Driving Miss Daisy

by Alfred Uhry

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Critical Overview

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Driving Miss Daisy was the first play that Alfred Uhry wrote, and he based it on people he had known growing up in the South, particularly his grandmother and her driver. The play's original schedule called for it to run for five weeks at Playwrights Horizon, a New York nonprofit theater that seated an audience of seventy-four. When the five-week run was up, the play was extended another five weeks, and when that was up, the play moved to a bigger theater. A year and a half later, the show was still playing in New York, and also around the country. Uhry also won the Pulitzer Prize.

Audiences and critics immediately responded to the play, even when its premise seemed distinctly unpromising. In American Theatre, Don Shewey recalls his experience:

I remember trudging upstairs ... to see a play that sounded distinctly unpromising. It was about—gads!—an elderly white woman and her black chauffeur. On one hand, it sounded politically unsavory: Have we progressed no further than portraying African Americans onstage as servants. On the other hand, it sounded theatrically too dreary for words: How could it be anything but a parade of predictable Sunday-school pieties about how we're all alike under the skin and we should all get along? I personally resisted every inch of the way the feeling I left the theatre with that night: Wow, [this] is a good play!

Critics commented on the play's appeal, in fact, often using that very word. In the New York Times, Mel Gussow refers to the play's ‘‘homespun appeal’’ and its ‘‘renewed sincerity.’’ Robert Brustein writes in the New Republic that the play "has both appealing brevity and considerable quality.’’ He calls viewing the play "an experience of considerable power and sensitivity.’’ These critics, along with others, responded to the play's basic humanity and the truths it told. ‘‘It is the work of decent people,’’ writes Brustein, ‘‘working against odds to show how humans still manage to reach out to each other in a divided world.’’ Judy Lee Oliva, in Contemporary Dramatists, says that "Driving Miss Daisy is a play about dignity in which all the characters strive to hold onto their personal integrity.''

The play deftly presents an overview of the changing values and times in the South. Spanning from 1948 to 1972, the play alludes to important themes of the twentieth century, such as racism and prejudice. Its focus on the relationship between two people allows for a more personalized view of historical realities. Oliva notes that the play is "representative of a time in history and tells about that time via this one story.’’ However, as Gussow points out, "history remains background. The principal story is the personal relationship, the interdependence of the two irrevocably allied Southerners.’’

Critics overwhelmingly warmed to the characters, who carried this play smoothly along: the crusty Daisy and the restrained but prideful Hoke. Gussow declares that the play sometimes ‘‘seems more like an extended character sketch or family memoir than an actual drama.’’ Even Florine, the invisible character, emerges, "deftly characterized by the playwright,’’ writes Brustein, ‘‘with simple strokes through Daisy's attitude toward her.’’

Uhry's subtlety of writing was also appreciated. Oliva calls Uhry ‘‘a master of understatement.’’ Notes Gussow, ‘‘The play remains quiet, and it becomes disarming, as it delineates the characters with almost offhand glimpses.’’ He uses Hoke's casual declaration ‘‘The first time I left Georgia was 25 minutes ago'' as an example of this technique. Oliva further believes that Driving Miss Daisy was distinguished from other plays of the decade by ‘‘the subtlety with which the...

(This entire section contains 711 words.)

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playwright empowers his dramaturgy, enabling him to address issues of race and ethnicity and to explore conflicts of old versus young, rich versus poor, Jew versus gentile, while maintaining the emphasis on the very human relationship that develops between Daisy and Hoke.’’

Even after its New York run ended, Driving Miss Daisy remained with the American audience. Uhry adapted it into a film that came out in 1989. Like the play, it garnered numerous positive reviews including one from Vincent Canby of the New York Times who declared it to be ‘‘the most successful stage-to-screen translation'' since Dangerous Liaisons. Driving Miss Daisy went on to win Academy Awards for best actress, best screenplay adaptation, and best film.

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