Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
A question bound to arise at some point in one’s experience of Dutchman, or in one’s reflections on it, is that of the application of the title to the play. There are, after all, no Dutchmen on the stage. The play is set in a New York City subway. Its characters are a white American woman and a black American man. Why has the author given the play so (apparently) irrelevant a title?
The question has received a number of answers in the extensive body of criticism the play has inspired, but perhaps most useful is the suggestion that the title alludes to the legend of the Flying Dutchman, doomed to sail the seas forever, with no hope of release from the curse of endless repetition. The relevance of this legend to the play is suggested both by the parallel of ship’s voyage and subway’s journey and by the ending of the play, which most critics see as implying that the process the play has enacted is about to begin again.
That process culminated in the death of Clay. The challenge of the play, then, is to arrive at some understanding of several questions: What killed Clay? Why is the process endlessly repeated? Is there any hope of liberation from the repetition, of release from the curse?
It is clear that Lula is the active force in Clay’s destruction. Who is Lula? She is, at a mythic level, a seductress, an Eve figure who has already eaten the apple and now offers it to Clay. Her sexual aggressiveness also has...
(The entire section is 914 words.)
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Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama)
As the opening stage directions state, Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman is “heaped in modern myth.” The play explores the racial and sexual stereotypes that condition Americans’ behavior and argues that these powerful stereotypes are manipulated by the white establishment to maintain an oppressive social order. The play further suggests that black Americans’ efforts to adjust to the double lives that are forced upon them, rather than allowing them to join together in social action, often make them accomplices in their own cultural, economic, and physical annihilation.
The subway car setting and the play’s title remind the audience of the packed holds of Dutch slave traders, which brought the first black Africans to Jamestown; the historic underground railroad, which helped slaves escape the South; and the legendary Flying Dutchman, the cursed phantom sailing ship that endlessly sails the seas. Moreover, the grimy, rumbling, underground setting connotes incarceration, damnation, and entombment. The biblical parallels to the story of Adam and Eve are obvious; as Lula gives Clay an apple, she notes that “eating apples together is always the first step.” Lula tempts Clay to come out from behind his assimilationist facade, to lower the disguise that is his only protection against white society’s racist anger.
Lula and Clay are archetypal figures representing racial and sexual traditions and exemplifying the behaviors that...
(The entire section is 515 words.)
Race and Racism
Racial oppression and racial hatred lie at the heart of Dutchman. Yet this play is not a simplistic denunciation of racism but rather one long invective against one (in Baraka's view ineffective) solution to racism: assimilation. Clay is a representative of the form of assimilation practiced by many of the black middle class, a pursuit of white values and culture through "white" education. Clay carries a stack of books, and he wears the garb of the well-educated. Lula seems to hate Clay on sight, explaining that he is a "type" she has seen often. She infers that he has a black friend with a "phony English accent." Clay, she tells him, looks like he is trying to grow a beard and has "been reading Chinese poetry and drinking lukewarm sugarless tea." These are the trappings of the Bohemian intellectual, such as Baraka was himself at the time he wrote this play.
Lula hates Clay not just because he is black, but because of his obvious attempts to discard his racial heritage. She berates him for his meek acceptance of assimilation as a desirable goal, saying, "Boy, those narrow-shoulder clothes come from a tradition you ought to feel oppressed by." When she taunts him that his grandfather was a slave who did not go to Harvard, he responds lamely that his grandfather was a night watchman. In other words, he tries desperately to distance himself from his slave heritage, even at the cost of remembering that he is black. As he...
(The entire section is 964 words.)