Marc Connelly Essay - Connelly, Marc(us)

Connelly, Marc(us)

Connelly, Marc(us) 1890–

Connelly, known primarily for his Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Green Pastures and for his successful collaborations with George S. Kaufman during the 1920s, has long been a distinguished and vital force in the Broadway theatre—as writer, producer, actor, teacher, and advocate. He is also the author of prize-winning short stories and a novel. Connelly was a member of the Algonquin Round Table and a founder of The New Yorker.

Probably no play did more to dramatize the most relevant of man's spiritual struggles of the past than Marc Connelly's Green Pastures. Produced just after the crash in 1929, when speculators and others were jumping out the windows of skyscrapers and men and women everywhere felt confused and frustrated, this play brought healing and faith to troubled souls. Moreover it performed its ministry with such grace of humor and imagination that it sent audiences back into the darkness of the world with laughter on their lips and sparkle in their eyes. (pp. 103-04)

Fred Eastman, in his Christ in the Drama (© 1947 by Fred Eastman; reprinted by permission of Richard and Arthur Eastman), Macmillan, 1947.

When Marc Connelly finished his script [for The Green Pastures], he had written a far, far larger play than perhaps he realized. He had been reading Roark Bradford's Ol' Man Adam an' His Chillun, that delectable series of Bible stories as retold in the language of devout but untutored Louisiana Negroes. He decided to dramatize these Old Testament tales "about the time when the Lord walked the earth like a natural man." (p. 85)

Although in some of his scenes he relied on Mr. Bradford's enchanting episodes and phrases, he contributed not only new material but a new dimension to Mr. Bradford's sketches. Without losing their humor, a humor born of faith at its most innocent, he added a religious feeling as touching, as heart-sprung and all-conquering as that glorifying the spirituals which are an essential part of the production.

The resulting play may have been set in a Louisiana parish, but it shone with qualities which persuaded a whole nation to enroll among its parishioners. Delightful though it was as a work of art, it was more than an adventure in theatregoing. It was a religious experience of a profound and radiant sort. It still is. The years have not diminished its appeal.

No sermon has ever made goodness more contagious. Or so dispensed with preaching and the pulpit manner in illustrating what lies at the core of faith. Without irreverence it smiles in God's presence, worshipful but unterrified, and filled with the kind of happiness that in itself is an expression of love. If its virtuous mortals such as Noah, Moses, Hezdrel, and the rest are as unabashed when facing their Creator as are Gabriel, the cherubs, and the angels at the heavenly fish fry it is because all of them, heaven- or earth-born, are at ease with Him.

And why not? De Lawd in The Green Pastures may describe himself to Noah as "a god of wrath and vengeance" but surely wrath never took so gentle a form. Although from time to time he has to punish erring mankind, he seems more saddened than outraged by the need to do so. Sin is something he "jest can't stan'." Yet an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth is not among his demands. In spite of having thunderbolts at his disposal, he does not throw his weight about. Instead, he is the kindliest of administrators, tolerant and benign.

The tremendous burden he carries casts its shadow on his spirit even if it leaves his back unbent. He is well aware that "bein' de Lawd ain't no bed of roses," but he never loses his patience, his serenity, or his dignity. He looks and talks like a mortal. Plainly, however, he is more than that. When Noah, who has not recognized him, confesses, "I should have known you. I should have seen de glory," he is telling the truth, for the glory is there. It is there in homespun, uncanonical terms, and never more so than in the beautiful last scene in which the Crucifixion is hinted at and de Lawd realizes that God, too, must learn mercy through suffering.

Quite rightly The Green Pastures has long since been saluted and accepted as a folk play. This in itself raises its convention-destroying points. For folk art is supposed to be the product of simple people. (pp. 85-7)

Although the Algonquin's Round Table, where the wags wagged and the "Vicious Circle" met, created its own lore, its members were scarcely of that jerkin, buckskin, or calico variety from which folklore springs. Mr. Bradford, a resident of New Orleans, did not belong to this group of latter-day Mermaid Taverners, but Mr. Connelly did. He is one of the wittiest of city slickers and easily distinguishable from Johnny Appleseed. The fleshpots are not foreign to him. Yet these two very knowing men did manage to "r'ar back" and pass that miracle of folk art which The Green Pastures is. (p. 87)

John Mason Brown, "The Ever Green Pastures" (1951), in his Dramatis Personae: A Retrospective Show (copyright © 1952 by John Mason Brown; reprinted by permission of The Viking Press, Inc.), Viking, 1963, pp. 85-8.

