The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Glancing out the window of a subway train, a conservatively dressed black man of about twenty catches the eye of an attractive, thirtyish white woman who is standing on the platform. They exchange smiles. It is the sort of meaningless casual encounter, leading nowhere, that can leave a pleasant afterglow.

As the train moves on, the woman from the platform enters the car. She is wearing bright, skimpy summer clothes and sandals, and she carries a net bag full of paperback books, fruit, and other articles. A beautiful woman with long red hair, she is very daintily eating an apple.

Taking the seat beside the young man, she confirms that she is the woman he was just looking at, but she insists that his look carried more of a sexual charge than he is willing to admit. He denies that he was running his mind over her flesh, and he finds it “funny” that she has sought him out, as she says she has done, in response to his sexual aggression. She remarks that he looks as though he is trying to grow a beard; when he asks if he really looks like that, she replies that she lies a lot. This is the first of a series of verbal attacks, retreats, and evasions that will keep Clay for much of the play in a mixed state of curiosity, desire, and confusion.

His curiosity is aroused by her uncannily accurate guesses, if they are guesses, about himself, his associates, and his life. How does she know, for instance, that his friend Warren Enright is tall and skinny, with a phony English accent? She just figured he would know someone like that, she says.

She keeps Clay’s desire alive by a pattern of verbal and nonverbal sexual innuendo. She puts her hand on his thigh, then removes it, checking his reaction as she does. She asks if he would like to get involved with her. She is a beautiful woman, the young man replies; he would be a fool not to.

She confuses Clay by sudden swerves from whatever has become the topic of conversation. “I bet you’re sure you know what you’re talking about,” she says.

She offers him an apple. On the surface, this seems unrelated to the curiosity, desire, and confusion she arouses, but her comment that eating apples together is always the first step puts a sinister spin on this apparently innocent action.

She suggests that Clay invite her to a party. He playfully objects that he must first know her name. “Lena the Hyena,” she tells him, then attempts to guess his name. Gerald? Norman? Everett? She is sure it must be one of those “hopeless colored names” creeping out of New Jersey. It is Clay, he tells her. Her name, she now declares, is not Lena but Lula. That settled, Clay formally invites Lula to the party. Her reply, given her behavior to this point, sounds disconcertingly prim and conventional. She does not know him, she says.

In another of her turnabouts, she then insists that she knows him like the palm of her hand. The play of sexual...

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The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Dutchman is a short, two-scene play, the entire action of which takes place on a subway car traveling through the “underbelly of the city.” During the course of the play, Clay and Lula move from playful flirtation through angry accusation and self-revelation toward a violent confrontation that ends in ritualized murder.

At the start, Clay is seated alone on the subway car, reading a newspaper. He is dressed in a three-piece suit. Only his seat is visible, although more of the car is present. The shrieks and clattering of the subway car dominate, and the flickering lights of the subway tunnel and passing stations move past the car’s windows. As the play proceeds, the train sounds gradually lessen and disappear. After a while, the car stops at a station. Clay glances out the window but turns away in momentary embarrassment when he discovers that he is staring directly into a young white woman’s face. When he collects himself and turns back, the face has disappeared. The train resumes its movement, and Clay complacently returns to his newspaper. Then Lula enters the car and approaches him.

Lula is wearing a light summer dress and sandals. She sports bright red lipstick and carries a large net bag stuffed with paperback books, fruit, and a variety of other articles. She daintily eats an apple as she slowly approaches Clay’s seat and then expectantly hangs onto the strap next to him. When she catches his eye, she asks permission to sit and seductively lowers herself into the seat.

Lula initiates a playful conversation that implies romantic interest, but quickly reveals a disorienting knowledge of Clay’s family, friends, and behavior. She accurately describes his middle-class life-style and laughingly tells him that he looks “like death eating a soda cracker.” Clay assumes that Lula must know one of his friends, but Lula tells him that she simply knows his “type.” Clay plays along with Lula’s mockery because he sees her humor as...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*New York City

*New York City. Literally an “overdrop” for the play, the city serves both as the realistic urban setting for highly charged racial dynamics between black and white Americans in the 1960’s and as Amiri Baraka’s mythic and symbolic setting for a critique of black consciousness and the Black Arts movement.

