The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Tobacco Road is set in the backwoods of Georgia, about thirty miles from Augusta. All three acts take place on Jeeter Lester’s farm, situated at the end of a tobacco road. The squalid shack and land, once prosperous from tobacco crops, are now completely run-down and everything is in complete ruin. The play opens in late afternoon. Jeeter Lester sits on his dilapidated front porch attempting to patch a worn-out inner tube while his son, Dude, viciously throws a ball against the side of the house. Jeeter yells at Dude, and they begin arguing. Grandma Lester wanders in, gathering up twigs, and Dude taunts her with the ball. Ada, Jeeter’s wife, comes out and yells at both men for not hauling wood to Augusta. Ada laments that she is hungry and needs some snuff to calm her stomach pains. Jeeter defends himself throughout the play by telling of his love for the land and his eagerness to plant a new crop, but nothing ever comes of it. Ellie May, Jeeter’s passionate daughter, who has a disfiguring harelip, enters, and Ada queries her about Pearl, Ada’s favorite child. Pearl married Lov Bensey some months ago and has not returned to the farm since. Jeeter and Ada had seventeen children; only Dude and Ellie May are still at home.

Moments later, Lov Bensey enters, carrying a gunnysack of turnips. The sight and smell are too much for the hungry Lester clan. Lov complains to Jeeter that Pearl will not share his marriage bed, and he wants her father to force her. Ellie May seductively slithers up to the sexually frustrated Lov, who responds to her advances. Jeeter grabs the turnips and rushes off into the fields while Ada and Grandma Lester drive off a disgusted Lov with their sticks.

Soon Sister Bessie, a self-styled country preacher, storms in, and after some comic byplay and munching of turnips, she prays that God will forgive Jeeter’s wicked ways. During the prayer, Bessie and Dude begin fondling each other. Bessie, a portly forty-year-old widow, announces that she is thinking of marrying again and may choose the sixteen-year-old Dude as her husband. First, however, she must pray; she will announce her decision the next day. Suddenly, Henry Peabody, another shiftless farmer, enters with good news. He reveals that Captain Tim, the land’s owner, is arriving from Augusta to give credit once again to the farmers. The act ends on a happy note.

Act 2 opens early...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Tobacco Road employs a number of clever dramatic devices. First, it is deliberately structured like a Greek tragedy. In adapting the novel to the stage, Jack Kirkland wisely rearranged and tightened the dramatic action and limited the characters and locales. He compressed, for example, the time of the book’s plot from about two months into less than two consecutive days. Although some episodes in the novel were originally set in nearby Fuller and distant Augusta as well as inside Jeeter’s cabin, the playwright employs only the one setting in front of the house throughout the play.

In its simplicity, Jeeter’s ramshackle dwelling takes on the importance of a noble Greek site now in ruins. For a chorus, Kirkland employs Grandma Lester as an ancient observer of the passing events. She has seen the fall of the Lester household from its former affluence to its present abject poverty, and now she wanders around as a mute reminder of the family’s past glory, a tragic figure felt and seen rather than heard.

Kirkland has eliminated a number of individuals found in the novel and added several new ones for plot purposes. Gone are the amusing scenes involving the brothel owner, the black field hands, the car salesmen in Fuller, and the city hall clerk who issued the marriage license, although the last episode is comically related by Bessie upon her return for the wedding ceremony. Kirkland adds the much-discussed character of Pearl,...

(The entire section is 504 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bordman, Gerald. American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1930-1969. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Caldwell, Erskine. Conversations with Erskine Caldwell. Edited by Edwin T. Arnold. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988.

Cook, Sylvia. Erskine Caldwell and the Fiction of Poverty: The Flesh and the Spirit. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991.

Laufe, Abe. Anatomy of a Hit: Long Run Plays on Broadway from 1900 to the Present Day. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1966.

McDonald, Robert L., ed. The Critical Response to Erskine Caldwell. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Miller, Jordan Y., and Winifred L. Frazer. American Drama Between the Wars: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1991.