Bill Gunn Critical Essays

Gunn, Bill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gunn, Bill 1934–

Gunn is an American novelist and playwright. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

The first thing to be said about Bill Gunn's play "Black Picture Show" … is that its author is obviously gifted. The second thing to be said about the play is that it is not a success. And the third thing to be said about it is that, ironically, the nature of its failure heightens one's certainty of Mr. Gunn's talent, for that any dramatic action capable of interesting us for an entire evening could be wrested out of the ill-chosen, long-since-shopworn subject matter of "Black Picture Show" approaches the miraculous. We are again, and how reluctantly, in the presence of a hero who writes. Writes and suffers, and his suffering, like that of a thousand other writers in plays, novels, and movies, is induced largely by the fact that he has sold out. For nothing more important than money, he has committed his divine spark into the hands of hucksters; he who should have been an O'Neill has become a hack. Moreover, his lacerating self-reproach is made all the more painful by the fact that the hucksters who have seduced him are white and he is black. He has done a grave injury not only to himself but also to his people.

Where to begin in the dismissal of such conventional clap-trap? Almost the first rule that one learns on taking up a career in letters is that a writer mustn't write about a writer writing. (Prodigious exceptions, like Joyce and Proust, are imitated at one's peril.) A second rule, which need never be mastered, provided that one obeys the first rule, is that a writer's occupational sufferings are apt to be much less interesting than those of a truck driver or a lacquerer of tea trays; his flushed flutterings on the brink of literary prostitution quickly prove tiresome. In any event, the first-rate artist who sells out and therefore becomes second-rate is mostly a figment of the imagination of the second-rate artist who has sold out and who would never have been first-rate; or perhaps, more amusingly, it is a figment of the imagination of the third-rate writer who has sold out and has unexpectedly advanced to second-rate, with the hope of someday being first-rate dimly glimmering before him. "Black Picture Show" prompts other musings. Why is it worse for a black to sell out to a white than for a white to sell out to a white, or, for that matter, for a black to sell out to a black? Except on grounds of racial snobbery, with its implication that all blacks ought to be able to be counted on to behave more honorably than all whites, why should the question of color arise?

Mr. Gunn may well have been troubled by some of these questions and may have sought to divert our attention from them by the overingenious intricacies of his cat's cradle of a plot. He constantly scrambles time and place: the hero is now a middle-aged man going mad and dying in the presence of a young son, now himself a young son uneasy in the presence of his father; the bleak dayroom of the psychiatric ward of a hospital in the Bronx is at the same time the vulgarly overfurnished living room of a large country house. These pranks of dramaturgy, though they serve to keep us on our toes, fail to illuminate the characters; the story is essentially a simple one and gains nothing by having an apparent complexity imposed on it…. The murderous conversations between the hero-writer and his wife and between the producer and his wife compare favorably with the classic oral assassinations of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Mr. Gunn is at his best in these scenes. (p. 61)

Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 20, 1975.

Until recent years, no one could have imagined that rage would be peddled as theatrical entertainment. In its osmotic effect, this viciousness of attitude poisons whatever theme the playwright may have thought he had. The playgoer leaves the theater in a state of psychological dishevelment as he might a hospital room after visiting a patient who is running a dangerous fever.

In Black Picture Show, Playwright Bill Gunn's hero is already hospitalized, or rather, confined to a Bronx, New York City, mental home. Alexander … has gone mad, but he has been a black poet, playwright and screenwriter of merit. Fragmented episodes indicate how he has bobbed for the white man's Golden Delicious apple and drowned in economic and psychic abasement. He is dying; perhaps he is already dead. Obfuscation ranks high among Playwright Gunn's defects.

What is Gunn driving at? He is saying that Alexander, an artist of seemingly impeccable integrity, has sold out and been destroyed by his yen for lucre. This is twaddle. No artist has ever been corrupted or humiliated by the quest for cash unless he was a willing accomplice….

Need one add that Playwright Gunn is not at all satisfied to make this a human fallibility? He persists in what has become for some an article of faith and fallacy—that some whitey somewhere is prostituting the black brothers for gain. Just to spell it out in the corniest imaginable terms, Playwright Gunn has Alexander's wife sue for a contract with a white homosexual film producer …, and she has to kneel on the floor to pick up the largesse he languidly strews in the form of $1,000 bills. Meanwhile, the producer's wife … sashays round the room in a cocaine-sniffing trance. Racism is abhorrent; let the same be said for reverse racism.

T. E. Kalem, "The Blame Game," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), January 20, 1975, p. 76.

Bill Gunn comes late to the ranks of anti-white black writers. In his 1964 novel "All the Rest Have Died" his leading character, Barney, also a black writer [as is Alexander, the protagonist of "Black Picture Show"] says: "I am not concerned with what I am racially…. I am the rapist and the raped. I am victimized and I am responsible." Now in "Black Picture Show" there are lines like "White heaven is colored hell," which have an unconvincing, bandwagon ring. Maybe Gunn's consciousness has been raised, but I think Barney's words represent Gunn's real feeling as a writer, and I think the real theme of his play is the agony of the artist in a world where art is a dirty word….

This is almost the first black play to deal with this theme, and it's too bad Gunn has gotten it out of focus. Even the key, violent quarrels between Alexander and [his son] J. D. are thrown out of whack by a racial overlay. J. D. has become a successful director of chic films (very murky, this), and he represents, he tells Alexander, the black counter-revolution—"from freedom to indifference." The real pathos of this father-son relationship is that it stands for two sides of one split spirit—J. D.'s "indifference" is really Alexander's own temptation to abandon the imperatives of art for self-pity.

Put simply, I believe Gunn's mistake was his attempt to write a "black" play. Black writing at this point—Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, Ed Bullins—has out-distanced the simplicities of Gunn's belated racial polemics.

Jack Kroll, "Black-and-White Picture," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), January 20, 1975, p. 83.

Judging by his Black Picture Show …, Bill Gunn as dramatist and director is a man of notable but as yet undisciplined talent. There is strong feeling in the play; there are passages of excellent writing and, in dialogue and staging, one brilliantly conceived scene. But the play lacks steady focus….

Further, the writing veers from a crudely effective vernacular to prose-poetry and perhaps verse. The latter fails to register, not merely because it is indistinctly spoken but because it serves no dramatic function. It seems even more a "decoration" than the music which accompanies much of the action. Gunn tries to do too many things at once; the play becomes disordered. Yet one recognizes a genuine heartbeat; it is a living experience. (p. 94)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), January 25, 1975.

[Black Picture Show] is, basically, a simplistic work about an idealistic black playwright and his opportunistic filmmaker son struggling in the white man's show-biz, both characters apparently modeled on Gunn himself, a screen-writer-director with a history of troubles with Hollywood. Dying in an asylum, the father hallucinates the key moments of his life, involving a drunken mother, a loyal but castrating wife, a loving but difficult son, and a mysterious friend who doubles as a butler. It is all about family infighting and flamboyant guilt feelings, plus, of course, the obligatory white-hating scene, the play's cornerstone, in which a bestial Hollywood producer and his whacked-out wife come to dinner and humiliate their black hosts while making white pigs of themselves.

This could have been your standard undistinguished play except for some patches of keen Albeesque bitchery to make it a bit better, and a great deal of pretension to make it a lot worse: Strindbergian expressionism, scramblings of time and place, an onstage band playing irrelevant music … with occasional supererogatory lyrics by the author, and periodic lapses into spoken verse, of which Gunn seems enormously proud though they sound like a cross between a college poetry magazine and a Hallmark card. (p. 51)

John Simon, in New York Magazine (© 1975 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), January 27, 1975.