Subway tunnels

Subway tunnels. Subterranean passageways for the subway trains that symbolize places in which social and psychological realities are exposed in their true terms through interactions between characters moving underneath the surface of American culture. Below ground, violent truths of American history erupt into stark view, with profound consequences for particular human beings who cannot escape to the surface and its delusions of safety. The tunnels also function as metaphorical space: the interior consciousness of “the black artist,” who struggles to create (and literally, to survive) in a world controlled by the norms of white Western culture and aesthetics. At this symbolic level, the subterranean tunnel setting of the play is itself the action of the mind of an artist, struggling to freedom.

Subway car

Subway car. Train car on which Clay and Lula encounter each other. With its passengers literally pressed into close proximity with one another, the car becomes the site of a compressed narrative of American racial history as it passes through the dark subway tunnels. Within this car, explosive conflicts are framed in harsh light and within sharply delineated space. Clay and Lula are trapped within historical roles and identities, on a stage that is speeding forward into time. The intensely philosophical and politicized violence that unfolds between the two characters is also a social violence shared by other riders when they eventually toss Clay’s body off the train. On this level, the car is America, exposed to light. Within the other symbolic space of the play, the mind of the “black artist,” the subway car serves as an illuminated moment of sharp insight into the threats posed to black artistic consciousness in America.

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

In Dutchman, Amiri Baraka uses a variety of dramatic devices to underscore the archetypal, mythic, and ritual nature of his play. The obvious artifice of the subway car set connects the play with the world of myth. The incompleteness of the subway car and the conscious artificiality of the flickering lights hung behind the windows deemphasize the realistic specificity of place. The limited lighting, which throughout the first scene highlights only Clay and Lula’s seat, focuses the audience’s attention on these principal characters and their personal interaction. In the second scene, more of the car is lit and other passengers are visible; thus, the audience’s attention is directed toward the social implications of the action. At the end of the play, Lula’s authority is revealed by the manner in which the other passengers unquestioningly follow her instructions; the passengers’ presence also emphasizes the weakness of Clay’s assimilationist strategy. Clay’s disguised existence alienates him from both white and black communities. Thus isolated, he is doomed, because his self-consciousness separates him from the redemptive possibilities of social action.

The comedy, exaggeration, and artificiality of Clay and Lula’s dialogue underscores their function as stereotypes. In the early portions of the play, Baraka creates comic tension between Clay’s determined literalism and Lula’s suggestive symbolism. Clay himself notes that their...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Civil Rights in the 1960s
The year of Dutchman's debut, 1964, was a tense year in the United States—especially for...

(The entire section is 861 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Dutchman's stage directions suggest that the subway is "heaped in modern myth." This phrase alerts the reader to...

(The entire section is 781 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1964: Tension over racism is at a peak, with numerous protests occurring in major urban centers. The 1964 Civil Rights Act is...

(The entire section is 389 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Ironically, when Baraka moved Dutchman to a Harlem theater in order to reach a black audience, the play was quickly rejected by the...

(The entire section is 315 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Anthony Harvey directed a film version of Dutchman in 1967 that received little attention and played lightly at small theaters for a...

(The entire section is 51 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The Baraka play published with Dutchman is called The Slave. It is a fable loosely based on Baraka's former marriage to a white...

(The entire section is 219 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Bigsby, C. W. E. "Black Drama. The Public Voice" in his The Second Black Renaissance: Essays in Black Literature,...

(The entire section is 453 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Benston, Kimberly W. Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976. Argues that Clay’s is a tragedy of lost direction and lack of knowledge: In deciding not to kill Lula, he rejects the power and violence that would allow him to dominate the situation; he thus reaffirms his vulnerability and falls victim to Lula’s malevolence.

Bigsby, C. W. E. “Black Theater.” In Beyond Broadway. Vol. 3 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Analyzes the play in the context of the early 1960’s, as reflecting the self-awareness...

(The entire section is 485 words.)