The Green Pastures
The Green Pastures
MARC CONNELLY 1929
The Green Pastures, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Marc Connelly, is a reenactment of stories of the Old Testament in which all the characters (including God) are African American and speak in a black southern dialect. The play was first performed at the Mansfield Theatre in New York City in 1930. Connelly attributes his idea for the play to the retelling of Old Testament stories in Roark Bradford’s book Southern Sketches, “0l’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun.”
The Green Pastures follows stories of the Bible, such as Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, Moses and the exodus from Egypt, and the crucifixion of Christ, but places them in a rural black southern setting. Thus, one of the opening scenes takes place at a “fish fry” in “pre-Creation Heaven,” during which God spontaneously decides to create Earth and man. God eats boiled pudding, smokes cigars, and runs Heaven out of a shabby “private office” assisted by Gabriel. The settings are roughly contemporary to the time period in which the play was first written and performed, so that, for instance, the city of Babylon is represented as a New Orleans jazz nightclub. The costumes are also contemporary: God wears a white suit and white tie, Adam is dressed in a farmer’s clothes, Eve wears the gingham dress of a country girl, and so on. The play ends with God’s decision, while back at the fish fry in Heaven, to send Jesus Christ down to Earth.
Connelly’s play was unusual at the time of its initial production in that it featured a cast made up exclusively of African-American actors. Connelly’s portrayal of African Americans as “simple” people, particularly as created by a white playwright, will likely strike today’s reader as stereotyped.
Marcus Cook Connelly was born on December 13, 1890, in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. His father, Patrick Joseph Connelly, was an actor and hotel owner, while his mother, Mabel Louise (maiden name Cook), was an actress.
From 1902 until 1907, Connelly attended Trinity Hall, a private school in Washington, Pennsylvania. From 1908 until 1915, he was a reporter and drama critic for several Pittsburgh newspapers. He then moved to New York, working as a newspaper journalist and freelance writer from 1916 until 1920.
Connelly became a prominent member of the “Vicious Circle” of the Algonquin Round Table, an informal group of sharp-witted writers, editors, actors, and intellectuals who met regularly at the Algonquin Hotel. In 1925, he was named to the editorial board of New Yorker magazine. In 1929, he wrote The Green Pastures, his most celebrated work, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1930. In the same year, Collier’s magazine published his short story “Coroner’s Inquest,” which won an O. Henry Award, and on the personal front, Connelly married screen actress Madeline Hurlock. She divorced him in 1935.
From 1933 until 1944, Connelly moved between New York and Hollywood, writing both stage plays and screenplays. He wrote and directed the screen adaptation of The Green Pastures in 1936. From 1946 until 1950, he was professor of play writing at Yale University.
Connelly held several posts in cultural organizations, including United States Commissioner to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (appointed in 1951); and President of the National Institute of Arts and Letters (in 1953). His autobiographical work, Voices Off-Stage: A Book of Memoirs, was published in 1968. Connelly died in New York City on December 21, 1980.
In Part I, Scene I of The Green Pastures, Reverend Deshee teaches Sunday school to a group of children in a Louisiana town. He explains the first five chapters of Genesis, after which the children ask him questions.
Scene II takes place at a fish fry in pre-Creation Heaven. The fish fry is attended by angels of all ages. An Archangel arrives and hands out diplomas to all of the children. Then Gabriel arrives, followed by God. After tasting the boiled custard, God decides that the recipe needs more “firmament” to taste right. To produce more firmament for the custard, God performs a miracle. There is so much firmament, however, that it starts to rain down on the fish fry. God creates Earth to drain off the excess firmament. God then creates man to farm the earth.
Scene III takes place on the newly formed Earth, where Adam is alone. God tells Adam that he needs a family; he tells Adam to lie down while he creates Eve. Adam and Eve taste the fruit of the tree God has forbidden them to harvest and are kicked out of the Garden of Eden, after which they have two sons, Cain and Abel.
In Scene IV, God descends upon Earth to find that Cain has just killed Abel by hitting him with a stone, because, he says, Abel was making a “fool” of him while he worked in the field. God tells Cain that he has committed a “crime” and orders him to go as far away as possible.
