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Paul (Eliot) Green 1894–1981

American dramatist, novelist, and short story writer.

Throughout his career, Green's best work incorporated a respect for American tradition and folklore, along with a realistic and sensitive portrayal of the dignity of the oppressed individual.

Green's first full-length play, In Abraham's Bosom, won the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for drama. The play concerns the plight of an ambitious young black man whose attempts to improve his life end in tragic failure.

The Lost Colony, a depiction of the first British settlement in America, was performed at an outdoor theater and began a series of historical regional plays written by Green. As Green saw it, the restrictions of the Broadway theater could not "contain the richness of [the American] tradition." He called his plays "symphonic dramas," a mixture of dialogue, music, and dance.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vol. 103 [obituary]; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 9; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1981.)

Barrett H. Clark

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[Paul Green has] evolved a type of lyrical folk drama unlike anything that has so far been written in this country. Such plays as The End of the Row and In Abraham's Bosom are as firmly rooted in the soil of the South as Deep River or Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The more I read of his most significant work, the more firmly am I convinced that Mr. Green is doing for our drama what the writers of the spirituals have done for Negro music. I think our theater has found here an artist of rare gifts. I must qualify this statement, not because I hesitate to speak out what I feel or because I want to wait for Mr. Green's later plays to justify my first enthusiasm; I am just a little skeptical as to whether our theater, as it is now organized and run, is ready to give Mr. Green's plays the chance they ought to have. (pp. vii-viii)

[White Dresses marks the first time], so far as I am aware, a dramatist has taken a Negro theme almost as old as our literature, and made it live in dramatic form. Mr. Green knows his Negroes, and like John Synge, that other artist who created literature as well as drama out of the folk idiom, he has made use of the commonest words and phrases, giving them new and surprising turns, and making of them a living speech. (p. xi)

The second of his characteristic Negro plays is The Prayer Meeting. It seems strange that this is the first successful attempt to introduce into our theater the full-blooded Negro, the healthy animal, neither a downright villain nor a dreamy Uncle Tom's Cabin sort of sentimentalist. Mr. Green has learned from observation and experience that the Negro, living under the white man's civilization, has not had a pleasant time of it. The white man has given him religion, under the influence of which he often becomes a savage again; he has given him liquor, business methods, the vote, ambition, education; yet the Negro, only half assimilating what is theoretically his rightful heritage, finds himself up against the white man's prohibitions and prejudices.

But The Prayer Meeting is primarily a work of art, a human and not a sociological document. Mr. Green may care a good deal about the plight of the Negro, but his concern is primarily with human beings as individuals. This play is a marvelous exhibition of the vast fund of devilry in the soul of the Negro; it is a revelation of unsounded depths in the soul of the black man. With the...

(This entire section contains 1451 words.)

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instinct of a true dramatist, Mr. Green has taken a situation which is ready to hand. The Negro prayer meeting is a drama in itself, and I cannot understand why it has not been used before in a play. In this ready-made plot, the dramatist has simply set in motion a group of well-realized characters. He really needs no story at all, in the usual sense of the term, and no theatrical trickery.

The Prayer Meeting is a study in Negro psychology, with none of the disturbing elements introduced by white civilization. Sam Tucker skillfully introduces the tragic theme of the Negro in relation to the white man. The same theme is more tragically developed in the one-act version of In Abraham's Bosom. The Negro's effort to better himself by means of education is the basis of this tragic episode. It would be so easy to sentimentalize over Abraham's plight, to regard the play as a document; but there is nothing in it besides the human struggle. In treating the problems of the American Negro Mr. Green knows instinctively that the greatest problems are those that the human being must face as an individual.

What he scarcely more than touched upon in the one-act play, he has recently developed in an epic tragedy. The full-length work, also known as In Abraham's Bosom,… is one of the most beautiful and tragic modern plays I have ever read. The character of Abraham is developed through six scenes, each depicting a crisis in the hero's heartbreaking struggle to develop his limited mental powers. With the aid of a white man he is at first enabled to do some studying, and even succeeds in opening a small school for Negroes. But every time he seems on the point of success, he finds himself thwarted. Now, his tragedy is not altogether that of the Negro in a white man's world; as a matter of fact, his failure lies ultimately within himself, attributable to his racial and individual shortcomings.

In this play there is no effort to solve the problem: it is Mr. Green's business simply to state it in terms of humanity. Abraham remains a pitiful figure, held down by the limitations imposed upon him by nature and by man. (pp. xii-xiv)

The Hot Iron is one of the most affecting one-act plays I know. With the simplest imaginable dramatic elements and scarcely an episode by way of plot, the dramatist has animated his characters with the breath of life. By the intensity of his art Mr. Green has endowed the man and the woman with the sufferings and longings of mankind. I forget in reading it that the characters are Negroes from a part of the world I know little about, but it makes no difference: I am made to understand the people.

Mr. Green stands alone among our younger playwrights as a man who can touch with equal skill the lighter and more sentimental side of life, and the tragedy of it. There are two plays, not in Lonesome Road or The Lord's Will, quite as good in their way, though not so somber in mood, as the best in Lonesome Road. The Man Who Died at Twelve O'Clock is a delicious bit of grotesque horseplay, genuine, imaginative, poetic. (pp. xv-xvi)

In Aunt Mahaly's Cabin is described as a Negro melodrama. Two Negroes have killed a white man, and seek refuge in a deserted cabin once occupied by the witch woman Aunt Mahaly. The scene is reminiscent of The Emperor Jones, but it is elaborated by the introduction of a world of demonology in the shape of ghostly apparitions. One of the murderers kills the other, but not until he is himself mortally wounded in the fight. In his dying moments there passes before his over-wrought brain a panorama of all the mysterious practices of Aunt Mahaly. In Aunt Mahaly's Cabin is not so much a study of panic fear as a grotesque fantasy on Negro themes. There is far less conscious art in it than there is in O'Neill's play and more of the folk element. It is an elaborate pageant of dramatized folklore.

