Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1033
Dutchman, an early play by the poet, dramatist, and political writer Amiri Baraka, was written when his name was still LeRoi Jones and at a transitional time for both the playwright and the Black Arts (or Black Aesthetics) movement. Dutchman reflects that transition in its aesthetic structure, its political...
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Dutchman, an early play by the poet, dramatist, and political writer Amiri Baraka, was written when his name was still LeRoi Jones and at a transitional time for both the playwright and the Black Arts (or Black Aesthetics) movement. Dutchman reflects that transition in its aesthetic structure, its political content, and its implied audience.
This transition in African American drama can be characterized as a shift from aesthetics as they were traditionally defined by a primarily white, European-oriented theater community to an explicitly politicized and black nationalist art directed toward and arising from the African American community. Baraka’s work throughout the 1960’s marks a critical existential shift in stark terms: After winning an Obie Award for Dutchman in 1964 (Best Off-Broadway Play), he then in 1968 changed his name to emphasize his African and Kawaida identity and became Imamu Amiri Baraka. At the same time, his shift from artist-activist to black nationalist and Marxist-Leninist socialist critic marked his abandonment of the New York arts scene (including the avant-garde) to focus instead on literary forms deeply tied to African American revolutionary politics. Readers of Dutchman who pursue its critical reception will find revealing contrasts in interpretation depending on the political and aesthetic stance of the critic, especially in relation to historical changes and debates within African American liberation politics.
The play itself opens on a subway, “in the flying underbelly of the city,” a subterranean metaphor for both the rattling dissonance of American culture and the psychological interior terrain of American racial politics. Baraka sets up the association: “Steaming hot, and summer on top, outside. Underground. The subway heaped in modern myth.”
The play consists of two short scenes between the two characters as they ride the subway together. A metaphoric and ironic Eden is suggested when Lula eats an apple and then offers one to Clay. Their first exchange, in which Lula ridicules the image Clay seems to be trying to project, establishes the pivotal issue of power (that is, who controls the conversation) and unveils both Clay’s aspirations to the middle class and Lula’s moral instability. As the scene proceeds, the tension between them builds. Lula pushes hard, making sexual overtures that are seductive one moment and arrogant and derogatory the next. Clay stays almost entirely reactive to Lula’s definition of his identity; he lets her control the conversation while joking to defuse the confrontation, and he refuses to counterattack her verbally. Baraka closes the scene with an explicitly historical and political frame. As Lula declares, And we’ll pretend the people cannot see you. That is, the citizens. And that you are free of your own history. And I am free of my history. We’ll pretend that we are both anonymous beauties smashing through the city’s entrails.
The mythic elements of the play deepen in the course of the first scene, even while the dramatic style itself stays naturalistic. Several critics see class and racial struggle as the central themes, with turbulent intensity building in Clay as a symbol of the African American middle class, who must repress black-defined identity in order to assimilate into white-dominated society. In this view, Lula represents the failed moral order of white supremacy, which, although obviously unstable and erratic, remains at least apparently in control. The explicit sexual dynamics and underlying sexual tension represent, in this context, a playing out (and reversal) of racial stereotypes, and Lula’s behavior reveals the complex blend of desire and psychosis characteristic of white racism. Other interpretations focus on Clay as representing repressed African American art and artists. Claiming at one point to be “Baudelaire,” Clay becomes the Black Aesthetics movement struggling to fit into the constraints of European clothing.
The second scene continues to develop the themes of the first. Clay’s revelatory outburst is defined, in the context of a dialogue that was controlled by Lula’s fantasies and delusions of power, as a response. Although his self-expression is genuine, deeply realized, and powerful (he speaks both as an artist and as a representative of the African American middle class now alert to its historical dilemma), it leads to his destruction precisely because he chooses to remain in conversation with Lula, whose murderous intolerance of Clay’s self-assertion reveals white supremacy in brutal terms. Although Lula is willing to conduct a white liberal charade with Clay, she responds with predictable violence to Clay’s potentially revolutionary insight. The second young man and the old conductor present the same dangerous stance toward Lula, who calmly prepares for the next encounter, and as the curtain falls, the audience senses that the cycle is about to begin again. The play’s conclusion suggests Baraka’s increasingly emphatic call for African Americans to break off conversation both artistically and politically with the failed (and violent) white American culture. In Dutchman, Clay’s self-defined expression of power and identity leads to his own death. The mythic, symbolic, and historical/political depth in the play makes it clear that Baraka’s subterranean travelers are moving beneath, and through, the landscape of American history.
Several issues are important in Dutchman. During the 1960’s, Baraka increasingly rejected the imperatives of protest literature. Critics pointed to the class politics of the play as indicative of Baraka’s emerging socialist critique, and some compared Dutchman with the broader sociological analysis of E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie (1957). Another key issue concerns the tension in African American cultural politics between claims of racial essentialism (that is, the Black Aesthetics movement as being rooted in racial essence) and pressures toward assimilation into the American middle class. Dutchman suggests that the road toward assimilation is the road to individual and collective destruction. A comparative reading of Dutchman with other works reveals the complexity and urgency of questions related to African American identity and power. Related to this is the relationship between political ideology and artistic form, the relationship between community identity and the role of drama as political ritual, and the role of art in revolutionary change. The play’s title has been called a metaphoric reference to the first slave ships. Baraka’s work profoundly engages the implications of history for African American political critique.