Themes and Meanings
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...
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Themes and Meanings
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...
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