
from the housetops. . . . The records are there, and it is only
a fool who would attempt to deny us the pride we felt when
Gilpin had won the recognition which for years we had
previously pointed out should be his. 42
Long before The Emperor Jones, Gilpin had established himseJf as a
premiere character actor. The evidence suggests that, even if he had
never performed in the O'Neill play, he would still deserve recogni-
tion as one of America's finest actors. Commenting on his new-
found popularity as Brutus Jones, he said: "People are saying now
that I can act. I have known for a long time that I could" (Mullett,
136). Gilpin himself asked for nothing more than the recognition that
he deserved. The time is long overdue for theatre historians to
acknowledge the enduring significance of this man.
An abridged version of this paper was read at the ATHE
Convention, Seattle, WA, Theatre History Panel (Aug. 7, 1991).
2Laurilyn J. Harris, charles Gilpin: Opening the Way for the
American Black Actor," Theatre History Studies 11 {1982), 100. Ms.
Harris, relying primarily on secondary sources (in some cases,
tertiary), distorts a number of facts. For example, she says that after
the Pekin theatre disbanded in 1909 (the company actually dis-
banded in 1911), "[Gilpin] went to New York (p. 94). From 1911
through 1914, Gilpin toured the United States and Canada and
arrived in New York in 1914. In Ms. Harris' article, Gilpin's experi-
ence with Black theatres is largely ignored. Most egregiously, she
says that by 1925, [Gilpin] was playing [Brutus Jones] far more per-
formances drunk than sober" (p. 99). But Moss Hart says that Gil-
pin's drunken appearances occurred not too often" and only once
did management cancel a performance (Hart, One Act [New York:
Random House, 1959], 104).
3Quoted from O'Neill's interview with S.J. Woolf, eugene
O'NeUI Returns to the Stage after Twelve Years," The New York Times
Magazine, 15 September 1946. Also found in Arthur and Barbara
Gelb, O'Neill (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 448; and in Louis
Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son & Artist (New York: Paragon House, 1973),
For a discussion regarding the controversy surrounding the
Drama League Award, see The New York Times, 17-22 February
1921. See also, John G. Monroe, charles Gilpin and the Drama
League Controversy, Black American Uterature Forum 16 (Winter,
1982), 139-141. The Spingam Medal was instituted in 1914 by J.E.
Spingam, a treasurer of the NAACP. The award was given annually
to recognize the highest achievement by an American Negro.
Information on the Man of the Month award can be found in Crisis
Magazine, Vol. 21, No.4 (February 1921), 171.
Sf-leywood Broun, New York Tribune, 4 November 1920.
6t<enneth Macgowan, New York Globe, 4 November 1920.
Alexander Woollcott, The New York Times, 7 November
1920, Section 2, p. 1.
BJames Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan (New York: Amo
Press, 1968), 184-85.
9Reports vary on the size of his family; some suggest four-
teen, others fifteen. See William C. Young, ed., Famous Actors and
Actresses on the American Stage Vol. 1 (New York: A.A. Bowker
Co., 1975), 432; and Langston Hughes and Milton Meltzer, Black
Magic: A Pictorial History of African-Americans in the Performing
Arts (New York: A De Capo Paperback, 1967), 124.
10GiJpin, in an interview with Linton Martin, Philadelphia
Enquirer, 1921; from the Theatre Collection at the Free Library of
Philadelphia, n.p. Further references to this interview will be cited in
the text as Martin.
11 Gilpin, from an interview with Mary B. Mullett, "Where Do I
Go From Here?," American Magazine 91 (June, 1921 ), 53; from the
Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library's Uncoln
Center for the Performing Arts. Further references to this interview
will be cited in the text as Mullett.
12From Gilpin's obituary, The (New York) Amsterdam News,
14 May 1930.
13From Gilpin's obituary, New York Age, 17 May 1930.
14See Young's Famous Actors and Actresses on the
American Stage Vol. 1, 432.
15W.A.L., A Negro Genius in Greenwich Village, Theatre
Magazine XXXIII (January 1921), 8.
16Crisis Magazine, Vot 21 No.4 (February 1921), 171.
17"fhe show was In Dahomey (London: Keith, Prowse, 1902),
book by Jesse A. Shipp, lyrics by Paul L. Dunbar and others, and
music by Will Marion Cook.
8Henry T. Sampson, The Ghost Walks: A Chronological
History of Blacks in Show Business, 1865-1910 (Metuchen: The
Scarecrow Press, 1988), 354. Further references to this book will be
cited in the text. Abyssinia was written by Jesse Shipp, Alex Rogers,
and Will Marion Cook, with additional lyrics by Earf C. Jones.
9Lofteon Mitchell, Black Drama: The Story of the American
Negro in the Theatre (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1967), 51. Fur-
ther references to this book will be cited in the text.
20Edward A. Robinson, -rhe Pekin: The Genesis of Americn
Black Theatre, Black American Literature Forum 16 (Winter, 1982),
21S.H. Dudley, Indianapolis Freeman, 15 December 1906.
22This list of Gilpin's roles at the Pekin comes from Samp-
son's book, pages402, 460,461,463, and 468 .
.23f<onstantin Stanislavski, Building a Character, Elizabeth R.
Hapgood, trans., (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1949), 28.
From an unidentified clipping in the file on Charles Gilpin in
the Schomberg Collection of Black Culture in Harlem, New York.
25Editorial, n.d., from the Gilpin file in the Schomberg CoUec
tion of Black Culture in Harlem.
26See Hilda Josephine Lawson, The Negro in American
Theatre (Diss., University of Illinois, Urbana, Ill., 1939), 141.
For Gilpin's account, see Mullett, 134.
