Themes and Meanings

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

A question bound to arise at some point in one’s experience of Dutchman, or in one’s reflections on it, is that of the application of the title to the play. There are, after all, no Dutchmen on the stage. The play is set in a New York City subway. Its characters are a white American woman and a black American man. Why has the author given the play so (apparently) irrelevant a title?

The question has received a number of answers in the extensive body of criticism the play has inspired, but perhaps most useful is the suggestion that the title alludes to the legend of the Flying Dutchman, doomed to sail the seas forever, with no hope of release from the curse of endless repetition. The relevance of this legend to the play is suggested both by the parallel of ship’s voyage and subway’s journey and by the ending of the play, which most critics see as implying that the process the play has enacted is about to begin again.

That process culminated in the death of Clay. The challenge of the play, then, is to arrive at some understanding of several questions: What killed Clay? Why is the process endlessly repeated? Is there any hope of liberation from the repetition, of release from the curse?

It is clear that Lula is the active force in Clay’s destruction. Who is Lula? She is, at a mythic level, a seductress, an Eve figure who has already eaten the apple and now offers it to Clay. Her sexual aggressiveness also has implications in the context of social realism, one of the levels at which the play operates. For a young, unattached man of Clay’s generation, a generation for whom the man was the “normal” sexual aggressor, failure to respond to the openly sexual overtures of an attractive woman would raise questions about his manhood. Thus, Clay affirms that he would be a fool not to want to get involved with a beautiful woman like Lula—precisely the manly response expected of him.

The situation becomes potentially more explosive, even if thereby more exciting, because Lula is a white woman, apparently offering herself sexually to a black man. The audience comes to understand that Clay’s race has not been a neutral factor in Lula’s decision to make him her target. Her goal is to seduce this young black man to his own destruction.

Clay proves to be a cooperative victim. His sexual desire for Lula, his desire for what this white woman offers him, compromises his judgment. He is prepared to rationalize her contradictions, even to treat her racial abuse as all in good fun, because he does not want to pass up this unexpected chance.

He is susceptible to the white woman’s advances, and easily manipulated (note the connotations of his name) because of the many prior compromises he represents. His appearance, his manner, and his self-definition in terms of European models make clear his confusion about his identity. He can be seduced, because he has already internalized the seductive values of a white America whose real, and profoundly destructive, hostility of him, along with its undeniable attractiveness to him, is symbolized and embodied in Lula. The playwright himself has said in a comment on the play that Lula is America, or at least its spirit.

Clay finally makes a stand against Lula and what she represents in his great climactic speech. He sees with frightening lucidity and articulates with dreadful clarity the rage he has concealed, that is concealed at the heart of black culture, but that he knows in...

(This entire section contains 914 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

every breath and pulse beat. Suddenly, and briefly, Clay takes control of the situation, and of his life and being. He speaks out of a fully realized awareness of himself as a black man.

Lula has been waiting for this, and she quickly disposes of Clay with the help of the other passengers, who are, it must be remembered, both black and white. Clay has survived only as long as he has denied the deepest truth about himself. Forced to remove his mask, he is destroyed as he achieves one moment of authenticity.

Even as he realizes this moment, Clay remains vulnerable. He is defenseless. Here, as elsewhere, he is reacting, rather than initiating action. His reaction remains individual and therefore isolated, and in the moment, without consequence, as the end of the play suggests.

The repetition, with only minor variations, of the initial situation at the end of the play, combined with the ritualistic quality of Clay’s murder, moves the play beyond the boundaries of realism and demands a symbolic interpretation. The movement beyond realism in fact begins with the invitation of the title to see the play in mythic terms. What is involved here, it is clear, is not merely the story of the chance encounter of one man and one woman but an attempt by the playwright, through the interaction of realism and symbolism, to probe the troubled and troubling relation of black and white in the United States. In the seduction and death of Clay, the writer points to a repeated pattern of destruction arising out of a history of racism. Clay’s fate suggests that this pattern will go on being repeated endlessly unless release from the curse can be found in a lived authenticity that goes beyond the isolated moment of illumination that is all that Clay achieves.

Themes and Meanings

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

As the opening stage directions state, Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman is “heaped in modern myth.” The play explores the racial and sexual stereotypes that condition Americans’ behavior and argues that these powerful stereotypes are manipulated by the white establishment to maintain an oppressive social order. The play further suggests that black Americans’ efforts to adjust to the double lives that are forced upon them, rather than allowing them to join together in social action, often make them accomplices in their own cultural, economic, and physical annihilation.

The subway car setting and the play’s title remind the audience of the packed holds of Dutch slave traders, which brought the first black Africans to Jamestown; the historic underground railroad, which helped slaves escape the South; and the legendary Flying Dutchman, the cursed phantom sailing ship that endlessly sails the seas. Moreover, the grimy, rumbling, underground setting connotes incarceration, damnation, and entombment. The biblical parallels to the story of Adam and Eve are obvious; as Lula gives Clay an apple, she notes that “eating apples together is always the first step.” Lula tempts Clay to come out from behind his assimilationist facade, to lower the disguise that is his only protection against white society’s racist anger.

Lula and Clay are archetypal figures representing racial and sexual traditions and exemplifying the behaviors that follow from these traditions. Each is acting out a stereotypical role rather than responding to the other’s individual humanity; thus, Clay says that their conversation sounds like a script, and Lula claims to be an actress. She openly tells him that she always lies and tells him that he will gladly lie to keep her alive.

