Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1631
When Mule Bone finally opened on Broadway, it enjoyed only limited success, closing after sixty-seven performances and mixed reviews. Given the eager anticipation that greeted the play's opening and the audience's willingness to find a reason to accept and enjoy this long-awaited play, this brief run indicates that Mule Bone encountered some difficulties. Foremost is the fact that Hurston and Hughes left the play unfinished. The two wrote Acts I and III together, and Hurston wrote Act II later, but the drama never received the kind of polishing and finishing that a play typically receives just before performance.
Although Hurston and Hughes quarreled over the play's completion and over authorship, Mule Bone was briefly scheduled to open in February 1931. When the two writers quarreled again, the play's production was canceled, and the play remained untouched for sixty years. Had the play opened as scheduled when both of its authors were still living, many of the problems might have been resolved. Instead, when Mule Bone finally opened in 1991, both playwrights were dead and any hope that some of the play's more confusing aspects might be cleared up died with them.
Even ignoring the play's unfinished state, however, significant problems with the large cast and with the play's use of black vernacular English make it difficult for the majority of audiences to make any connection with Mule Bone.
One significant reason for the play's lack of success is that there is no central protagonist with whom the audience can identify. While their music offers a few moments of entertainment on stage, the audience does not get to know either Dave or Jim well enough to cheer for one or both of them. It is important that an audience be able to identify with a play's protagonist. Quite simply, audiences need a focus. While both characters are funny, neither is endearing. Both men enter two thirds of the way through Act I. Their romance with Daisy has been discussed but only briefly. They fight, and Jim strikes Dave over the head with a mule bone. Both men appear briefly in Act II during the trial. But in this case, they are both more easily defined as onlookers and not participants.
The play's action seems to occur because of the duo's dispute, but the reality is that Jim and Dave serve more as a vehicle to center a plot around religious conflict. In the folktale upon which the play is based, the fight between the two men was about which one shot a turkey. It could have as easily been the same in the play, since it really does not matter why the men fight or even that they do. What is important is that the Baptists and the Methodists are permitted the opportunity to display their wit, to compare and contrast the benefits of each school of thought.
Unfortunately, this focus on the conflict between two competing religious factions means that the relationship between Jim and Dave has no focus or meaning for the audience until the third act, when both men appear on stage together. Although they are only alone on stage for a few moments before Daisy enters, these brief moments reveal what this play might have been.
Another reason why Mule Bone fails to capture our allegiance is found in the large cast of characters. John Lowe's analysis of this play suggests that the real voice of the play is a community. But even a community has to have a unifying force. This community of Eatonville, Florida, may have a purpose, but it is not readily identifiable to the audience. The cast, numbering nearly forty, is too large, too broad, and too unwieldy to keep track of. Who are these men, women, and children? They pop on and off stage, most with only a few lines of dialogue. There is no stage direction to provide context for their lines or their role. The audience receives neither background nor the nature of...
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