Baraka's Concept of the Revolutionary Theatre

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A 1969 television interview with Baraka conducted by David Frost (on the syndicated program The David Frost Show) became heated and confrontational; Baraka clearly represented a threat (Frost introduced him as a "provocative gentleman") to white society and his message of self-determination for blacks was misunderstood as white hatred. From the beginning of the interview, when Frost asked Baraka if his play Slave Ship is a "Get Whitey" play, Frost seemed to expect a battle from Baraka. He got one, and in the process missed Baraka's key point: that the playwright's quarrel was not with white individuals, but with a white culture that does not recognize blacks. At the close of the interview, Frost got in the last word but failed to realize that Baraka had achieved his goal: to reach the black audience, not to convince the white interviewer. The final words of their verbal boxing match follow. Frost had just accused Baraka of being too extreme, of offending white people, and he compared Baraka to others interviewed on his program:

Frost: I have had people on this stage like Jesse Jackson and Billy Taylor, people who have made a great deal of sense making the points you have made, and doing so without...

Baraka: Let that be defined by your ability to understand what the world is about. You do not know, finally, what we are talking about. We are trying to use this media as a way to get to our own people. What you impose is in opposition to the truth. You don't understand...What is important to me is the ability to talk to black people, not the ability to make you understand. Do you understand that? [Applause.]

Frost: Yes, absolutely. But, on the other hand, what I was trying to say involved two things...

Baraka: You're trying to grade my paper. You're trying to tell me I wasn't as good as Jesse Jackson or Billy Taylor.

Frost: Right.

Baraka: Yeah, but who wants to hear that? [Laughter. Applause.]

Frost: I'll take that, yes. Seven out of ten for LeRoi Jones.

Besides the apparent animosity in the interview, Frost misunderstood Baraka's aim to discuss the need for a self-determined black population. In fact, instead of listening to and hearing Baraka, Frost treated him like a child, like one who should be admonished for behaving inappropriately. His demeanor towards Baraka simply reinforced Baraka's point: that white Americans feel privileges to judge and to condemn blacks according to a value system to which they alone hold the key. To Frost, Baraka was a madman, someone who simply made no sense. Baraka often faced this kind of assessment of his speech and writings, not because he was actually mad or incoherent, but because his mode of discussion did not fit into the prevailing and accepted (white) discourse, or way of communicating.

French philosopher Michel Foucault considered the control over discourse to be one of the key functions that protect the power (usually dictatorial in nature) of a society. Each society has rules and conventions that exclude the kind of discourse that would threaten its hold on power. Society will often define as mad those whose speech and actions do not conform to the standards and conventions of acceptable messages and modes of behavior. Defining nonconformists as mad makes it easier to ignore them, even to lock them up or have them "cured" by psychologists. "Madness" can run the gamut from complete incoherence to actions or speech that are merely unconventional (and therefore often threatening to "normal" society).

Baraka was often characterized as "out of step" with the rest...

(This entire section contains 1975 words.)

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of society—full of unprovoked, illogical anger. Why did he not follow the pacifist road of Martin Luther King, or, as one interviewer asked him, stick to his poetry and leave politics alone? The anger and hatred expressed in his plays, which became more virulent afterDutchman, disturbed audiences white and black. Critics accused him of moving away from "legitimate" theater into radical politics. Oddly enough, societies also tend to attribute strange prophetic powers to the "mad," assuming that if one can separate the mere "noise" of the mad person from the "truth," then the lunatic may carry a legitimate message. Baraka was the madman, whose "strange" anger seems less strange after three decades. His perspective and his mode of discourse have been absorbed into the culture, and some of the changes for which he called, though by no means all, have been instilled in the culture as well.

Culture consists of the norms and ideals of society—its way of behaving, speaking, and expressing spiritual concepts. The youth of society are trained (both in and out of school) and indoctrinated into the society's mode of behaving, into being able to participate in the discourse of society, so that the person can function effectively, without being considered "mad." Cultural anthropologist Edward Said pointed out that controlling how its members act is one of the key functions of a society. It does so by encouraging some kinds of behavior and discourse and discouraging others. Said explained that one of the "possessions" of culture is the power to define and endorse certain practices. There are ranks and levels in society, and the way that one demonstrates one's rank or status is to practice the discourse of the rank in which one belongs...or wants to belong.