28NewYorkAge, 30 December 1915,6.
9Quoted from Sister Mary Francesca Thompson, The
Lafayette Players: 1915-1932 (Diss., University of Michigan, 1972),
30New York Age, 6 January 1916, 6.
331ndianapolis Freeman, 8 April1916, 5.
341ndianapolis Freeman, 14 March 1916,5.
351ndianapolis Freeman, 18 March 1916, 5.
36-fheophilus Lewis, "The Harlem Sketch Book, The {New
York) Amsterdam News, 14 August 1930.
371ndianapolis Freeman, 10 April1916, 5.
38Here is a sample of one of Custis's speeches: My people
much to learn. Years, and years, and years. Ignorant, frightened,
suspicious people ... . But born free bodies. Free. I born slave,
Mista Uncoln. No man understand who not born slave. From John
Drinkwater's Abraham Lincoln {Boston: Houghton & Mifflin, 1991),
39W.A.L., A Negro Genius in Greenwich Village, Theatre
Magazine XXXIII {January 1921), 8.
40Helen Deutch and Stella Hanan, The Provincetown: A
Story of the Theatre {New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1931), 65.
41 Moss Hart, Act One: An Autobiography {New York: Ran-
dom House, 1959), 98.
42The (New York) Amsterdam News, 14 May 1930.
Jack Hrkach
"The pioneers of the Drama serve to mark the progress of civi-
lization," asserted Noah Ludlow, a trailblazing actor ;manager in fron-
tier theatres throughout ante-bellum America.
Although Ludlow was
probably "puffing" his own importance in making this statement, it is
true that theatrical performers, along with all sorts of other popular
entertainers, followed on the heels of American settlers going west.
One of the most vital corridors west lay through New York state, con-
sisting at first of trails pounded out by Native Americans of the Six
Nations and then widened into roads by the wagon tracks of settlers
who left New England after the American Revolution in search of new
land in Upstate New York and beyond. This study offers evidence of
theatrical pioneers, including Ludlow, in several villages along the
early turnpikes of central and western New York before 1820 and
presents a picture of the struggles and circumstances of these early
J.C. Furnas, in his social history of America, said that the most
American thing to do in the days after the Revolution was to move
into new territory.
This is borne out by earty population figures. In
1790, there were only 7,500 white settlers in central and western New
York; by 1800, there were more than 100,000; and by 1820, 700,000
people had settled the land in New York state made accessible by
the Iroquois Trai1.3 Though there were other corridors to the nation's
interior further south in the Appalachians, the Iroquois Trail was the
greatest of the gateways west. 4
In the early years of settlement, from approximately 1790 to
1810, the inhabitants of the recently settled villages in the area
depended almost exclusively on their own talents and resources for
entertainment. Typical community recreation included singing and
dancing, usually in church, but often at a "bee" or barn-raising;
celebrations of national holidays, especially the Fourth of July; and
dramatic presentations in local schools and academies. During the
second decade of the nineteenth century, such locally generated
entertainment remained the rule. Traveling performers, although
beginning to venture into the area, were definitely the exception.
Several reasons exist for this state of affairs.
After a day of clearing a field or chopping wood and then trim-
ming and hauling that wood to build a house or fence, the early
settlers were too exhausted to care much about how they would
amuse themselves in the evening and probably relied on such books
as The Farmer's Evening Entertainment. which consisted of "34 new
tunes. new hymns from sacred writ," for their enjoyment. 5 Also,
because the business of carving a field, yard, or garden out of the
wilderness was not lucrative, farmers were usually very careful about
where they spent what little money they earned. Finally, farmers,
inspired either by sermons at their church or by example of their own
rough and tiring struggles for existence against the thick forest, often
harbored a natural prejudice against the idle pleasures of a
menagerie or ventriloquist or a theatrical exhibition. Their exhaus-
tion, lack of money, and suspicion of frivolous entertainment and
entertainers militated against a desire for outside entertainment.
Itinerant entertainers--traveling players and exhibitions--
harbored doubts of their own as they "strolled" into a newly formed
village in search of a new audience and their means of survival. The
sparsely populated vUiages of New York state in the years after the
Revolution provided barely enough customers for performers to pay
for supper, much less to make a profit. When the villages became
large enough to make a subsistence tour possible, the players still
had probJems getting to them. The disastrous conditions of the ear1y
roads in America have been well-chronicled. 6 In Auburn, for exam-
ple, tree stumps were not removed from the local turnpike until1812,
and the road was nicknamed the "mudpike" because driving it after
dark could become a treacherous affair.7 Such conditions were
hardly inviting to traveling players, who carried in their wagons or on
their backs properties and costumes that had to be kept reasonably
In addition to the prospect of small audiences and the hazards
of getting to them, exhibitors had to apply for a license to perform in
each vutage and faced the penalty of a stiff fine for failure to comply.
As soon as a village incorporated, a Board of Trustees was selected
and village regulations were written. Invariably, they read like this
one, from the Ordinances of the Village of Skaneateles:
it shall not be lawful for any person to exhibit, or cause to be
exhibited within said village, any show, caravan, circus,
theatrical performance, or natural or artificial curiosities, for
money or pay of any kind, without a written permission of a
majority of the trustees. Any person offending against the
provisions of this ordinance shall forfeit and pay for each and
every such an offence a penalty of five dollars. a
More worrisome than these licenses were the bills passed in the New
York State Legislature restraining "hawkers and pedlars (sic)"; and, in
the first decade of the nineteenth century, such bills were constantly
revised and strengthened.9 However, in spite of the resistance of the
settlers and the difficulties imposed on the strolling players, a few
intrepid performers trekked into the villages of central and western
New York.
