Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2093
In the ‘‘Author’s Note’’ to the 1929 edition of The Green Pastures, Marc Connelly explains his intent in depicting stories from the Old Testament as peopled by everyday African Americans and set in rural Louisiana:
The Green Pastures is an attempt to present certain aspects of a living religion in the terms of its believers. . . . Unburdened by the differences of more educated theologians, they accept the Old Testament as a chronicle of wonders which happened to people like themselves in vague but actual places, and of rules of conduct, true acceptance of which will lead them to a tangible, three-dimensional Heaven.
Connelly’s commentary likely strikes today’s reader as based on an offensive stereotype of African Americans as simple and childlike. Thus, while prominent black religious leaders and intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois praised the play upon its first run in the 1930s, later critics, influenced by the Civil Rights Movement and Black Nationalism, found it offensive in its stereotyping of African Americans. In the published script, stage directions describing ‘‘happy negroes at a fish fry,’’ are reminiscent of the Sambo figure, and the character of a ‘‘Mammy angel’’ recalls the Aunt Jemima or black Mammy stereotype—both prevalent images throughout American cultural history.
Nonetheless, Connelly’s play includes a number of more or less authentic elements of African- American culture, including: a well-researched rendition of the speech patterns of African Americans in rural Louisiana; the use of an all-black cast; the singing of ‘‘spirituals,’’ or gospel songs, by a choir throughout the production; and reference to blues and jazz musical traditions.
While The Green Pastures does not necessarily reflect an accurate representation of African Americans or folk culture, it does use an authentic rendition of a Black Louisiana dialect. In the ‘‘Author’s Note,’’ Connelly acknowledges the source that inspired him to write the play: ‘‘The author is indebted to Mr. Roark Bradford, whose retelling of several of the Old Testament stories in ‘Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun’ first stimulated his interest in this point of view.’’ Roark Bradford (1896–1948) grew up on a plantation in Tennessee, where he, a white child, heard many African-American folk stories from the black workers. In 1920, he began working as a reporter, and, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘‘met the colorful characters of various southern cities, including the musicians, preachers, and storytellers on the riverfront of New Orleans.’’ Based on these experiences, Bradford wrote down a series of African-American folk stories, which were published in the New York World. His first book, a collection of the retelling of biblical stories from among his published works, Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun, was published in 1928. Bradford’s work, however, cannot be considered an accurate or authentic representation of African- American folk culture. As is noted in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘‘A major weakness of Bradford’s work is his reliance on stereotypes of his black subjects. Yet his writing accurately re- flects their dialect, and his approach is gentle and humorous.’’
Connelly prominently acknowledged this source for his play, subtitling it: A Fable Suggested by Roark Bradford’s Southern Sketches, ‘‘Ol’ Man Adam An’ His Chillun.’’ However, Paul T. Nolan asserts in Marc Connelly that the influence of Bradford’s work on The Green Pastures was minimal:
Bradford’s book, as [Connelly] acknowledged in the preface to the play, had ‘suggested’ the play to him; but, largely, beyond the fact that Ol’ Man Adam gave Connelly the idea of a biblical play done in southern American Negro dialect, The Green Pastures owes its literary source to the Old Testament and its diction to Connelly’s research on the scene.
Nolan praises Connelly for his extensive and accurate research into the dialects of African Americans in the South:
Connelly spent considerable time in Louisiana, researching the subject . . . ’I went into the farm country of St. Francis Parish—near Baton Rouge,’ he wrote of his experiences in Louisiana; ’ . . . I read my play to sharecroppers.’
Nolan adds, ‘‘Connelly’s ear for oral language, although given little attention in the discussion of his earlier plays, was always one of his great assets as a playwright.’’ Nolan concludes, ‘‘Connelly was wonderfully trained and admirably suited by talent and interest to make the kind of careful language study that was necessary to give The Green Pastures its authenticity.’’
Although written, directed, and produced by white men, and attended by primarily white audiences, The Green Pastures was a significant event in the world of black theater. The Harlem Renaissance, a literary movement that flourished in New York’s black Harlem neighborhood, inspired the development of black theater in the 1920s and 1930s. Theaters devoted to black productions were established in major cities throughout the United States, the most prominent being the American Negro Theater and the Negro Playwrights’ Company.
