Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 686

The Green Pastures is Connelly’s most outstanding literary achievement, garnering him a Pulitzer Prize, and, according to Ward W. Briggs, Jr., ‘‘theatrical immortality.’’ Paul T. Nolan states, ‘‘The Green Pastures is the finest single piece of writing that Mr. Connelly has ever done,’’ adding, ‘‘‘The Green Pastures’ . . . is the one play by Connelly that has never, except for minor cavils, been criticized for artistic ‘faults.’’’ Walter C. Daniel comments that, during its first year-and-a-half run in New York, The Green Pastures ‘‘had gained praise from practically every source. It had kept the legitimate theater alive, literally, and had brought thousands of Americans and many visiting foreign dignitaries to see the spectacle at the time the nation was reeling from the pangs of economic disaster.’’ Daniel goes on to state, ‘‘The Green Pastures presented night after night the dramatization of a shared religion and a vision through which both black and white Americans who realized their common bond in this experience could approach a social, moral, and philosophical coalition needed for the day. The artifacts of Hebrew folk stories, Negro spirituals, the dramaturgy of Marc Connelly with its superb stage sets, and the acting of the superb cast led by Richard B. Harrison combined to provide the crucial thoughtpiece for a frightened and desperate 1930 America.’’ Nolan notes, ‘‘The Green Pastures is, undoubtedly, among the half dozen or so most respected plays in American dramatic literature,’’ adding, ‘‘It gave Mr. Connelly an international reputation, a private fortune, and a great deal of personal satisfaction.’’

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The Green Pastures opened at the Mansfield Theater in New York City, where it ran for 640 performances in 1930 and 1931. The play then made a national tour. It returned for a second run in New York in 1935, running for seventy-three performances, and only closing upon the death of Richard B. Harrison, the actor who had starred as God (‘‘De Lawd’’). A revival performance of the play on Broadway was attempted in 1951, but closed after a short run. Connelly wrote and directed the screen adaptation of The Green Pastures, which was produced in 1936 by Warner Brothers. Nolan notes, ‘‘The success of the film not only helped to make Connelly ‘the highest paid’ writer in Hollywood, but it also spread the fame of The Green Pastures.’’ Connelly later wrote a television adaptation of the play, which aired in 1959.

The Green Pastures won immediate popularity and critical acclaim following its opening night on Broadway. According to Daniel, the New York Times drama critic J. Brooks Atkinson ‘‘wrote that Connelly’s play excelled as comedy, fantasy, folklore, and religion. He, who became the play’s most continuous and most ardent supporter, wrote that it was a work of surpassing beauty from almost any point of view.’’ Further, ‘‘Atkinson believed Connelly created a miracle on the stage, which, after all, is what the theater is supposed to do.’’ Nolan asserts that the play may be as famous a theatrical phenomenon as it is a literary and dramatic achievement: ‘‘The popularity of The Green Pastures is such that the history of the play, from its composition through its long runs both here and in Europe, has become a part of the legend of American drama; it is not too much to argue, in fact, that the ‘story’ surrounding The Green Pastures is probably the best-known single piece of theatrical history in America.’’ Nolan adds, ‘‘The Green Pastures and all associated with it have become part of the general cultural history of the 1930s.’’

Briggs, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, asserts that Connelly is ‘‘a central but not pivotal figure of twentieth-century American theatre: a man of enormous popularity but little lasting influence, of considerable instinctive talent but scant genius, of grand ideas but slight thought.’’ Briggs sums up Connelly’s theatrical career as one in which he ‘‘enjoyed the good fortune of early success, the advantages of a brilliant collaborator, and the services of the leading stars of his day.’’ Briggs concludes, ‘‘Regardless of how his plays appear today, Connelly remains one of the most important figures of the Broadway stage in the first half of this [the twentieth] century.’’

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