The earliest of these thespian pioneers defy classification, so
diverse were their bags of tricks. The only remaining evidence of the
first recorded visit to Cooperstown, for example, in October 1796, is
a reference in an editorial to a greater curiosity "than the dance of the
Dwarf, and the Spanish Lady, at the subsequent exhibition at
Huntington's Inn ...
0 James Barriskill, the author of an unpublished
typescript on ear1y theatre in Cooperstown, suggested that the Dwarf
and the Spanish Lady probably were puppets; he referred to an
Albany newspaper notice that a Mr. Jameson had exhibited puppets
there in June (Barriskill, 3).
Many years passed before the next recorded instance of stroll-
ing entertainers in the area, though it is likely that the occasional
menagerie, live or stuffed, and the odd museum of wax figures
passed through, but were not advertised by local newspapers.
Indeed, ten years passed before the three days in 1806 when .. a live
Elephant .. was exhibited at Tisdale's Inn, according to an anecdotal
history of early theatricals in Utica. It had come in from the south
and, .. So that none should catch a free glimpse of the marvel, it came
to town before daybreak... The price of admission was 25 cents, haH
price for children. 11
In 1809, Messrs. Potter and Bishop visited Utica, setting up a
.. New Museum of Waxworks .. at the Hotel on Whitesboro Street. The
figures included heroes of America's remote and recent past, includ-
ing Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Thomas Jeffer-
son, along with one contemporary villain, Stephen Arnold, a New
York state teacher who had whipped a student to death. The exhib-
itors stayed in town ten days, and then took a riverboat to Rome, the
next stop on their itinerary (Walsh, 1-2).
It may have been the same Potter, along with a partner named
Thompson, who strolled into the village of Canandaigua in 1810 and
advertised an exhibition in the Ontario Repository. The notice is
detailed in Its description of their potpourri performance:
Messrs. Potter and Thompson (from London) take the liberty
to inform the Ladies and Gentlemen of Canandaigua and the
vicinity, that they will perform at Dudley and Andres' Coffee
House, on Monday evening the 24th inst. Mathematical,
Philosophical , and Curious Experiments, Many of which
were never performed in America but by themselves.
Theatrical performances consisting of Songs and Recita-
tions; also Ventriloquism, which is allowed to be the greatest
curiosity in nature. The first part will conclude with Dancing
a Hornpipe.
In the course of the evening will be performed the 4th scene
of the Review; or, the Wag of Windsor.
Capt. Bellgard
Caleb (with Song etc.)
Mr. Thompson
Mr. Potter
After which will be performed the pantomimical piece of the
Agreeable Surprise; or, the Wonderful Little Giant:- Giant,
Mr. Thompson. Mr. Potter will sing the following songs: The
Straw Bonnet--The Cosmetic Doctor--Giles Scruggin's
Ghost, with alterations, all of them accompanied by Mr. Lyon
on the violin. Tickets to be had at the place of performance.
Front seats, well covered with green cloth, 50 cents: back
seats, half price. For further particulars, see the bills of the
This menu of entertaining fare was certainly one of the most detailed
area newspaper descriptions of a traveling exhibition before 1820. It
was followed by an equally detailed listing in the next week's issue of
the newspaper, which came out on the second day of the duo's per-
formances. This advertisement said that Potter and Thompson
would play every night of the week except Saturday in the same
place. Potter and Thompson listed some additions to their first
night's entertainment, including two new songs, "The Fox and the
Grapes and Pfhe Yorkshire Irishman, or the Adventures of a Potato
Merchant. They would also introduce a shadow play, rhe Chinese
Umbrose, which represents the View of the city of London, with a
diverting dialogue between two men. The advertisement also
assured the reader that Each evening wDI afford something new and
entertaining. 13
Potter and Thompson's next stop was Mr. J. Wood's Inn,
Geneva, where, in the Geneva Gazette, 4 July 1810, they advertised
their third and last performance that same evening. This adver-
tisement indicates that the men played Canandaigua untU Saturday,
29 June, when they probably left for the next stop on their tour;
Sunday was a day of rest, Monday a day of preparation, and on
Tuesday, 2 July, they opened their exhibition in Geneva. The bUI of
fare was similar to their Canandaigua repertoire of comic songs,
recitations and ventriloquism. Some new songs were added, includ-
ing Pfhe Jolly Fat Friar" and shelty the Piper, and some new expe-
riments were featured, including
a curious dance on the table, by a figure in the character of
Tom Thumb, which has never been performed by any in
America but themselves. Mr. Potter will put any lady's ring
into a pistol and fire it out of the window and cause a dove to
come in, in whose bill the ring will be found. He will allow
any person to draw a card from the pack, after which they
may throw the pack in the air, and he will fire a gun and nail
the card which was drawn, to the wall, separate from all the
The details of this advertisement give an indication of the vari-
ety involved in Potter and Thompson's exhibitions. One wonders if
some of the items "never performed by any in America but them-
selves" ever would be performed again. Unfortunately, no editorial
comment exists to explain how this bizarre olio headlined "Theatrical"
was received. Potter and Thompson were able to play an entire
week in Canandaigua and for three days in Geneva, implying an
acceptance by the village audiences. Probably they were not char-
latans like Mark Twain's King and Duke, though their notices some-
times read as if truth had met this fiction. Was Potter the ventriloquist
and magician the same Potter who had brought a museum of wax
figures to Utica a year earlier, or was it mere coincidence that two
men named Potter were among the earliest entertainers in western
and central New York? As with many of these early strolling
entertainers, Potter remains as shadowy a figure as his .. Chinese
After their three nights in Geneva, Potter and Thompson dis-
appeared along the highway by which they had arrived. Their jour-
ney from Canandaigua to Geneva was easterly, and they could have
continued in that direction, playing other turnpike villages after they
left Geneva. The fact that they moved from village to village brings
up the question of how the men travelled. They had four choices:
They might have gone on foot, but more likely they rode, either on
horseback, in their own wagon, or in one of the many stagecoaches
available along the turnpikes of New York state. They carried equip-
ment, so the coach or wagon seems a feasible method of transporta-
tion. In his book on puppet theatre, however, Paul McPharlin points
out that shadow figures were simple and compact and not too diffi-
cult for traveling showmen to transport; they were only cardboard
and wires and could be packed flat in a comparatively light bundle.