While not a black production, The Green Pastures represented a new development in the presence of African Americans on the mainstream stage. According to Walter C. Daniel in ‘‘De Lawd’’: Richard B. Harrison and The Green Pastures, New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson saw The Green Pastures as a milestone in the on-stage representation of black culture:
Atkinson judged that audiences were rapt in attention because they realized they were in the presence of a new cultural artifact being performed before their eyes. That was the elevation of the folk art from riotous low comedy to something not yet named but essentially and demonstrably different from the ribald jokes and denigrating stereotypes of the black stage idiom.
Casting for the play created shock waves in the black drama world. Daniel observes, ‘‘Black actors hoped the play would bring them a new signifi- cance. Never before had so many black actors and singers been employed in a single stage endeavor.
A play about African-American culture and religion, written by a white author and featuring an all black cast, The Green Pastures was bound to raise racial issues at the time of its initial production. Connelly had had great trouble selling the play to a producer in the first place, for a variety of reasons, one being that, according to Nolan, ‘‘There were . . . fears that a play with a Negro actor playing God would offend the white, religious theatergoers.’’ However, the casting of unknown sixty- five-year-old actor Richard B. Harrison as God (‘‘De Lawd’’) turned out to be one of the production’s finest attributes and a key factor in the longrunning success of the play; upon Harrison’s death in 1935, the play quickly lost its box-office appeal. Daniel observes, ‘‘The trick of putting a black God on the stage turned into fortune as Richard B. Harrison’s talent at acting, dignity, rich voice, and gentle, endearing humor flooded over the auditorium and balcony.’’ Furthermore, Harrison proved an important link between Broadway and African- American communities. According to Daniel, ‘‘Few of them could purchase tickets to see him [Harrison] perform at the Mansfield, but they related to him and clamored for his presence in their little theater groups, social gatherings, and churches.’’
Daniel observes that ‘‘equally important as the newspaper critics’ comments on the play were indications of approval that came early from the clergy and from New York black intellectuals.’’ W. E. B. Du Bois, for example, ‘‘praised The Green Pastures because in it Marc Connelly ‘has made an extraordinarily appealing and beautiful play based on the folk religion of Negroes.’’’ Daniel adds that Du Bois ‘‘could not agree with those who considered the play sacrilegious.’’ Furthermore, ‘‘Sermons preached in black and white local churches frequently included some reference to the play.’’ In 1931, Harrison was awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Spingarn Medal for making the most significant contribution to the advancement of African Americans in the country that year; the award speech was delivered by Du Bois.
The Green Pastures brought authentic African- American culture to the stage through the key role of music in the play’s production. Stage directions call for a choir, which breaks into spirituals as accompaniment to the biblical narrative of the play. Daniel describes the effect of the first sounds of the choir on the play’s opening night, when ‘‘from the darkness came the burst of the magnificent sounds of the Hall Johnson Choir’’ singing ‘‘Rise, Shine, Give God the Glory.’’
The spiritual is a form of American folk music, characterized by the singing of hymns. Over time, black and white folk culture developed the spiritual along different lines, although sharing many hymns and tunes. Both are rooted in revival and camp meetings, a practice of Christian religious worship popular in the South. Important differences, however, developed between the two folk cultures. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘‘Black spirituals were sung not only in worship but also as work songs, and the text imagery often reflects concrete tasks.’’ The spiritual thus developed as ‘‘a complex intermingling of African and white folkmusic elements,’’ in that ‘‘complementary traits of African music and white U.S. folksong reinforced each other.’’ The musical style of spirituals in particular is derived from African culture, as imported by the slave trade. ‘‘Most authorities see clear African influence in vocal style and in the . . . clapped accompaniments.’’
Spirituals sung in the play include: ‘‘When the Saints Come Marching In’’; ‘‘So High You Can’t Get Over It’’; ‘‘Hallelujah’’; ‘‘A City Called Heaven’’; ‘‘Go Down Moses’’; ‘‘Mary Don’t You Weep’’; and ‘‘Hallelujah, King Jesus.’’
Jazz and blues music, both strongly rooted in African-American culture and history, play a small but important role in The Green Pastures. The roots of jazz in African culture are especially strong. As stated in Encyclopaedia Britannica,
Had it not been for the traffic in slaves from West Africa to the United States, jazz would never have evolved, either in the United States or Africa, for jazz is the expression in music of the African native who is isolated both socially and geographically from his natural environment.
In Connelly’s play, both jazz and blues are contrasted with the spirituals sung by the heavenly choir, and represent the human descent into sin.
