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.
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.
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 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."