The only light necessary was a single fantern; therefore. the two men
could feasibly have carried their complete show on horseback
(McPharlin, 67-68).
The next documented performer in the area probably found it
necessary to use one or more wagons to transport his exhibition. An
advertisement taken out in 1811 in Utica by a Mr. Stewart said that he
"had been at considerable expense in erecting a circus at the lower
end of Broad Street" (Walsh, 2). This was the first circus to be adver-
tised and also was probably the smallest to play in Utica. It con-
sisted only of Mr. Franklin, "Equestrian extraordinary"; Mrs. Stewart;
and her husband the manager, who also performed many astonish-
ing feats of buffoonery in the character of the clown .. (Walsh, 2).
More wax museums visited area villages in 1812. Early that
spring, Erastus Row opened Utica's first museum in his Utica Coffee
House. The collection, according to Utica's historian, consisted of
second-hand wax figures and curiosities, although Row advertised it
as "The largest and most elegant collection of WAX FIGURES ever
exhibited In the State of New York: However elegant his exhibit,
Row received little encouragement, and interest waned within a few
weeks (Walsh, 2).
Another wax museum, advertised more ambitiously, was
documented in Cooperstown and then Auburn, indicating that Mr.
Letton, Its proprietor, was moving west with his wagon-load of
curiosities. He arrived in Cooperstown in late June 1812 and set up
in Munn's hotel a large and varied assortment of figures, including
historical (Jefferson, Hamilton, Napoleon, and Nelson); biblical
(David and Goliath, Pharaoh's Daughter finding Moses, and a
Roman Catholic Priest, pardoning sins on the Road to Destruction);
dramatic (Othello and Desdemona); and freakish r A striking likeness
of Daniel Lambert, one of the wonders of the world, weighing 749
pounds and his sister, Mary Lambert .. ). Though some of these
pieces were standard single figures, to be admired for their astonish-
ing lifelike qualities, others were action sculptures, featuring a scene
with built-in conflict. David and Goliath might well have been poised
for battle, and Othello might have been sculpted in the act of
smothering Desdemona. Lord Nelson did not stand tall, but was pic-
tured expiring in the arms of his Officer and Sailor.
5 Here, Letton
certainly seemed inclined to the theatrical; possibly he further
increased the dramatic nature of his exhibition by narrating the
scenes that he presented.16
How many days and nights Letton stayed in Cooperstown is a
mystery. When he arrived in Auburn in mid-August, nearly two
months after his arrival in Cooperstown, he advertised that the exhibit
would be shown for nine days in Mr. Bostwick's lnn.17 After that, his
notices disappeared from the area newspapers. If he continued
going west, Canandaigua would have been an obvious next choice
for his exhibition, but Canandaigua's newspaper did not carry his
During the next year, an important one for the theatrical his-
tory of the area, the first documented dramatic company paid two
visits to Cooperstown. One visit was noted only in Isaac Cooper's
frustratingly brief diary entry for 30 March 1813: Robin appeared
today, rode on the ice. Mussel shells. Theatre" (Barriskill, 9). Barris-
kill suggested that players from John Bernard's Green Street Theatre
in Albany might have come through on a post-season summer tour.
This is a plausible supposition; their season did end at this time, and
a company, possibly the same one, returned to Cooperstown In late
September, shortly before the 1814-15 Albany season began.
More evidence supports their second trip: Isaac Cooper probably
attended on Friday, 24 September, when his diary entry read
"Theatre this eve,"' and the company advertised in the Otsego Herald
this time, calling itself the Albany Company. The advertisement,
placed in the Saturday, 25 September issue, listed the bill for
Monday, 27 September: The Jew and Doctor; or, The Orphan Pro-
tected, by Thomas Dibdin, followed by The Prize; or 2, 5, 3, 8, by
Prince Hoare (Barriskill, 10). The company performed on the second
floor of the Court-House in Cooperstown, described as being 56 feet
long and 50 feet wide, made of brick, with two levels: The court
room above, "capacious and convenient," and the jail below
"crowded and inconvenient.19
The only other advertised traveling exhibitor in 1813, a female
elephant who entered the area from the west, was first seen in
Canandaigua on 9 and 10 August and was exhibited in Geneva on
the 21 st.20 In Canandaigua, an advertisement taken out in the
Ontario Repository by the elephant's keeper alluded to an accident.
The advertisement announced that the profits from the elephant's
Geneva appearance would go to the boy "who was unfortunately
wounded by this animal, by an accident at Canandaigua; but who
has happily escaped danger." The elephant, which would probably
have been killed had the boy died, also escaped with its life and con-
tinued its slow trek east. It arrived in Cooperstown on 21 October,
where it was displayed until the 23rd.
