Critical Context

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Tobacco Road is widely regarded by critics as a classic of the American theater. It will never appear on any top-ten list of the great dramas, but no theater history can overlook its important achievement. The play once held the record for the longest-running nonmusical on Broadway, with 3,182 consecutive performances. Jack Kirkland’s play ran for seven and a half years at the Masque Theatre, from December 4, 1933, to May 31, 1941. The only other dramatic play to surpass its record was Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s adaptation of Life with Father, which opened in 1939 and ran for 3,224 performances. Tobacco Road was also turned into a much-sanitized film in 1941.

What makes the play’s run so remarkable is that it was achieved in spite of uniformly critical reviews. Typical of the negative comments on opening night, for example, is the judgment by Brooks Atkinson, a highly respected drama critic for The New York Times, who was deeply offended by the play’s language and obscenities and called it “one of the grossest episodes ever put on the stage.” Tobacco Road almost closed within the first two weeks of its premiere because of this poor reception. However, audiences were drawn to it, and not solely because of its vulgarity and bucolic charm. People were fascinated by Erskine Caldwell’s vision of life as seen through the eyes of Georgia Crackers and also by Kirkland’s skillful adaptation that...

(The entire section is 410 words.)