Last Updated on May 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 755
A Raisin in the Sun is easily Lorraine Hansberry’s best-known work, although her early death is certainly a factor in her limited oeuvre. From its beginning, this play was critically and commercially successful. After a brief run in New Haven, Connecticut, it opened on Broadway in 1959, where it ran for 530 performances. Although this was the first play written by a Black woman to appear on Broadway, it received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. A later adaptation won a Tony Award for best musical in 1974.
Newspapers reviewers were lavish in their praise of this performance. According to Francis Dedmond in an article published in American Playwrights Since 1945, various critics complimented the work’s “moving story” and “dramatic impact” as well as the play’s “honesty” and “real-life characters.” Magazine writers were equally enthusiastic. According to an article in Plays for the Theatre, this play is “one of the best examples” of work produced by minority playwrights during the late 1950s and 1960s.
Because of this early success, the play was translated into more than thirty languages and performed on stage as well as over the radio in several countries. To celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1983 and 1984, several revivals occurred. Reviewers remained enthusiastic.
Critics agree that this is a realistic play that avoids stereotypic characters. This realism permitted the Black characters to be understood and sympathized with by a primarily white audience. By avoiding extremist characters—by creating Karl Lindner as a nonviolent if prejudiced man rather than as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, for example—Hansberry was able to persuade her audience of the constant if subtle presence and negative effects of racism. According to Glendyr Sacks in the International Dictionary of Theatre-1: Plays, “Interest in the play . . . was undoubtedly fuelled by the unusual experience, for a Broadway audience, of watching a play in which all but one character was black. Furthermore, the tone of the play was not didactic. Its values were familiar . . . and to some extent audiences and critics, both predominantly white, must have felt some relief that the protest implicit in the play was not belligerent.” While some contemporary critics would suggest that realism is outdated, others argue that the play’s influence on subsequent Black works has been highly pervasive. Literature can be politically and culturally challenging, in other words, even if its form is conventional. Because the play is not overt in its protest, some later critics viewed it as assimilationist, an ironic situation since the play itself protests against assimilationism.
Some critics, however, did critique A Raisin in the Sun for its realism. Gerald Weales, in an article published in Commentary in 1959, claimed that “The play, first of all, is old fashioned. Practically no serious playwright, in or out of America, works in such a determinedly naturalistic form.” He continued, “in choosing to write such a play, she [Hansberry] entered Broadway’s great sack race with only a paper bag as equipment.” He also suggests that the plot is “mechanical” and “artificial.” His criticism, however, seems to be primarily against the genre in general rather than against Hansberry’s manipulation of it. The tone of this article indicates that no realistic play would win Weales’s favor. By the end of his article, he does concede that A Raisin in the Sun is a good play with “genuinely funny and touching scenes throughout.”
Hansberry herself responded to the reception of her play in an article she published in the Village Voice in 1959. She occasionally appeared amused at both the type and amount of response her play received. Some critics, she suggested, seem to think that any negative reaction at all would be inherently racist, while others seem to disdain emotional appeals in literature in general. On the other hand, she stated that the play has been “magnificently understood.” She suggested that her characters choose life and hope despite the fact that the culture in general seems enamored with despair because the Youngers and people like them have had “ ‘somewhere’ they have been trying to get for so long that more sophisticated confusions do not yet bind them.” Despair, in other words, is a luxury they cannot afford.
In part, though, this play remains popular specifically because of its realism. It presents characters whose values and goals are emotionally accessible to virtually any American audience yet who through their eventual dignified responses to their situation achieve heroic status. Perhaps Hansberry’s greatest contribution to subsequent drama was her ability to present Black characters as admirable figures.