The elephant might have
wintered somewhere In the area, because in the summer of 1814, it
was being exhibited again in Utica and the surrounding area, using
the same advertisement material. 22
In addition to the elephant exhibition, a theatrical troupe
apparently played Utica in 1814, according to the local historian,
whose assertions are at least partly incorrect and uncorroborated by
primary evidence: It Is not true that "the first theatrical performance
ever presented by travelling actors west of Albany was given in 1814
in the ballroom of the old Bagg's Hotel, .. because documented per-
formances had taken place in Cooperstown a year before.23 If the
historian mistook the date, Utica could have been one of the stops
on the western tour undertaken by the Albany players in 1813. If he
was correct in the year, the players, having met with success at
Cooperstown the year before, might well have tried their luck at Utica
in 1814.
In 1815 and 1816, a comparative explosion of theatrical
activity rocked several turnpike villages. A Mr. Huntington gave a
series of lectures and recitations, the Drake company toured ten vil-
lages, and the Thornton and Williams company visited at least three
villages. This was an isolated explosion, and no theatrical after-
shocks occurred until well into the next decade, but these years
marked the first period of relatively intense theatrical activity in the
The first to come through was a Mr. Huntington, performing
his "Moral Dissertations and Entertaining Recitations" in Utica and,
later, Canandaigua. His aim, according to his advertisement in the
Utica Patriot, was "an Intellectual Entertainment, edifying to age,
instructive to youth, and amusing to all. His program was divided
into two parts; the first "Moral and Sentimental, which included a lec-
ture "on the blighting influence of infidelity" and readings from the
great poets; the second, "Humorous and Satirical, which included
"a new way to get rid of a bad wife. The editor recommended him to
the people of Utica, writing that Huntington had "delighted the most
polished societies in the principal towns and cities of the Union, with
his 'Mental Entertainments. '"24
Huntington hit on a formula that the citizens and institutions of
a village could understand and appreciate. He combined entertain-
ment with instruction, and he took a vital step further. The profits
from one of his evenings were donated to some worthy institution-
usually religious, literary or charitable-in the village. The proceeds
from the entertainment of 21 March, for example, were presented to
the Female Charitable Society in Utica. 25 Whether this donation was
heartfelt or Huntington's clever way of ensuring a full house, it gave
him an excellent entree into villages on his route. When he moved
west to Canandaigua, his performance received an enthusiastic and
lengthy recommendation by the editor.26
If this was the same Huntington discussed in several con-
temporaneous chronicles of the New York stage, he might have
retreated to the hinterlands after his debut at the Park, the most
important theatre at the time in New York City. There he had played
Macbeth in 1804, his first appearance in the city and his second on
any stage. G.C.D. Odell quotes WUiiam Dunlap, theatrical manager
and first historian of the American theatre, on Huntington's debut:
When Mrs. Melmoth, as Lady Macbeth, remarked, "the king
grows worse and worse, a killing shout was the response of
the audience, and little more of the play was heard ....
[Huntington] was the first debutant that the writer knows of
who was treated harshly by an audience in America, and he
was far from deserving it, though far from being equal to the
part of Macbeth. 27
Of course, there is no hard proof that Huntington the New York City
failure was Huntington the Upstate success, but if the two were one,
this Huntington set a precedent that many actors who plied the
hinterlands in ante-bellum America would follow: Not having done as
well as they had hoped in New York, Philadelphia or Boston, many
actors attempted to establish themselves in areas of less critical
Following on the heels of Huntington, the Drake company
made its way through the villages along the turnpikes of New York
state. Drake's was the first company in the area whose structure and
membership has been preserved; as such, it serves as a prototype
for the kind of company that would play area villages for decades to
come and so deserves close scrutiny. The Drake company con-
sisted of nine players, one stage carpenter who sometimes acted
small roles, and one "man-of-all-work," who might have been pressed
into service as a supernumerary on occasion. The bulk of the
dramatis personae consisted of the five members of the Drake family,
augmented by one experienced actress and two novices. They func-
tioned as a stock company of the type long-established in the British
theater, brought over to the American colonies with the first profes-
sional players, and perpetuated in this country until the rise of the
combination tour after the Civil War. Such a company played a full-
length tragedy, comedy, or melodrama, followed by songs and
dances, and concluded with shorter comic afterpieces in a rotating
system whose ideal was a new play every night. In these plays, the
actors played "lines" of roles-also inherited from the British system--
which gave all leading business to one actor, all comic old men to
another, and so on. 28
As was typical with small troupes touring the hinterlands of
ante-bellum America, the Drake company played in such places as
court houses and ballrooms of hotels, which had to be transformed
into performance spaces. These transformations were rendered rela-
tively simple by the small amount of scenery and properties carried
by the troupe. With Drake's company, this consisted of
but six scenes, a wood, a street, parlor, kitchen, palace, and
garden. The wings, or side-scenes, consisted of three of a
side, to be stationary in one sense, but to be so arranged
with flaps or aprons as to present, when required, an out-
door view adapted to correspond with garden or street; an
in-door view, to suit parlor or palace; with a third, to match
the kitchen. The proscenium was a painted drapery, made
so as to be expanded or contracted to suit the dimensions of
the places occupied by our performances. These and a neat
drop-curtain, and green baize carpet, constituted our stage
facilities. The scenery could be put in place, or taken down
and packed, in two or three hours (Ludlow, 7-8).
The scenery and the players were transported from place to place in
a road-wagon drawn by two horses, used primarily to carry the
scenery, and a light spring-wagon drawn by one horse, used to carry
two of the women in the company. "The other portions of the com-
pany, after leaving town, were expected to walk the greater portion of
the way (Ludlow, 13). This description conjures up the image of
players piled into a large wagon with their scenery, waving good-by
to the satisfied residents of the village that they have just played; and
then, once out of sight, the wagon stops, and most of the company
members get off and begin the fifteen-mile walk to the next stop on
the tour.