The last of the Negro plays is probably the best-known of all Mr. Green's work, The No 'Count Boy. Different from anything else he has done, this idyl is a most appealing and delightful poetic play. To say that it is somewhat reminiscent of Synge means little, for the characters and the language are altogether Mr. Green's own. This is the story of a dreamy boy who nearly succeeds in carrying off the fiancée of a practical-minded young Negro, simply by playing the mouth-organ and telling her of his (wholly imaginary) travels in distant cities. There is a wealth of poetry in the little scene, and rich characterization. (pp. xvi-xvii)

So far Mr. Green has shown an extraordinary adaptability in form and style; he can write tragedy and comedy, drab realism and highly imaginative fantasy. Like all young writers, he has his literary preferences, authors who have influenced him, for better or for worse. Hardy and Synge and O'Neill seem to predominate, but since Mr. Green knows this, there is perhaps less danger of conscious imitation than there would be in a less original artist.

I feel that his greatest gifts are his instinctive talent for seizing upon a dramatic situation, his poetic imagination, and his intuitive knowledge of character. I believe that poetic imagination is what our theater stands most in need of. We have skilled technicians a-plenty, and in O'Neill a great artist of many aspects. But as yet we have no genuine folk dramatist besides Paul Green. If he were at this moment to cease writing he would be entitled to a place of honor in the development of the American drama. But he is only beginning. Was any beginner ever better equipped? (p. xviii)

Barrett H. Clark, "Introduction" (reprinted with permission of The Estate of Barrett H. Clark), in Lonesome Road: Six Plays for the Negro Theatre by Paul Green, Robert M. McBride & Company, 1926, pp. vii-xviii.

John Mason Brown

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Ever since such fine and gripping one-acts as "The No 'Count Boy" and "Lonesome Road" [Paul Green] has been winning a wide and enthusiastic public for himself, achieving the rare prestige of being constantly compared to and mentioned with Eugene O'Neill…. He was hailed as a white hope, and had justified the faith of his admirers by his relentless, often beautiful, and almost always powerful one-act dramas of folk and Negro life in the Carolinas. Unfortunately, the step from the one-act form to the long play is not an easy one. Nor does the one-act gift in a dramatist any more imply that he is also possessor of a talent for the three-act form, than that a painter who is able to paint miniatures should have a like skill in murals, or that a short-story writer should also be adept as a novelist. "The Field God" and "In Abraham's Bosom" make this point only too clear. They reveal Mr. Green, with all of his considerable and very persuasive gifts, stumbling through a period of transition rather than mastering a new form. Both of them are plays of greater promise than accomplishment, and both of them expose certain serious faults which Mr. Green must conquer if his future work is to realize its expectations. Like O'Neill, he seems unable to edit himself. And, consequently, he often stands in the way of his own aim, permitting flaws to remain in his plays which should have disappeared in the second writing. "In Abraham's Bosom," in particular, falls short of its goal. It is, even when its seventh scene is reached, only a series of one-act plays which are never quite whipped into final unity. Its story of a Negro Abraham who seeks to be a prophet among his own people only to invite misery on himself and his family is told with a fine fervor, but its repetitions show a careless hand. Its race problem is handled with a clumsiness which is only matched by its sincerity. But while its raw, chunky moments obstruct its flow they do not hide the vehement sympathy from which the play springs and the intermittent brilliance of the writing. Considered as a Pulitzer Prize winner, however, it cannot but seem that the judges of the Flower Show have given their award to a seed envelope rather than a full-grown plant. "The Field God" is, in many respects, a better play than "In Abraham's Bosom." In it Mr. Green has no problem to present and hence is freer to present both his characters and his plot. Of the two it must be admitted it is his characters which come off the better. His idiot boy, his gossiping neighbors, and his old washerwoman, who are the Gobbos of his tragedy, are sketched with an admirable skill and endowed with a humor that is rare among tragic writers. They form the chorus to the bleak, domestic tragedy Mr. Green narrates concerning the return of a city girl to a farm, where her married uncle and his younger friend both fall in love with her. Death follows death and evil piles on evil at such a breakneck rate that they strain credulity and numb the over-taxed emotions of both reader and spectator alike. The first two-thirds of the play, however, does give concrete evidence of Mr. Green's very real and remarkable earth-sprung talents. It shimmers with speeches which, while they are rich in a poetic imagery, are so burning with emotion and so faithful to character that they are beautifully adapted to the theatre's needs. But in the last two scenes, when Gilchrist, the rugged farmer who has defied God, finds him within his own breast, the writing takes on a maudlin and uncontrolled ecstasy which is, unfortunately, not written in dramatic terms. Then Mr. Green, the literary man, gets the better of Mr. Green, the dramatist, and the play slides steadily down hill, slipping from one transcendental frenzy to another and roaring passionately but ineffectually to its conclusion. (pp. 940-41)

John Mason Brown, "Plays and Works," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1927 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. III, No. 49, July 2, 1927, pp. 939-41.∗

Julia Peterkin

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So much of Paul Green's work has concerned Negroes that his name is identified with his powerful ability to portray the experiences of black people. We who have spent our lives with them thick around us, seeing them constantly, hearing what they say day after day, have had our ears sharpened to their speech and our eyes guided to see deeper into the secret places of their hearts by what Paul Green has written about them.

A few Negroes, part white, part black, have places in his "Wide Fields," but most of the book is given up to poor white farmers of the Carolina cotton belt, people who belong to that pathetic class situated between the descendants of former slave owners and those of former slaves….

Paul Green knows them. In "Wide Fields," he not only tells us about them, but he contrives to put us into their skins and make us suffer with them. Reading the book is not a pleasant experience, for while it holds comedy and humor, it is packed with stark, bitter tragedy.

A young wife who craves beauty and cleanliness gets choked to death because a high-collared dude tempts her to leave her sweaty, smelly, hard-working husband; a middle-aged virgin's birthday brings her day-dreams, then a pitiful sinful night-dream threatens her soul's salvation; the queer ways of a woods-colt and a gypsy woman and other humble people are put into words flavored all the way through with Elizabethan idiom, so they stand out in clear, sharp, heart-breaking lines. Surely, Paul Green's deep sincerity, his sense of pity, the dignity of his work, give him a high place in contemporary American literature.

Julia Peterkin, "Poor White Trash," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1928 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. IV, No. 39, April 21, 1928, p. 780.

Joseph Wood Krutch

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Mr. Green is coming of age at last, and to say that his play ["The House of Connelly"] is by far the most interesting presented this season on Broadway would be to say much too little. As a whole it is very, very good; in places it reveals writing as fine as it has ever been my privilege to admire in an American drama, and today we may safely speak not of "promise" but of accomplishment.