In Dutchman, Clay has sought his education in the discourse of white society: he has been "molded" by it, like clay. He displays his newly learned skill when he banters politely with Lula, since polite banter is one of the earmarks of the fully sophisticated member of intellectual American society. He tries to ignore her hostile remarks, because hostile remarks are not acceptable in sophisticated society, and because Lula is attractive to him and he wants to impress her. One could say that he has been "trained" to find her attractive and to think that "winning" someone like her would increase his social status. Clay is a tragic figure because his passive acceptance of her verbal abuse leads inevitably to his murder, and it is his cultural training that has made him a tragic "type."

As Baraka explained in an interview quoted in Conversations with Amiri Baraka, Clay's tragic flaw is his passivity: "He should be resisting that type of murder." Clay commits the crime that Baraka (in his 1962 essay, "The Myth of a 'Negro Literature'") condemned black artists for committing: being content "to cultivate any mediocrity, as long as that mediocrity was guaranteed to prove to America...that they were not really who they were, i. e., Negroes."

Baraka fought such an urge to mediocrity on many fronts—with his poetry, essays, and drama as well as through his political activities in black communities. Of these agendas, he considered the theater the most effective means, because it addressed the widest audience, including culturally ignorant blacks. In an essay called "The Revolutionary Theatre," he says that "what we show them must cause the blood to rash...cause their deepest souls to move." Furthermore, "The Revolutionary Theatre, which is now peopled with victims, will soon be peopled with new kinds of heroes—not weak Hamlets debating whether or not they are ready to die for what's on their minds, but men and women (and minds) digging out from under a thousand years of 'high art' and weak-faced dalliance."

This weak-faced dalliance is what the black bourgeoisie mistakenly adopted as they sought a way into cultured (white) society. Clay represents that form of foolishness, with his bookish pretensions and "narrow-shouldered" coat, a coat that does not fit his body. Clay wants to hide behind a mask of culture and to fit his body and mind into the image that white culture dictates. When Lula's taunts finally break through his controlled resistance, he shocks her, and himself, with his own hostility, yet it has been lurking there beneath the mask. He blurts out, "Just murder would make us sane." But his own hostility surprises him, he has been trained to abhor hostility, and he recants, saying that no, he would rather not kill but be "safe with my words, and no deaths." His retreat is his tragic flaw. He fails to struggle as Baraka intends to struggle.

During an interview (reprinted in Conversations) following the debut of Dutchman, Baraka was asked, "why not just stick to poetry?" Citing the immediacy and potential reach of drama, he answered, "You have to be involved, whether you say you are or not. I'm black. I have to be involved. When I walk down the street, a man doesn't say, 'There goes a cultured nigger.' He says, 'There's just another nigger.'" By this statement Baraka reveals the plight of the black in America, who is doomed no matter how much he absorbs of white culture. Furthermore, not realizing the futility of this mode of being, blacks attempting to assimilate must continually strive to accomplish what can never be achieved—to be completely accepted into white culture.

Against this bleak future, the Black Arts Movement proposed a startling alternative: to raise black culture up, to transform the perception of blacks to one in which black language, body image, and culture were beautiful. This "black is beautiful" movement in and of itself posed no real threat to white America. But Baraka had insight into the ways that culture changes, he knew that no real change occurs without revolution. To those who suggested non-violent change, Baraka reminded them that changing themselves would not change the American system. The American culture allowed people to exist in social castes; its businesses took advantage of the masses of working poor.

In his essay, "The Last Days of the American Empire," Baraka explains that to change themselves without affecting white society would simply not do; it would feed into the oppressive, white program. He felt that what liberal whites wanted was for the "black man somehow to be 'elevated' Martin Luther King-style so that he might be able to enter this society...and join the white man in a truly democratic defense of this cancer, which would make the black man equally culpable for the evil done to the rest of the world." Baraka objected to this easy way out because it supported an unacceptable status quo: a society that takes advantage of its people must be destroyed. His plays were vehicles to convince black audiences that only a total destruction of the white American way would change their status. Dutchman served this end, and the plays that followed it made his point with more and more clarity and vehemence.

With an agenda of destroying white culture, why, then, does the play Dutchman end with Clay's murder instead of with Clay murdering Lula? Why not illustrate the revolution in success instead of chronicling one more failure to affect change? The answer lies in Baraka's purpose for Revolutionary Theatre. His drama, like his poetry, is designed to "raise up/return, destroy, and create" (in the words of his poem, "Ka'Ba.") He wanted to "make an art that [would] call down the actual wrath of the world spirit." It was angry theater, designed to move his black audiences to action.

