The Green Pastures

by Marc Connelly

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The Play

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Part 1 of The Green Pastures begins in a black church in lower Louisiana. An old preacher, Mr. Deshee, is teaching a Sunday school class of ten boys and girls. All the characters speak in the black dialect of Louisiana. Mr. Deshee begins the lesson by reciting the lineage of Adam. Expressing his belief that the Lord expects man to figure out a few things for himself, he replies to their questions by stating that before God made the earth, there was nothing but angels, who had a fish fry every week in Heaven and Sunday school for cherubs. The lights dim as Deshee reads, “In de beginnin’, God created de heaven and de earth. . . .”

Scene 2 opens with the angelic singing of “Rise, Shine, Give God the Glory” to reveal a pre-Christian Heaven. Mammy angels wearing hats and men angels smoking cigars are enjoying a gala fish fry. After Gabriel awards diplomas to a class of cherubs, de Lawd enters, dressed in a white suit and Prince Albert coat of alpaca. Noticing that the custard needs more firmament, de Lawd passes a miracle and makes it rain. To provide a place for the firmament to drain, he also creates the earth. To dry off the cherubs’ wings, he creates the sun. De Lawd then creates humankind because he agrees with Gabriel that it would be a shame to let the earth simply go to waste.

The promise with which de Lawd’s creation begins in scene 2 changes to disillusionment by scene 7. Although Adam and Eve, represented by two farmhands, are the picture of confidence and health, the tree of knowledge at which they stare foreshadows Cain’s murder of Abel in scene 4. Cain’s attraction to a seductive girl in a tree in scene 5 causes de Lawd to return to Heaven. When de Lawd visits the earth again (in scene 7) after an absence of three or four years, his worst fears are realized. After witnessing a small boy gambling, he goes to Noah’s house in the guise of a country preacher. Once he is convinced that Noah agrees with him that humankind is “goin’ to the dogs,” he reveals his true identity and instructs Noah to collect seeds of all the plants and two of every kind of animal.

Part 1 ends with a dramatization of the consequences of incurring the wrath of de Lawd. As Noah and his family are preparing the ark, they are mocked by a sinful crowd. Just before the ark sets sail, Cain the Sixth confirms de Lawd’s harsh opinion of humankind by stabbing to death Flatfoot, his girlfriend’s lover. In scene 10, with a drunken Noah at the helm, the ark finally makes it to dry land, prompting de Lawd to remark to Gabriel that his creation of the earth has turned out to be quite a proposition.

Part 2 begins in despair and ends in hope, a clear reversal of the pattern followed in part 1. Scene 1 of part 2 takes place in the office of de Lawd. Although frustrated by the seeming incorrigibility of humankind, he resists Gabriel’s suggestion that he start all over again with another creature. Putting away the thunderbolts that he has been hurtling to earth, de Lawd summons Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to his office and offers to turn over a valuable piece of property to their descendants. They choose the Land of Canaan and Moses as the overseer of the land. The scene ends with de Lawd voicing his intention to return to earth.

Scenes 2 through 4 chronicle God’s...

(This entire section contains 1084 words.)

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efforts to save humankind through Moses. In scene 2, God reveals himself to Moses in a turkey-berry bush and provides him with a spokesman, Aaron, and the means for impressing Pharaoh: magic powers. Scene 4 depicts the attempts of Moses and Aaron to persuade Pharaoh to let their people go. When electrical shocks and swarms of gnats fail to change Pharaoh’s mind, Moses asks de Lawd to kill the firstborn sons of all the Egyptians. As four men carry off his dead son, Pharaoh finally agrees to the Israelites’ departure. While the Children of Israel are marching to Canaan, de Lawd promises Moses that he too will enter the Promised Land, though not Canaan, because he killed a man in Egypt. He also assures Moses that He will be with Moses’ people even after Moses is gone. De Lawd offers proof in the form of Joshua’s victory over Jericho, which is heard in the background. As the stage darkens, Mr. Deshee’s voice is heard saying that the people “went to the dogs” again and returned to bondage, this time under the Babylonians.

