Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

The Green Pastures provides a deceptively simple chronological summary of the first five chapters of Genesis. Marc Connelly’s intention, on one level, was to demonstrate the importance of the Bible in the lives of rural African Americans. The types of questions that Mr. Deshee’s Sunday school students ask make it clear to the discerning listener that they view the Bible as a practical guide for behavior. Thus, the little boy who wonders how long Adam and Eve were married before the birth of Cain is reflecting his people’s concern for conventional morality. While the sins committed by the people in Mr. Deshee’s narrative—gambling, drinking, murder—are social problems that plague society in general, de Lawd’s concern with them makes it clear that they are especially prevalent in the black community.

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By populating the Old Testament with African Americans instead of Hebrews, Connelly was able to make subtle comments on their social status at the same time that he was dramatizing the religious story. Connelly avoided making obvious social protest statements, choosing instead to imply that something is not quite right. For example, Mr. Deshee’s Sunday school class in the very beginning of the play is impressed with the longevity of the central figures of Genesis because their experience dictates that most black people lead harsh, short lives. Connelly also attempted to neutralize the stereotyped notion of African Americans as being slovenly and immoral by balancing the incidents of gambling, drinking, and adultery in the play with such virtues as love for children, respect for authority, and hospitality. By the end of the play, when the courageous Hezdrel stands up to an unseen enemy, Connelly’s message becomes somewhat more overt: that the Negro race, like the Hebrews, will deliver themselves from oppression, with the assistance and blessing of God.

Until the end of The Green Pastures, Connelly seemed to be saying that there are two types of black people—good but simple-minded ones such as Noah and bad, “uppity” ones such as Cain the Sixth—and that the bad ones could be reformed if they sought the benighted refuge of the heavenly fish fry or Mr. Deshee’s Sunday school class. Beginning with the sixth scene, however, Connelly’s emphasis shifts from the reformation of black people to the nature of humankind. Hezdrel is a black man, but he is also a complicated human being who knows more about the value of suffering than de Lawd does. Thus, the ending makes it clear that the subject of the play has been not merely the black race but indeed humankind itself. It becomes clear before the curtain falls that because they have become strong through suffering, black people are fitting representatives of the human race.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582

Sin
A central theme of Connelly’s retelling of the stories of the Old Testament is sin. Ward W. Briggs, Jr., commented in Dictionary of Literary Biography, ‘‘The theme throughout is that man sins and is either punished or renounced by God.’’ The play presents the Earth and humans primarily from the perspective of God. Adam and Eve are the first sinners, and are punished by being thrown out of the Garden of Eden. After Cain has killed his brother Abel, God tells him, ‘‘I’m yere to tell you dat’s called a crime,’’ and advises him to go as far away as possible, then ‘‘git married an’ settle down an’ raise some chillun.’’

When, several hundred years later, God returns to Earth on a Sunday, he finds a girl singing blues music, a group of men betting, and a family wracked with drunkenness and debauchery. Walking down a country road, God comes upon Noah, who confirms that the people are ‘‘jest all lazy, and mean, and full of sin,’’ and, ‘‘Dey ain’t got no moral sense.’ God is so displeased that he decides to drown all of the humans, except Noah and his family, with a flood.

After the flood, when a prophet is killed in Babylon, God becomes so enraged that He renounces humanity. God tells the people

Dat’s about enough—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. I’ve given you every chance. . . . Ev’ything I’ve given you, you’ve defiled. Ev’y time I’ve fo’given you, you’ve mocked me. . . . I repent of dese people dat I have made and I will deliver dem no more.

By the end of the play, however, God realizes that He needs to be a more ‘‘merciful’’ God, sympathetic to human ‘‘suffering.’’

Faith
While God finds mostly sinners upon the Earth, there are a few men who maintain their faith in him. Noah, for instance, appears as a country preacher, discouraged by the sinning of those all around him. Noah is rewarded for his faith when God gives him the plans and instructions to build an ark and save his family from the flood.

Moses is another who maintains his faith in God. When God first speaks to him, however, he is not convinced, until He performs several miracles, at which point Moses confirms his faith.

At the very end of the play, God conceives the idea to send Jesus Christ down to Earth, so that people may develop faith in a God who ‘‘suffers.’’

God’s Relationship with Man
Connelly’s play is notable for his everyday personification of God as a black man. Throughout the play, God’s human qualities are emphasized, while his divine powers are also acknowledged. God is represented as a man who attends a fish fry in Heaven, tastes the boiled custard, and discusses the recipe with one of his angels. He also occasionally visits Earth as a human, walking side by side with various other characters. God’s relationship to humanity is thus represented as very personal. Such a personification of God throughout the play makes way for the arrival of Jesus Christ, a God who suffers like a man, as the curtain goes down and the play ends.

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