Jack Kirkland is remembered less for the literary or dramatic quality of his plays than for their social impact. From his first play, Frankie and Johnnie, to his last, Mandingo, he challenged the accepted standards of the American stage. His plays never won awards and were often castigated by critics for their perceived crudeness, artlessness, and obscenity. Kirkland, in fact, consistently received some of the worst reviews accorded to any major playwright. Nevertheless, his dramatization of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, which premiered on December 4, 1933, became at the time the longest-running play in the history of the Broadway stage, a veritable institution for seven and a half years in the New York theaters. Deplored by most first-night critics, it won influential fans and supporters, who rallied to it as something more than a shocking, brutal (though often humorous) portrait of poor Georgian sharecroppers. Over the years, the play earned a grudging admiration for its frankness, vitality, and dramatic power. From a social standpoint, it led the battle against outdated, unfair, often arbitrary, and conflicting censorship laws across the country. None of Kirkland’s other works achieved such success (nor did they deserve it), although they did provoke similar indignation and outrage (often justified). Thus, Kirkland’s fame rests primarily on the reputation of Tobacco Road, which forever changed the state of modern drama.
Caldwell, Erskine. Introduction to Tobacco Road: A Three Act Play. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1952. Caldwell’s introduction to Kirkland’s adaptation recalls Tobacco Road’s origins, reception, and ultimate success. Beginning as “an unwelcome intruder in the American theater” and often censored or banned in performances throughout the United States, the play nevertheless captured the imagination of the American people and the world.
Caldwell, Erskine. “Two Years on the Road.” The New York Times, December 1, 1935. Essay that sheds light on the genesis and reception of Kirkland’s most famous work.
Fearnow, Mark. The American Stage and the Great Depression: A Cultural History of the Grotesque. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Contains a discussion of how Kirkland’s Tobacco Road combined sex and poverty to create what the author called a “burlesque of anxiety.” Details audience reaction and changes in the subsequent film version.
Howard, William L. “Caldwell on Stage and Screen.” In Erskine Caldwell Reconsidered, edited by Edwin T. Arnold. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. In this article about adaptations made of Caldwell’s novels, Kirkland’s interpretation of Tobacco Road is compared unfavorably to the original novel. Howard believes that the play distorted Caldwell’s intentions, turning sympathetic understanding and a respect for the social realities of poor whites into slapstick comedy and sentimentality.
“Jack Kirkland Is Dead at Sixty-six; Was Tobacco Road Adapter.” The New York Times, February 23, 1969, p. A73. This obituary is a good source of biographical facts and includes a list of the most notable writings.
Krutch, Joseph Wood. “Poor White.” Review of Tobacco Road, by Jack Kirkland. The Nation 137 (December 20, 1933): 718. This review by a distinguished critic is a probing analysis of Tobacco Road’s mood of “grotesque and horrible humor.” Noting that the “emotional meaning” of the work is ambiguous, Krutch nevertheless categorizes it as a comedy, explaining that the spectator’s detachment from the characters is a necessary ingredient of the comic mode.
Rigdon, Walter. The Biographical Encyclopaedia and Who’s Who of American Theatre. New York: J. H. Heineman, 1965. A compilation of basic facts about Kirkland’s life, including information about his family, marriages, education, career as a journalist, service in the military, and the conflict surrounding his birthdate. Lists the plays and work for the film industry.