Scenes 5 through 7 not only portray the Hebrews’ rebellion against oppression but also depict humankind as being wiser than de Lawd. Scene 5 opens in a New Orleans nightclub, where the king of Babylon orders the execution of a prophet who has just forecast damnation for the sinners. The high priest prays to de Lawd for forgiveness, but de Lawd renounces the people, refusing to deliver them again. Even though de Lawd refuses the requests of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in scene 6 to let their people go, He is visibly moved by the puzzling voice of Hezdrel, which is heard while the prophet Hosea walks past his door. Scene 7 takes place in a shadowed corner beside the walls of the Temple of Israel. After a corporal informs Hezdrel that Herod plans to take the Temple in the morning, de Lawd appears, once again disguised as a preacher. Hezdrel informs de Lawd that he is not afraid of Herod because he has faith in the Lord God of Hosea, who is a God of Mercy, not a God of vengeance, as Moses’ God was. He goes on to say that Hosea discovered the God of Mercy through suffering. Before leaving, de Lawd assures Hezdrel that there will be a place for him in Heaven.

Scene 8 duplicates the first scene in the play. God sits in an armchair near center stage, facing the audience. While eating custard, de Lawd tells Gabriel that he is thinking about what Hezdrel said about learning mercy through suffering. While he wonders out loud if Hezdrel meant that God too must suffer, someone points out that Christ is being made to carry the Cross and that he is to be crucified on a hill. The play ends with God murmuring “Yes.” The angels begin to sing “Hallelujah, King Jesus.” God smiles as the light fades and the singing becomes fortissimo.

Dramatic Devices

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Marc Connelly employed a variety of dramatic devices to add the dimensions of folk drama to his religious play. Although most of the play takes place in the Holy Land during biblical times, the costumes, dialect, and setting give the impression that the action occurs in the American antebellum South. The human beings are dressed as field hands and country preachers, and even the heavenly host smoke cigars and eat fried fish. Both the costumes and the rural setting recall the pre-Civil War days of the South, during which African Americans truly were oppressed people, much as the Israelites were in Egypt. By portraying God as a black country lawyer, however, the play transcends the stereotypes that it seems to be projecting and forces audiences to rethink some of their opinions regarding the status of African Americans. Connelly’s replacing of the lofty language of the Old Testament with the black dialect of twentieth century Louisiana, with its connotations of illiteracy and ignorance, serves to add immediacy and relevance to the ancient stories of the Bible.

Although the play is firmly grounded in Judeo-Christianity and African American folklore, Connelly also relies heavily upon a device originated by the ancient Greeks: the chorus. Connelly eliminated the chorus leader and transformed the chorus into a choir, but he retained its primary function of commenting on the action of the play. For the most part, the choir foreshadows things to come, as it does in the end of scene 5 of part 2: The choir sings “Death’s Gwinter Lay His Cold Hands on Me” just after de Lawd has renounced his people. The choir also comments on action while it is taking place. During the battle of Jericho in scene 4 of part 2, it sings “Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho.” At the end of scene 6 in part 2, however, when the choir sings “A Blind Man Stood in the Middle of the Road,” the choir is actually criticizing de Lawd, who has just refused to help Hezdrel. Only once does the choir comment on both past and future occurrences. After Pharaoh agrees to let Moses’ people go as a result of the death of Pharaoh’s son, in scene 3 of part 2, the Choir sings “Mary Don’t You Weep” and “I’m Noways Weary and Noways Tired.”

Classical Greek drama also seems to be the source for the ironic twist that occurs at the end of the play. The Green Pastures is essentially a history of the “folk” until the reversal that occurs in the last few scenes, when de Lawd loses his superiority. The ironic evolution of humanity from the primal Cain and Flatfoot to the noble Hosea and Hezdrel dramatically brings into focus the primary theme of the play: that the “folk” are not only African Americans, they are human beings, and magnificent ones at that. Thus, Hosea and Hezdrel hold the same position that Tiresias holds against Oedipus and that Antigone holds against Creon.

Historical Context

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African-American History and Culture in the 1920s–1930sThe Green Pastures was first produced in 1929, the year of the stock market crash that brought on the Great Depression. One reason for the play’s continued popularity throughout the 1930s may have been due to the massive migration of African Americans from the South seeking employment in Northern cities. Since Connelly’s play was seen primarily by white audiences, his portrayal of rural, Southern African Americans as humble, pious, ‘‘simple’’ people may have held a particular appeal to white Northern populations in urban centers.

The Green Pastures, while written by a white man, includes an entirely African-American cast of characters. Although by today’s standards these characters are mostly stereotypes, this play represented a breakthrough in the history of African- American theater because of the unique opportunity it provided for black actors to play in major roles that went beyond standard bit-parts playing servants. During the 1920s, when The Green Pastures was first written and produced, African-American writers were strongly influenced by the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Organizations such as the Krigwa Players in Washington, D.C., worked to promote African-American dramatic writing and theatrical production. Connelly, as a white man, was not involved in the Harlem Renaissance movement, although The Green Pastures, performed in New York City, would certainly have been noted by writers of the Harlem Renaissance. The Depression had a detrimental affect on the Harlem Renaissance, because many of the writers fell into economic hard times, which made it harder for them to pursue literary efforts.

