Lorraine Hansberry Drama Analysis
Lorraine Hansberry claimed Sean O’Casey as one of the earliest and strongest influences on her work and cited his realistic portrayal of character as the source of strength in his plays. In To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, she praised O’Casey for describingthe human personality in its totality. O’Casey never fools you about the Irish . . . the Irish drunkard, the Irish braggart, the Irish liar . . . and the genuine heroism which must naturally emerge when you tell the truth about people. This . . . is the height of artistic perception . . . because when you believe people so completely . . . then you also believe them in their moments of heroic assertion: you don’t doubt them.
In her three most significant plays, A Raisin in the Sun, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, and Les Blancs, one can see Hansberry’s devotion to the principles that she valued in O’Casey. First, she espoused realistic drama; second, she believed that the ordinary individual has a capacity for heroism; and finally, she believed that drama should reveal to the audience its own humanity and its own capacity for heroism.
Hansberry claimed that her work was realistic rather than naturalistic, explaining thatnaturalism tends to take the world as it is and say: this is what it is . . . it is “true” because we see it every day in life . . . you simply photograph the garbage can. But in realism . . . the artist . . . imposes . . . not only what is but what is possible . . . because that is part of reality too.
For Hansberry, then, realism involved more than a photographic faithfulness to the real world. She sought to deliver a universal message but realized that “in order to create the universal you must pay very great attention to the specific. Universality . . . emerges from truthful identity of what is.” This concern for realism was present from the very beginning of Hansberry’s career and persists in her work, though she did occasionally depart from it in small ways, such as in the symbolic rather than literal presence of “The Woman” in Les Blancs, that character symbolizing the spirit of liberty and freedom that lives inside humanity.
Essential to Hansberry’s vision of reality was the belief that the average person has within him or her the capacity for heroism. Hansberry believed that each human being is not only “dramatically interesting” but also a “creature of stature,” and this is one of the most compelling features of her drama. Like O’Casey, Hansberry paints a full picture of each character, complete with flaws and weaknesses, yet she does not permit these flaws to hide the characters’ “stature.” Perhaps she expressed this idea best in A Raisin in the Sun, when Lena Younger berates her daughter Beneatha for condemning her brother, Walter Lee. Lena says, “When you start measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.” For Hansberry, each character’s life is marked by suffering, struggle, and weakness, yet in each case, the final word has not been written. Just as Beneatha’s brother can rise from his degradation, just as Sidney (in The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window) can overcome his ennui, so each of her characters possesses not only a story already written but also possibilities for growth, accomplishment, and heroism. Hansberry permits no stereotypes in her drama, opting instead for characters that present a mixture of positive and negative forces.
Hansberry’s realistic style and her stress on the possibilities for heroism within each of her characters have everything to do with the purpose that she saw in drama. As James Baldwin observed, Hansberry made no bones about asserting that art has a purpose, that it contained “the energy that could change things.” In A Raisin in the Sun , Hansberry describes a poor black family living in Chicago’s South Side, her own childhood home,...
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