In Scene V, Cain stops by the side of a country road, where he meets a young woman. She agrees to be Cain’s Girl, and takes him home to find lodging at her father’s house.
Scene VI takes place in “God’s private office in Heaven.” God comments to Gabriel that he hasn’t walked the earth for several hundred years, and decides to see how things are going.
Scene VII takes place on Earth on a Sunday. God finds the people engaged in gambling and debauchery, few of them attending church. Noah, a country preacher, comes along, and God walks with him. Noah, thinking God is also a preacher, tells him of the general lack of faith among the people. Noah invites God home for dinner with his wife.
Scene VIII takes place in the home of Noah and his wife. While there, God draws up a plan for Noah to build an ark, warning him that He will be sending a flood to drown all the people, who are full of sin, except Noah and his family.
In Scene IX, Noah and his sons build the ark while their neighbors look on, jeering at Noah and calling him crazy. Cain the Sixth kills Flatfoot with a knife for flirting with his girlfriend. As the rain comes, Noah and his sons begin to load the animals onto the ark.
In Scene X, the ark finally finds dry land, where Noah and his family release the animals and plant seeds. God appears to admire the new world he has created and to congratulate Noah on his success. Gabriel, who accompanies God, is less enthusiastic.
Part II, Scene I takes place in God’s office. God is once again unhappy with the abundance of sin among human beings. He calls Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into his office and informs them that he has chosen one of their descendants, Moses, to lead his people to the Promised Land of Canaan, which God has set aside especially for them.
In Scene II, God speaks to Moses, explaining the task for which he has been chosen. Moses is not convinced that he is hearing the voice of God until God first sets a bush on fire and then turns a rod into a snake.
Scene III takes place in the throne room of the Pharaoh, who is being entertained by a magician. Moses and his brother Aaron arrive and demand that Pharaoh release their people from bondage in Egypt. The Pharaoh refuses, and Moses (with the help of God) causes a swarm of gnats, and then a swarm of flies, to descend upon the Pharaoh’s court. He tells the Pharaoh he will not call off the pests unless the Pharaoh agrees to let his people go. Pharaoh tricks Moses several times, but does not truly agree to release the people until his dead son is brought in to him.
In Scene IV, Moses, Aaron, and their people have been wandering in the desert for forty years. They have come to the river Jordan, where Moses finds that he is too old and sick to enter the Promised Land of Canaan with the others. He appoints Joshua to lead them in battle for the city of Jericho. God
comes to Moses and shows him that his people have won the battle and entered Jericho. God then leads Moses to Heaven.
Scene V takes place in Babylon, where the people, who are full of sin and without faith, attend a wild party in what looks like a New Orleans jazz nightclub. Even the King and the High Priest are corrupt and sinful. A Prophet arrives, but is shot dead by the Master of Ceremonies. God is so angered by this that he renounces his people and vows to abandon them.
Scene VI takes place in God’s office, where He decides to go down to Earth one more time.
Scene VII takes place at the Temple of Jerusalem, where a battle has been fought. God appears to Hezdrel and questions him about his faith and the faith of the people. Hezdrel says that they worship a “new” God, the “God of Hosea,” rather than the “God of Moses.” Hezdrel explains that the “old” God was full of “wrath and vengeance,” whereas the “God of Hosea” is full of “mercy.”
Scene VIII takes place once again at the fish fry in Heaven, where God gets the idea to send a “God who must suffer” down to Earth in the form of Jesus Christ.
Adam is the first man created by God to inhabit the newly created Earth and to cultivate the land. Adam is at first puzzled by his existence. He is described as a man “of thirty, of medium height, dressed in the clothing of the average field hand.” God decides that Adam needs a family because “in yo’ heart you is a family man.” After Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit, they are thrown out of the Garden of Eden.
An Archangel appears at the “fish fry” in Heaven. He is described as older than the other angels and has a white beard. His clothes are “much darker . . . and his wings a trifle more imposing.”
Cain is a son of Adam and Eve. When God comes down to Earth, he finds that Cain has just slain his brother, Abel, by hitting him on the head with a rock because, he claims, Abel had been making a “fool” of him. God tells Cain that he has committed a crime. He tells Cain to go as far away as possible. After traveling for a long time, Cain takes up with a country girl that he meets along the way.