The Green Pastures is set in an imaginary location in which biblical stories take place in settings that resemble the rural South, and are peopled exclusively by African-American characters. The historical era in which the play is set is referred to as biblical times. Connelly’s representation of the rural Southern United States can be termed ‘‘pastoral’’—meaning that it is depicted in an idealized, nostalgic light, which ignores any historical or social conflict taking place in the actual American South. Connelly’s South is a world without white people, without racism, without a legacy of slavery, without the legal and illegal practices of racial discrimination that have characterized the history of the South, and without the struggles of African Americans to achieve equality and civil rights. It is important, therefore, to be aware of the real social and historical conditions that characterized the South in the 1920s and 1930s, during the time in which The Green Pastures was first written and produced—as well as during earlier periods in U.S. history which bear upon this era.

During the late 1920s, in which the play was first created, as well as the 1930s, during which it enjoyed enormous popularity among white Northern audiences, the legacy of racial discrimination in the United States, both in the South and elsewhere, involved a number of conflicts and struggles. The Ku Klux Klan, an organization formed in the Post- Civil War Era, with the aim of maintaining white supremacy through violence and intimidation tactics, experienced a revival in the teens and twenties. In 1915, the Klan, which had essentially died out by the 1880s, was reorganized in Atlanta, Georgia— inspired in part by the 1905 novel The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon, which glorified the Klan, and the popular 1915 film adaptation of Dixon’s novel, entitled The Birth of a Nation (directed by D. W. Griffith). This revived Ku Klux Klan flourished in the South and Midwest, boasting a membership of some four to five million during the 1920s. Membership in the Klan was at its highest of the twentieth century in 1928, when The Green Pastures was written. However, membership sharply dropped in the 1930s. Racist activities such as lynching, while not necessarily always organized by the Klan, also remained rampant from the early 1880s through the early 1950s, during which some 3,437 African Americans were lynched in a seventy-year period. In 1918, for example, sixty-three African Americans were lynched. By 1940, however, the number of lynchings had greatly declined. Great efforts to combat racial discrimination were also made throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Anti-lynching campaigns were waged by such African-American activists as Mary Elizabeth Church Terrell, and Walter White, and by white activists such as Jessie Daniel Ames, who founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching in 1930. Efforts at improving the status of African Americans in the U.S. through legislation included the foundation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in 1909, with the leadership of W. E. B. Du Bois.

The Prohibition Era
In The Green Pastures, drinking alcohol— particularly on Sunday—is one of the sinful activities that God observes among the people he has created. Reference to drinking in 1929 is especially significant because it was in the midst of the Prohibition era in the United States, during which the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol was prohibited by federal law. Prohibition began in 1919, with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, and lasted until 1933, when it was rescinded by the twenty-first amendment. Prohibition was ultimately deemed unsuccessful because many lawabiding citizens continued to purchase and drink alcohol. That the entire liquor industry was run illegally by ‘‘organized crime,’’ which was characterized by violent warfare among competing producers and distributors of alcohol. Prohibition, largely supported by Protestant organizations, was a major issue in the presidential elections of 1928, during which The Green Pastures was written. Republication Herbert Hoover won the presidency that year in part due to the support of Protestant, Pro-Prohibition voters. A major incident in 1929 was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, in which the gang led by Al Capone shot and killed seven members of the gang led by ‘‘Bugs’’ Moran. The Green Pastures represents a Protestant practice of Christianity and depicts drinking as a sign of sin and human corruption. Audiences watching The Green Pastures in 1929 would have been aware of the national issues surrounding drinking.

