Most of Jack Kirkland’s work was derived from other sources, usually popular novels, and it would probably be pushing matters to discuss too intently the overriding themes or concerns in his plays. His works reflected not so much a personal philosophy as a desire to entertain. Kirkland did speak of the social significance of Tobacco Road, noting that the play realistically illustrated the plight of poor Southern sharecroppers caught in an economic and cultural dead end. He also spoke of Jeeter Lester, his most enduring character, in terms of his universal qualities, stating that his “tolerance for the sins and beliefs of others makes him a man apart, a man whose one great virtue is more important than his lack of lesser ones.” In his other plays, Kirkland dealt with such problems as nuclear war, slavery, and drug addiction, but rarely did he aim for more than a superficial treatment of complex issues. In Mr. Adam, for example, the bomb is nothing more than a pretext for a series of dirty jokes, and Mandingo uses its historical setting as an excuse to indulge in sexual titillation and sadistic violence. Kirkland was a competent playwright who, with Tobacco Road, did achieve a dramatic power above the average, but who all too often appealed to the lowest common denominator among his audiences.
Of Kirkland’s plays, only Tobacco Road is likely to be remembered. It is a better work than its reputation suggests, more important than is suggested by the popular hoopla and controversy that surrounded it. In its original form, before it became a parody of itself, it was a brave dramatization of a serious novel. It affected its audiences (both in the United States and abroad) because it acknowledged human beings’ universal suffering and celebrated their ability to endure. In Jeeter Lester, Kirkland (although greatly indebted to Caldwell) gave the modern stage one of its classic roles. Finally, through his willingness to defend his work against censorship, Kirkland expanded the range and depth to which other and better artists could explore the human condition. For these reasons, Kirkland deserves to be remembered as an important figure of twentieth century American drama.
Frankie and Johnnie
As a professional man of the theater, Kirkland believed strongly in the need for artistic freedom. His willingness to challenge, through lengthy and costly legal battles, the prevailing concepts of obscenity changed the standards of what could be presented on the legitimate stage. For example, Kirkland’s first play, Frankie and Johnnie, was based on the popular and racy American folk song, which told of love, betrayal, and murder. Kirkland’s drama was set in 1849, in the red-light district of St. Louis among the waterfront dens and gambling houses. Like the couple of the song, Frankie is a prostitute and Johnnie a gambler. When Johnnie has a run of luck, he is secretly stolen from Frankie by a rival prostitute, Nellie Bly, on whom he spends all his money. Meanwhile, to maintain his lifestyle, Johnnie acts as pimp for Frankie, who works for him out of love. When Frankie discovers that Johnnie has “done her wrong,” she shoots and kills him.
Reviewers of the play found it to be coarse, vulgar, and clumsy. As Atkinson put it, “A gaudy lithograph, dramatizing literally the song . . . it has moments of theatrical effectiveness, split seconds of amusement. But it does not sustain itself or what it attempts in the way that Mae West did in Diamond Lil.” When first performed, the play was ruled obscene and closed in Chicago, only the second time the city had taken such action. When it opened Off-Broadway at the Carlton Theatre in New York in September of 1930, it was raided following the third performance by plainclothes police officers who arrested Kirkland, the cast, and others connected with the play. Found guilty of obscenity, Kirkland fought for the next two years to have the judgment overturned. In a landmark decision made in March, 1932, Judge Cuthbert W. Pound of the New York Court of Appeals wrote that although the play was “indecent” and “degrades the stage,” it “does not counsel or invite to vice or voluptuousness” and, therefore, could not be considered obscene. The play itself had opened on Broadway at the Republic Theatre on September 25, 1930, where it ran for sixty-one performances. By the time of the court ruling, the play was long forgotten.
The Frankie and Johnnie ruling, however, set the precedent for the legal maneuverings surrounding Kirkland’s second play, Tobacco Road, which became a cause célèbre for the defenders of free speech and a public event that reached beyond the merits of the play itself. When the play was accepted by the Masque Theatre in New York, its acceptance was contingent on a special clause that allowed either party to break the contract at the end of the first three weeks. Rehearsals started without an actress to play Jeeter’s wife Ada (Fay Bainter, Jessie Royce Landis, and Dorothy and Lillian Gish had all refused the role, which was finally taken by Margaret Wycherly). The initial reviews praised the acting of Henry Hull as Jeeter Lester, but they found the play offensive, although infused with a kind of brutal realism. As The New York Times review put it, “Although Tobacco Road reels around the stage like a drunken stranger to the theatre, it has spasmodic moments of merciless power when truth is flung into your face with all the slime that truth contains.” When, after poor business, the Masque Theatre owners exercised their option, the play moved to the Forty-eighth Street Theatre, where it was nursed along with cut-rate prices until it had built an audience largely through word of mouth. In the summer, Henry Hull left the show to try his luck in films. As a result, the play was once again asked to move. The owners leased the Forrest Theatre, where, in September of 1934 (with James Barton as Jeeter), the play settled in for its record-setting run. There would be five Broadway Jeeters in all (James Bell, Eddie Garr, and Will Geer all played the role, which became known as “the American Hamlet”) in addition to other Jeeters in the three road-show companies that traversed the country.
When the play opened, it was considered a serious portrayal of social dehumanization. Theatre Arts Monthly called it “one of the bitterest plays ever produced in New York, but one of the most compelling.” Most thought it too brutal for the average audience. Like Caldwell’s novel, the play deals with the Lesters, a family of impoverished sharecroppers abandoned on a worn-out farm, which had once belonged to Jeeter’s people. Kirkland focused the play on Jeeter’s sincere love of the land and, conversely, his basic shiftlessness and immorality. In truth, Kirkland had toned down the more outrageous and shocking episodes found in the book. For example, he had Ada tell Jeeter that Pearl (the daughter Jeeter sold in marriage to Lov Bensey for seven dollars) was not really his child, thus diluting the incestuous nature of Jeeter’s desire for her. Grandmother Lester simply disappears in the woods rather than being run over and left to die while the...
(The entire section is 2985 words.)