Limited Success of Mule Bone

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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...

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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 the relationships.

Consequently, too many characters remain anonymous as they speak their few brief lines. Except for a few characters, who play pivotal roles, the rest of the cast could have easily been filled by anyone. And that is the problem. Even characters listed as minor need to have appeal. To add confusion, in this case, actors listed in the play as major characters appear on stage with only one or two lines. Hurston and Hughes may have known these people's roles and their relationship to one another, but unless it is printed on the program, the audience does not. For example, Dave's aunt, Katie Carter, is listed as a major character, and yet, she has no dialogue. So how can the audience identify her as his aunt? Why make her a part of the cast?

Possibly, Hurston and Hughes intended to expand such roles, but since the play was never completed, they add more confusion. One effect of so many characters is that there is little left over for the leads. Mule Bone comes to life in Act III. Why? Because all the minor, ill-defined characters are offstage. Only Jim, Dave, and Daisy remain. The focus is on their roles and on their relationship to one another.

In his discussion of the play in the New York Times, Henry Louis Gates noted that those lines reveal patterns of early black courtship. They reveal important cultural observations that are both humorous and revealing about black culture. According to Hurston's biographer, Robert E. Hemenway in Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, this is what Hurston and Hughes intended to bring the humor inherent in black folktales to an audience who would then find these new black comedies a more honest depiction of black life than the stereotypical minstrel shows that too often were identified with black life. Instead the large cast eclipses the small individual roles that are so central to a play's success.

Another problem with the play's large cast of undistinguishable characters is that, for the audience, the experience is akin to attending a huge reunion gathering as the spouse of a member. Everyone is enjoying himself or herself, telling jokes, remembering stories, instantly understanding the kinship or relationship of all the other members. Everyone is laughing and exchanging in a kind of informal banter, everyone except the spouse, the outsider who feels left out. That is the experience that many viewers of Mule Bone have. The audience does not know these people and they do not know their stories.

The impression is of one arriving in the middle of a conversation. This can be effective in a limited arena, but in Mule Bone it is the entire long, first act of the play. During the first act, roughly thirty characters speak, most only a line of two. Many of the speakers are identified by name, although the name is essentially meaningless without some sort of context. Many of the speakers are simply referred to as Villager, Lounger, Voice, Man, Woman. All the audience can do is listen, smile politely, and hope that someone will explain the joke. It just is not fun to feel left out, and in Mule Bone, the audience feels excluded. John Lowe stated in the Southern Quarterly that the American theatre expects individual central plots. Instead, this play delivers broad characterization, a large cast, and little plot to capture the audience's interest.

Even if an audience is willing to accommodate all the characters, there is another problem for the play which is even more difficult to overcome: the stereotyping of characters and of language is difficult to ignore. Even with an explanation of what Hurston and Hughes intended, the language appears condescending and racist. Even with an understanding of the authors' motives, this play seems a step backward to a period most African Americans do not want to revisit.

In her analysis of the play in the Langston Hughes Review, Lisa Boyd pointed out that when the play was first discussed in 1988, there was immediate concern about the language and depiction of characters. She stated that the play was revamped, toned down, and made more innocuous for the 1991 production. Use of the pejorative "nigger" was reduced to only one instance. But, in spite of this editing, many problems with language remained. The use of black vernacular English calls to mind an earlier period in American history. This in itself would be fine, except that this earlier period was fraught with racism and the odious practice of slavery.

For many blacks, the hope and need is to move beyond such a period, to build beyond it. Mule Bone is a little like moving backward, and even though it is only a perception, it is an illusion that no one desires. White audiences are made uncomfortable for much the same reason. Although most white members of the audience may have harbored no racist ideology, they feel a part of the community that created such a racist environment; they share a collective guilt. For both black and white, the language of Mule Bone creates an uncomfortable listening experience. Boyd maintained that Mule Bone makes critics so uncomfortable that they, instead, focus on the quarrel between Hurston and Hughes rather than the play's content. One exception is Gates, who championed the play and who acknowledged that this drama presents risks. Gates stated that the precarious political and social condition within American society warrants a guarded atti tude toward the way images of their culture are projected. While Gates's affection for Mule Bone is clear, his concern about language only serves to illustrate the gravity of the problems facing any production of Mule Bone.

Source: Sheri E. Metzger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999. Metzger is a Ph.D. specializing in literature and drama at the University of New Mexico.

