The great success and popularity of the musical Oklahoma! (1943) has probably obscured the quality of the play upon which it is based, Lynn Riggs’s Green Grow the Lilacs. Without slighting the creative and musical abilities of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, it is only fair to state that Oklahoma!, in essence, is Green Grow the Lilacs; the color, vitality, charm, and even many of the musical ideas are present in the original, as Hammerstein himself was the first to admit in the New York Times (September 5, 1943): “Mr. Riggs’s play is the wellspring of almost all that is good in Oklahoma! . . . Lynn Riggs and Green Grow the Lilacs are the very soul of Oklahoma!”
While Oklahoma! made fortunes for most of those connected with the production, Riggs, a U.S. Army draftee at the time, collected a royalty of $250 per week. That fact is perhaps symbolic of Riggs’s whole career. From his first play, Knives from Syria (1925), to his last, Toward the Western Sky (1951), Riggs was a prolific playwright who spent a lifetime on the brink of success in New York theater. Riggs was never able to establish himself as a Broadway playwright. Out of the twenty-seven plays he authored during his lifetime, only four were ever produced on Broadway, and of those, only two, Green Grow the Lilacs and Russet Mantle (1936), could be called even modest commercial successes. One of the final ironies of Riggs’s career is that this authentic regional artist did his most profitable work in Hollywood, that most artificial of American environments, writing forgettable screenplays.
Green Grow the Lilacs is a kind of rollicking, larger-than-life folktale with some serious undertones. From Curly McClain’s singing entrance to the final curtain, the play moves with unflagging zest and color, punctuated by much music and dancing, extravagant gestures and speeches, and rowdy humor, with occasional moments of suspense and violence. The plot is simple and functional: boy meets girl, overcomes rival, defies the law for the sake of love, and wins out. The characters are broad and simple but also quite energetic and colorful. Curly is the cowboy braggart, a staple type in frontier humor, who is intelligent and sensitive beneath the braggadocio. Laurey Williams is the spoiled, spunky woman who flirts with all the men but commits her affections freely at the right time and who, for all of her apparent flightiness, demonstrates real strength and courage in moments of crisis. Jeeter Fry is the villain, a chronic misfit whose violence is only barely under control. Aunt Eller is the solid mother figure who appears to be the crusty, comical widowed aunt in the early scenes, but whose strong personality and common sense rescue the lovers at the play’s climax.
Much of the play’s charm and exuberance comes from Riggs’s accurate and colorful use of the frontier milieu. Having grown up in the Indian Territory, Riggs could portray the customs, manners, and daily activities of these settlers with a sympathy and realism only slightly colored by nostalgic idealization. Two of the crucial scenes of the play occur as the result of popular local customs: the “hoe-down” where Curly proposes to Laurey and the wedding night shivaree that leads to Jeeter’s death and Curly’s imprisonment.
No small part of the atmosphere is due to Riggs’s command of the local vernacular. The language goes from the homey, slangy diction of the farmers to the highly charged folk rhetoric of the principals. The playwright insisted that there was no poetic exaggeration in his dialects. Riggs was among the finest playwrights to come out of the American Southwest and one of the very few authentic “folk dramatists” that the United States has produced. That so few of his works have received the attention they deserve is not so much a commentary on the plays as it is a judgment on the vagaries of the American commercial theater.