The Algonquin Round Table
Connelly was a member of the ‘‘Vicious Circle’’ of the Algonquin Round Table, also called simply The Round Table, an informal group of writers, dramatists, editors, and intellectuals who met daily for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, during the 1920s and 30s, although the first meeting of The Round Table took place in 1919, and the final meeting in 1943. The Algonquin Round Table became known for its members’ capacity for witty repartee and acerbic comments. Paul T. Nolan describes the ‘‘Vicious Circle,’’ which they also called themselves, as ‘‘a group of wits that included half of the quotable men and women in New York during the 1920’s.’’ Among its prominent members were: the drama critic, poet, and prize-winning short story writer, Dorothy Parker; the comic film actor Harpo Marx; the writer Edna Ferber; the author, critic, actor, and informal leader of the Round Table, Alexander Woollcott; colorful stage and screen actress Tallulah Bankhead; drama critic, playwright, and speechwriter for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Robert E. Sherwood; and playwright and screenwriter George S. Kaufman. Connelly collaborated on a number of plays with George S. Kaufman, and with Edna Ferber. The New Yorker, a weekly magazine, was founded by Harold Ross, a regular member of the Algonquin Round Table, in 1925, and many of the members of The Round Table became regular contributors to the magazine. Connelly was among the first members of the editorial board of The New Yorker, w hich became popular for witty and urbane coverage of arts and culture in New York City. It was in the context of this milieu of screenwriters, actors, drama critics, and intellectual theatre-goers that Connelly created The Green Pastures, and one can only assume that the writing of the play was influenced by his association with The Round Table.

Literary Style

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SettingThe Green Pastures takes place in several key settings, all of which interpret Old Testament Biblical stories in the context of Southern, rural, locations inhabited by African Americans. Connelly chose these settings as the context in which to retell biblical stories because he imagined that rural, Southern African Americans probably imagined the stories of the Bible to take place in the same type of locations with which they were familiar. (Today, Connelly’s representation of such African-American conceptions of the Bible can be seen as stereotyped and without basis.) Heaven, for instance, is represented as a giant fish fry picnic, attended by angels, cherubs, an archangel, and God Himself. The Garden of Eden is set in the rural South, and is described in the stage directions as filled with trees, plants, bushes, and flowers native to the South. Babylon is depicted as ‘‘a Negro night club in New Orleans.’’ God runs Heaven and earth from his ‘‘private office,’’ a shabby old space, where ‘‘the general atmosphere is that of the office of a Negro lawyer in a Louisiana town.’’ The throne room of the Pharaoh is described as resembling ‘‘a Negro lodge room.’’

The costuming of the play combines and translates traditional conceptions of biblical characters into a rural southern African-American setting. Some of the stage notes describing the costumes, however, contain elements of the stereotyping Connelly employed in attempting to represent African-American culture. The angels in Heaven wear ‘‘brightly colored robes and have wings protruding from their backs’’; however, they otherwise ‘‘look like happy negroes at a fish fry.’’ God wears ‘‘a white shirt with a white bow tie, a long Prince Albert coat of black alpaca, black trousers and congress gaiters.’’ Adam wears ‘‘the clothing of the average field hand,’’ and Eve wears a ‘‘gingham dress,’’ which is ‘‘quite new and clean.’’ Noah is dressed as ‘‘a country preacher.’’ The Pharaoh of Egypt wears ‘‘a crown and garments’’ which ‘‘might be those worn by a high officer in a Negro lodge during a ritual.’’

Biblical References and ‘‘Artistic License’’
Almost all of the characters in The Green Pastures are drawn directly from the Old Testament: God, Gabriel, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Moses, etc. Connelly, however, took ‘‘artistic license’’ in creating several supplemental fictional characters to tell his version of these traditional biblical stories. The term ‘‘artistic license’’ is used to describe a writer’s claim to the right to bend or alter facts, events, or characters in an unrealistic way to better suit her or his narrative concerns. In the ‘‘Author’s Note’’ of the published play, Connelly explains that, ‘‘One need not blame a hazy memory of the Bible for the failure to recall the characters of Hezdrel, Zeba and others in the play. They are the author’s apocrypha, but he believes persons much like them have figured in the meditations of some if the old Negro preachers, whose simple faith he has tried to translate into a play.’’ One such ‘‘apocryphal’’ character is Zeba, the great-great granddaughter of Seth. In the play, God encounters her during a visit to earth on a Sunday. When God meets her on a country road, she is singing a blues song, accompanied by a ukulele. She represents one of the many sinners God encounters during his visit. He chides her for singing blues music when she should be in church, but she merely responds to him in a ‘‘sassy’’ manner. Zeba turns out to be the girlfriend of Cain the Sixth, who later stabs a character named Flatfoot after he flirts with Zeba. Through this device of integrating such characters as Zeba into biblical stories, Connelly was able to narrate scenarios which were suited to the themes he wished to stress in his play.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s: America is in the midst of the Great Depression, caused by the Stock Market Crash of 1929—the same year in which The Green Pastures was first produced. The Great Depression is characterized by the worst unemployment in U. S. history, with about twenty-five percent of eligible workers unable to find jobs.