To Hate or Not to Hate

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 628

For years, the phrase ‘‘Broadway play’’ has been a favorite pejorative in critical circles—academic ones, particularly. It was familiar even when works like Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire were Broadway hits, but no one ever knew precisely what it meant. Commercial? Predictable? Unlikely to disturb the patrons? Any or all of those, I suppose, but Broadway has never been quite the pigeonhole that play sorters have imagined it to be. There have always been producers who took chances on unusual works—not good ones necessarily—that outsiders, with the wisdom of the uncommitted, could recognize as sure losers. Even now, with fewer and fewer plays on Broadway, there have been some odd creatures turning up and, for the most part, disappearing before I could get a review into print. Come to think of it, most of the things I review are gone before my comments appear, but that is because much of the interesting work today is produced by nonprofit organizations for limited runs. The three plays I briefly consider here, however, were presumably hoping for old-fashioned Broadway success.

Mule Bone may be a special case since it was produced by the Lincoln Center Theater, heavily financed by foundation grants, but it was at the Ethel Barrymore because the Lincoln Center’s own main stage was filled by the long-running Six Degrees of Separation—a Broadway play, if I ever saw one. Mule Bone was written in 1930 by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston a collaboration that dissolved in disagreement, and it did not find its way to the stage or the page for more than half a century. For Hurston, presumably, it was still another of the works in which she wanted to present black life anecdotally in black vernacular; for Hughes, a poet who shared Hurston’s concern with black language, it may have been an opportunity to turn to theater, a dream that would continue to draw him for the rest of his life.

This version of the play has been given a prologue and an epilogue by George Houston Bass, who according to a Playbill biography, is ‘‘responsible for melding the 1920s sensibilities of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston with those of the audience in the 1990s.’’ That means that he doctored the original script into stage life, greatly helped by the music of Taj Mahal. The play is a very slight tall tale—not unlike many of Hurston’s stories— in which two friends, joined by the music one plays for the other to dance to, are split apart by a flirtatious young woman who likes the attentions of both. They finally fight over her, one knocking the other out with the titular mule bone, an event that leads to a trial which is mostly a confrontation between rival churches, an epic trading of insults which provides the main vitality of the piece. In the end both men reject the woman—who expects the man who gets her to take a real job—and stick with one another, their friendship, their music, and their freedom being more attractive than sparking which might turn into the trap of marriage. At the end, everyone forgets that the bone-wielder has been banished from the town, and the entire cast gets together for a musical finish which celebrates community that transcends any local quarrels. Those insults were never more than grand rhetoric, appreciated by insulter and insultee alike. Mule Bone ran for a few months, buoyed by its tremendous sense of fun and by a setting that drew black audiences who presumably had no desire to check out La Bête or I Hate Hamlet.

Source: Gerald Weales, ‘‘To Hate or Not to Hate’’ in Commonweal, Vol. CXVIII, no. 11, June 1, 1991, pp. 373–74.

The Learned Laddies or the Imagery Invalid

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 809

Mule Bone was to have been the play (suggested at a 1930 party by Theresa Helburn to Langston Hughes) that would be neither heavy social drama nor minstrel show but a real comedy of black life that would extend the Harlem Renaissance to the stage. Hughes enlisted Zora Neale Hurston and they started converting her brief folktale ‘‘The Bone of Contention’’ into the three-act Mule Bone. It was never quite finished because, under various inner and outer pressures, the co-authors quarreled, for reasons still not fully understood. The story of ‘‘The Mule Bone Controversy,’’ now published together with the play, is longer and at least equally fascinating reading.

At the Barrymore, we get the play as edited by the late George Houston Bass, supplied with his prologue and epilogue and with music by Taj Mahal. In the story, two young hunters from an all-black Florida town each claim to have shot down the same wild turkey; in the ensuing fight, Jim knocks Dave unconscious with a handy mule bone. The mayor conducts a trial in the Baptist church, where the Baptists side with their boy, Dave, and the Baptist preacher defending him; the Methodists, occupying the other half of the church, back Jim and the Methodist minister defending him. The argument and counterargument are funny, as are the insults traded by Baptists and Methodists. And that is about the size of it.

This sweet but skimpy material had to be mightily stretched for the stage, and the stretch marks show. Instead of fighting over a dead turkey, Jim the singer-guitarist and Dave the dancer (best of friends who perform together) now fight over a live chick, Daisy, the prettiest girl in town, back from the North and working for whites whose stuck-up ways she’s learned. This contest, too, has its entertaining aspects and a surprise ending, and is embedded in much racy talk, often heightened into perky song by Taj Mahal to both Hughes’s and his own lyrics.

There is a nice blend of canniness and naïveté in the Lincoln Center production that Michael Schultz has staged into something as crisp as a white shirt fresh from the laundry. The 29 well-deployed actors acquit themselves, for the most part, pungently, with only Kenny Neal (Jim), Akosua Busia (Daisy), and Paul S. Eckstein (Marshal Lum Boger) not quite up to the rest. But Neal is handsome and a handy guitar-strummer, Miss Busia a remarkable beauty, and Eckstein miscast. There are catchy bits of dance staged by Dianne McIntyre, and scenery (Edward Burbridge), costumes (Lewis Brown), and lighting (Allen Lee Hughes) that are as frolicsome as they are functional.

