Paul Green Green, Paul (Eliot) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 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...

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John Mason Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Julia Peterkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Hamilton Basso

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Joseph Wood Krutch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Anthony F. Merrill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Stark Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Agatha Boyd Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gerald Rabkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Howard D. Pearce

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Howard D. Pearce

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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