In act II, scene 7, when God returns to Earth on a Sunday to see how the people he made are doing, he first encounters Zeba on a country road. Zeba, ‘‘a rouged and extremely flashily dressed chippy of about eighteen,’’ is sitting on a stump, singing ‘‘a ‘blues’’’ and playing a ukulele. God immediately disapproves, saying ‘‘Now, dat ain’t so good.’’ He tells Zeba to ‘‘Stop dat!’’ When Zeba responds with indifference and resumes singing, God tells her, ‘‘Don’t you know dis is de Sabbath? Da’s no kin’ o’ song to sing on de Lawd’s day.’’ This encounter represents the first of many in which God finds that man has descended into sin, paying no heed to the Sabbath.
Act III, scene 5, takes place in ‘‘a room vaguely resembling a Negro night club in New Orleans,’’ where ‘‘about a dozen couples are dancing in the foreground to the tune of a jazz orchestra.’’ The costumes are meant to ‘‘represent the debauches of Babylon.’’ Connelly thus chose to depict a city which has descended into sin as a jazz club, and the sinners as flashily dressed young people dancing to jazz music.
Jazz music and, to a lesser extent, blues have long been associated with sin and debauchery. Flourishing in the red-light district of New Orleans, jazz became associated with moral depravity. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘‘jazz, linked to the black performer and the social events of black life in the city, retained a connotation of sin and dissipation for many years after the New Orleans pioneers were forgotten.’’ The setting of Connelly’s play in Louisiana, and the portrayal of Babylon as a New Orleans black Jazz club, is especially appropriate, as New Orleans is known to be the birthplace of jazz.
While today’s reader will most likely balk at the stereotypical and condescending representation of African Americans in this play, it is important to acknowledge the significant impact it had on the black theater of the day, as well as the elements of legitimate African-American culture used within the play itself, such as black spirituals, references to jazz and blues music, and the use of an accurately rendered black Louisiana dialect throughout the dialogue.
Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema.
Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4716
The Green Pastures is, undoubtedly, among the half dozen or so most respected plays in American dramatic literature. It gave Mr. Connelly an international reputation, a private fortune, and a great deal of personal satisfaction. Unfortunately for his other works, it also gave many theater critics and historians the general impression that Marc Connelly was a one-play author. Such an impression came not merely because The Green Pastures is the finest single piece of writing that Mr. Connelly has ever done, but also because, in various superficial ways, it appears to be utterly different from all his other works. It is his only play about Negroes; it is his only full-length play on a religious subject; it is his only play without a conventional happy ending.
I The Composition and History
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 bestknown single piece of theatrical history in America. In 1928, Harper and Brothers published a collection of dialect stories by Roark Bradford, Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun, which was popular immediately with the Broadway literary colony. F. P. Adams, for example, on December 28, 1928, reported to his readers that he had had lunch with Bradford, ‘‘the author of my favorite book . . . and so to dinner with M. Connelly. . . .’’ This linking of Ol’ Man Adam and Connelly by Adams was, probably, not accidental. Sometime earlier that year, Rollin Kirby, threetime winner of the Pulitzer Prize for cartooning, had recommended the book to Connelly, who immediately saw dramatic possibilities in its materials; and in 1929, when he went to New Orleans to see Bradford, he wrote ‘‘the first act of The Green Pastures on the boat S. S. Dixie en route.’’
Connelly spent considerable time in Louisiana, researching the subject. Bradford’s book, as he acknowledged in the preface to the play, had ‘‘suggested’’ the play to him; but, largely, beyond the fact that Ol’ Man Adam gave Connelly the idea of a Biblical play done in Southern American Negro dialect, The Green Pastures owes its literary source to the Old Testament and its diction to Connelly’s research on the scene. ‘‘I went into the farm country of St. Francis Parish—near Baton Rouge,’’ he wrote of his experiences in Louisiana; ‘‘. . . I read my play to sharecroppers.’’ Connelly’s ear for oral language, although given little attention in the discussion of his earlier plays, was always one of his great assets as a playwright. Sometimes critics, like John Mason Brown, had complained that his ear for the idiom—‘‘the half-written Algonquins’’—led him to sacrifice plotting for tone, theme for ‘‘local color’’; but, if his friends on Broadway had thought about the problem of research in terms of language, they would have agreed that Connelly was wonderfully trained and admirably suited by talent and interest to make the kind of careful language study that was necessary to give The Green Pastures its authenticity.