Hitherto Mr. Green has never sufficiently emerged as an individual from the group of which he was a part. Assiduous cultivator of the "folk drama" and savior of the Little Theater movement, his plays seemed so much what they were expected to be that the curse of an all-too-obvious worthiness was upon them, and they were made for the approval of a cult. But in "The House of Connelly" he achieves a fully developed individuality of method and of flavor; he speaks with a voice unmistakably his own; and he proves that he has something really valuable to give. Moreover, his tone seems doubly original for the reason that it is so little related to that of the best of our other playwrights. Howard, Stallings, Rice, and, to some extent, also O'Neill resemble one another at least to the extent that they are harsh and violent, that they have made art out of crassness and brutality. But Paul Green introduces a fresh note of poetry of a different kind. He is gentle, elegiac, and melancholy. His play, despite its elements of violence, is tender without sentimentality and almost wholly beautiful.

Superficially, to be sure, the story which he tells is one which any other folk dramatist might have chosen…. But what raises it to its present high level is the fact that its author has discovered how to exploit in his own sensitive way the poetry of its implications. In his hands it becomes not so much a story as a quasi-musical "arrangement," in which we see and hear and feel a situation rich not only in conflicts but in pathos and charm and loveliness as well. Here is a civilization which is dying and which should die; a civilization which was founded upon arrogant privilege and which revealed its rottenness through the shameful, illegitimate misalliances which it commonly tolerated. But it was a civilization which had its elements of beauty as well as its pride and its fortitude, and Mr. Green makes us feel all these things….

The effect which Mr. Green achieves is one which irresistibly suggests one of the miracles of Chekhov, and it is accomplished in somewhat the same way—by the employment, that is to say, of scenes and dialogues which are almost magically suggestive. It is, perhaps, chiefly on those few occasions when the author strikes a false note that one realizes how frequently he has succeeded in suggesting what could never be effectively said…. Atmosphere is generated one hardly knows how, and emotion steals out over the footlights like some at first imperceptible perfume. One is relatively indifferent as to what finally happens and Mr. Green is certainly best when he is merely exhibiting his characters, but certain personages and certain scenes—like the Christmas dinner—will not easily be forgotten. They have a power without violence which is rare and memorable.

Joseph Wood Krutch, "A Promise Fulfilled," in The Nation (copyright 1931 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. CXXXIII, No. 3458, October 14, 1931, p. 408.

Hamilton Basso

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In spite of the structural defects that result from Mr. Green's attempt to impose the technique of the theatre upon the technique of the novel, ["This Body the Earth"] is an outstanding addition to the literature of social protest that is being written by Southern writers.

The story of "This Body the Earth" is simple enough. Alvin Barnes is the son of a trifling, shiftless, holy-rolling cropper. He realizes, as a young boy, that there can be a decency and dignity to human life and determines to rise above his class. He scrimps, works like a mule, tries to educate himself. Finally, a grown man, he acquires (on paper) a few acres of his own. He marries the prettiest girl he knows. All his dreams seem to be coming true…. Then, suddenly, everything goes to pieces….

Alvin Barnes will probably be compared, reasonably enough, with that other cropper who came out of the South to become a Broadway tradition: Mr. Erskine Caldwell's eloquent and profane Jeeter Lester. Mr. Green's hero will be used, especially in the South, to prove that the subhuman Jeeter is an extreme case; that there are tenant farmers with deep wells of ambition and pride. Such contentions, of course, are true … and because they are true, the tragedy of Alvin Barnes becomes even more heart-breaking. He is defeated, not by himself, but by the agricultural economy of the South. This economy, in Mr. Green's novel, becomes the Nemesis of the old Greek tragedies—merciless, vindictive, hounding a man to his death. The implicit moral is that the individual, no matter how rugged, cannot combat a system that makes individuals its prey.

The chapters of this book that are likely to receive most attention are those exposing the penal system of North Carolina—the whippings, the chain gang, the "sweat box." The description of a Negro prisoner's being whipped until his rump is lacerated and bleeding is not pretty to read and not pretty to remember. But it had to be written and it is sincerely to be hoped that these sections of "This Body the Earth" will serve the purpose for which they were obviously intended—the reformation of one of the most brutal and inhuman prison systems in the United States. Paul Green has written a brave, honest, eloquent book—his most important performance since "In Abraham's Bosom."

Hamilton Basso, "Nemesis in the Cotton Belt" (reprinted by permission of the Literary Estate of Hamilton Basso), in The New Republic, Vol. LXXXV, No. 1093, November 13, 1935, p. 24.

Joseph Wood Krutch

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According to the Group, which is producing "Johnny Johnson" …, the piece in question is a "legend." That phrase will serve well enough in its place on the program, but it will hardly do to describe the curious fantasy, half musical and half dramatic, which Paul Green and Kurt Weill have concocted between them. The matter is as serious as possible, the manner often so broad as almost to suggest vaudeville or a revue, and yet the whole is somehow strangely effective. I am, in general, no great partisan of the experimental techniques, but "Johnny Johnson" is both amusing enough and moving enough to justify itself very handsomely indeed. (p. 675)

Everyone will, I fancy, agree that the piece is at times ragged and uncertain. Every now and then the mood is broken, every now and then the author of the text seems to lose his sense of style, and to write a speech or a scene too realistic on the one hand or too near burlesque on the other really to harmonize with the dominant manner, which is poised at some definite point between the two. But however far short it may fall of perfection, its success in general is never in doubt, and the thing is held together by Kurt Weill's score, which seems to me not only ideal for the purpose but consistent in a way that the text is not. (p. 676)

Joseph Wood Krutch, "Fool of God," in The Nation (copyright 1936 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 143, No. 23, December 5, 1936, pp. 675-76.

