Lynn Riggs Riggs, Lynn - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Lynn Riggs 1899-1954

(Full name Rolla or Rollie Lynn Riggs) American playwright and poet.

The author of twenty-eight plays, Riggs is best known for Green Grow the Lilacs, upon which the popular Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahomal is based. Set in Oklahoma Indian Territory during the early 1900s, Riggs's plays often depict the struggle of pioneers and Native Americans to survive as they transform a rugged natural environment into a modern municipality with the hope of achieving statehood.

Biographical Information

Riggs was born in the Cherokee Nation of Indian Territory near what is now Claremore, Oklahoma. His father was a cattleman and his mother was one-eighth Cherokee. His mother developed typhoid fever and died in 1902, and Riggs's father remarried six months later. Riggs's family never supported his interest in music and writing, and as a child he was ill-treated by his stepmother. As an adolescent Riggs acted in school plays, played guitar and sang for his friends, and gave literary readings at school. Riggs graduated in 1917 from the Eastern University Preparatory School in Claremore, and entered the University of Oklahoma in 1920. In 1923, during his senior year, Riggs exhibited signs of tuberculosis and was sent to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to convalesce. It was in Santa Fe that Riggs began writing numerous plays and poems. Gaining recognition as an accomplished playwright during the 1930s and 1940s, Riggs became popular within the social circles of American theater and film, counting actresses Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Jean Muir among his friends. Riggs died after a long struggle with cancer at New York City's Memorial Hospital in 1954.

Major Works

As a result of the abuse he suffered throughout his childhood, Riggs's poems and plays often contain themes of betrayal by women, youth rebellion, and loss of innocence. Big Lake: A Tragedy in Two Parts, the first of Riggs's plays produced in New York, depicts the trials faced by Betty and Lloyd, two teenagers who, after wandering away from a school picnic, become victims of a sinister older couple in whose cabin they seek shelter. The Cherokee Night deals with the problems faced by people of mixed Cherokee and white heritage, particularly the difficulties associated with maintaining tribal identities in white society. Riggs's best-known play, Green Grow the Lilacs, is set in the Indian Territory seven years before Oklahoma achieved statehood in 1907, and is primarily concerned with the love relationship between a beautiful local woman, Laurie, and a dynamic cowboy named Curly. In his preface to Green Grow the Lilacs, Riggs stated that his intention in writing the play was to "recapture in a kind of nostalgic glow… the great range of mood which characterized the old folk songs and ballads I used to hear in my Oklahoma childhood—their quaintness, their sadness, their robustness, their simplicity, their hearty or bawdy humors, their sentimentalities, their melodrama, their touching sweetness."

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Riggs's plays has been mixed. While some reviewers have described his treatment of such serious topics as brutality in his dramas as exaggerated and melodramatic, others have lauded his accuracy in depicting the realities of living in Indian territory and his use of regional language. Phyllis Cole Braunlich, who has written extensively on Riggs's works, has stated: "Believing that drama is 'interaction between people' and that character is destiny, [Riggs] wrote from emotion and intuition, making no attempt to write the 'traditional Western.' His plays are satisfying drama, sometimes stark, usually realistic, sometimes rich with color and pageantry, and certainly of enduring interest. In his Oklahoma plays one walks into the light of an age that has passed and there experiences the aura, mood, and folkways of times and places as authentic as memoirs."

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Knives from Syria (drama) 1925

Big Lake (drama) 1927

The Domino Parlor (drama) 1928; revised version published as Hang on to Love, 1946

Rancor (drama) 1928

Reckless (drama) [first publication] 1928

The Iron Dish (poetry) 1930

A Lantern to See By (drama) 1930

Roadside (drama) 1930; later produced as Borned in Texas, 1945

Green Grow the Lilacs (drama) 1931

Sump'n Like Wings (drama) 1931

The Cherokee Night (drama) 1932

The Son of Perdition (drama) 1933; adapted from the novel The Son of Perdition, by James Gould Cozzens

The Lonesome West (drama) 1936

Russet Mantle (drama) 1936

The Hunger I Got (drama) [first publication] 1939

A World Elsewhere (drama) 1940

The Cream in the Well (drama) 1941

The Dark Encounter (drama) [first publication] 1947

Laughter from a Cloud (drama) 1947

The Year of Pilár (drama) [first publication] 1947

All the Way Home (drama) 1948

Out of Dust (drama) 1949

Toward the Western Sky (drama) 1951

This Book, This Hill, These People: Poems by Lynn Riggs (poetry) 1982

Stanley Vestal (essay date 1929)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lynn Riggs: Poet and Dramatist," in Southwest Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, Autumn, 1929, pp. 64-71.

[In the following essay, Vestal assesses Riggs's works through 1929.]

