Lynn Riggs is known almost exclusively as a regional dramatist in the tradition of Susan Glaspell and Paul Green, but his work is more varied in both content and style than this label would suggest. For example, it is accurate to call Riggs an ethnic regionalist, but only if one includes the Cherokees in The Cherokee Night, the Hispanics in The Year of Pilar, A World Elsewhere, and Laughter from a Cloud, the farmers and ranchers of Green Grow the Lilacs, and braggart frontiersmen in Roadside as ethnic groups associated with Riggs. A favorite theme deals with the attempts, in Arthur Hopkins’s words, to show “beauty in rebellion . . . now successful self-assertion, now frustration—usually girlhood or womanhood fighting for the right to self, for adventure, for love.” This theme finds expression not only in the lightly sketched romance between Curly and Laurey in the well-known Green Grow the Lilacs, but also in almost all Riggs’s other plays, which include tragedies, comedies, and two naturalistic studies of uneducated, lower-class women.
Stylistically, Laurey’s dream ballet in Oklahoma! is a natural extension of elements already present in Green Grow the Lilacs, where Riggs successfully portrays Jeeter’s perverse and lurid lust while remaining almost within a naturalistic framework. The authentic folk songs in this, as well as several other of his plays, typify his desire to extend the stage’s bounds beyond realism. Thus, most of his plays are infused with a poetic diction that goes far beyond naturalistic speech, as in Roadside, or deal with highly melodramatic situations that reflect deep, unconscious drives, as in The Cream in the Well, or move overtly beyond naturalism in setting, language, situation, or onstage use of supernatural elements, as does The Cherokee Night.
Riggs’s plays demonstrate various kinds and strands of excellence, mixed with a number of structural problems. His poetic gift surfaces whenever the beauty of the natural world is invoked. This sensitivity to natural beauty, for example, resulted in the charming opening stage directions for Green Grow the Lilacs, which were translated into the lyrics of the title song in Oklahoma! In a number of his plays, Riggs uses songs and poetic diction in situations of heightened emotion. The same desire for lyricism finds expression in the effective use of scenic elements, such as the mountains in Laughter from a Cloud. In the play that Riggs himself considered his best, The Cherokee Night, a Cherokee burial ground looms in the background of each scene, dominating the stage action in an effective symbolic statement.
The Cherokee Night, however, also illustrates Riggs’s weaknesses as a playwright. The play has strong moments and a significant, fresh theme, but the characters are present more to illustrate the theme than to exist on their own, while the structure (the play’s seven scenes are not in chronological order) lacks clarity. Another play that illustrates Riggs’s weaknesses as well as his strengths is The Cream in the Well, a story of incest based on the premise that an intelligent, sensitive woman may yet be a despoiler of all those around her because of the secret desires that poison her and her brother’s life. Aware that individual scenes showed real power, reviewers nevertheless asked why this melodramatic, contrived plot had been chosen. The theme of incest is a powerful element in A Lantern to See By as well and lurks in the background of Sump’n Like Wings. It is doubtful that Riggs chose the theme in order to write a successful play. Rather, this was a serious playwright who was wrestling with a theme that engaged him.
The Riggs protagonist searching for love is more often female than male, an emancipated woman, struggling to make some sort of active life for herself in which she will not be dependent on the superior strength or initiative of a man. It seems as though those plays end happily in which both the man and his “women” agree on a common set of values—either mutually accepting the division into traditional, sharply defined masculine and feminine roles or both being willing to adjust to the newer emancipation of women—while those plays end unhappily in which some external condition or some restlessness within the characters forces an irresolvable confrontation over traditional values. It should not be assumed that Riggs was trying to assert the superiority of traditional values. He understood that the forces causing change were irresistible, and he was trying to chart what happened as people tried to accommodate such changes.
Riggs was one of thirty-three playwrights who responded to a questionnaire from W. David Sievers, who was researching his book Freud on Broadway (1955). Riggs said that he had read some of Sigmund Freud’s work, that he felt his plays were “doing the same thing” as analysts did, and that “he had sought for dramatic devices to dramatize the workings of the unconscious.” The need of Riggs’s characters to express their libidinous impulses—a need that seemed overstrained to some reviewers and critics—is insistent throughout his plays. In Dark Encounter, for example, the heroine, Gail Atwood, seems to have fallen in love with three different men (although engaged to marry Ancil Bingham, she becomes involved sexually with Teek and Karl on day one and day two of the play, respectively), while Riggs portrays her throughout as a sensitive and sympathetic character. Similarly, in Russet Mantle, Kay spends night one with one man and night two with another without losing Riggs’s sympathy.
The first group of plays written by Riggs, dating from the 1925 Knives from Syria through the 1931 Green Grow the Lilacs, are studies of young people struggling to find themselves within the context of the kind of harsh farm environment made familiar by Eugene O’Neill in Desire Under the Elms (pr. 1924), which the early, tragic A Lantern to See By resembles.
A Lantern to See By
In A Lantern to See By, John Harmon, the father of six living sons, treats his wife as a child breeder and servant. Only the youngest boy, Jodie, seems to have any sensitivity to his mother’s situation. When Jodie tries to protect her, the father almost deliberately misinterprets his motives and beats him with an iron bar. In act 2, the mother dies after her eleventh childbirth, and a neighbor’s daughter, Annie Marble, comes to do the mother’s work for the family. Jodie sees a potential for both mothering and loving in Annie. He falls in love with her, whereas she is willing to make use of his infatuation. She tells him that to win her he must take her away to the big city—Muskogee—which she had admired on a visit to a friend. Jodie leaves to take a job so that he can earn enough money to start his own life with Annie. Meanwhile, act 2 ends with Annie accepting John Harmon’s advances. Act 3 opens a month later on the evening of a play party at the Harmons’. Annie is asking for her salary of eight dollars a month, plus the unspecified amount promised for her “extra services” to her employer. Harmon puts off the payment, rightly fearing that she will leave as soon as she gets the money. Then Jodie arrives, angry because his employer, his father’s friend, had said he would pay Jodie’s wages only to John Harmon. Learning of the situation between his father and Annie, Jodie becomes even angrier, and he kills his father off stage with an iron bar. The play ends as the neighbors speculate over Jodie’s fate and the audience learns that Annie’s goal was to reach a friend in Muskogee, a prostitute, and join her in her chosen occupation.
This naturalistic tragedy of lower-class farm life, with its theme of...
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