Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 809

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When Dutchman opened in 1964, white audiences hailed Baraka as the new black voice of the American theater. He had suddenly caught the public eye. Playboy magazine called him "the most discussed—and admired—Negro writer since James Baldwin." It was ironic that in calling whites to task for their racism, Baraka earned their admiration. Stephen Schneck explained in Ramparts that "The blase New York culture scene was titillated by his maledictions...The more he attacked white society, the more white society patronized him....The masochistic vein was a source of hitherto untapped appeal, big box-office stuff, and LeRoi Jones was one of the very first to exploit it."

Baraka's fame landed him teaching positions at the State University of New York, Buffalo and Columbia University. Isabel Eberstadt, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, called him a "critic, a celebrity...a king of the lower East Side...a Rabid racist, who Hates whites, Hates Negroes...Hates intellectuals, Hates liberals." Eberstadt's was a positive review, like many of the early appraisals of the play. Others, however, were disturbed by the work's outspokenness. As Baraka continued to work the vein of anti-racist sentiment, the negative appraisal of his work was catalogued into the works that set the standard for literature in America.

Allan Lewis's 1965 book, American Plays and Playwrights of the Contemporary Theatre, called Dutchman a flawed dramatic structure, an "apostrophe to hate." Native Sons: A Critical Study of Twentieth Century Negro American Authors, Edward Margolies's 1968 work assessing twentieth century black literature, called Baraka's rage "monomaniacal obsessions...ideas tossed together in a whirlpool of hysteria." Many of his critics weighed the play in terms of its dramatic content, measuring against white dramatists who portrayed in-depth characters deep in conflict. Baraka's play was not about individuals but was a parable about society as a whole. John Ferguson, in a 1971 article in Modern Drama, expressed concern that "Lula is a symbol, but Clay is a person." Ferguson did recognize the play as a ritual drama, but he assessed it against the norms of classical Greek theater, which is not the genre that Baraka evokes.

Other critics saw the expression of Baraka's artistic anger as genius. In a survey conducted by Negro Digest in 1968 among thirty-eight African American writers, Baraka was named "the most promising black writer," "the most important living black poet," and "the most important black playwright" in America. According to drama scholar Hugh Nelson in Educational Theatre Journal, Baraka's work may contain flaws, but it "has the vital ability to suggest a multiplicity of meanings in a simple and direct action." In 1969, Darwin Turner recognized Baraka's social agenda and its success, writing in Black American Literature: Poetry, "Since 1964, Jones has concentrated on the use of literature—poetry and drama especially—as the force of revolution. To this end, he has revised his poetic style to make it more meaningful for community residents who have found little relevance in the traditional formal language of American poetry. His success is evidenced in the extreme popularity of his frequent public readings in community assemblies."

Certainly, Baraka had a profound effect on the black intellectuals of his day. Black playwright Ed Bullins, in an interview in Negro Digest, stated that "I didn't really find myself until I saw Dutchman. That was the great influence on my life....[LeRoi] has changed theater in this country by creating or influencing or whatever he has done to black theater, which will have a great effect on the overall theater of this country." Writer Tom Cade (now Toni Cade Bambara) said that Baraka's plays of 1962-1964 were black theater. Poet/playwright Ntozake Shange also acknowledged her debt to Baraka, as did poet Sonia Sonchez and many others. The public acknowledged his artistic leadership in 1970, by electing him to the Black Academy of Arts and Sciences. He enacted, according to Theodore Hudson in From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka: The Literary Works, "a gradual change from a subjective, tentative lyricist to an activist priest-poet" but continually "satirical, inventive in imagery, expressive, consummately in command of language, occasionally lyrical, partial to only a few symbol-images (his own), 'profane,' and disdainful of conventions of form and mechanics."

The seventies marked a turning point in critical work on Baraka's output, seeing a handful of serious scholarly works published about him, notably Hudson's work and Werner Sollors's Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a "Populist Modernism. "Lloyd Brown's 1980 volume on Baraka in the Twayne author series describes him as worthwhile if not for his artistic merit, which he considers burdened with a certain amount of "intellectual flabbiness," but for his politically involved art. "He is a political weather vane." Supporters still steadfastly honored his contribution as an artist. C. W. E. Bigsby, writing in The Second Black Renaissance: Essays in Black Literature, called him "the most important black writer of the 1960s."

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