Mr. Deshee is the preacher who teaches Sunday school to the children in a Louisiana town. He tells them the story of the first five chapters of Genesis, then takes questions from the children. This opening scene frames the rest of the play, which is an enactment of biblical stories.
Eve is created by God so that Adam will have a family with whom he can live. Eve is described as “about twenty-six, and quite pretty.” Her costume is that of “a country girl,” with a gingham dress that is “quite new and clean.” After they have eaten the forbidden fruit and are thrown out of the Garden of Eden, she and Adam have two sons, Cain and Abel.
Gabriel is God’s right-hand man. He is described as “bigger and more elaborately winged than even the Archangel,” but younger and without a beard. His costume is “less conventional than that of the other men” and is likened to the drawings of Gabriel by the artist Doré.
God is “the tallest and biggest” of all the inhabitants of Heaven. His costume includes “a white shirt with a white bow tie, a long Prince Albert coat of black alpaca, black trousers, and congress gaiters.” His voice is described as “a rich bass,” and he speaks in a southern black accent, as do all the characters. God created the Earth to drain off the excess “firmament” that resulted from a certain miracle. He runs Heaven from a desk in a shabby-looking office, with the help of Gabriel.
At the play’s end, the Christian God turns out to be the same God as the Hebrew God, but seen from a different perspective by human beings. The difference between the old and the new perceptions of God is that the new is seen as more merciful. As the play ends, God, sitting in Heaven, decides to send down Jesus Christ to demonstrate to people a God who both suffers and is merciful.
Moses is chosen by God to lead his people out of bondage in Egypt and into the Promised Land of Canaan, which God has set aside for them. Moses goes with his brother Aaron to see the Pharaoh in his throne room. They demonstrate several “magic” tricks (with the help of God) in which they cause flies, and then gnats, to descend upon the Pharaoh’s court. Each time, Moses vows that he will not call off the pests unless the Pharaoh promises to free the Jews from bondage in Egypt. Finally, the Pharaoh’s son is brought to him dead, and the Pharaoh agrees to let the Jews go.
After leading his people out of Egypt, and leading them as they wander in the desert for forty years, Moses dies of old age just as they reach the Promised Land of Canaan. As God has foretold, Moses reaches the river Jordan, but is too old and sick to accompany his people into the city of Jericho. Moses appoints Joshua to succeed him. God then appears to Moses to show him that his people have won the battle over Jericho, and leads Moses to Heaven.
Noah, “a country preacher,” meets God while walking along a road. He thinks that God is also a preacher, and tells him that the land is full of sinful, faithless people. Noah then invites God home to dinner with his wife. Over dinner, God reveals who he is, and draws up the plans for Noah to build an ark, warning him of the flood that he will send to wipe out all the sinful people who inhabit the Earth. Noah obeys God’s wishes, building the ark and bringing his family, as well as two of every kind of animal, aboard the ark. After forty days and nights, Noah and his family find dry land where they release the animals and plant the seeds they have brought.
The Pharaoh is visited in his throne room by Moses and his brother Aaron, who come to demand that he free the Jews from bondage. The Pharaoh refuses until his son is brought to him dead, after which he agrees to let them go.
Zeba is the great-great granddaughter of Seth. She is one of the sinners whom God meets along the road. Zeba is entirely invented by Connelly and does not actually appear in the Bible.
A central theme of Connelly’s retelling of the stories of the Old Testament is sin. Ward W. Briggs, Jr., commented in Dictionary of Literary Biography,“The theme throughout is that man sins and is either punished or renounced by God.” The play presents the Earth and humans primarily from the perspective of God. Adam and Eve are the first sinners, and are punished by being thrown out of the Garden of Eden. After Cain has killed his brother Abel, God tells him, “I’m yere to tell you dat’s called a crime,” and advises him to go as far away as possible, then “git married an’ settle down an’ raise some chillun.”
When, several hundred years later, God returns to Earth on a Sunday, he finds a girl singing blues music, a group of men betting, and a family wracked with drunkenness and debauchery. Walking down a country road, God comes upon Noah, who confirms that the people are “jest all lazy, and mean, and full of sin,” and,“Dey ain’t got no moral sense.’ God is so displeased that he decides to drown all of the humans, except Noah and his family, with a flood.
