The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Lost Colony eloquently recounts the story of the 117 men, women, and children of the doomed English settlement at Roanoke Island, North Carolina, who disappeared without a trace in 1588 after a yearlong struggle to settle the coastal wilds. Far from dwelling on the failure of the enterprise, the play offers an uplifting retelling that connects the daring of these first New World settlers (the Roanoke community predated Plymouth by more than thirty years) to the eventual success of the American experiment.

The prologue begins with a thundering organ solo followed by a sweeping choral rendering of “O God That Madest Earth and Sky.” A minister in full vestment intones a prayer recalling the heroic Roanoke settlers and reminding the audience that this seaside amphitheater is, in fact, on the very site of that original settlement (the play was written to be performed at a specific site). The stage then comes alive with the vivid spectacle of the harvest dance of the native Roanokes, interrupted by the arrival of the initial English scouting cortege, who claim the land for the queen. An exchange of gifts and gestures of friendship promise cooperation.

The action shifts to London, specifically the happy confusion outside a tavern by the queen’s gardens. Old Tom, a beggar and drunkard who, like the Shakespearean fool, is given to witty insights, anticipates the arrival of Sir Walter Raleigh. With great pomp, the queen herself arrives and, after listening to Raleigh and sampling the New World curiosity known as tobacco, sanctions a settlement. Amid the celebration, John Borden, a dashing tenant farmer, exchanges tender words with Eleanor White, whose father owns the lands he farms. She is, however, already promised to Captain Ananias Dare, a union more appropriate to her social position.

The disastrous first attempt at settling the island by a military contingent dispatched in 1585 is rendered dramatically in scene 5. The English ambush the unsuspecting Indians during a dance ritual and kill their chief. After a period of escalating hostilities, the chorus explains, the settlement’s leaders returned to England, leaving only fifteen soldiers behind to...

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The Lost Colony Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

As the first and longest-running example of what Green termed a “symphonic drama,” The Lost Colony represents a revolutionary genre that recalls the outdoor theatrical rituals of the ancient Greeks, the lavish medieval community pageants (notably the Oberammergau Passion Play), the staged spectacles of Wagnerian opera in Bayreuth, Germany, and the stylized pageants of seventeenth century Japanese kabuki theater. Begun as a local community effort to address what residents regarded as the long neglect of the historic events at Roanoke, the drama, planned for a single summer run, was commissioned in April, 1936, by the Roanoke Historical Association to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the birth of Virginia Dare. Yet, under Green’s visionary direction, the production found a receptive audience and has run every summer six nights per week since 1937 (except during World War II).

While on a Guggenheim Fellowship to Europe in 1928-1929, Green was inspired by German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s antirealism—with its unconventional strategies for involving the audience in a performance—and by Russian playwright Alexis Granowsky’s experiments in introducing music into episodic drama. Green pioneered the return of drama to the outdoors, with its implicit invitation to enlarge the audience emotionally. The Lost Colony, with a chorus and pipe organ providing its sonic backdrop, deliberately aims for the impact of religious ritual. Many elements must work together to create this experience (hence the term “symphonic” to suggest how disparate elements must cooperate like the sections of an orchestra creating a symphony). Among its dramatic devices, the play coordinates poetic dialogue, choreography, lighting, costuming, sound effects, a score of period music (including hymns, carols, organ works, and dances), a cast of more than one hundred actors and a chorus of twenty voices, pyrotechnics, dramatically staged action sequences (including brutal raids), and lavish sets deployed across a main stage measuring more than two hundred feet across, as well as two smaller movable stages. Behind the scenes, teams of technicians maintain the spectacle, monitoring banks of computer equipment, state-of-the-art sound and lighting boards, and even Doppler weather radar.

The Lost Colony Bibliography

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Avery, Laurence G. “The Lost Colony”: A Symphonic Drama of American History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Avery, Laurence G. A Paul Green Reader. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Free, William J., and Charles B. Lower. History into Drama: A Source Book on Symphonic Drama, Including the Complete Text of Paul Green’s “The Lost Colony.” New York: Odyssey Press, 1963.

Kenny, Vincent S. Paul Green. New York: Twayne, 1971.

Rabkin, Gerald. Drama and Commitment: Politics in the American Theatre of the Thirties. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964.