Brooks Atkinson

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[The performance of a commemorative pageant entitled "The Lost Colony"] is a particularly inspiring event to the citizens of North Carolina and Virginia, who have been attending in increasing numbers. To others, less familiar with the details of Sir Walter Raleigh's valorous and tragic attempt to carry the English spirit into the wild new world it is an uncommonly impressive evocation of the daring that seeped into this country from the wave-beaten beaches just north of Hatteras. For Paul Green, author of "The Lost Colony," and the others who have contributed to a community celebration have approached their work in a reverent mood. (p. 1)

[In writing "The Lost Colony"], Mr. Green has infused history with a religious reverence for the men and women who laid down their lives to make Sir Walter's dream come true. Although the form of pageantry makes the description of character difficult and loosens the texture of narrative, Mr. Green has written history with a compassion that turns his characters into unconscious symbols of a brave new world. He has communicated their earnestness by contrasting the egotistical court of Queen Elizabeth with the rude austerity of life inside the embattled log fort amid hostile savages. The dances translate the freshness and wildness of the new world more eloquently than words or scenery could. The glory of the ancient English hymns, carols and ballads, sung to an organ accompaniment, pulls the lost colonists into the great stream of human nobility. Part pageant, part masque, "The Lost Colony" is a simply stated idealization of the adventurous impulse that founded this nation in the restless image of Shakespeare's England. We can be wise 350 years after the event. Mr. Green's wisdom is rooted in a poet's love of a fair land.

Apart from its function as a commemorative pageant, "The Lost Colony" also represents Mr. Green's old ambition to write what he sheepishly describes as "symphonic drama." He has been moving in that direction with "Roll Sweet Chariot" of 1934 and "Johnny Johnson," which he wrote with Kurt Weill last season. For he has the Wagnerian hope of composing dramas that employ the myriad arts of the theatre and that give themes a grand spiritual fervor by orchestrating the dance, song and acting…. "The Lost Colony" is a step toward [the fulfillment of that hope], although the nature of the current occasion confines the freedom of an author's imagination. He cannot master a scene in history as passionately as he can master the spirit of the individual man. At best pageantry is a horizontal art; drama is vertical, ranging from the inner life of the private man to the emptyrean of human aspiration. Drama is also more compact in structure and fiercer in spirit. Drama discloses in burning action the secretive tumult of the heart. What a pageant maker is compelled to describe externally the dramatic poet can show in the being. He can dissect first causes; he is there before the reporter has arrived. It is a heroic job, especially according to the dimensions Mr. Green has in mind; and it will require more practical craftsmanship than he has put into any of his previous plays and all the poetic vitality that lives within him. From the theatrical point of view. "The Lost Colony" is another trial-script for his great project of symphonic drama. (pp. 1-2)

Brooks Atkinson, "Founding Fathers." in The New York Times, Section 10 (© 1937 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 15, 1937, pp. 1-2.

Anthony F. Merrill

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As a dramatic production, The Lost Colony more than justifies the growing acclaim which its audiences accord it. Paul Green, with his fine understanding and his ability to interpret that which is at his doorstep, has created something which seems to have grown right out of the very ground on which it takes place. Laid in the sixteenth century, the play-pageant tells first of the discovery of the island and Raleigh's success in founding a colony upon it. The second half deals with the struggles of the colonists to survive and their eventual disappearance.

The events in the tragic history of Fort Raleigh lend themselves admirably to dramatization. The period being Elizabethan, Green is able to take much from Shakespeare's book. Life and death contribute their share of humor and pathos, while throughout the tale runs a thread of romance evolving between John Borden, the colonists' leader, and Eleanor dare, widowed mother of the first English child born in the New World. For color and suspense there are the Indians and their war dances, the fear of the roving Spanish galleons and the fight against starvation which finally forces the migration.

And through it all, one feels a sense of absolute reality in what transpires on the stage. Perhaps a great deal of this is due to the setting. Nothing could seem more tangible than the dramatic climax in which young Borden and Eleanor Dare agree that they must give up the security of their little fort for the uncertainty of more remote lands. From its height, the audience sees far beyond the two figures standing alone on the stage, beyond to the wide, empty expanse of bay, glistening in the moonlight. In the hush of the moment. Borden gives tongue to the full emotion of their silent departure from recorded history with a line that stirs the depths of imagination—'We two, standing here tonight upon the outpost of the world, the last survivors—keepers of a dream.'

And then to the onlooker comes the realization that for an hour or more, he too has stood with young John Borden and brave Eleanor Dare upon 'the outpost of the world,' keeping a dream. (pp. 521-22)

Anthony F. Merrill, "The Town That Is a Theatre" (copyright, 1939, by Theatre Arts, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the author), in Theatre Arts Monthly, Vol. XXIII, No. 7, July. 1939, pp. 518-22.

Stark Young

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As I ponder [the performance of In Abraham's Bosom] it seems moving and profound. Certainly the course of its struggle is full of tragic despair…. There is, too, a certain wise balance of parts in the dramatic elements; the white people mean to be kind, but they are as lost in the midst of a race situation as the Negro is; they are moved now by human or affectionate impulse and now by a blind racial instinct and an arbitrary, desperate sense of self-preservation. The climaxes in the play are strong and bold. I seem, as I think of it, to have been present at a full, passionate story, told by a poet. Certainly this material that Mr. Green attempts is ambitious of power and devastation and beauty; we are in very deep waters with such subject matter as he employs.

But what I remember last is that for three-fifths of the time I was dissatisfied and often more than bored. The first act, up to that really inventive moment at the very last when the three Negroes dance about at the sight of the love between Abe and Goldie, was very nearly unbearable. (p. 89)

The dialogue of this play, apart from some of the curtain climaxes, is flat and seems hastily written. Considering the bold, O'Neill sort of line that the treatment essays, the speeches are sometimes surprisingly false, borrowed, conventional. One of the best signs of promise in such a play as In Abraham's Bosom would lie in the ear; for nowhere in America is there better material for dialogue than in this world of Mr. Green's; nowhere is there a more special rhythm and flavor of speech than in the South, or more warmth and naïveté of words than in Negro speech. That Mr. Green made so little of this living stuff, that his lines have so little care and so little passion for the quivering beat of life that the words might carry, is a discouraging sign in what is obviously a marked theatre talent working with material that is wholly vibrant and freshly taken out of our American life.

The best places in this play of Negro life are those like that orgiastic end of the first act…. In these there is an essence that is racial, dramatic and moving. These moments take themselves out of the hands of the actors, the pulse quickens, the glow of strangeness and beauty comes over the scene; and for a little we have the sense of a soul working and of poetic truth.