1990s: America enjoys a period of economic prosperity, characterized by low unemployment, and many middle-class Americans profiting from investments in the stock market.

1920s–1930s: African-American theatrical production is strongly influenced by the Harlem Renaissance movement. Theaters devoted to the black productions are established across the U. S.

1960s–1990s: African-American theatrical production is strongly influenced by the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s. The Black Arts Theater is established in Harlem in 1965.

1860s: In the Post-Civil War era, white Southern resistance to the efforts of Reconstruction leads to the organization of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in 1866. The KKK reaches the height of its membership and activities in the period of 1868–70.

1870s–1980s: Federal legislation becomes involved in efforts to both limit and defend the Ku Klux Klan. In 1869, the KKK is ordered disbanded. Congress attempts to curb KKK activities via the Force Act of 1870, and the Ku Klux Act of 1871. However, these efforts are partially reversed in 1882, when, in the case of the United States vs. Harris, the Supreme Court rules that the Ku Klux Act of 1871 is unconstitutional.

1920s: Re-organized in 1915, the Ku Klux Klan enjoys renewed participation, with as many as five million members. The burning cross becomes the symbol of the KKK.

1930s–1940s: During the Depression era, KKK membership sharply declines, and the organization is disbanded in 1944.

1960s: In response to the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement to integrate the South, as well as new federal legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the KKK is once again revitalized. In Alabama, after the murder of a civil rights worker and subsequent arrest of four Klan members, President Lyndon B. Johnson makes a television address denouncing the KKK.

1980s–1990s: The Ku Klux Klan begins to form a coalition with other hate groups and white supremacist and anti-federalist organizations, such as the Neo-Nazis.

Media Adaptations

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Connelly wrote and directed the 1936 film The Green Pastures, which was produced by Warner Brothers.

Connelly wrote an adaptation of The Green Pastures for a television broadcast in 1959.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Briggs, Jr., Ward W., ‘‘Marc Connelly,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale Group, 1981, pp. 124–30.

Connelly, Marc, The Green Pastures: A Fable, Farrar & Rinehart, 1929, pp. XV–XVI.

———, Voices Offstage: A Book of Memoirs, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968, p. 258.

Daniel, Walter C., ‘‘De Lawd’’: Richard B. Harrison and The Green Pastures, Greenwood, 1986, pp. 90–4, 99, 105–7.

Nolan, Paul T., Marc Connelly, Twayne, 1969, pp. 79–83.

Further Reading
Baker-Fletcher, Garth, ed., Black Religion after the Million Man March: Voices on the Future, Orbis Books, 1998. This book is a collection of articles discussing the role of religious life in African-American politics and thought after the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C.

Bascom, William, African Folktales in the New World, Indiana University Press, 1992. Bascom’s book is a collected discussion of African- American folktales derived from traditional African folktales. It serves as a useful counterpoint to Connelly’s representation of African-American interpretations of the Bible in terms of folk narrative.

Bryan III, J., Merry Gentlemen (and One Lady), Atheneum, 1987. This work is a cultural history of the Algonquin Round Table, an informal affiliation of writers, artists, and intellectuals in New York City with whom Connelly was associated.

Filler, Louis, ed., American Anxieties: A Collective Portrait of the 1930s, Transaction, 1993. Filler provides a cultural history of the era in which Connelly wrote. The collections are from several historians.

Hurston, Zora Neale, Dust Tracks on the Road, Harper- Perennial, 1991. This book has come to be considered a classic work of African-American folklore in the South, as collected by novelist and anthropologist of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston. It includes a forward by celebrated African-American poet and novelist Maya Angelou.

Lincoln, C. Eric, and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience, Duke University Press, 1990. Lincoln and Mamiya present a history of the role of religion in African-American culture, thought, and politics.


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Sources for Further Study

Abramson, Doris E. Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre, 1925-1959. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.

Connelly, Marc. “This Play’s the Thing: The Green Pastures.” Theatre Magazine, May, 1930, 32-33, 66-70.

Ford, Aaron. “How Genuine Is The Green Pastures?” Phylon, Spring, 1960, 67-70.

Johnson, James Weldon. Black Manhattan. 1930. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1991.

Kelly, Marion. “Backstage: Marc Connelly Back with Prize Play.” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 24, 1951, pp. 21, 24.

Mitchell, Loftin. Black Drama: The Story of the American Negro in the Theater. New York: Hawthorne Books, 1967.

Nolan, Paul T. Marc Connelly. New York: Twayne, 1969.


Critical Essays