Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 723

Structurally, Lynn Riggs’s drama The Cherokee Night is actually a series of seven “mini-plays” that the playwright calls “scenes.” Each of the seven scenes is populated with different characters, although some do appear in as many as three of these episodes. Each of the seven scenes has a different plot. These scenes are not directly or even indirectly connected to each other. Moreover, each scene is set in a different time, and the sequence is not chronological. An “experimental” play for the 1930’s, Riggs’s work was well ahead of its time. Consequently, this deserving and worthy work was not generally well received by critics and has been produced only infrequently.

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Thematically, the play does succeed as a unified whole. Riggs’s main point is revealed by the title The Cherokee Night. He depicts the disintegration of the Cherokee nation as it is slowly consumed by white people’s religion, government, agriculture, industry, and way of life. Most of all, however, the Cherokee nation has disintegrated primarily through its loss of bloodline; all of the characters except Gray-Wolf are of mixed ancestry. They have not been assumed into the white society, but they have chosen to leave the old ways behind—all to their own destruction. Viney Jones, educated in the schools of the white people’s culture, is given over to the white culture’s ways because of money; Kate and Clabe Whiteturkey are similarly bribed. Gar and Spench Breeden have assumed all of the vices of white people: drunkenness, theft, laziness, and materialism. Bee Newcomb is a prostitute who will sell out her Cherokee brothers for money, and a small amount at that.

The play is also unified by setting. All seven scenes are either on or in the shadow of Claremore Mound, Oklahoma, at once a burial ground for the Cherokee and Osage and the location of many important battles, both between the two tribes and against the white people. Claremore Mound, an embodiment of the past and a shroud of American Indian graves and history, ominously and perpetually casts its shadow over all activities of the present generation of Cherokee and Osage.

The older generation of Indians is represented by two characters. Old Man Talbert collects arrowheads, artifacts which to him can magically work to resurrect the dignity and integrity of his heritage. He must do this to keep his heritage alive. To the younger people of mixed ancestry, however, they serve only as symbols of times gone by, a life that is no more, and a way of being which is meaningless. Similarly, John Gray-Wolf survives as something on the order of the last person of character. He fully understands the white people and knows what has happened to the younger generation of American Indians. They have taken on all of the evil characteristics of the pervasive white society while simultaneously...

(The entire section contains 723 words.)

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