But it is between these moments that the trouble lies with Mr. Green's play. Between these high moments we cannot ask an equal tension and imagination; but we can ask more pains, more reduction of the play's progress to firm outlines that would go better with its bold technical aim. The tenderness of feeling in this work, the love of the country and soil in which this history occurs, the courage of the character delineation and the range of sentiment, all deserve more care and choice on the author's part. The glow that is in these special passages could appear, though in smaller terms of course, in the speeches that lie between them. This play is of the kind that makes you wish it well; and you resent all the more the fact that the gloom that some of its spreads over you is not the gloom of tragedy, for that might be rich and stirring, but of casual form and bad writing. (p. 90)


The characters in [The House of Connelly] are clearly defined; their words—all but the heroine's—are profoundly Southern and have been well heard by the dramatist out of his own life in the South. Sometimes a detail though tiny is so startlingly Southern that none but a Southerner could savor its exactness. (p. 128)

The weakness of The House of Connelly lies in the girl's motive. There is tied up in [the] tenant's daughter the theme of the new life blending with the old, the new conditions, the strengthened blood turning back to the land, and so on. But this, though it is so large a motive in the drama, never gets quite expressed. Throughout the play, time is lost in other talk and other scenes when what we need is to get the main theme established. What has seemed to us the old love story of a beggar maid and prince turns out eventually to be the deep-laid scheme of a young woman who, with her eye on possessing the land, has seduced a weak, intense young man, and at last grown to love him. All this crucial matter is poured out in an explanatory speech, delivered at the very crisis of their emotional relations, and written like some college girl's explanation, arid and without the engaging passion or reality that so many of the other characters' lines have had. And the upshot is that thereupon the play's back is broken. On the whole, obviously, the trouble is that at bottom no dramatic image is ever discovered, no action or moment that would create for us the girl's meaning and point in the play.

The uncle's rôle, rather too long for the sting and pathos intended by it, runs somewhat too far toward the Russian flavor; and his suicide seems to me unconvincing, as well as being both untrue to this Southern type or temperament and harmful to the play's total impression on the memory. The House of Connelly remains, notwithstanding, well worth a dozen more facile works. Uncle, girl, problem or not, it is at its source poetic, by which I mean the richness, quiver and dilation that it often gives to the material presented. (pp. 128-29)

Stark Young. "'In Abraham's Bosom'" and "The Shadow of Wings," in his Immortal Shadows: A Book of Dramatic Criticism (copyright 1948 Charles Scribner's Sons; copyright renewed 1976 Lewis M. Isaacs, Jr., Executor of the Estate of Stark Young; reprinted with the permission of Charles Scribner's Sons), Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948. pp. 88-90, 127-31.

Agatha Boyd Adams

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Paul Green's work is still very much in progress. A man of abundant energy and vitality, he has a rich store of as yet unrealized dreams and ideas. His work has shown both consistency and the power to expand: consistency in the underlying theme of compassion for and championship of those who are denied basic human rights; expansion in enlarging these themes to an application beyond the bounds of locality.

From a point of view so near to a living writer, it is impossible to say whether or not his books will supply that lack which Paul Green himself deplored in 1928 when he said: "North Carolina has made no lasting contribution to the art of the world." Even with a consideration of the towering figure of Thomas Wolfe, who burst upon the scene in 1929, it is possible, looking back on the body of Green's work, to say that Green has "with high-minded and intelligent devotion" recorded the lives of his fellow countrymen. He has been one of the most faithful and the most illuminating interpreters of the rural life of North Carolina, and through his intimate knowledge and understanding of one locality has been able to interpret also the South. Good sense and good judgment have made him willing to confine his writing to the area of his own observation and knowledge; imagination of heart and brain has enabled him to progress from that simple area to larger concern with the fundamental problems of mankind. Passion for justice for the Negro and the sharecropper led in his thinking to a passion for justice for all humanity, a belief in democracy as a way of human righteousness. The social and economic problems of Harnett County grew, in the historical plays, into the problems of the young United States, and by implication, of all human kind. (pp. 112-13)

As an interpreter of the South, Green has followed an individual as well as a thoroughly sincere course. He has avoided the romanticism and sentimentality which he so vigorously condemned in his first manifesto as editor of The Reviewer. He has also to a large extent avoided that Gothic quality in Southern writing which appears in the gargoyles and grotesques of realists such as Caldwell and Faulkner…. In the steadiness and balance with which he has regarded [the South] from his own angle of vision, he is not unlike that otherwise so different novelist, Ellen Glasgow. He lacks her irony, and the scenes which he depicts are farther from Richmond in spiritual climate than in actual geography; but the temper of observation, the sure knowledge of the familiar, the compassionate understanding, the lack of distortion, are similar in tone. For the most part. Green has been able to describe his section of the South without getting too excited about it, without creating angels and devils in a realm of fantasy. Perhaps in some plays, notably Tread the Green Grass and Shroud My Body Down, he has succumbed to the Southern impulse toward the ornate and the strange; but the main body of his published work concerns a very real segment of the rural South, described with honesty and sanity. His South is one of potential abundance of wasted and eroded land, of cruel injustice and of true neighborliness, of laughter and music and tragedy and courage and futility and aspiration; in short, a region peopled by human beings instead of by social and economic charts and ciphers and statistics, or by unrecognizable grotesques.

The mood of his generation, and his own intrinsic sincerity, determined that Green should write realistically. The poet that he naturally is, however, has almost always been dominant. This combination of poetry and realism forms part of the individual quality not only of his interpretation of the South, but of his work as a whole. Abraham McCranie inhabits a harshly realistic world of denial and deprivation and crime; yet his dreams and aspiration, his passion and his torture, are illuminated with poetry. In The Common Glory, the American Revolution moves forward in all the reality of human pain, but beyond this reality the author's deep understanding of heroic idealism lifts and shapes the play into a poetic whole. It is a matter for speculation whether or not in a different literary climate from the realistic one of the United States in the 1920's and 1930's Paul Green might have written only poetry and poetic drama; it is a matter for gratitude that the pull toward realism never overwhelmed the poet.