The Drake company tour was recorded to the best of his
memory by Noah Ludlow, one of the two novices recruited by the
manager, and later one of the pioneers of the Drama in the theatri-
cal circuits of the West and the South. His information is augmented
in this study by newspaper accounts and advertisements from
Cooperstown, Geneva, and Canandaigua. Early in 1815, Samuel
Drake Sr., the stage manager of Bernard's Green Street Theater in
Albany, had been approached by Noble Luke Usher, an actor who
was playing a few roles in Bernard's company. Usher hailed from
Kentucky, where he and his father maintained theatrical spaces in
Frankfurt, Louisville, and Lexington. During his stay in Albany, he
attempted to recruit new company members and, to this end, he
invited Drake to form a troupe. Drake agreed, and he and his players
journeyed across New York state to Canandaigua, playing along the
way for their suppers and in preparation for their seasons in
Pittsburgh and Kentucky. Ludlow said that they played six perform-
ances in each of the following villages, from east to west: Cherry Val-
ley, Cooperstown, Herkimer, Utica, Manlius, Onondaga Hollow,
Skaneateles, Auburn, Geneva, and Canandaigua {Ludlow, 7-12).
The Drake company began its tour in May 1815. No news-
paper existed in Cherry Valley to announce the first stop on the tour,
but in Cooperstown, a newspaper account and entries in the diary of
Isaac Cooper provide vital information. Cooper's diary entry for
Wednesday, 17 May 1815 read, "Theatre, full house (Barriskill, 21).
The next day, the editor of the Otsego Herald wrote, under the head-
ing "Theatrical": A part of the Albany Theatrical Company are now in
this village, on a tour to the west. Their stay will be limited to tomor-
row evening, which will be the last night of their performance.
Cooper apparently saw the company again that night and the next,
according to his diary entries. He wasted no words, as usual, but he
did add one significant word on both the 18th and the 19th: "Rain.''
Besides its literal meaning, this implied that, unlike the full house on
Wednesday, Thursday's and Friday's audiences were probably small.
Rain, in the days of wagon and stage transportation, meant muddy,
hazardous roads, especially after dark.
Because of the conditions of the roads and because the news-
papers of the towns along the middle of the route are lost except for
scattered copies, it is difficult to document firmly the route of the
Drakes until after they left Geneva. On Wednesday, 19 July, a "Com-
munication" was printed by the editor of the Geneva Gazette.
Because it pinpoints the troupe's location, and because it constitutes
the first review of a professional theatre company in the area, it Is
worth recording in full:
Within the last fortnight the inhabitants of this Village have
been highly entertained with the performance of several
Theatrical pieces by a part of the Albany Company under the
management of Mr. Drake. It is the first attempt of the kind
in this part of the country by a regular company, and the
satisfaction rendered was manifested by repeatedly crowded
houses. The pieces brought forward were well chosen, and
we were much gratified by the support given to the charac-
ters. It is probable the company will perform for two or thee
weeks in Canandaigua, and doubt not but they will meet with
that encouragement their merits deserve.29
Meanwhile, in Canandaigua, the first of two advertisements
appeared in the Ontario Repository on 11 July, saying that the
Albany company would begin playing on Monday, 17 July. This was
followed in the next issue by another advertisement, which named
the playing space (the Court-House), the dates (Tuesday through
Friday nights this week), and this evening's bill (The Quaker: or,
Benevolent Friend followed by The Midnight Hour: or, A War of
Wits).30 The next week, no advertisement was placed; none was
necessary, given the editorial accorded the company, under the
heading -rheatrical":
The Albany Dramatic Company, under the direction of Mr.
Drake, have played in this vUiage four evenings, in a manner
highly satisfadorily, and to crowded houses. We understand
they wUI perfonn two nights more previous to their departure
for the west, viz. on Wednesday and Thursday, of the pre-
sent week. 31
The information from these diary and newspaper entries, com-
bined with Ludlow's memoirs and the accounts concerning the clos-
ing of the Albany season, at least partially corroborates Ludlow's
memory of six nights', performance in each village and has made it
possible to compile a list approximating the Drake company's tour-
ing schedule:
Cherry Valley
6-13 May 1815
14-21 May
Onondaga Hollow
22-29 May
30 May-5 June
6-13 June
14-21 June
22-29 June
30 June-6 July
7-14 July
15-22 July
The information gleaned from the newspapers also reveals
something about Ludlow, the budding manager. The New York state
portion of the tour west was used by Drake, in Ludlow's words, to
"give him an opportunity to drill his raw recruits" (Ludlow, 6). As the
company's advance man, Ludlow, knowingly or not, used this time to
hone some of his managerial abilities. For example, although no
advertisements were placed in the Cooperstown paper, possibly he
had learned by that earty date to cultivate the editor, who announced
the company's presence and even puffed it slightly.32 And by the
last stop on the tour, Ludlow the advance man had become aware of
the efficacy of advertising and placed two notices in the local paper,
which helped ensure the crowded audiences mentioned by the
More than a year passed with no theatrical activity in the area.
Then, from October 1816 through January 1817, a Mr. Thornton and
H.A. Williams toured the western half of the area, visiting
Canandaigua, Geneva, and Auburn. Advertisements were taken out
in the Ontario Repository in mid-October, mid- and late November,
late December, and earty January, whereas only one advertisement
survives fonn Geneva, in eariy December, and only one remains from
Auburn, in mid-January. This troupe was another family-basad com-
pany, with two married couples, the Thomtons and the Williamses,
and, at the beginning of the tour, only one other namad actor, a Mr.
