Themes and Meanings

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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?

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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 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...

(The entire section contains 2393 words.)

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