The Green Pastures derives its folk and religious origins from a book by Roark Bradford, Ol’ Man Adam and His Chillun: Being the Tales They Tell About the Time When the Lord Walked the Earth like a Natural Man (1928). As he adapted the book for the stage, however, Marc Connelly’s northern sensibility compelled him to make certain alterations. Though he preserved Bradford’s image of long-suffering black people who spoke in black dialect, he transformed God from a white southern planter to a strong black figure. Connelly also departed drastically from Bradford’s theme. At the end of Ol’ Man Adam and His Chillun, Bradford implied that the African Americans’ situation would stay the same; Connelly, on the other hand, boldly predicted a future of political activism for black people.
Even though The Green Pastures is Connelly’s only religious folk drama, de Lawd’s determination to resurrect the old virtues in the first part of the play brings to mind the characters of several of Connelly’s previous plays. Like the African Americans of The Green Pastures, the characters of these early plays are underdogs who long for a better life. In The Deep Tangled Wildwood (pr. 1923; with George S. Kaufman), a New York playwright returns to his hometown in order to escape the fads of New York. By the end of The Wisdom Tooth (pr., pb. 1926), a timid clerk finds the courage to attack the superficial practices of his pragmatic coworkers. In The Wild Man of Borneo (pr. 1927; with Herman J. Mankiewicz), a con man who opposes conventional habits tries to rescue several people from the boring routines of their lives.
However, The Green Pastures represents a radical departure from Connelly’s previous work in that part 2 takes up where most of his other plays end. While the characters of The Wisdom Tooth, for example, are on the verge of making a new beginning at the end of the play, humankind’s attempt to rebuild the world destroyed by the flood in part 1 is the focus of the second half of The Green Pastures.
Despite charges that the theology behind The Green Pastures is too simple or that the characters reinforce unpleasant stereotypes, one must admit that The Green Pastures is an integral part of the cultural history of the 1930’s. The awarding of the Pulitzer Prize to the play in 1930 reflects an awakening social consciousness in the United States, an awareness that was to permeate many of the great plays, films, and paintings of the 1930’s. In fact, The Green Pastures is the most powerful expression of Connelly’s lifelong preoccupation with the social outcast.