- Connelly wrote and directed the 1936 film The Green Pastures, which was produced by Warner Brothers.
- Connelly wrote an adaptation of The Green Pastures for a television broadcast in 1959.
After the flood, when a prophet is killed in Babylon, God becomes so enraged that He renounces humanity. God tells the people
Dat’s about enough—Fs stood all I kin from you. I tried to make dis a good Earth. I helped Adam, I helped Noah, I helped Moses, an’ I helped David. What’s de grain dat grew out of de seed? Sin! Nothin’ but sin throughout de whole world. I’ve given you every chance. . . . Ev’ything I’ve given you, you’ve defiled. Ev’y time I’ve fo’given you, you’ve mocked me. . . . I repent of dese people dat I have made and I will deliver dem no more.
By the end of the play, however, God realizes that He needs to be a more “merciful” God, sympathetic to human “suffering.”
While God finds mostly sinners upon the Earth, there are a few men who maintain their faith in him. Noah, for instance, appears as a country preacher, discouraged by the sinning of those all around him. Noah is rewarded for his faith when God gives him the plans and instructions to build an ark and save his family from the flood.
Moses is another who maintains his faith in God. When God first speaks to him, however, he is not convinced, until He performs several miracles, at which point Moses confirms his faith.
At the very end of the play, God conceives the idea to send Jesus Christ down to Earth, so that people may develop faith in a God who “suffers.”
God’s Relationship with Man
Connelly’s play is notable for his everyday personification of God as a black man. Throughout
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Connelly’s play is a retelling of stories from the Old Testament. In what ways does Connelly’s rendition of these well-known stories differ from their traditional telling? To what extent does Connelly’s message in this play comply with traditional interpretations of the Old Testament? To what extent does Connelly’s play present a different message?
- Connelly was a prominent member of the Algonquin Round Table, an informal group of writers, editors, actors, and intellectuals who met regularly at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. Learn more about the Algonquin Round Table. Who else was associated with this group? What can you learn about some of the other writers? What aesthetic, literary, and cultural perspectives did the Algonquin Round Table generate?
- Throughout his career, Connelly worked as a screenwriter, and sometimes as an actor and director, for the Hollywood film industry. Learn more about the film industry during Connelly’s career. What significant changes and developments took place in Hollywood during this period? Who were some of the prominent movie stars? What important films were made during this era?
the play, God’s human qualities are emphasized, while his divine powers are also acknowledged. God is represented as a man who attends a fish fry in Heaven, tastes the boiled custard, and discusses the recipe with one of his angels. He also occasionally visits Earth as a human, walking side by side with various other characters. God’s relationship to humanity is thus represented as very personal. Such a personification of God throughout the play makes way for the arrival of Jesus Christ, a God who suffers like a man, as the curtain goes down and the play ends.
The Green Pastures takes place in several key settings, all of which interpret Old Testament Biblical stories in the context of Southern, rural, locations inhabited by African Americans. Connelly chose these settings as the context in which to retell biblical stories because he imagined that rural, Southern African Americans probably imagined the stories of the Bible to take place in the same type of locations with which they were familiar. (Today, Connelly’s representation of such African-American conceptions of the Bible can be seen as stereotyped and without basis.) Heaven, for instance, is represented as a giant fish fry picnic, attended by angels, cherubs, an archangel, and God Himself. The Garden of Eden is set in the rural South, and is described in the stage directions as filled with trees, plants, bushes, and flowers native to the South. Babylon is depicted as “a Negro night club in New Orleans.” God runs Heaven and earth from his “private office,” a shabby old space, where “the general atmosphere is that of the office of a Negro lawyer in a Louisiana town.” The throne room of the Pharaoh is described as resembling “a Negro lodge room.”
The costuming of the play combines and translates traditional conceptions of biblical characters into a rural southern African-American setting. Some of the stage notes describing the costumes, however, contain elements of the stereotyping Connelly employed in attempting to represent African-American culture. The angels in Heaven wear “brightly colored robes and have wings protruding from their backs”; however, they otherwise “look like happy negroes at a fish fry.” God wears “a white shirt with a white bow tie, a long Prince Albert coat of black alpaca, black trousers and congress gaiters.” Adam wears “the clothing of the average field hand,” and Eve wears a “gingham dress,” which is “quite new and clean.” Noah is dressed as “a country preacher.” The Pharaoh of Egypt wears “a crown and garments” which “might be those worn by a high officer in a Negro lodge during a ritual.”