It has been said that all good literature—which may be interpreted to include literary drama—is in the best sense provincial. Certainly the dramas of Lynn Riggs smack of the soil where he was born and bred with an intimacy and intensity which might do credit to Thomas Hardy or some other literary lover of an English village. In this, the work of Mr. Riggs is certainly in the best tradition of English literature. For as a matter of fact the Englishman, though he may live in the ends of the earth, still thinks of his county and the immediate vicinity of his English home as his real country. It is upon this that his thought and feeling rest and from this that his patriotism, if any, grows. One recalls an Englishman who exclaimed in amazement to an American patriot, "How can you pretend to love a country as big as the United States? Why, you haven't seen half of it!"

Mr. Riggs has spent and still spends a great deal of time in places far removed from his home town, and there are suggestions in his work at times that he would be glad to escape from the memory of it; yet the persistence with which he chooses all his themes from the life of that community, the consistency with which he lays all his scenes in the region where he was reared, are far more convincing than any superficial distaste in the man that he is in fact deeply rooted in that soil, that region. I submit that one may have a strong family feeling without spending one's days and nights in the company of one's relatives. In my opinion there is not a writer in the Southwest whose work is more deeply rooted in his native soil.…

Mr. Riggs was born and bred in [Oklahoma's] old Indian Territory. The contrast of his attitude toward the pioneer with that of one like myself who was reared on the west side of the state is significant of the differences which mark the two regions. Of course the old life of these two sections has been overlaid long since by the influx of a large population attracted here by the vast natural resources of the new state. The distinction is therefore largely a historical one, and no doubt must not be pushed too far; but for the understanding of Mr. Riggs' work it must not be forgotten. The region he knows is one where life has in a measure stood still, the backwoods life of small farmers and the small towns.

As Mr. Riggs sees these people, they are not romantic figures of the frontier, but baffled, discontented folk struggling against hard conditions in a harsh environment. He insists that he has not falsified the picture.

In his earlier work he concerned himself...

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Morton Dauwen Zabel (essay date 1930)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lynn Riggs's Poems," in The New Republic, Vol. LXV, No. 833, November 19, 1930, p. 25.

[Zabel was a distinguished American poet, critic, and editor of Poetry magazine. The following is his positive assessment of The Iron Dish.]

The poems in Lynn Riggs's [The Iron Dish] fall into two groups, one of which is concerned with "this sharp incredible beauty" of which he speaks too often, the other with "the yellow calendulas and sun-baked patios of southern California and New Mexico" which his publishers advertise as his native heritage, but which he employs altogether too little. In his highly decorative celebrations of beauty, Mr. Riggs is not easy to distinguish from five or six other young poets whose shining images have soon degenerated into a kind of lyric confectionery—brilliant, polished, but devoid of tone and, despite its neat epigrams, notably weak in concepts. The values and limitations of this type of lyric have been exhibited best by George O'Neil, whose ornate manner is frequently echoed in The Iron Dish:

No jonquil blade is spearing up
Through swollen earth, no silken line
Is laid to indicate a web,
No mouth is moving to a sign.

The brittle stanzes follow a formula which may be fundamentally different from the lyric formula of the 90's, but which provides no surer warrant of sound poetic results. It is to Mr. Riggs's credit that he handles the method with considerable restraint and dexterity, but it is not to his credit that, in employing it, he has rejected a subject matter much closer to his sympathies and better suited to his talents.

Like other young lyrists who appeared on the scene after the wholesale exploitation of American themes a dozen years ago, he has consciously turned away here from his native environmental materials. This rejection of the largely uncritical nationalism of the earlier poets was a prudent reaction, but one wonders if the recent regional verse of Mr. Frost, Malcolm Cowley, Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate is not a timely hint to the younger men that it will be wise to return to the material of actual environment in their poetry, and to substitute for flimsy imaginative backgrounds the solid properties of real American localities. Few of Mr. Riggs's poems employ his native Southwestern forms, colors and landscapes, but those that do are easily the most convincing and graceful essays in the volume.

Horace Gregory (essay date 1931)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lynn Riggs as Poet," in The Nation, New York, Vol. CXXXII, No. 3418, January 7, 1931, p. 22.

[Gregory was a noted American poet and critic. In the following review of The Iron Dish, he praises Riggs's economical use of language and clear imagery in his poetry.]

The surfaces of Lynn Riggs's poetry are clean and cool. One derives casual pleasure from the graceful gestures of his particular lyric gift. He has, however, given us little more than his quick, intelligent grasp of external design. It is not often that we find him committing himself beyond the expression of purely decorative effects. On occasions when he does cross the lines of his self-imposed...

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Mark Van Doren (essay date 1931)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Oklahoma and the Riviera," in The Nation, New York, Vol. CXXXII, No. 3423, February 11, 1931, pp. 164-65.

[Van Doren was a highly respected and prolific American poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, editor, and critic. In the following review of Green Grow the Lilacs, he asserts that the play's predictability and lack of plot development allow the audience to focus on Riggs's use of the dialect of Oklahoma.]

Much has been made of the novelty which Lynn Riggs slipped into Broadway through one of its many side doors when the Theater Guild last week put on his Indian Territory folk-play, Green Grow the Lilacs. … It was indeed a novelty,...