Connelly's lyrics for one of his songs in Lady of Luzon label "Sleepy Manila" an "Eden of dreams." Obviously, we should not place much weight upon his use of this single cliché in an early work. Throughout his life, however, Connelly has returned again and again to the idea of Eden. He has always been an artist with a hankering for "paradise" and a fundamental belief that reason, good humor, and trust are the means of achieving it.

If Connelly's early work gives but little evidence of the artistry and sense of dedication needed to write The Green Pastures, it is yet clear in all his work that everything in his nature and environment helped to mold the kind of man who would have the courage and ambition to try such a play. From his first newspaper work to his most current work-in-progress, Connelly has given a view of life that is hopeful and modest, comic and tolerant. He has brought to his literary life the sense of dedication of his New England ancestors, the sense of adventure of his Irish forebears, and the wonderful insight of a father and mother who knew how to carve a happy marriage from the union of the two. (p. 29)

Marc Connelly's career as a collaborator with George S. Kaufman lasted about five years, from 1920 to 1924. During this time, the two wrote at least four plays of permanent interest in the history of American drama: Dulcy, To the Ladies!, Merton of the Movies, and Beggar on Horseback. They wrote several others, some successful and some failures at the box office—including The Deep Tangled Wildwood; Helen of Troy, N.Y.; and Be Yourself—which are occasionally mentioned in theater histories, but are never seen or read.

By the standards of some modern theater critics, the Connelly-Kaufman plays are "quaint" and "dated," save perhaps for Beggar on Horseback, which Joseph Mersand as late as 1964 was still calling "one of the first great satires on American big business." These plays, to be sure, have ingredients that offend modern critical biases. They are all concerned with the pursuit of fame, fortune, and love; they are all "hopeful" plays. If, however, some critics are now convinced that modern life is better mirrored in Samuel Beckett's Endgame, Edward Albee's Tiny Alice, or Arthur Miller's After the Fall, and if they find the Connelly dialogue a little too "glib," the Kaufman plotting a little too "contrived," and the life that is depicted a little too gay, with too many happy endings, the defenders have an answer. Life was glib and gay when these plays were written, and their authors did find happy endings. (p. 31)

Both Dulcy and To the Ladies! grew out of the association of the playwrights [Connelly and Kaufman] with the Algonquin Round Table group, and the evidence of that association is everywhere apparent in the two plays. [Franklin P.] Adams' newspaper character had suggested the first play, and the second play is a companion piece to the first. The language of the two plays and the jokes were often directed to the Round Table. In fact, in the second play there is a mention of a character named "Benchley, an efficiency expert," a private joke aimed at their mutual friend, Robert Benchley.

Connelly's reputation, to be sure, was built by his playwriting; and, unless there is a drastic change, it will remain a dramatist's reputation. At the same time, however, if Mr. Connelly had never written a play, he would still have some claims to interest from literary historians for his fiction…. We do not intend to suggest that Connelly's fiction, in the context of all his works, should be given major attention; however, it does demonstrate something of the man's literary versatility and throws some light upon his methods of craftsmanship. His fiction, moreover, is bound up in the world of the theater. (p. 74)

What is true of Connelly's drama during these years is also true of his fiction. The central concern of much of his work is with the individual's attempt to defend himself against outside deception and internal fears. For Connelly, the outside deception is of less importance than the internal fears; for fear leads one to sacrifice feeling for comfort, ease, and order. His approach to this problem is often, of necessity, through the joke, the gag, the comic story, the skit; for Connelly views the problem as one that comes from taking one's self—or one's employer, wife, or neighbor—or one's position too seriously. If the immediate objects for Connelly's humor—train service, hotel service, New York apartment dwelling, "show business"—now seem far off in time, his literature for this period is still saved from the museum by his concern with a problem that does not grow old—the mature male's growing fear of being involved in a life that is too complex and too difficult for him. (pp. 76-7)

In the main, however, the work of these years was a preparation for The Green Pastures. It is true that in none of these works does Connelly deal with Negroes or (with the exception of Ex Cathedra) with religion; but Bemis with his aching tooth, Mr. and Mrs. Morton with their empty apartment, and the Wild Man of Borneo all hunger for an invitation to a heavenly fish fry; and their creator makes it obvious that he would like to see them get it. Connelly, with his natural sympathy for the underdog, for the man isolated from his society, eventually had to get to the problem of the Negro. (p. 77)