Denton. By late December, their ranks had increased by three: Mr.
Gaunt, Mr. Dwight, and Mr. Holden, swelling the size of the troupe to
a total of eight members at the height of enrollment. 34 Of this small
company, a little is known about the Thorntons, a little more about
the Williamses.
Both families had been active at the Albany Theatre beginning
in the fall of 1815. According to Sol Smith, Mr. Thornton played
comic old men in that season, and H.A. Williams was the stage
manager and principal actor. There was also a Joey Williams in the
company, "A queer little fellow who played the eccentric comedy,"35
but from the descriptions of roles and especially from the Irish songs
that he sang, Thornton's partner in the Upstate tour was surely H.A.
Thornton had had a minor career at the Park Theatre in New
York beginning in 1810. The cast lists in Odell's Annals indicate that
he played the least significant roles of any male in the company,
including the Lieutenant to George Frederick Cooke's Richard Ill. He
was cited critically only as one of three actors who played the "under
characters" and unmercifully butchered" their roles. After the next
season, when he performed the farce The Village a ~ e r at Pepin
and Breschard's Circus,36 Thornton was not heard of again in New
York City. Perhaps he, like Mr. Huntington before him, retreated to
search out more remote and gentle areas in which to play his part.
If Thornton and Huntington were leaving New York, Mr. and
Mrs. H.A. Williams were headed toward it. They already had
achieved success in Boston and, in 1817, they both made debuts at
the Park. Joseph Ireland said of him, Mr. Williams was a versatile
and useful actor in parts of less pretension, but was altogether
unequal to the rank of first comedian. Of Mrs. Williams, he wrote,
she was never a favorite on the Park stage, but in other theatres
excited a good share of admiration, and attracted much attention by
her performances of leading male players in several tragic plays.37
They came back to central New York in the mid-1820s and were
divorced in 1828, after which he spent most of his time in the
Southern theatres. She married an actor named Maywood and had
a long and successful career in almost every grade of character dur-
ing her connection with the American Stage, and, we believe, tinaJiy
played the line of 'Old Women' at one of the Western Theatres.38
Fledgling thespians, like the Williamses, and big-city failures, like
Thornton, represent the two types of actors who most frequently
played in Upstate villages until the late 1840s.
It is impossible to gauge the scope of the Thornton and Wil-
liams Company's repertoire because most of it was noted only on
handbills that have disappeared, but the surviving newspaper adver-
tisements include some bills performed in Canandaigua: John Ken-
ney's Matrimony and Mrs. Elizabeth lnchbald's Animal Magnetism,
on 21 October; George Ullo's George Barnwell and Cotman the
Younger's The Wag of Windsor, on 12 November; The Mountaineers,
also by Colman, and Rival Soldiers, by O'Keeffe, on 20 November;
and The Honey Moon, by John Tobin, followed by Fortune's Frolic,
by J.T. Allingham, on 8 January 1817. While in Canandaigua, the
company performed at B. Mills' Assembly Room. The only bill adver-
tised in Geneva consisted of The Honey Moon and Hoare's The
Prize, played in an unidentified location on 4 December. In Auburn,
the one advertised performance, on 15 January 1817 at Mr. Coe's
Hotel, consisted of John Home's Douglas followed by Isaac Bieker-
staffa's The Romp: or, a Cure for the Spleen.39
On at least two occasions, the traveling players combined
forces with a local painter and teacher for an addition to the eve-
ning's entertainment. Mr. J.L.D. Mathies had been an itinerant art
teacher, arriving at Canandaigua in April 1815 to open a school of
drawing and to exhibit his own work. By August of that year, he
advertised that the classes would continue and that he might stay in
the village permanently.40 His drawing school continued well into the
1820s, and, by 1817, he had become more a local institution than an
itinerant teacher. Early in January 1817, a portion of Thornton and
Williams' theatrical advertisement read: "In the course of the eve-
ning's entertainment, will be exhibited an entire new SCENE
representing a complete view of the village of Canandaigua, painted
by J.L.D. Mathies, M.A."41 The announcement was repeated in their
advertisement for the performance in Auburn later in the month. 42
The painting, which could have been presented In Canandaigua
merely as a sop to a popular local teacher, was carried with the com-
pany on its tour, indicating its popularity as part of the evening's
entertainment. Might Mr. Mathies have continued his relationship
with the theatre company, perhaps re-touching old backdrops or
painting new scenes for their productions? There is no documenta-
tion for such a collaboration, but the use of his view of Canandaigua
was a wise move on the part of Thornton and WUiiams. In this way,
they united itinerant entertainment with a local talent and, in doing
so, probably Increased their audience and made some new friends
for theatre.
After the flush of activity between 1815 and early 1817, there
was almost no evidence of itinerant entertainment in the area, except
for the exhibition of a lion in Canandaigua and Auburn in the summer
of 1817, and the exhibition of an elephant in Canandaigua the next
summer.43 Although such locally inspired entertainments as barn-
raisings and bees, dances at holiday celebrations, and student
dramas at local academies consistently outnumbered visits by
itinerant performers, this decade was the most active theatrically that
any of the villages had yet experienced. The end of the War of 1812
seemed to signal permission for the entry of theatrical entertainment
into the villages of New York state. After 1817, however, traveling
theatrical companies were not again documented in the area until the
mid-1820s, when the completion of the Erie Canal drew new groups
of theatrical pioneers to the villages of central and western New York.
1 Noah M. Ludlow, Dramatic Life as I Found It (St. Louis: G.l.
Jones and Company, 1880), 2. Further references to this book will
be cited in the text.
2J.C. Furnas, The Americans: A Social History of the United
States, 1587-1914 (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1969), 247.
