When The Member of the Wedding opened January 5, 1950, on Broadway, it was an immediate success. The play ran for 501 performances and won the Drama Critics Circle Award. It also received the Donaldson awards for the best play of the season and the best first play to be produced during the year, and Carson McCullers won the Gold Medal of the Theatre Club as best playwright of the year.
Most critics praised the play for its sensitive characterizations and poignant treatment of loneliness. A minority, however, questioned whether it should be considered a play at all, since it lacks traditional dramatic structure and consists mostly of dialogue with little action. Carson McCullers had transformed her 1946 novel into a play at the suggestion of Tennessee Williams, who had seen its dramatic possibilities. She answered her detractors in a 1950 essay entitled “The Vision Shared,” saying that she was not attempting to write in traditional dramatic form: Hers was an “inward” play with movement propelled by internal conflicts rather than external action.
The play’s main theme of lonely people futilely searching for communion is one McCullers had explored in her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), and again in each of her later works. McCullers’ only other play, The Square Root of Wonderful, opened in New York in 1957 but closed after only forty-five performances, a popular and critical failure.
The Member of the Wedding (novel and play), The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1943) are generally agreed by critics to be McCullers’ three best works. Critics have judged The Member of the Wedding historically important because it dared to go against the traditional concept of dramatic structure. Thus, although McCullers’ critical reputation rests primarily on her fiction, she is recognized on the basis of this one play to have made a worthy contribution to the field of dramatic literature and practice.