Paul Green Essay - Critical Essays


Paul Green’s playwriting career is usually divided into three phases: an early phase when he wrote one-act plays about the South; a middle phase when he advanced to full-length plays, at first traditional but then experimental in form, mostly set in the South but including other settings; and a final phase when he concentrated on historical outdoor plays, the so-called symphonic dramas , still mostly set in the South. Another division scheme is suggested by a surprising break in his career around World War II, when for five years (1942-1946) this prolific playwright produced no work for the stage (though he was writing for Hollywood). The five-year break effectively divides Green’s period of concentration on indoor drama from his period of concentration on outdoor drama.

During the five-year period, Green apparently reassessed his dramatic career and emerged not only with a new form but also with new material and new attitudes. Before the break, Green relentlessly criticized social injustice in the United States, particularly the southern parts, but the born-again Green celebrated the patriotic Faith of Our Fathers and became a member of the United States Executive Committee and of the National Commission, UNESCO (1950-1952). The onetime antiwar playwright filled the stage with battles. Green can be accused of inconsistency here—or at least of going for popularity by merely reflecting changes in social climate from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. In his defense, however, it should be noted that his development was dictated, in part, by the opportunities available to him (which perhaps, in turn, were influenced by the prevailing social climate).

More important, the gulf between Native Son and The Common Glory is not as great as it first appears. The uniting strand is Green’s democratic belief in human rights, expressed in a negative, critical form before World War II and in a positive, celebratory form after the war. Green’s emphasis changed, but his beliefs remained the same, as can be seen most clearly in his consistently sympathetic portrayal of African Americans. His consistent development is demonstrated by the following analysis of his best work during the various phases.

The one-act plays White Dresses and Hymn to the Rising Sun both depict brutal social conditions in the South early in the twentieth century. White Dresses focuses on the relationship of a white landowner and his black female tenants, while Hymn to the Rising Sun shows guards and convicts on a chain gang. Both plays are expository in nature, with little plot, the action serving to demonstrate a sordid condition—the cruel dominance of one party and subjection of another, as though the South knows no other pattern.

White Dresses

In White Dresses, the mulatto girl Mary McLean has likings for young Hugh Morgan, the white landlord’s son (with whom she has apparently had sexual relations), and talks of going to New York and passing for white. Her aspirations in both directions are crushed by the landlord, Henry Morgan, who forces her to marry another black tenant, Jim Matthews; otherwise, he will evict her sickly old grandmother. Henry Morgan comes across as a Simon Legree, but as the eye-popping conclusion reveals, he has at least one good reason for preventing a liaison between Hugh and Mary—Mary is Hugh’s half sister. Also, because it is Christmas Eve, Henry delivers Mary a present, apparently from Hugh: a white dress matching the one Henry gave Mary’s mother to bribe her. The dress is a powerful symbol of Mary’s crushed hopes and the cycle of degradation from which she had hoped to escape.

Hymn to the Rising Sun

Hymn to the Rising Sun, the chain-gang drama, is set on an ironic date, the Fourth of July. All the action takes place between dawn’s first light and sunrise of another hot Southern day, the nearest thing to Hell in the life of the chain-gang members (black and white here are treated equally). The state legislature and judges have decreed “hard labor” for the convicts, and Captain, the head guard, is there to see that the decree is carried out. A stereotype of the Southern sheriff or “boss” (fat, sombrero-crowned, wearing a whip curled up in one boot), Captain obviously takes pleasure in his work, although he denies it. His easygoing humor loaded with sinister threats, Captain rules by intimidation and sadism. To celebrate the holiday, Captain has the guards blast off their shotguns, makes a speech to the convicts on his concept of democracy (law is of, by, and for the Establishment), and forces the convicts to sing a verse of “America.” He then proceeds to routine matters: whipping Bright Boy for talking too much and releasing Runt from eleven days in the sweatbox (unfortunately, the man is dead).

Both White Dresses and Hymn to the Rising Sun have social implications beyond their immediate themes of race and penal servitude, although Green does not push these wider implications to the fore. White Dresses shows the paternalistic economic system by which the few control the many, and Hymn to the Rising Sun shows what happens to those who step out of line: They are given a few basic civics “lessons.” The chain gang, hired out by the governor to build the railroad, is a microcosm of the whole system, and Captain, with his Mussolini-style harangue on “democracy,” in particular suggests the system’s totalitarian nature.

In Abraham’s Bosom

Like Mary McLean in White Dresses, Abraham McCranie of In Abraham’s Bosom is a mulatto who hopes to break out of the cycle of Southern degradation. Unlike Mary, Abe aspires to lift his whole race with him. He is, therefore, a much more dangerous character than Mary; Mary only wanted to go to New York, but Abe wants to teach blacks to read and write. A heroic figure who first struggles to teach himself, Abe is feared by both blacks and whites, with the...

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