Poetry inheres not only in the lyrics of his plays, not only in the quick response to beauty of all sorts, but most essentially in his concern with noble issues and basic truths. He has never let himself be drawn into writing meretriciously; he has never denied his dedication to man's long climb toward righteousness, his profound convictions of justice and injustice, right and wrong. (pp. 113-15)

Unlike most writers, Paul Green has written no book which can be interpreted as autobiographical, although there are such passages, notably in This Body The Earth. In spite of the fact that he is introspective to a degree, his creative energies have been turned outward; he has used his own experiences, obviously, but always to create characters other than himself. (p. 115)

From the early folk plays of his Playmaker days, to the developing and expanding regional dramatic productions typified by the symphonic dramas, Paul Green has remained true to his purpose and his ambition to write plays about the people and for the people, to be produced not by commercial backing, but with the design of bringing music and poetry and color and drama within easy reach of people in communities far from Broadway. In this movement he has been an innovator. He has also pioneered in the combination of music and drama in a closely interwoven form. He has always suggested and pointed the way toward greater harmonies of interpretation. (pp. 115-16)

Agatha Boyd Adams, in her Paul Green of Chapel Hill, edited by Richard Walser (copyright, 1951, by The University of North Carolina Press; reprinted by permission of Alice Adams). The University of North Carolina Library, 1951, 116 p.

Gerald Rabkin

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The fact of "class" was one that few American dramatists escaped in the thirties; man was primarily a social, not a psychological, animal. Thus Paul Green in his drama of southern decadence, The House of Connelly (1931), is less concerned with the forms of this decadence than with the juxtaposition of a healthy alternative. (p. 84)

We might profitably contrast the south of House of Connelly with the south of Tennessee Williams. As Green paints the decay of the old order it seems to be, at first, in the manner of Williams: "Now the grace of hospitality is gone, the jovial host is gone, gone is the slave. The furniture is falling to pieces…. The dead Connellys in their frames wait for the end." The living Connellys exist in a past world of Belle Reves and Blue Mountains; the old order is crumbling before the onslaughts of new social forces, and the Connelly clan, like the Sartoris, can only rail against the powerful upstarts who have perverted the values of the Old South.

So far so good. Now were Tennessee Williams proceeding with the play, the old aristocracy, however decadent, would still be preferable to the new forces of change. After all, is there not virtue in the posture of gallantry? Surely there could be no rapprochement between the old order and the new. And yet this is Green's theme: "Out of this death and darkness—into the light!"… Will Connelly, the scion of the clan, recognizes that he cannot resuscitate a dead past, that the old, aristocratic order is gone forever. He finds in Patsy, the daughter of a tenant farmer, hope for the creation of a new future, and despite the cruelty of the choice (Patsy is bitterly resented by the older Connellys) he is convinced by her that it must be made. (pp. 84-5)

The premise that resides at the heart of House of Connelly is that decadence is a fact of institutions and classes; in the work of Tennessee Williams corruption is existential. The first premise makes the concept of social action meaningful, the second declares all social gestures essentially irrelevant.

Green, in his second play for the [Group Theatre] Johnny Johnson (1936), departs from his familiar regional environment, but he is again concerned with asserting a social thesis: in this case, the insanity of war. The method he employs—the juxtaposition of a supremely sane man against the organized absurdity of conventional institutions—has been employed more recently for purely comic effect in such military comedies as No Time for Sergeants and At War with the Army. But Green's purpose in Johnny Johnson is completely serious. As the play proceeds it becomes increasingly bitter in tone, until at last the laws of sanity apply only within the confines of an insane asylum. Why had Johnny been committed? Merely because he had acted upon the "mad" conviction that human beings were reasonable creatures, that mankind would not willfully destroy itself.

Green's ironic fable … is not primarily concerned, as is Peace on Earth, with the causes of war; it is rather concerned with its ultimate absurdity and its devastating horror. In the name of country, religion, family, mankind forgets its common humanity and acts more viciously—because its actions are gratuitious—than the most vicious animal. Johnny's crime is that he demands a reason for fighting. (pp. 85-6)

Johnny Johnson is a protest against the final absurdity of war; the paradox of Green's play resides in the question of whether, in a world governed by insanity, the forces of sanity must be eternally suspect. The leaders of the "civilized" world reject Johnny's pacifism as madness; the inmates of the asylum accept his leadership and unanimously create a League of World Republics. But Green does not end the play on a note of despair; Johnny, when released from the asylum, again sees the warclouds gathering, and again hears the familiar jingoism. Even when faced with the recurrence of mankind's perennial blight. Johnny does not lose his unconquerable optimism, his faith that sanity shall ultimately prevail…. (pp. 86-7)

Paul Green's dramatic contribution to the … [Group Theatre, a New York-based drama collective which was dedicated to plays reflecting contemporary social problems,] raises wistful considerations of the dramatist he once was. As his career progressed the intense regionalism, which in the twenties and thirties was illumined by social and psychological insight, degenerated into the hollow formalities of spectacle. The playwright who has shown himself capable of In Abraham's Bosom, House of Connelly, Hymn to the Rising Sun and Johnny Johnson abdicated in favor of the scenarist for such confederate flag-waving extravaganzas as Wilderness Road, The Founders, and The Confederacy. Surely this record does not indicate that social concerns distorted Green's accomplishment; his recent total dedication to patriotic spectacle of the most obvious banality ("The Confederacy is now our Lost Cause, but the ideals we served are not lost." "Yes. Yes.") raises the unfortunate apprehension that, like the Confederacy, Paul Green's dramatic seriousness will not rise again. (p. 87)

Gerald Rabkin, "The Group Theatre: Theatre is Collective Art," in his Drama and Commitment: Politics in the American Theatre of the Thirties (copyright © 1964 by Indiana University Press), Indiana University Press, 1964, pp. 71-94.∗

Howard D. Pearce

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Recognized as a present writer of the outdoor pageant play (in his words, "symphonic drama") and a past writer of regional, "folk," and experimental drama, Paul Green is another of those dramatists such as T. S. Eliot and Tennessee Williams who have turned to myth in search of universal meanings…. Green's plays written between 1920 (The Last of the Lowries) and 1934 (Roll Sweet Chariot) show a progress from folk materials and realistic manner toward a blend of folk-mythic matter and symbolic, anti-realistic technique. Green recapitulates, then, an historical development from the superficial American regionalism of the late nineteenth century to the search for deeper reality through myth, symbol and experimental form. (p. 62)

[It] is impossible not to see that from the very beginning Green was a most literary writer, both in exploring the areas of dramatic technique and in turning to literature as a source for idea and image. (p. 64)