The Green Pastures is, undoubtedly, among the half dozen or so most respected plays in American dramatic literature. It gave Mr. Connelly an international reputation, a private fortune, and a great deal of personal satisfaction. Unfortunately for his other works, it also gave many theater critics and historians the general impression that Marc Connelly was a one-play author. Such an impression came not merely because The Green Pastures is the finest single piece of writing that Mr. Connelly has ever done, but also because, in various superficial ways, it appears to be utterly different from all his other works. It is his only play about Negroes; it is his only full-length play on a religious subject; it is his only play without a conventional happy ending. (p. 79)

For the past two decades,… there has been a general feeling that [The Green Pastures] is too simple for complex academic criticism, too soft for an age of revolution, and perhaps too patronizing for the new role of the Negro in the United States, too much like Uncle Tom's Cabin. Just a few years ago, for example, the Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church charged that the play was "irreligious" and "perpetuated outmoded stereotypes" of Negroes. As these various comments indicate, much of the existing criticism of the play has been concerned with its stage history rather than with its literary merit and ideational content. A recent edition of The Green Pastures, with sensible, religious essays by W. R. Matthews, John Macmurray, and Henry Self, gives hope that a new interest in the play—a critical interest—is coming into being.

The tremendous success of the play in the theater, strangely enough, seems to have discouraged serious dramatic criticism about the merits of the play as literature, to a large degree, perhaps, because its "literary merit" was never questioned. Most critics have been content merely to state a verdict…. The Green Pastures, which has been republished in at least thirty-three different anthologies in the past thirty-seven years, is the one play by Connelly that has never, except for minor cavils, been criticized for artistic "faults." (p. 83)

The Green Pastures is not a play utterly different from everything that Connelly had done before; The Deep Tangled Wildwood, The Wisdom Tooth, and The Wild Man of Borneo, for examples, are quite obviously searches for "old dignities." What distinguishes The Green Pastures from these earlier plays is its scope. In this play Connelly selected his materials, not from minor aspects of contemporary society, but from the central religious-philosophical myth of Western civilization, the Hebraic-Christian accounts in the Bible; and he then applied some of the implications of that myth to one group of suffering American humanity, the Southern Negro. (pp. 84-5)

One of Connelly's problems as a playwright has been that, even in the midst of his most serious moments, there is the temptation to solve the tragic with Algonquin wit. As a romantic intellectual, Connelly seems to find it difficult to see any condition as being beyond the control of the mind and good intentions of man. In the midst of The Land of the Living—a work to which Connelly obviously gave a great deal of attention—we find echoes of The Deep Tangled Wildwood. In the search of David Rudderman, the protagonist of the play, for a life of meaning, we sometimes encounter the mind of the Broadway wit of the 1920's seeking an adjustment. (pp. 108-09)

Critics and theater historians today think of Connelly much as the eighteenth-century critics thought of William Congreve during the first quarter of that century, after The Way of the World. The comparison is not altogether unfair. Both men turned out a number of superb comedies; both achieved "greatness" with a single work; both seemed to remain around the theater, but not in it. From the point of view of the academic critic, concerned only with plays that were critically or financially successful, the comparison seems apt. The Green Pastures was, as far as popular and critical reputation is concerned, Connelly's Way of the World.

A review of Mr. Connelly's "achievements" since the end of World War II does not challenge such a view. Connelly has not had a single successful new play produced or published. There has been no edition of his "complete works" and no major revivals, except for one of The Green Pastures, of his plays in the theater. He has not yet completed his long-awaited "memoirs." In fact, with the exception of A Souvenir from Qam and some short sketches and travel articles, none of Connelly's works of the past twenty years is generally available for critical examination. (p. 124)

Any conclusions about Marc Connelly's contributions to American literature, of course, must be tentative. Styles in American literature, and especially in the drama, have changed radically in the past twenty years; and, if we assume these changes are permanent, Eugene O'Neill seems likely to be the only American playwright before World War II who will receive major critical attention in the future.

The Green Pastures, to be sure, even by current standards of criticism, holds a position as one of the important plays in American drama; but it is the only one of Connelly's plays that does. A few others—Beggar on Horseback, The Wisdom Tooth, and The Farmer Takes a Wife—are still given some attention as competent examples of minor forms—"Expressionistic" fantasy and sentimental comedy. Several others—Dulcy, To the Ladies!, Merton of the Movies, and The Traveler—are interesting both as artifacts of an age and as "other works" by the author of The Green Pastures. For Connelly's fiction, even including A Souvenir from Qam, the same claims may be made; they are "other works" and may be viewed as artifacts of an age. (p. 144)

Paul T. Nolan, in his Marc Connelly (copyright 1969 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1969.