Baraka's was an effective, cleansing theater. Not only did it inspire his audiences to pursue political and social change, it also irretrievably changed the heart and purpose of American theater. At least as far as race goes. Ironically, latter-day productions of Dutchman were suppressed for a (superficially) different reason: some complained that the play has too many "dirty" words in it. As Baraka said in a 1991 interview, "When you think about it, they are really throwing Dutchman off the train, aren't they?"

Source: Carole Hamilton for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998. Hamilton is an English teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina.

Jones' Dutchman

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The relation of LeRoi Jones's careening subway car in Dutchman to two "Dutchman" ocean vessels—the legendary ghost ship Flying Dutchman and a slave ship of the Dutch East India Company—has been amply explicated. It is likely, however, that a further, purely theatrical reference may be intended. In stage practice the "dutchman" is a narrow band of muslin glued vertically onto two adjoining flats to give the appearance of a solid wall. In point of fact, little effort is required to pull the flats apart, breaking the "wall" and dispelling the illusion of solidarity.

Jones's set description indicates that an obviously flimsy theatricality is appropriate in the design of the subway car itself. "Or paste the lights, as admitted props, right on the subway windows," etc. Further, as metaphor, "dutchman" in its stagecraft function images the meretricious facade of civility and potential symbiosis in Clay and Lula's relationship. Both parties contribute to sustaining the false commonality. In its initial design, this commonality is the construct of white society: Lula. Sherley Anne Williams describes Lula's mastery of the situation in terms of "...her insistence that Clay conform to her view of him which brings about the outburst which leads to his death." But complicity in the form of employing the racial pseudo-accord as a disguise is the product of black culture: Clay. That is, "...the survival of the Black man in predicated upon his ability to keep his thoughts and his true identity hidden."

The rending of the veneer, the dutchman, to reveal the irreparable breach is the climactic point of the drama. Goaded finally into abandoning his middle-class white-society guise, Clay exclaims that Lula cannot possibly know or identify with his experience, his being, his blackness. He proceeds to unburden himself in a vitriolic and impassioned diatribe against Lula and her kind. But she holds the knife. And, as she has established the terms of maintaining the deceptive dutchman, so it is she who calls for its laceration. She responds to Clay's verbal violence with "I've heard enough," and stabs him in the chest. She completes the gesture of rupture in her command to the other subway passengers: "Get this man off me!"

Jones's view of American social history suggests that such a "dutchman" has been imposed by whites, in that "...even the most liberal white man in America does not want to see the existing system really changed." As in Dutchman's subway, so in real-life America: the insubstantial, sham "dutchman" must be ripped apart. The only question is what side determines the time, method, and outcome. Jones has specified—in an essay written shortly after Dutchman's premiere performance—that the "revolutionary theatre" is to facilitate the tearing of this artificial social fabric. His play's "dutchman" metaphor, then, can be seen as adumbrating both the task of a socially conscious theater and the future of American racist society.

Source: George Ralph, "Jones's Dutchman." In the Explicator, Volume 43, no 2, Winter, 1985, p 58.

LeRoi Jones' Dutchman: A Brief Ride on a Doomed Ship

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Leroi Jones describes the setting for his short play, Dutchman, with a significant metaphor: "In the flying underbelly of the city. Steaming hot, and summer on top, outside. Underground. The subway heaped in modern myth." The play's title supplemented by these provocative hints and allusions would lead one to believe that the action might be illuminated by examining it in terms of the various renderings of the legend of "the Flying Dutchman. " It is my feeling that Jones has made complex use of the "Dutchman" theme in converting it into modern myth. The two major figures, Clay and Lula, are not the colorless characters of allegory; their symbolic relationship as revealed by the "Flying Dutchman" legend is as powerfully ambiguous as their dramatic relationship in a human context.