[Green] is not an unsophisticated provincial. He is highly conscious of various traditions of thought and literary modes. His methodical search of folklore likewise reveals a conscious craftsman. Assiduously he combed the materials of his region and his nation's history for inspiration and subject matter. (p. 65)

All Green's intense endeavor led him in a search toward the highest fulfillment of his art. Not a man of easy faith, he was yet eager to explore any path which might lead to the ultimate enrichment or perfection of his craft. (p. 66)

It was during the late 1920's and early 1930's that Green's individual plays became most heterogeneous as a result of his febrile quest for new forms. Blue Thunder, written in 1928, remains an enigmatic and provocative play. Tread the Green Grass was written in the same year, and Shroud My Body Down was written in the early 1930's. Potter's Field was begun in 1929 and Roll Sweet Chariot, its ultimate form, completed in 1934. The Lost Colony in 1937 marked the end of his quest for new form, for with it he had arrived at a plateau. He had taken the drama outdoors, had placed it on a panoramic stage, and had integrated pantomime, song, and dance, in an elevated and ceremonial style, with the materials of American history, achieving the noble ends of art.

Unfortunately, like the Marxian Utopia, this ultimate achievement of a dialectical progress, which must be produced through the thrust and counterthrust of forces, is as static and as dull as any paradise would be. I do not mean to condemn the symphonic plays outright. There is much that is good in them. But one feels in reading them (and they are not meant to be read, but seen in all their embellishments) that the old challenge for Green, the fire of discovery, has been lost. And that burning quest suffuses the plays of discovery, those experimental plays of the years between the mid-1920's and the mid-1930's, those plays which may often fail but do so with intensity and flourish, with power and sensitivity. (p. 67)

This quest for a higher art led Green through territories which lay in opposite directions. The continued refinement of dramatic technique which led him ultimately to a symphonic drama is actually opposite to that of a folk drama, which is by nature elemental, simple, and limited. His journey through the fields of conscious art, through sophistication of form and technique, through a refined and international exchange of ideas, led him away from the simplicity of folk style. He ultimately found in the stylization of the Japanese theater the closest approach to the ideal that he had ever seen: "The Kabuki theatre is the true representational [sic] theatre art as I've yearned to see it."… Here is a Green talking for whom direct message, didacticism, is a step below the etherealized pure art of the Japanese theatre. By such a criterion, it would seem that a few of the plays from the period of greatest experiment rose higher than both the thesis-studded earlier plays and the overtly nationalistic drama of the symphonic period.

There is implicit, however, a single goal in the opposite extremes through which Green worked. Both his sophisticated drama and his folk drama are aimed at baring the essential rhythms of life, the ceremonies by which all men live a common existence, the very essence of human nature which is the same whether abstracted through the refinement of art or perceived directly in the naked, unaccommodated form of elemental man.

It would seem then that Green, by the clarity of his vision of man's soul, worked toward the center of human experience, no matter on what diverging paths his travels seemed to take him.

Although firmly rooted in a more realistic world and peopled with characters of a more fully realized individuality than those of Blue Thunder, Shroud My Body Down, and Tread the Green Grass, Roll Sweet Chariot like those plays grows upward into an atmosphere of poetic rarefaction. It ostensibly moves from a Chekhovian flux of isolated souls touching and withdrawing from one another to a last-scene fusion of the individuals into a communal spirit. The resultant shift in style from the apparent slice of reality in Scene One to the ode on suffering and salvation in the final scene has been considered one of the play's major weaknesses. Similarly, the transformation of the folk hero John Henry from a confidence man into a spiritual leader has distressed those who require a conventional, realistic treatment of character. Yet, taken in the play's own terms, such seeming shifts result in the total harmony for which Green reached. The atmosphere of Roll Sweet Chariot, from beginning to end, is imbued with a poetic intensity which boils from the passionate love, fear, and hate; the reckless joy and impertinence; and the instinctive malice and selfishness of the folk themselves. Musical pattern and poetic image hold together what might indeed be, without them, unassimilated and drifting fragments. (pp. 68-9)

[From statements Green has made about Roll Sweet Chariot, it seems evident] that, although the ostensible theme of the play is justice, the conclusion does not result in an establishment of justice. If such is the case, so is it in Green's other major plays: In Abraham's Bosom, The Field God, Tread the Green Grass, The House of Connelly. Each of these plays contains as an important theme the problem of justice, but in none of them is justice precisely worked out in the end. In the last two mentioned there is an explicit denial of simple, earthly justice in the ritual sacrifices of the Young Reverend (or Tina) and Patsy Tate.

Roll Sweet Chariot, too, is about justice, but it concludes with the assurance that man can endure in spite of its earthly perversion, that he can grow toward a fulfillment of his potential regardless of a prevailing power of vengeance. The community, like the individual, is both innocent and guilty. (p. 76)

Although Roll Sweet Chariot, like the other plays of Green's experimental period, does not conform to a single tradition, it stands as one of Green's most exalted efforts, perhaps his best, to make a dramatic form carry his vision of mankind. In these plays his experiment in dramatic traditions and his synthesis of adopted ideas and images, patterns and language, found completion. Regardless of imperfections, plays like Tread the Green Grass and Roll Sweet Chariot deserve greater recognition than they have generally received. (p. 78)

Howard D. Pearce, "From Folklore to Mythology: Paul Green's 'Roll Sweet Chariot'," in The Southern Literary Journal (copyright 1971 by the Department of English. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Vol. III, No. 2, Spring, 1971, pp. 62-78.

Howard D. Pearce

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America's "folk-drama" of the 1920's and 1930's appears a last stand of nineteenth-century regionalism…. [It] was a brief movement which capitalized on the quaintness and charm, the eccentricity and even grotesqueness, of character, dialect, and setting. There was some necessary superficiality in a tradition that relied too much on entertaining a sophisticated cosmopolitan audience with a parade of characters—or caricatures—from a province. Another rather superficial motive shows in this drama when it was locally produced: the region's own pride in its individuality. But the folk drama did often strive toward the expression of universal human problems and lasting values.