I know that nothing is less thrilling than a list of names; but nothing would be more unjust than not mentioning at least a few personal favorites among so many nifty performers: Clebert Ford, Fanni Green, Donald Griffin, Leonard Jackson, Ebony Jo-Ann, Theresa Merritt, Reggie Montgomery, Eric Ware, Vanessa Williams, and Samuel E. Wright.

It was worth waiting 60 years for so accomplished a production to reach the stage. Far from patronizing blacks (as more whites than blacks seem to feel it does), Mule Bone is honestly alive and kicking; regrettable as their quarrel was, it is nice to know that what Hughes and Hurston fought over was not a turkey but a phoenix. And such salty dialogue as ‘‘Before you . . . went up North, I could kiss you every day . . . just as regular as pig tracks’’ is worth the slight effort our ears must make to adjust to an unaccustomed sound.

But what of the fear and indignation my companion and I observed among some white spectators, a couple of whom we overheard being politely and judiciously corrected by a black audience mem ber? There are several things to bear in mind here. First, that this play (like the production) was created, from top to bottom, by black talent, and whatever ribbing there is is done tartly but affectionately. Next, we are dealing with a 1930 retelling of stillearlier folk material; would a white community, under the same conditions, emerge smelling any sweeter? Think of Erskine Caldwell or John Steinbeck of George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (Of Thee I Sing, 1931).

Finally, and above all, the ultimate proof of maturity and sophistication in an individual, a group, a society is the gift of laughing at oneself. What is it that makes Gogol’s The Inspector General the masterpiece it is if not laughter at Russia, all of Russia? Laughing self-criticism, even if the laughter is sharp and sardonic—perhaps especially then—is the greatest proof of coming of age that two black writers in 1930 could proffer: a sovereign demonstration of artistic (and therefore profoundly human) ripeness.

Source: John Simon, ‘‘The Learned Laddies or the Imagery Invalid’’ in New York, Vol. 24, no. 8, February 25, 1991, pp. 119–20. Simon is one of the best-known theatre critics in America.

Looking Backward

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

Mule Bone, at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, is politically incorrect. Its protagonists refer to themselves as Negroes, say things like ‘‘Chile, if you listen at folkses talk, they’ll have you in de graveyard or in Chatahooche,’’ and when its village folk are depressed or excited they burst into song.

Nevertheless, it is the season’s most rewarding exhumation. Although this ‘‘Comedy of Negro Life’’ was awarded a major grant from the Fund for New American Plays, the work is in fact 60 years old. Its authors Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston had a falling out in 1930, and it has taken this long for scholars to pick up the pieces. Never mind. Scrupulous direction and an irrepressible cast have finally given Mule Bone the production it deserves.

Hughes and Hurston intended to ‘‘act out the folk tales, with the abrupt angularity and naïveté of the primitive ’bama Nigger.’’ Accordingly their play, based on Hurston’s short story, is as elemental as a recipe for collard greens. A guitarist, Jim (Kenny Neal), and a dancer, Dave (Eric Ware), fight over a beautiful young woman (Akosua Busia). In the course of combat, Dave gets bopped upside the head with a mule bone. In Act Two Jim is put on trial before a gaggle of sunny Baptists and upright Methodists. The kangaroo court orders him out of town.

If narrative were all, Mule Bone would deserve to be exiled as well. The pleasures, though, are not in the text; they come from Taj Mahal’s lilting score, and from a spirited and sensitive ensemble. Director Michael Schultz never allows a scintilla of condescension; the work seems to have been deliberately preserved in an ice floe so that it could be melted some fine night at the Barrymore. At a time of strangulated budgets, 29 actors are featured in this production, and every one of them embodies William Blake’s dictum that energy is eternal delight. There are small parts but no undersized performances: Theresa Merritt was a powerful Ma Rainey years ago, and as a townswoman she becomes the lyrical, throaty Ma all over again; Sonny Jim Gaines, who has written better plays than this for the New Lafayette, here is content to animate the role of a local loudmouth; the hilarious ‘‘lawyers’’ for the prosecution and defense, Arthur French and Leonard Jackson, are abetted by some gifted veterans of the Negro Ensemble Company. If one 10,000- candlepower grin seems eerily familiar, but older than you remembered, look again. That face in the crowd is James Earl Jones’ father, Robert.

Source: Stefan Kanfer, ‘‘Looking Backward’’ in the New Leader, Vol. LXXIV, no. 3, February 11–25, 1991, pp. 22–23.


Critical Overview