The legend first appears in literature in Sir Walter Scott's Rokeby where the source of the curse which dooms ship and crew to endless voyage is given as a horrible murder committed on board. Scott provides a plausible explanation for the ship's wanderings in the form of a plague which breaks out among the crew following the murder, making the vessel unwelcome in any port of call. Captain Marryat's novel, The Phantom Ship (1839), adds a son seeking his father, the doomed captain Richard Wagner's Der Fliegende Hollander (1843) makes some rather more significant additions and alterations. The curse in this case has been imposed by an angry Deity as a result of the Captain's presumption in swearing an oath to round the Cape even if it should take him an eternity to do so. The curse can be lifted only if the Captain finds a wife who is willing to sacrifice everything on his behalf through the purity of her love for him. In order to provide for this possibility, he is granted several days every seven years to search for such a maiden on dry land. Wagner's libretto centers around the Captain's discovery of such a maiden, his joy in her pledge of devotion to him, and his mistaken belief that she has been false to him. The curse is finally lifted when Senta, the maiden, leaps into the sea from a cliff in order to display her faithfulness; the ship sinks immediately and Senta and the Dutchman are seen flying up from the sea together to an appropriately epiphanic accompaniment in the orchestra.

It is clear that Jones' subway car bears more than a superficial resemblance to "the Flying Dutchman" and its doomed crew. He has set the first half of his play in a subway car empty but for the two central figures; during the second scene, other passengers file in gradually until, at the play's climax, the car is full. The empty car and the full car are both necessary to the play. The private drama becomes a public ritual. Without the drama, the ritual would be meaningless while the ritual adds a new and important dimension to the drama.

As a setting for a ritual murder, the New York subway needs no symbolic reinforcement, as recent subway violence clearly indicates. As the "underbelly" of the city, it is a place of darkness and potential danger, lonely, beyond recourse, crowded with humanity but massively impersonal. As an underground, it has almost automatic associations with the mysterious depths of body, mind, and society: with the physiologcial world of digestive and excretory processes, with the psychological world of suppressed wishes always threatening to erupt, and with the sociological "melting-pot" (in Jones' vision more a cauldron of discrete substances which will not mix) from which the subway draws its hot cargo and into which it throws it back again.

The "Dutchman" image, however, if we take it seriously, draws attention to certain specific qualities of the subway. Like the doomed ship, it seems to operate either senselessly or according to some diabolical plan. It goes nowhere, never emerges from its darkness; reaching one terminus, it reverses itself and speeds back towards the other with brief pauses at identical stations rescued from anonymity only by a slightly different arrangement of defaced posters, bodies, and turnstiles. The doors open and shut mechanically. Anonymous men behind barred windows push identical tokens towards equally anonymous travelers. The subway is in fact a marvelous sample of the autonomy of the inanimate which confronts us everywhere in our mechanized society. Just as primitive man created myth to explain satisfactorily the apparent irrationality of nature, so his modern-day counterpart, the city-dweller, begins to feel again the need for myth to explain his own demonic and seemingly equally irrational inventions and artifacts. Thus, the subway in Jones' metaphor becomes a doomed ship under the control of an irremediable curse.

The same mechanism makes it possible to consider the passengers as the crew of this ship. The fact that they are not present in the opening scene and, more important, the fact that even when present they do not speak, makes them seem as unreal as the ghosts who walked the Flying Dutchman's decks. As a crew, they have no tasks, for their craft maneuvers through its tunnels without any need of their assistance. Though wraithhke, they do however exhibit intention through their hostility towards Clay and their role as Lula's accomplices. That they are or at least become accomplices is clear, and this leads to the next stage of the comparison. If the passengers are a species of crew then it is Lula and not Clay who is their captain. This relates her rather than Clay to the figure of the Dutchman.

This is a surprising discovery. If the "Dutchman" metaphor does in fact filter down to the level of character, then it is Clay, the Negro, whom we would expect to fill the symbolic role of the Captain. As a Negro, he lives under an automatic curse in a white society which, in Jones' view, promises to lift the curse only if he sacrifices his identity and converts his values to those of a materialistic and rationalistic culture. Working from the Wagnerian version of the legend, Lula would be the maiden through whom and in whom he can find release if she will love him and give herself to him totally. Jones' conclusion would then display the failure of any such redeeming love, and the inevitability of racial hatred and vengeance culminating in the murder of a victim. Clay is released from his curse only through death, and the cycle begins to repeat itself as Lula confronts her next victim in the play's final moments....

Source: Hugh Nelson, "LeRoi Jones' Dutchman: A Brief Ride on a Doomed Ship," in Educational Theatre Journal, Volume XX, no. 1, March, 1968, pp. 53-59.


Critical Overview