Mr. Connelley, moreover, had always had a great deal of sensitivity to intent. Charley Bemis in The Wisdom Tooth, J. Daniel Thompson in The Wild Man of Borneo, and Merton in Merton of the Movies are all treated as heroes, not because they perform heroic actions or make heroic speeches, but because, in spite of their doing the weak thing and saying the wrong thing, Connelly ‘‘intuits’’ their good intentions. This sensitivity to intent, as well as Connelly’s eye and ear for accurate detail, has made The Green Pastures appealing to millions of viewers and readers who have been able to gain from the experiences of the characters some insight into their own lives.
Connelly spent over a year writing the play and then another six months looking for a producer. All of the established New York producers turned down the play, in spite of Connelly’s reputation for commercial success, convinced that, for a variety of reasons, The Green Pastures would be ‘‘bad business.’’ Few religious plays succeeded at the box office, and, at the time, no play with an all-Negro cast had ever been a good investment. There were, moreover, fears that a play with a Negro actor playing God would offend the white, religious theater- goers. Finally, Rowland Stebbins, a retired stockbroker, made himself a part of American theater history by risking his reputation for financial shrewdness by backing the play. Connelly’s casting of the play—especially the selection of Richard B. Harrison to play the Lawd—is almost a separate story, certainly an important episode in the history of the Negro actor in American theater.
The play opened in the Mansfield Theatre in New York on February 26, 1930; and, although there were still a few doubts about the financial future of the play, there were none about its worth as drama. Burns Mantle summed up critical opinion when he wrote of the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize to The Green Pastures as the best play of the year: ‘‘In the awarding of the prize, not a single dissenting voice was heard, either in the committee or in the press. . . .’’ Variety approved of the play as ‘‘art theatre,’’ but expressed doubts that the play would run long in a commercial theater.
Some critics, to be sure, had reservations about certain aspects of The Green Pastures. Mantle, for example, felt there was some injustice done to Bradford, who was given credit merely for ‘‘the suggestion,’’ rather than as a collaborator. Francis Fergusson, in answering that charge, called The Green Pastures ‘‘a myth [belonging more to the Bible than to Bradford] which Mr. Connelly discovered nearly intact and devoted himself humbly to translating into stage terms.’’ Fergusson argued that Connelly’s discovery of the ‘‘truth’’ in Bradford’s ‘‘farcical’’ tales deserved special credit. ‘‘Discovery of this kind,’’ he wrote, ‘‘. . . is of course more creative than confecting something supposedly new.’’ Fergusson, however, complained that the ‘‘sinful folk’’ were modeled on ‘‘smart Harlemites,’’ rather than on the Louisiana Negro, perhaps unaware that the New Orleans native, of any race, is also metropolitan, ‘‘smart.’’ In commenting upon Fergusson’s complaint, Mr. Connelly told me, ‘‘The Harlem aspect mentioned was an actual attempt to create the atmosphere I found in the ‘barrel-house’ in New Orleans.’’ Fergusson’s complaint was, moreover, only a qualification; and he approved of Connelly’s other characters. ‘‘He has managed,’’ Fergusson wrote, ‘‘to avoid condescending. . . . ’’
The Green Pastures and all associated with it have become part of the general cultural history of the 1930s. Mantle, in writing of a new play that Rowland Stebbins produced a dozen years later, for example, identified Stebbins as the man ‘‘who will be known to the end of the century as the noble soul who had enough faith in Marc Connelly’s ‘Green Pastures’ to bring it to production after so-called wiser heads of Broadway had neglected to do so.’’ The Green Pastures was even given credit for ‘‘saving’’ the reputation of the Pulitzer Prize. In commenting upon other Pulitzer Prize selections for 1929–30, a reviewer for the Literary Digest argued that The Green Pastures was the only work awarded the prize that year that ‘‘No one questions. . . .’’ All the other Pulitzer choices were challenged, sometimes bitterly. Why should Oliver LaFarge have been selected rather than Hemingway, or Conrad Aiken rather than Elinor Wylie? With obvious approval, the Literary Digest concluded its account with a statement from Woollcott’s article in the Morning Telegraph: ‘‘‘The Green Pastures’ does not need the Pulitzer Prize, but, oh, how the Pulitzer Prize needs ‘The Green Pastures.’’’
