Critical Overview

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Mulatto received mixed criticism when it was first produced on Broadway in 1935. As James A. Emanuel notes in his entry on Hughes in Twayne’s United States Authors Series Online, ‘‘Mulatto was widely reviewed. Most critics called it artless, interesting, or sincere.’’ The diversity of criticism was due in part to the fact that the Broadway version of the play was radically different from what Hughes had written. The producer, Martin Jones, changed the play significantly from Hughes’s written version. As Deborah Martinson notes in her 2000 entry on Hughes for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Jones ‘‘rewrote large parts of it, added a gratuitous rape scene, and emphasized sexual aspects to draw a Broadway audience.’’’ Unfortunately, while the play was extremely successful and set a record by running on Broadway for a year—at that time, longer than any other play that had been written by an African American—it did not do much for Hughes’s image. Martinson says, ‘‘This production of Mulatto established Hughes’s reputation as a successful but not a serious or particularly talented playwright.’’

In fact, since the play was not published in the version that Hughes intended until 1963, when Hughes published Five Plays by Langston Hughes, much of this early criticism could be attributed to the changes introduced by Jones. However, even in the 1960s, critics had mixed comments about the play. For example, in his 1968 CLA Journal article, Darwin T. Turner notes that Mulatto ‘‘is an emotionally engaging drama,’’ but says that it is ‘‘marred by melodrama, propaganda, and crudities common to inexperienced playwrights.’’ Turner acknowledges that the play is powerful, but goes on to criticize Hughes at length for the play’s inconsistencies.

Since the 1960s, Mulatto has found new respect in many critics’ eyes. Martinson says that, ‘‘While the plot is melodramatic, as some critics complained, its wrenching themes are neither trite nor exaggerated.’’ She also feels, as other critics do, that ‘‘Cora seems most tragic of all the characters, as her life—over which she has had little control—comes tumbling down on her because of societal insistence on racial division and hierarchies.’’ In Arnold Rampersad’s entry on Hughes for African American Writers, he notes the power of the play’s message— the effects of the segregation in the American South. Rampersad says, ‘‘the denial of the humanity of blacks and their essential part in the nation’’ leads to ‘‘the disaster awaiting the republic as a result of that denial.’’ For Rampersad, the death of both Norwood and Robert indicates that there are no winners in segregation, which will ultimately take the lives of both whites and African Americans. Modern-day critics, such as Catherine Daniels Hurst, in her entry on Hughes for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, also note the ‘‘obvious autobiographical elements’’ of Mulatto.

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Essays and Criticism