The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.


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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

African-American History and Culture in the 1920s–1930s
The Green Pastures was first produced in 1929, the year of the...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The Green Pastures takes place in several key settings, all of which interpret Old Testament Biblical stories in the...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Connelly’s play is a retelling of stories from the Old Testament. In what ways does Connelly’s rendition of these well-known stories...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

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

Connelly wrote an...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Voices Off-Stage: A Book of Memoirs (1968), by Marc Connelly, is Connelly’s autobiographical account of his life on Broadway and in...

(The entire section is 141 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Briggs, Jr., Ward W., ‘‘Marc Connelly,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7:...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 94 words.)