Perhaps longer than any other twentieth-century American play, The Green Pastures was important for its news value alone. In the 1930s, the production of the play, the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize, the suggestion that the play demonstrated an awakened social conscience, the various long-run records that the play established, all were reported with enthusiasm by the press. And then in June, 1935, while the play was still enjoying an unbroken run throughout the United States, Warner Brothers purchased the film rights to it on terms that ‘‘were all Connelly’s.’’ He directed it, staged it, cast it. 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.
In 1951, Connelly again staged The Green Pastures in New York. It opened at the Broadway Theatre March 15 and closed April 21. ‘‘No amount of enthusiasm on the part of the individual critic, including this editor,’’ John Chapman wrote of that production, ‘‘could make this American miracle play stick. Modern Broadway was just not interested in de Lawd, Gabriel, and the fish-loving angels.’’ Although in one respect The Green Pastures on the professional stage is past history at the moment, the play still has its supporters by the thousands, men like John Mason Brown, who, as late as 1963, summed up his critical opinion with this statement: ‘‘Let’s face it with proper gratitude. The Green Pastures is a masterpiece.’’
For the past two decades, however, there has been a general feeling that the play is too simple for complex academic criticism, too soft for an age of revolution, and perhaps too patronizing for the new role of the Negro in the United States, too much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Just a few years ago, for example, the Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church charged that the play was ‘‘irreligious’’ and ‘‘perpetuated outmoded stereo-types’’ of Negroes. As these various comments indicate, much of the existing criticism of the play has been concerned with its stage history rather than with its literary merit and ideational content. A recent edition of The Green Pastures, with sensible, religious essays by W. R. Matthews, John Macmurray, and Henry Self, gives hope that a new interest in the play—a critical interest—is coming into being.
II Critical Status
The tremendous success of the play in the theater, strangely enough, seems to have discouraged serious dramatic criticism about the merits of the play as literature, to a large degree, perhaps, because its ‘‘literary merit’’ was never questioned. Most critics have been content merely to state a verdict. Joseph Wershba, for example, has said that for this play alone Connelly has ‘‘assured himself a lasting place in American drama . . . ’’; and this judgment has been rendered hundreds of times. The Green Pastures, which has been republished in at least thirty-three different anthologies in the past thirty-seven years, is the one play by Connelly that has never, except for minor cavils, been criticized for artistic ‘‘faults.’’
During the past twenty-five years, however, it has become the fashion to praise the play for what it was, not for what it is. John Gassner, for example, calls The Green Pastures, ‘‘a play that is inscribed in the permanent records of the American theatre.’’ His critical discussion of the play, however, is limited to a short statement concerned with the difficulty of classifying it: ‘‘The Green Pastures is unique; it cannot be placed in any existing classifi- cation without some reservations. . . . Is there no discrepancy between the ‘Harlem’ scene and the spirit of the play? Is the play entirely free from a spirit of condescension toward primitive folk and their notions? Yet one cannot overlook the tremendous fascination the play exerted for years after it opened on Broadway. It seemed the culmination of everything we considered a movement toward folk drama for at least a decade, and it was also the only religious drama anyone succeeded in making tolerable to the American public since Charles Rann Kennedy’s old-fashioned morality play, The Servant in the House.’’
E. Bradlee Watson and Benfield Pressey also defend the play in historical terms: ‘‘. . . The Green Pastures . . . seems itself both miraculous and inevitable— miraculous because it arose out of such unpredictable comings-together; inevitable because by 1930 the theatre in America was overripe for a great Negro play and a great religious play. . . . Unconsciously . . . America needed The Green Pastures.’’ In judging the play as living dramatic literature, however, they are less certain: although ‘‘. . . it remains a monumental attainment in the American theatre,’’ they write, ‘‘. . . it is not likely to be often available in revivals. . . . ’’
The Green Pastures, to be sure, is an expensive play to stage; but the modern reader still finds it an exciting experience, not merely an historical monument. In an interview with Ward Morehouse in 1951, following its last full-scale professional revival, Connelly said of the play: ‘‘I’m glad that the critics find it a simple play. I feel that it is offered as an honest inquiry into man’s attempt to find dignity and virtue within himself, that it invites introspection and a search for old dignities.’’