Lula represents white America, characterizing the guilt, fascination, and hatred it feels toward black America. Her persistent assertion that she is old underscores her belonging to a long tradition. Although she plays the role of a white liberal— romancing a black man, expressing preference for black culture over white, and declaring that the only person in her family who ever amounted to anything was her mother, who was a Communist—when Clay is lured into emerging from the shelter of his disguise, she quickly and coldly destroys him. Moreover, she is able to command the unquestioning assistance of the white and black passengers on the car, indicating the authority of the social order and the stereotypes it engenders.

Clay too is a stereotype—a black intellectual caught up in a conflict between his cerebral attraction to the traditions of white culture and his deeper, racial connection to black ethnic culture. This doubleness paralyzes his ability to undertake rebellious action. The only recourse he sees is to lead a false existence that at least leaves him alive. The artificiality and self-consciousness of Clay’s performance have protected him, but when his guard is weakened by Lula’s sexual fantasies and he is goaded into self-revelation by her condescending accusations, he makes himself vulnerable by asserting his humanity. When Clay angrily contradicts Lula’s simplistic notions, she destroys him to protect the stereotypes with which she controls her world.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Race and Racism
Racial oppression and racial hatred lie at the heart of Dutchman. Yet this play is not a simplistic denunciation of racism but rather one long invective against one (in Baraka's view ineffective) solution to racism: assimilation. Clay is a representative of the form of assimilation practiced by many of the black middle class, a pursuit of white values and culture through "white" education. Clay carries a stack of books, and he wears the garb of the well-educated. Lula seems to hate Clay on sight, explaining that he is a "type" she has seen often. She infers that he has a black friend with a "phony English accent." Clay, she tells him, looks like he is trying to grow a beard and has "been reading Chinese poetry and drinking lukewarm sugarless tea." These are the trappings of the Bohemian intellectual, such as Baraka was himself at the time he wrote this play.

Lula hates Clay not just because he is black, but because of his obvious attempts to discard his racial heritage. She berates him for his meek acceptance of assimilation as a desirable goal, saying, "Boy, those narrow-shoulder clothes come from a tradition you ought to feel oppressed by." When she taunts him that his grandfather was a slave who did not go to Harvard, he responds lamely that his grandfather was a night watchman. In other words, he tries desperately to distance himself from his slave heritage, even at the cost of remembering that he is black. As he states, he was the one student at a "colored college" whose role model was not Averell Harriman (a white American statesman) but Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, a white (French) poet. Clay wants to distinguish himself, but he limits himself to a superficial shift, choosing art over politics.

Clay also fails to recognize the irony that he is as deluded as the other students at the black college, who aspire not to be black leaders but white ones. It is left to Lula to clarify that he would have to be the black Baudelaire, and she chides him, "I'll bet you never once thought you were a black nigger." Clay's pretension is not about becoming an educated black; he actually seems to aspire to be white—or at least to so steep himself in white intellectualism that his color will not matter. Lula reminds him that he is black, and, when she calls him a murderer, it is apparent that it is his black self that he murders.

Violence and Cruelty
Clay steadfastly seeks to maintain his composure in the face of Lula's violent language and cruel reminders of his lowly status in society. The question becomes, how much cruelty will Clay tolerate before he stands up for himself, for the manhood Lula questions? The dramatic irony and symbolic tragedy of the play occurs in its final violence, when Lula stabs a knife into Clay as he reaches for his books to leave her. It is dramatic irony in the sense that he has finally made a stance and shown his manhood, but he fails to recognize that Lula intended all along to destroy him utterly. His tragic ending is symbolic of the violence of white oppression, which regularly murders blacks in both a figurative as well as literal sense. The play's increasing dramatic tension leads to the final act of violence against Clay. In Baraka's value system, Clay deserves this violence for not using a more direct, and violent, means of bettering his life and silencing the likes of Lula.

Intersecting the theme of violence and cruelty is the theme of passivity. Clay passively accepts a second-class role in society, a role that by its very definition can never produce excellence because it is a weak copy of the original, white culture. Black assimilation consists of adopting the values and norms of the oppressing society. This passive act of accepting the culture of the dominant power engenders a race of followers, not leaders. A black Baudelaire can never surpass Baudelaire's artistry because by adopting both the genre and the criteria for judging it, invention is stymied. The very impetus to invent is destroyed. No leader, political, artistic, or social, can emerge in a copycat society—nothing grows in a stagnant pond. The stagnation of black society in a sterile, white pond can only lead to a downward spiral in imagination, performance, and self-image.

At another level, Clay's passivity exists in resorting to words instead of action. He responds to Lula's taunts with sophisticated-sounding rebuttals. When he finally erupts in rage, it is apparent that his nonchalance had been a mask.

Lula is a mythical, evil Eve, enticing Clay (Adam, who was made of clay) with sexual wiles and murderous intent. Like Eve, she eats and offers apples. In fact, she offers Clay so much of the fruit that he cannot eat any more. She is the Gorgon/siren/fury, the archetypal devouring female. She figuratively emasculates Clay, repeatedly challenging his "manhood" with verbal jibes; she then physically destroys him and throws his body off of the train. She is a sterile goddess, with hands as "dry as ashes," luring him to her room as "black as a grave," a dwelling that she promises will remind Clay of "Juliet's tomb." She tempts Clay with sexual promise, murders him dispassionately with a quick stab, and then prepares herself for her next victim. She is actually bored by the endless cycle of her role; she has "a gray hair for each year and type" of man she's gone through. Lula belongs to the sisterhood of "Crow Jane," or "Mama Death," Baraka's idea of the siren muse who lures black artists to pervert their black artistry to fit the hollow, sterile criteria of white art.