In both aspiration and achievement, the outstanding playwright produced by this movement in the United States was Paul Green…. Green knew intuitively the struggles of an unsophisticated people against the forces of both nature and society. These were the "folk" in whom Green found universal human values laid bare. When he began writing plays in the 1920's, he was immediately attracted to the so-called "folk" drama of the Irish playwright John Millington Synge, to such plays as Riders to the Sea and Playboy of the Western World. In his own region Green saw a native character parallel to that dramatized by Synge, and his natural impulse was, like Synge's, poetic: he converted folk idiom to poetry and drew the regional character in terms of eternal conflicts. (pp. 91-2)

The regional folk beliefs and customs … are part and parcel of the body of materials from which Green draws both incident and idea. Through these ideas and practices he expresses the personality of the folk who are at once individualized in their peculiarities and universalized in that those peculiarities express fundamental purposes and forces in human nature. He is striving to express the uniqueness of the folk but, paradoxically, the spiritual One that resides in the separate instances of the Many.

Whereas Green's exploration in folk beliefs and customs, even when he turned to written sources, provided him with a knowledge of the people themselves, his use of folktale and legend extended into another dimension, imaginative literature, characters and plots created by the folk. (pp. 94-5)

[Qualities] of folk literature inhere to a sometimes greater, sometimes lesser, degree in Green's entire body of plays. If the influence of folk literature bent Green toward stylization, formalization, and a heightened and romantic view, the folk themselves, being men in a natural state, inclined him toward a naturalistic treatment of his subjects. On the one hand, there exists a romanticizing, an ennoblement of humanity not unlike the vision by which the primitive sayer or seer transmutes the everyday into the miraculous, transfigures man through myth. On the other hand lies the realistic or naturalistic view of the folk, one which though sympathetic is inclined to see them as no better than they actually are. If his plays contain these seemingly contradictory views of the folk, they are part and parcel of the sources from which he drew.

Folk characters created in the plays are no homogeneous lot, for they grow out of this dualistic view. One character may appear to be drawn from Green's direct knowledge of people; another may retain strong suggestions of his literary prototype; and still another may show close kinship to a type in folklore. A figure who retains the earthy character of the folk may in his similarity to some literary mold suggest that he is drawn from types of both life and literature. (p. 97)

Green's quest for a folk hero … draws from folk and literary tradition, moving ever toward the vision of some prototypal hero. In so far as one is concerned with a literary man's use of heroic types to elevate his characters, there is little to be gained by making scholarly distinctions between myth, saga, and folk tale, or between mythical, legendary, and historical heroes…. Whether a writer like Green implies that one of his characters is like Christ, Oedipus, King Arthur, or Paul Bunyan, his endeavor is to suggest the uncommon or even superhuman nature of that character, repeating once more the romantic idealization by which men in all ages have created heroes. Green himself suggests that, to counteract the rationalism and sterility, the categorizing and fact-finding of modern education, which hinder an appreciation of the truth and life to be found in literature, one should discover the power and beauty of literature itself, turning to the heroes of life for inspiration: Paul Bunyan, Davy Crockett, John Henry, Mike Fink, Roy Bean, Casey Jones, Johnny Appleseed, Br'er Rabbit, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. (As this partial list shows, Green would have no objection to fusing mythical, legendary, and historical heroes under one rubric: heroes of life.)

Although Green's short plays and tales seem to have offered him little room for developing a true folk hero, his interest in creating the type can be seen in the short works. (pp. 99-100)

[However, it is] in the long plays that Green most fully develops his folk heroes. Abe McCranie becomes noble in his compulsion to lift his people out of degradation, but the heroic figures of The Field God and Roll Sweet Chariot even more so than Abe have their heroic stature elevated to truly epic dimensions. It was in the symphonic outdoor plays that Green finally fulfilled his desire to dramatize the American hero, painting heroic portraits of such national figures as Jefferson and Washington.

Green's striding toward a timeless world of symbol, then, like his tireless search for new and more nearly perfect forms of drama, led him toward basal figures and patterns which underpin the plays. His search for a hero has been evidenced by his transmutation of the common man of his region into the precious metal of a folk hero. As this search led him in widening circles, one may with assurance follow him into the limits of folklore and literature from which he drew inspiration….

[Blue Thunder] provides a most interesting study of Green's use of legendary and folk materials in a highly unrealistic and experimental manner. The play seems as uprooted from reality as do some of the short poetic dramas of William Butler Yeats such as At the Hawk's Well or The Shadowy Waters. Like these plays, it seems constantly to allude to some mythical, or at least distant and shadowy, referent. The language is stylized, the action ritualized, and, as in some of Yeats' plays, the distinctions between man and god blurred. (p. 100)

Briefly, the play concerns Blue Thunder, "the man who married a snake," who on a realistic level is a Negro ladies' man caught in the act of deserting his three mistresses. The women sing, like conventional mourners, songs of lamentation for the loss of their man, waiting patiently, while he boasts and demonstrates his supernatural powers, for the loss of power which they are certain will descend upon him. Greedily attacking his body after his own supernatural weapons have turned and killed him, they are surprised by the appearance of a little black man, who is death come to take them. (p. 101)

An explanation of this play's action on an entirely realistic basis is, then, almost valueless. The women are not merely mistresses who take revenge on a lover for his attempt to desert them. Read in terms of mythic action, Blue Thunder must be seen as a travesty, for the ultimate purpose of ritual, the reinstatement of positive spiritual powers in a new king, the resurrection of a god or the rebirth of nature, is not fulfilled. Blue Thunder's mention of the cycle of nature emphasizes death as an end: "Farewell. I come in the spring and find you full in the flower, I leave you in the fall with the sap and bloom all gone."… He represents a perversion, a curtailment of the promise, of the dying god whose death, though lamented in the fall, promises the return of life in the spring.

In Blue Thunder, finally, folk, biblical, and mythic referents cast the entire action in an ironic light, for such allusions point to spiritual values which are subverted by the characters.

This review of Green's use of folk materials reveals a playwright bent on transforming them into poetic, symbolic drama. Rather than merely explicating the character and legend of his region, he is exploiting them. And this impulse to transcend the folk, to the degree that it informs Green's drama and fiction, makes Green's work viable and interesting today. (pp. 105-06)

Howard D. Pearce, "Transcending the Folk: Paul Green's Utilization of Folk Materials," in MOSAIC: A Journal for the Comparative Study of Literature and Ideas (copyright © 1971 by the University of Manitoba; acknowledgement of previous publication is herewith made), Vol. IV, No. 4 (Summer. 1971), pp. 91-106.