III The Play
The Green Pastures is not a play utterly different from everything that Connelly had done before; The Deep Tangled Wildwood, The Wisdom Tooth, and The Wild Man of Borneo, for examples, are quite obviously searches for ‘‘old dignities.’’ What distinguishes The Green Pastures from these earlier plays is its scope. In this play Connelly selected his materials, not from minor aspects of contemporary society, but from the central religious-philosophical myth of Western civilization, the Hebraic-Christian accounts in the Bible; and he then applied some of the implications of that myth to one group of suffering American humanity, the Southern Negro.
The play is divided into two parts: the first, in ten scenes; the second, in eight. The first part opens in a Negro Sunday School in New Orleans, where the kindly preacher, Mr. Deshee, is beginning a study of the Bible for his young charges. Although, seemingly, the selection of the Biblical episodes— life in Heaven before creation, the creation of Adam and Eve, the fall of Cain, and the Noah story— merely follow a chronological account, they have a thematic purpose: they deal with a theory of human reformation. They present, from the Lawd’s point of view, a theory of crime and punishment. Man— especially starting with Cain—has sinned; and with the flood, he has been punished. The new world— that is ‘‘startin’ all over again’’—is founded only by the virtuous, the chosen few who survived the flood.
Many of Connelly’s earlier plays stopped at this point, the moment of the new start; but quite obviously, in the context of The Green Pastures, a good life created by the ‘‘remaining virtuous’’ is too narrow a view of man to succeed. It is not merely that the first part ends with God saying softly, ‘‘I only hope it’s goin’ to work out all right’’; it is, also, that Gabriel, while still respectful of the Lawd, has ‘‘no enthusiasm’’ for the success of the project.
In the second part of The Green Pastures, the materials are selected from episodes in the Bible from the story of Moses to the fall of Jerusalem; and, upon first observation, the second part seems merely to repeat the theme of the first: man, in spite of God’s help, again proves incapable of reform. This time, God does not punish with a flood, but with a renunciation. Quite obviously, the history of man, from the Lawd’s point of view, demonstrates that mankind is incapable of being ‘‘worthy of de breath I gave you.’’
Starting with the sixth scene of Part Two, however, The Green Pastures moves from a concern with the ‘‘reformation’’ of man to a concern with the ‘‘nature’’ of man. The question is no longer, ‘‘How can man be reformed?’’; instead, it becomes, ‘‘What is man?’’ In the seventh scene, the Lawd gets a suggestion of an answer to that second question: man is a creature full of weaknesses, but he tries. He has hope in the midst of catastrophe, courage in the midst of despair, and compassion in the midst of suffering. And he learned to be so wise ‘‘Through sufferin’,’’ as Hezdrel tells God.
God, when He comes to understand His own creation, learns the lesson: even a God must suffer, must be involved with mankind as man is. The Green Pastures ends in the spectacle of Christ on the cross; and the ‘‘Voice,’’ man, learns not to behave differently, but to feel beyond himself. The play ends with the extension of human sympathy to a suffering God: ‘‘Oh, dat’s a terrible burden [involvement with suffering mankind, as well as the cross] for one man to carry!’’ As Vincent Long comments in his ‘‘Introduction’’ to the play, however we start our association with The Green Pastures— with ‘‘amusement’’ or with ‘‘indulgent condescension’’—‘‘ We soon find . . . that we are entering into an experience of real religion.’’
The ‘‘religious truth’’ of the play is not, however, concerned with a question of theology. It is, rather, concerned with man’s relationship to man. If, the play seems to ask, even with a just God, man sins but is yet redeemed because he knows suffering and has learned mercy, how should men treat each other? Specifically, the question raised for an American audience centers around the attitude the fortunate white-American theater-goers should have toward ‘‘the least of these, thy brothers.’’
IV The Use of Sentimentality
Modern Negroes, weary of the ‘‘Uncle Tom’’ picture of the ‘‘Good Ol’ Darky,’’ may be offended at the opening scene of The Green Pastures. Although Mr. Deshee is shown as a good man, he is a kind of ‘‘Uncle Tom,’’ a man who seems so simple that his goodness appears to be the result of simplemindedness rather than of virtue. In the first Sunday School scene, for example, he is teaching a class of small Negro children. In his opening speech, he summarizes the first five chapters of Genesis; and the emphasis is entirely upon long life: ‘‘Adam lived a hundred an’ thirty years an’ begat a son in his own likeness . . . Seth. An de’ days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years!’’ The only reference to contemporary life is that ‘‘ol’ Mrs. Gurney’s mammy’’ is called ‘‘ol’ Mrs. Methusaleh caize she’s so ol’.’’ This summary, with its list of begats and deaths, Mr. Deshee calls ‘‘de meat and substance’’ of the first five books; and he concludes his lesson with the question, ‘‘Now, how you think you gonter like de Bible?’’
