Critical Overview

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In his ‘‘Notes’’ for the first publication of The Amen Corner in 1968, Baldwin recalls that writing the play was ‘‘a desperate and even rather irresponsible act.’’ With one published novel to his name (Go Tell It on the Mountain), Baldwin was not in a strong position to succeed with his first play. As his agent at the time informed him, ‘‘the American theatre was not exactly clamoring for plays on obscure aspects of Negro life, especially one written by a virtually unknown author whose principal effort until that time had been one novel.’’ Nevertheless, Baldwin forged ahead, and The Amen Corner, written in the 1950s, was first produced on the campus of Howard University, then in Los Angeles, before opening on Broadway in 1965. While it won the 1964 Foreign Drama Critics Circle Award, the play was not published in book form until 1968.

Critics have commented on the artistic success of Baldwin’s play as a dramatic stage production. Carlton W. Molette, writing in 1977, stated that The Amen Corner ‘‘is one of the most successful Afro-American plays that I have seen.’’ Molette asserts that ‘‘The first professional production was moving as theater ought to be but seldom is.’’ Carolyn Wedin Sylvander, asserting that ‘‘The Amen Corner is a better play than its production history or critical attention would seem to indicate,’’ especially praises the play for its qualities as a stage production, particularly in Baldwin’s use of music: ‘‘the play is certainly constructed in such a way as to truly ‘come alive’ on the stage. Much of that liveliness and power to involve is transmitted through the music. Group singing, individual singing, instrumental accompaniment, jazz (Luke on record), all provide choral commentary on character and conflict.’’

Several critics have noted the play’s embodiment of aesthetic values put forth by the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. Darwin T. Turner explains that ‘‘The Amen Corner seems more clearly designed as a drama written about black experience for a black audience. In this respect, it resembles Black Arts drama, in which the dramatist presumes that he must write without concern for the white spectator, who exists outside the black experience and without comprehension of it. I do not wish to imply that Baldwin consciously designed the play for the education of a black audience. Instead, I am suggesting that he found strength in writing meaningfully about an experience he knew while assuming that his audience would be equally familiar with that experience.’’ Turner concludes that Baldwin’s ‘‘success, I feel, did not result solely from his recreation of a church setting that was familiar to him but from his presumption that his audience required no interpretation, no modification, because it already knew the cultural setting. Thus Baldwin achieved an artistic freedom rarely granted a black dramatist except when he works within the theater of a black community.’’ Molette provides a similar assessment of Baldwin’s play in terms of the ways in which it addresses its audience: ‘‘The Amen Corner does not protest to whites; it informs, educates, illuminates blacks. . . . I t is not self-consciously black. The play assumes that there are some elementary aspects of black culture that do not require explanation within the body of the play. It assumes, in effect, a black audience. It is not an antiwhite play, it is an a-white play.’’

Molette, however, does note that ‘‘the play is not perfect,’’ pointing out that ‘‘Ironically, The Amen Corner is at its worst as a play precisely when it is at its best as literature. There are several twocharacter scenes between the...

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members of the Alexander family that are true literary gems. They are also the scenes of greatest character revelation. They actually tell us too much about the characters. Now, all that is told needs to be told; but some of it ought to be told through means other than words.’’ Molette goes on to criticize scenes that are particularly static and lacking in drama when seen on stage. Playbill cover from the 1965 production of Baldwin’s The Amen Corner at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

For example, in Act II, ‘‘the action slows down, and the words become far more important than the deed. In the theater, that usually means trouble. This is especially a problem with the scenes that involve the father (Luke), because he is confined to his sickbed, making visual interest through movement very difficult to achieve, as well.’’

Fred L. Standley praises the play, along with other works by Baldwin, for his treatment of ‘‘a variety of thematic concerns: the historical significance and the potential explosiveness in blackwhite relations; the necessity for developing a sexual and psychological consciousness and identity; the intertwining of love and power in the universal scheme of existence as well as in the structures of society; the misplaced priorities in the value systems in America; and the responsibility of the artist to promote the evolution of the individual and the society.’’

Trudier Harris criticized Baldwin’s portrayal of female characters in a number of his works, asserting that ‘‘Few women in Baldwin’s works are able to move beyond the bounds of the traditional roles that have been cut out for them and in which the use of their bodies is the most important factor.’’ Harris offers both criticism and praise, however, of Baldwin’s representation of women through the character of Margaret in The Amen Corner. She states that Sister Margaret ‘‘is most like the women in the fiction in her desire and ability to serve. . . . I n her adherence to scripture, she is one of the most fanatical of Baldwin’s black women characters. Yet in her recognition of the unrelenting antagonism between males and females, she voices the plight of all of the church-based women.’’ Harris concludes, however, that, in Baldwin’s fiction and drama, ‘‘for all this growth and progression, for all this freedom of action and movement, the women are still con- fined to niches carved out for them by men whose egos are too fragile to grant their equality.’’


Essays and Criticism