Lynn Riggs Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

When Lynn Riggs was born in 1899, Claremore was still part of the Indian Territory that was later incorporated into the state of Oklahoma. Son of an Indian farmer, he enjoyed the simple amusements and “play parties” of his neighbors as well as their unselfconscious folk traditions. He did various odd jobs in his youth, first as an itinerant farmhand and cowpuncher and then as a singer at the local movie house. Later, he traveled around the country, working as a proofreader on a newspaper in San Francisco, as a clerk in the book section of Macy’s department store in New York City, and as a newspaper reporter in Tulsa. At the age of twenty-one, Riggs enrolled in the University of Oklahoma as a music major, later changing his major to English so that he could qualify for a readership position. He continued to hold the position of second tenor in the solo quartet organized by the university, which toured in a professional summer Chautauqua and minstrel show. He had two farces, Cuckoo and Honeymoon, produced at school while he was still an undergraduate.

Riggs’s dramatic successes at the university and his early one-act Knives from Syria, with its Ali Hakim-like peddler character, all showed originality and humor, and he was encouraged to continue playwriting. The production of the full-length Big Lake by the American Laboratory Theatre attracted some critical attention and won for Riggs a Guggenheim Fellowship. In...

(The entire section is 481 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Lynn Riggs’s name is forever associated with Oklahoma, thanks to his play Green Grow the Lilacs, which was transformed into the 1943 musical Oklahoma! A native Sooner and part Cherokee, Riggs grew up in the Indian Territory, which became the state of Oklahoma in 1907. His childhood in Claremore provided subjects for his twenty-one books, including full-length plays, one-acts, screenplays, short stories, and poetry. Although he traveled widely, he returned to childhood memories, especially cherishing the folk songs and cowboy ballads.

After high school, Riggs became a cowpuncher on a cattle train, a proofreader for The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, a book clerk at Macy’s, a film extra in Hollywood and in New York, and a screenwriter before he attended the University of Oklahoma. When poor health forced him to retire to Santa Fe, he began writing plays, which eventually led him to Broadway and to Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship, where he wrote Green Grow the Lilacs.

Successfully produced by the Theatre Guild in 1931, this folktale broke with theatrical traditions by showing the rigors of Oklahoma life rather than a glamorized West. The love of the cowboy Curly and the farm girl Laurey is enhanced by old country songs and cowboy ballads. When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein transformed the play into Oklahoma!, they did so by incorporating Riggs’s lyrical rhythms and regional dialects directly into their lyrics. Oklahoma! retells the love story with extraordinary music, lyrics, country dances, and choreography by Agnes De Mille. Coming in the middle of World War II, Oklahoma! provided a dose of patriotism for a war-weary America.

Of Cherokee blood himself, Riggs later wrote of the Native American’s failure to be assimilated into society. In The Cherokee Night he takes five characters as young adults and tells their life stories through seven scenes, charting the “cyclical causes and effects of which visit the frustrations and failings of the father or the sons from generation to generations.”

Riggs often directed his own plays in colleges, universities, and community theaters. Although Riggs’s comedies made his fortune and fame, his more serious plays were produced in smaller arenas, such as repertory theaters. Classified as experimental because they do not follow the standard technical structure, Riggs’s dramas often portray the folk culture in experimental scenes, stress poetic diction over plot, and center on emotion rather than action.


(Critical Survey of Native American Literature)

Author Profile

Lynn Riggs was born into an Oklahoma Cherokee family. His father was a cowboy, and young Lynn was at home with the open range. As a youth he drove a grocery wagon to make money and entertained himself with what he would later describe as “trashy lurid fiction.” In his late teens, Riggs traveled on both coasts earning money as an office and factory worker, book salesman, and singer in motion picture houses. Following these experiences, he attended the University of Oklahoma and, as a sophomore, taught freshman English classes.

Riggs’s first play was a farce, Cuckoo, written in 1921. Growing up, he was deeply influenced by the speech, music, and folklore of his neighbors. This play and subsequent works are deeply colored by Cherokee community observations. In 1923 he toured the west, singing tenor in a Chautauqua quartet, and ended up joining a Santa Fe artists’ colony. He published some poetry, and the colony produced his play Knives from Syria.

Riggs left the artists’ colony and settled in New York to write. He was given a Guggenheim fellowship in 1929 and spent a year in Paris writing the plays Roadside (later reworked as Borned in Texas) and Green Grow the Lilacs. Upon returning to New York, he experienced his first commercial success with a 1933 production of Green Grow the Lilacs. Later, Rodgers and Hammerstein acquired the play and...

(The entire section is 498 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The success of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical Oklahoma!, which is based on Green Grow the Lilacs, has kept Lynn Riggs’s name alive. Riggs’s works celebrate and preserve the author’s Cherokee heritage, his recollections of Oklahoma farm life, and his love of the American musical traditions of country ballads, folk songs, and cowboy music.

Rolla Lynn Riggs was born August 31, 1899, at Claremore, Oklahoma, into the life he portrayed so well in his best work. He attended local schools and the state university, sandwiching his education between a variety of jobs, some associated with writing. His poems were published in national magazines before any of his plays were accepted commercially. Borned in Texas, produced as Roadside in 1930, was a failure on Broadway, but Green Grow the Lilacs, which followed, received an excellent Theatre Guild production in 1931. This same group insisted that Rodgers and Hammerstein revise the play as a musical; out of this collaboration, Oklahoma! was born. In the meantime, Riggs went on writing, occasionally appearing as visiting lecturer in universities, and assisting in productions, mostly nonprofessional, of his later works. He died in New York City on June 30, 1954.

Second only to Paul Green in the provocative use of folklore in drama, Riggs was never a popular playwright, yet he continued to write and produce individually excellent plays. Criticism has only begun to evaluate his minor but significant contribution to the American drama.