Lynn Riggs Biography

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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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 1928, Riggs resided in France, where he wrote Green Grow the Lilacs and much of Roadside, which was produced by Arthur Hopkins and starred Ralph Bellamy as Texas. At this point, Riggs was considered one of America’s most promising playwrights, but critics qualified their praise. By 1936, when Russet Mantle succeeded as a comedy, although it had been conceived as a serious work, reviewers were generalizing about Riggs’s failure to master the needs of the theater in terms of probability of plotting and characterization. They seemed to believe that Riggs’s promise had somehow missed fire. During this period, Riggs was working with some success as a screenwriter.

Riggs was inducted into the United States Army in 1942, serving in the Army Air Corps, and his plays of the 1940’s reflect his concern with the international chaos that rocked that era. His last work produced on Broadway was the 1950 Borned in Texas, a revision of the 1930 Roadside; in 1951, he wrote a “music play” on commission from Western Reserve University to celebrate the school’s 125th anniversary. He was working on his first novel when he died of stomach cancer at the age of fifty-four. Riggs was survived by a sister and several brothers; there is no evidence that he ever married. A memorial for him was erected in the town of Claremore, Oklahoma, in 1958, and the library at Rogers University in Claremore has a collection of materials both by and about him.


(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...

(The entire section is 1,615 words.)