3John Thompson, ed., Geography of New York State
(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1966), 143.
Henry Balthasar Meyer, ed., History of Transportation in the
United States before 1860 (Washington: Peter Smith, 1948), 355.
5Advertisement, Otsego Herald, 28 February 1805.
6See Meyer, 52-53, for a good summary of the basic prob-
I ems.
Henry Hall, History of Auburn (Auburn: Dennis Brothers &
Co., 1969), 70.
8Notice, Skaneateles Columbian, 19 June 1833. The penalty
of five dollars is one of the most lenient documented for area villages.
9See legislative notices, Otsego Herald, 17 February 1803;
26 April1804; and 8 January 1807, for example.
10James M. Barriskill, "The Cooperstown Theatre to 1sso
(Unpublished typescript in Special Collections, New York State His-
torical Society Library, Cooperstown, New York, n.d., but circa
1950s), 2. Further references to this typescript will be cited in the
text. Editorial, Otsego Herald, 13 October 1796.
11John J. Walsh, "The Theatre and Entertainment in Utica
from Early Times to the Opening of the Stanley Theatre (Bound
typescript, Oneida County Historical Society, Utica, New York, n.d.,
but circa 1950s), 1. Further references to this typescript wUI be cited
in the text as Walsh.
12Advertisement, Ontario Repository, 18 June 1810.
13Advertisement, Ontario Repository, 26 June 1810. The
Chinese Umbrose is a distortion of ombres Chinoises, or Chinese
Shadows, one of several names for shadow shows, described by
Richard D. Altick in his comprehensive study, The Shows of London
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1978), 117-
119. They are also described in Paul McPharlin, The Puppet Theatre
in America: A History (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948), 57, 60.
14Advertisement, Geneva Gazette, 4 July 1810.
15Advertisement, Cooperstown Federalist, 20 June 1812.
16Narrations for museum and other exhibitions were not
unusual in ante-bellum America. An example of a written spiel is
housed in the Mastin Collection at the New York State Historical
Society Storage Facility in Cooperstown.
17 Advertisement, The Western Federalist, 12 August 1812.
18H.P. Phelps, Players of a Century: A Record of the Albany
Stage (Albany, 1880; reprint, New York: Benjamin Blom, 1972), 47.
Barriskill, 9.
19A History of Cooperstown, including "The Chronicles of
Cooperstown, by James Fenimore Cooper; "The History of Cooper-
stown, 1839-1886," by Samuel Shaw; "The History of Cooperstown,
1886-1929," by Walter R. Littel (Cooperstown: The Freeman's
Journal Company, 1929), 31 .
20Advertisements, Ontario Repository, 27 July, 17 August
21Advertisement, Otsego Herald, 16 October 1816.
22Advertisement, Utica Patriot, 23 August 1814.
23John J. Walsh, .. Vignettes of Old Utica: Persons, Places
and Events" {Bound typescript, Oneida County Historical Society,
Utica, New York, n.d., but circa 1950s), 94.
24Advertisement, Utica Patriot, 21 March 1815.
260ntario Repository, 20 June 1815.
27G.C.D. Odell, Annals of the New York Stage Vol. 2 {New
York: Columbia University Press, 1938), 213. See also T. Allston
Brown, History of the American Stage {New York: Burt Franklin,
1969), 190; and Francis Courtney Wemyss, Chronology of the
American Stage from 1752 to 1852 {New York: Wm. Taylor & Co.,
1852), 68. It was not unusal to allow a new actor a lead role to test
his abilities. This was probably the circumstance under which
Huntington played his Macbeth.
28"fhe information in this paragraph is taken mostly from Lud-
low, 7-12. Information on stock companies and unes of acting is
from Bernard Hewett, Theatre U.S.A. 1668 to 1957 {New York:
McGraw Hill Book Company, 1959), 15. For a brief description of
acting styles and repertoire in America at the time, see Garff B. Wil-
son, A History of American Acting {Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1966), 8-13.
29Editorial, Geneva Gazette, 19 July 1815.
30Actvertisements, Ontario Repository, 11, 18 July 1815.
31Editorial, Ontario Repository, 25 July 1815.
32Editorial, Otsego Herald, 18 May 1815.
330ntario Repository, 11, 17 July 1815.
34Actvertisement, Ontario Repository, 24 December 1816.
35Smith, Theatrical Apprenticeship, 16.
360dell, 2: 357, 375. For more information on the Thomtons,
see T. West Hill, The Theatre in Early Kentucky, 1790-1820 {Lexi-
ngton: University Press of Kentucky, 1971), 85, 90-92.
37 Joseph Ireland, Records of the New York Stage from 1750
to 1860, 2 vols. {1867; reprint, New York: Burt Franklin, 1968), 1,
38Smith, Theatrical Apprenticeship, 20.
39Advertisements, Ontario Repository, 15 October; 12, 19
November; 24 December 1816; 7 January 1817; Geneva Gazette, 4
December 1816; The Advocate of the People, 15 January 1817.
40Advertisements, Ontario Repository, 11 April, 22 August
41Advertisement, Ontario Repository, 7 January 1817.
42Advertlsement, The Advocate of the People, 15 January
43Advertlsements, Ontario Repository, 15 July 1817, 21
August 1818.
CURTIS A. SCOTI is in the graduate program in theatre at the
University of North Carolina.
RICHARD WATIENBERG teaches in the Department of Theater Arts
at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.
DAVID KRASNER is an instructor and a graduate student in the Ph.D.
program in the Drama Department at Tufts University in Medford,
JACK HRKACH is an assistant professor of theatre at Ithaca College
in Ithaca, New York.