In all Lonne Elder III’s writings, such as his screenplay Sounder, his depictions of family life have been outstanding for their realism, compassion, and penetration, while those works that do not describe family connections, such as his play Charades on East Fourth Street, have been notably lacking in inspiration.
Ceremonies in Dark Old Men
His major play, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, deals with the survival of the black family under duress. For Elder, the family is not a collection of autonomous individuals but a dynamic set of relationships. In Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, Elder focuses on how each family member’s decisions crucially hinge on the words and actions of each other member. The playwright indicates, moreover, that under stressful conditions, the equilibrium of such a black family is a fragile thing, because the family is a working unit in a larger society that is controlled by white people to the disadvantage of black persons. The drama records how, under increasing pressure, the family disintegrates in some ways while it grows in others. Thus, Elder combines social criticism with a subtle look at the inner workings of families.
In much of post-World War II American theater, including such works as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949) and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944, pb. 1945), the family is portrayed as entrapping and destructive of individualism. The family may stifle a son by forcing him to support it, as in Williams’s play, or it may ruin his life by giving him false views, as happens to Biff in Miller’s work; in either case, however, the family is inimical to self-reliance. By contrast, in Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, each family member has a role that is both constricting and sustaining, while each member either grows or diminishes as a result of the family’s overall adaptation to the outside world.
At first sight, the family in Elder’s play is organized in stereotypical “culture of poverty” fashion, with a female, the daughter Adele, being the de facto head of the house, since she supports the other, male family members. The two sons with the father, the nominal ruler of the house, are shiftless characters; the father, Russell, presides over a defunct barbershop, while his elder son, Theo, is a hapless loser, and the younger one, Bobby, a sneak thief. As the story develops, however, the audience learns that the three are not as parasitical as they first appeared. The father, for example, had been the mainstay of the family, earning a living as a professional dancer until his legs failed and he was unceremoniously dropped from his place. When viewers see the father returning from a day of job-hunting humiliation, they also learn that, as an over-the-hill black man, he has little hope of finding work.
The thrust of the play, however, is not to exonerate any individual but to show that the current operation of the family is, given the way the odds are stacked against prosperity for minority group members, probably the best possible. This view is shown by the simple, but fundamental, device of ending the first act with the beginning of a basic change in the household arrangements (as Theo sets up a viable, if illegal, business) and then jumping ahead a few months for the second act. In this way, in the second act, the audience can see how Theo’s changed status, as he takes on a more manly role in the family and supports the others by working long hours, affects the personalities and actions of each of the others, often adversely. Adele, for example, no longer having to bear tremendous responsibility, lets herself go, running around with a notorious skirt chaser. Bobby, who never felt threatened by his brother, since Theo was as ambitionless as he was, now begins sullenly competing with him, becoming a big-time hoodlum.
This is not to say that, because there is more tension in the family after Theo begins working than previously, the old organization was better. Rather, Elder indicates—especially toward the end of the second act, when the family begins to calm down and Adele gives up her playboy boyfriend—that each set of family relationships is highly interdependent and serves as an essential means to help the members orient themselves to the outside world. Elder also indicates that each transition between different familial “steady states” will involve special periods of stress.
In his plays, it is clear that Elder is critical of the position that black persons are forced to occupy in the American economy, and it also may be evident that his anger is more latent than expressed. Rather than have his characters complain about the system, he makes the audience experience the constant feeling of failure that hovers over a family whose members are not fully employed, especially when, to a large degree, their unemployment is not their fault. In relation to one character, however, Elder’s social criticism is less oblique. This character, Blue Haven, is a self-styled black activist, who, curiously, is not interested in fighting injustice and...
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