All questions from the children are answered with a proper respect for conventional morality and a dependence upon the literal truth of the Bible as Mr. Deshee understands it. In the third scene, for example, one boy wants to be certain that Adam and Eve had been married a proper length of time before the birth of Cain. ‘‘My mammy say it was a hund’ed years,’’ the boy says. Mr. Deshee admits that it is now difficult to be exact about the number of years, but his answer assures the boy that at least the proper number of months had passed.
This concern with age and with proper behavior seems to suggest a lack of understanding of the ‘‘central truths’’ of the religious story, at least from the view of modern, educated Americans in the 1930’s. Mr. Deshee, however, is not ignorant of life. As the spiritual leader of a people who live hungry, die young, and face day-after-day indictments that they are ‘‘by nature’’ immoral, Mr. Deshee’s concern with age and conventional behavior is part of an attempt to translate the abstract religion into a practical guide. A people who die young must be impressed by old age.
Connelly avoids making obvious social-protest associations. Mr. Deshee’s life among the poor, the hungry, and the shamed—the Negro scene—is never mentioned. Rather a kindly, old preacher and a chorus of innocent children set the stage. No one, whatever his racial opinions, would deny the basic goodness of such people; but the audience’s sympathy for this group must also be mixed with some mild, sophisticated contempt. Undoubtedly in such a state, the folk are good; but the suggestion is that ‘‘such a state’’ is, therefore, necessary for them.
The first scene in Heaven, the second scene of Part One, develops the same concept of the good, simple ‘‘Darky’’ and suggests the kind of state necessary for his goodness. This scene does show ‘‘adults’’—Angels, God, Gabriel; but the notion of their ‘‘simple goodness’’ is strengthened by their childlike responses and by the fact that, in terms of the religious story used, they are naturally good. Connelly, moreover, surrounds them with children, Cherubs. The use of characters who conform to the stereotype of the ‘‘good Darky’’ and who are yet loosely drawn from the Biblical story makes a sentimental appeal to the audience. Showing the ‘‘naturally’’ good, simple Negro in his pursuit of ‘‘naturally’’ good, simple goals reinforces a sentimental view with a religious overtone. The normal audience response, it seems to me, is largely sentimental; but there must also be the slightly uncomfortable feeling that this sentiment has the support of powerful forces.
V The Harlem Evil
In the following scenes—with Cain, with the blues-singing Zeba, with the Children of Noah, with the Children of Israel, and in the ‘‘Harlem’’ scenes that Francis Fergusson and John Gassner did not like—the Lawd and the audience have another view of man, the Negro. To some degree, the desired response is also to a stereotype: the Negro as naturally violent and naturally brutal. The evidence offered is overwhelming. He is a ‘‘depraved being’’ capable of any crime: he kills his brother, he steals, he lies, he betrays. He does, in fact, everything that all the imperfect heroes and villains of the Old Testament did; and he does it all in a fashion that will allow those who view the Negro actors in the play to conclude that what is being shown is a Realistic portrayal of ‘‘Negro behavior.’’
The uneasiness of those who would like The Green Pastures to be a propaganda piece for the Negro—both white critics in the early 1930’s and Negro leaders in the 1950’s and 1960’s—is a clear demonstration that Connelly did his work well. The audience is ready to join the Lawd in His weariness with sin. ‘‘Dat’s about enough,’’ the Lawd announces. ‘‘I’s stood all I kin from you. I tried to make dis a good earth. I helped Adam, I helped Noah, I helped Moses, an’ I helped David. What’s de grain dat grew out of de seed? Sin! Nothin’ but sin throughout de whole world. . . . So I renounce you. Listen to the words of yo’ Lawd God Jehovah, for dey is de last words yo’ ever hear from me. I repent of dese people dat I have made and I will deliver dem no more.’’
Connelly’s insight into the nature of the ‘‘Good Outsider,’’ weary with the ‘‘transgressions of the folk,’’ seems so fresh that this characterization might have been created in the 1960’s, rather than in 1930, as the play relates to the race problem in the United States. White Americans still complain that the Negro drive for ‘‘equal rights’’ is moving too fast, some evidence perhaps of a repentance of past ‘‘deliverances.’’