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J. Brooks Atkinson (essay date 1932)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Riggs Worships Great Spirit," in The New York Times, June 21, 1932, p. 19.

[As drama critic for The New York Times from 1925 to 1960, Atkinson was one of the most influential reviewers in America. In the following mixed review of The Cherokee Night, he praises the play's universal themes and Riggs's ability to express the desperation and confusion felt by his characters.]

From Green Grow the Lilacs…Lynn Riggs has passed bravely on to The Cherokee Night.… Although it is a perplexing drama, which holds the conventional theatre forms in fine contempt, it has an exaltation of spirit that is honest, solid and moving, and this...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

John Anderson (essay date 1941)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cream in the Well Opens at the Booth: Martha Sleeper and Leif Erickson Appear in Rustic Tragedy with Oklahoma Setting," in New York Journal-American, January 21, 1941.

[In the following review, Anderson offers a negative assessment of The Cream in the Well.]

Though Lynn Riggs has brought to the theatre such mature work as Green Grow the Lilacs and Russet Mantle, his latest play … The Cream in the Well, seems to be the sophomoric tragedy about incest every fledgling playwright is supposed to get out of his system early in his career.

[The Cream in the Well] is a gritty and uninteresting study of abnormal...

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Richard Lockridge (essay date 1941)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Cream in the Well, Psychological Drama, Opens at the Booth," in New York Sun, January 21, 1941.

[In the following review, Lockridge asserts that the plot and characters in The Cream in the Well lack depth, and that "instead of appearing to tell of something which had to happen, [the play] tells a mighty gloomy story that the author just thought up." ]

A dark, disturbing play by Lynn Riggs was performed with slow intensity last evening at the Booth Theater. In a world confused by external happenings, Mr. Riggs retains a probing interest in the human mind and in the long shadows cast over it by the taboos which so largely govern human life. His...

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Joseph Wood Krutch (essay date 1941)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tragedy Is Not Easy," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 152, No. 5, February 1, 1941, pp. 136-37.

[Krutch is widely regarded as one of America's foremost literary and drama critics. A conservative and idealistic thinker, he was a consistent proponent of human dignity and the preeminence of literary art. In the following essay, he asserts that although The Cream in the Well "is good it is not quite good enough to meet the requirements of the most difficult and exacting of dramatic forms.']

Some ten years ago when Lynn Riggs's Green Grow the Lilacs was a current production of the Theater Guild its author was commonly set down as a more than usually...

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Thomas Erhard (essay date 1970)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lynn Riggs: Southwest Playwright, Steck-Vaughn Company, 1970, 44 p.

[Erhard is a prolific American playwright, educator, and critic. In the following excerpt from his critical biography of Riggs, he surveys Riggs's career as a playwright.]

Knives from Syria was staged successfully by the Santa Fe Players in 1925 and became [Riggs's] first published play in 1927. A slim one-act comedy with a deus-ex-machina ending, Knives from Syria was nevertheless important as a preparatory work. In the play Mrs. Buster, a widow, says her daughter (Rhodie, 18) must marry the hired man (Charley, 33). But Rhodie wants to marry an itinerant Syrian peddler. Charley,...

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Phyllis Cole Braunlich (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Cherokee Night of R. Lynn Riggs," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXX, No. 1, Autumn, 1988, pp. 45-59.

[Braunlich is an American biographer and critic whose works include Haunted By Home: The Life and Letters of Lynn Riggs (1988). In the following essay, she provides a detailed analysis of The Cherokee Night.]

"An absorbed race has its curiously irreconcilable inheritance. It seems to me the best grade of absorbed Indian might be an intellectual Hamlet, buffeted, harrassed, victimized, split, baffled—with somewhere in him great fire and some granite. And a residual lump of stranger things than the white race may fathom" (Letter to [Barrett...

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Phyllis Cole Braunlich (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Oklahoma Plays of R. Lynn Riggs," in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 390-94.

[In the following essay, Braunlich provides an overview of Riggs's dramatic works.]

Rollie Lynn Riggs (1899-1954) is without doubt the greatest playwright from Oklahoma to write plays about Oklahoma. To be specific, he dramatized life in Indian Territory just before and after statehood, which came in 1907. He is best known for his successful 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs, produced on Broadway by the Theatre Guild. The same group produced the play in a musical version by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein in 1943, titled Oklahoma! The...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Braunlich, Phyllis Cole. Haunted By Home: The Life and Letters of Lynn Riggs. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988, 233 p.

Full-length biography of Riggs with excerpts from his poetry and letters.

"Lynn Riggs, Playwright." Theatre Arts Monthly XXII, No. 7 (July 1938): 528.

Brief overview of Riggs's life and career through 1938.


Clurman, Harold. A review of Borned in Texas, by Lynn Riggs. New Republic 123, No. 10 (4 September 1950): 23.

Brief review in which Clurman suggests that the play does not lend itself to...

(The entire section is 146 words.)