In addition to writing more than twenty plays, Lynn Riggs was the author of many poems, which appeared in such periodicals as Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (edited by Harriet Monroe), The Smart Set (edited by H. L. Mencken), and The Nation. A number of these poems were collected and published in a volume entitled The Iron Dish (1930). Riggs also authored screenplays in Hollywood for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, including Laughing Boy (1933), Delay in the Sun (1935), Garden of Allah (1936), and, perhaps most notably, The Plainsman (1936), on which he collaborated with Waldemar Young and Harold Lamb.
Lynn Riggs achieved early recognition from such notable theatrical authorities as Barrett H. Clark and Arthur Hopkins, both of whom championed his work, although most later critics labeled him a minor regionalist. When Clark was speaking of Riggs’s first full-length production for the commercial stage, Big Lake, he called Riggs “one of the few native dramatists who can take the material of our everyday life and mould it into forms of stirring beauty.” Speaking of Green Grow the Lilacs, Hopkins said that “Riggs caught our fading glory and left it for posterity.” It was this play and the comic Russet Mantle that were Riggs’s greatest commercial successes for the stage during his lifetime, although he continued to write for the theater until 1951. His chief posthumous claim to fame has been as the author of Green Grow the Lilacs, which provided the basic text for the epoch-making Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! (1943). As tastes change, however, so do literary reputations, and it may be that, as interest in regional and ethnic literature and in plays about women increases, Riggs’s work will come to be more highly regarded.
As noted by critic Richard Watts, Jr., Riggs’s plays are “invariably rich and lyric folk [dramas, with] true feeling for atmosphere and period.” “He wrote of people he had known,” said his colleague Joseph Benton, “entwining their foibles, weaknesses and strengths, their garrulous chatterings and grass-roots wisdoms throughout his plays.” Of Cherokee extraction, growing up the son of a farmer in Oklahoma in its earliest days as a state, Riggs wrote of the disappointed expectations and compromised human values that resulted among simple farm people from their conflicts with the changing values of American society. Perhaps his outstanding characteristics as an American playwright are his unwillingness to write cheap or empty plays, his facility with strong situations, his ability to write powerful two-person scenes, his appreciation for the genuine folk music of his region, and his gift for expressing the lyricism half-consciously felt and beautifully revealed in the lives of humble and ordinary people.
Braunlich, Phyllis. Haunted by Home: The Life and Letters of Lynn Riggs. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988. An important biography and critical analysis of Riggs’s works. Illustrations, complete listing of Riggs’s works, extensive bibliography, and index.
Braunlich, Phyllis Cole. “The Oklahoma Plays of R. Lynn Riggs.” World Literature Today 64 (Summer, 1990): 120-136.
Brenton, Joseph. “Some Personal Reminiscences About Lynn Riggs.” Chronicles of Oklahoma 34 (Autumn, 1956): 296-301. A warm remembrance of Riggs by Brenton, who knew him from his earliest college days in Oklahoma to his death in New York. Brenton places some of Riggs’s major decisions and accomplishments into biographical context.
Downer, Alan S. Fifty Years of American Drama. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1951. In the chapter entitled “Folk Drama,” Downer suggests that Green Grow the Lilacs, and more important, Roadside, epitomize the American folk drama. The plays are distinguished above other Western melodramas by their poetry of speech, warm humanity, and characters. Index.
Erhard, Thomas. Lynn Riggs: Southwest Playwright. Austin, Tex.: Steck-Vaughn, 1970. This forty-four-page monograph provides an excellent biography and critical introduction to Riggs’s plays. Erhard comments on the playwright’s use of the territorial Oklahoma dialect and settings to tell universal stories of human drama.
Wilk, M. OK! The Story of Oklahoma! 1993. Reprint. New York: Applause, 2002. Discusses Riggs’s contribution to the musical theater.