The accumulative view of these central scenes of the play contrasts with the first three scenes and shows the Negro as violent and depraved. At first, a sentimental solution seems suggested; for, if the Negro could move back to the world of Mr. Deshee’s Sunday School and the Heavenly fish fry, there would be no necessity to deal with the world of Cain and Harlem; however, the Lawd, like the audience, must contemplate punishment and desertion as the answer.
VI The Reconciliation
With the Lawd’s renunciation scene, however, a pronounced change takes place in the tone of the play and in the response from the audience. Until the last few scenes, the white, sophisticated audience has been watching—with some amusement, some sympathy, and probably some impatience— the history of ‘‘the folk’’ from the point of view of the Lawd. In another place, I have argued that, in spite of the fact that the Lawd was played by a Negro actor, his character, in part, is based on a stereotype of the ‘‘Good White Man,’’ as he sees himself in relationship to the folk. There may be some question as to the validity of that argument, but there is little to the assumption that the Lawd in his renunciation speech reflects the varied attitudes of well-meaning, sympathetic, tired outsiders to the problems and errors of the folk.
From the moment of renunciation, however, the Lawd, in dramatic terms, loses his superiority. In the sixth scene of Part Two the Lawd recognizes the righteousness of Hosea, now a resident of Heaven, although Hosea obviously disagrees with the Lawd’s renunciation. He becomes the Lawd’s superior, and in their conflict—an unspoken agon—Hosea overwhelms the Lawd. The Lawd’s final speech in this scene shows his capitulation to a superior force. ‘‘You know I said I wouldn’t come down,’’ the Lawd shouts down to the voice of goodness on earth after Hosea’s silence has weakened his resolve. ‘‘Why don’t he answer me a little? Listen, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I ain’t goin’ to promise you anythin’, and I ain’t goin’ to do nothin’ to help you. I’m just feelin’ a little low, an’ I’m only comin’ down to make myself feel a little better, dat’s all.’’
In the last dramatic scene of the play, the Lawd comes in conflict with Hezdrel, one of the characters Connelly created without Biblical authority. If the characters to this point in the play can be divided into ‘‘good, simple’’ and ‘‘bad, smartalecky Harlem’’ Negroes, Hezdrel is something new. He is good, courageous, faithful, but he is also a complicated human being, wiser in the matters of man than the Lawd himself. The Lawd, in fact, finally has to ask Hezdrel for the secret of knowledge—how does one (even God) discover mercy? Hezdrel’s answer— ‘‘Through suffering’’—leaves the Lawd confused, but full of admiration. The Lawd is now an ‘‘inferior being’’ who must be removed from the scene of the heroic action for his own safety. He can be only a supporting character as He leaves the heroic Hezdrel, giving the battle cry of man, ‘‘Give ’em eve’ything, Boys.’’
In these two scenes, the audience’s sympathy must shift from the Lawd to Hosea and Hezdrel. They are, in terms of The Green Pastures, morally superior. They hold, in terms of their agons with the Lawd, the same position that Tiresias holds against Oedipus, Antigone against Creon: they are right. At this point, the audience must become aware that, although the actors are Negroes, the subject is man; and the Lawd’s renunciation of ‘‘dese people’’ includes not merely the folk in the play, but the folk in the audience.
The identification of the audience with the Lawd has now ceased. The history of the play is no longer a Negro history, but the history of Hebraic- Christian man. If the white outsider continues in his sympathy with the Lawd’s decision to withdraw from the Negro world, he must put himself in a world from which God has withdrawn, and he must approve of that withdrawal. The sophisticated audience has been sentenced by its own biases to a Godforsaken world.
The Lawd of The Green Pastures concludes that He cannot judge men fairly from without, and the play ends with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Whether this is orthodox Christian doctrine or not is a matter for theologians, but from a dramatic point of view, Connelly’s The Green Pastures offers a successful pattern for the writer of folk drama. He starts with the biases for and against the folk, and he forces his audience to examine these biases and their assumptions not only about the ‘‘folk’’ but about themselves. Once we are caught up in The Green Pastures, it is difficult to refuse Connelly’s invitation to introspection.
Source: Paul T. Nolan, ‘‘The Green Pastures,’’ in Marc Connelly, Twayne Publishers, 1969, pp. 79–91.
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