Biblical References and “Artistic License”
Almost all of the characters in The Green Pastures are drawn directly from the Old Testament: God, Gabriel, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Moses, etc. Connelly, however, took “artistic license” in creating several supplemental fictional characters to tell his version of these traditional biblical stories. The term “artistic license” is used to describe a writer’s claim to the right to bend or alter facts, events, or characters in an unrealistic way to better suit her or his narrative concerns. In the “Author’s Note” of the published play, Connelly explains that, “One need not blame a hazy memory of the Bible for the failure to recall the characters of Hezdrel, Zeba and others in the play. They are the author’s apocrypha, but he believes persons much like them have figured in the meditations of some if the old Negro preachers, whose simple faith he has tried to translate into a play.” One such “apocryphal” character is Zeba, the great-great granddaughter of Seth. In the play, God encounters her during a visit to earth on a Sunday. When God meets her on a country road, she is singing a blues song, accompanied by a ukulele. She represents one of the many sinners God encounters during his visit. He chides her for singing blues music when she should be in church, but she merely responds to him in a “sassy” manner. Zeba turns out to be the girlfriend of Cain the Sixth, who later stabs a character named Flatfoot after he flirts with Zeba. Through this device of integrating such characters as Zeba into biblical stories, Connelly was able to narrate scenarios which were suited to the themes he wished to stress in his play.
African-American History and Culture in the 1920s-1930s
The Green Pastures was first produced in 1929, the year of the stock market crash that brought on the Great Depression. One reason for the play’s continued popularity throughout the 1930s may have been due to the massive migration of African Americans from the South seeking employment in Northern cities. Since Connelly’s play was seen primarily by white audiences, his portrayal of rural, Southern African Americans as humble, pious, “simple” people may have held a particular appeal to white Northern populations in urban centers.
The Green Pastures, while written by a white man, includes an entirely African-American cast of characters. Although by today’s standards these characters are mostly stereotypes, this play represented a breakthrough in the history of African-American theater because of the unique opportunity it provided for black actors to play in major roles that went beyond standard bit-parts playing servants. During the 1920s, when The Green Pastures was first written and produced, African-American writers were strongly influenced by the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Organizations such as the Krigwa Players in Washington, D.C., worked to promote African-American dramatic writing and theatrical production. Connelly, as a white man, was not involved in the Harlem Renaissance movement, although The Green Pastures, performed in New York City, would certainly have been noted by writers of the Harlem Renaissance. The Depression had a detrimental affect on the Harlem Renaissance, because many of the writers fell into economic hard times, which made it harder for them to pursue literary efforts.
The Green Pastures is set in an imaginary location in which biblical stories take place in settings that resemble the rural South, and are peopled exclusively by African-American characters. The historical era in which the play is set is referred to as biblical times. Connelly’s representation of the rural Southern United States can be termed “pastoral”—meaning that it is depicted in an idealized, nostalgic light, which ignores any historical or social conflict taking place in the actual American South. Connelly’s South is a world without white people, without racism, without a legacy of slavery, without the legal and illegal practices of racial discrimination that have characterized the history of the South, and without the struggles of African Americans to achieve equality and civil rights. It is important, therefore, to be aware of the real social and historical conditions that characterized the South in the 1920s and 1930s, during the time in which The Green Pastures was first written
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1930s: America is in the midst of the Great Depression, caused by the Stock Market Crash of 1929—the same year in which The Green Pastures was first produced. The Great Depression is characterized by the worst unemployment in U. S. history, with about twenty-five percent of eligible workers unable to find jobs.
1990s: America enjoys a period of economic prosperity, characterized by low unemployment, and many middle-class Americans profiting from investments in the stock market.
- 1920s-1930s: African-American theatrical production is strongly influenced by the Harlem Renaissance movement. Theaters devoted to the black productions are established across the U. S.
1960s-1990s: African-American theatrical production is strongly influenced by the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. The Black Arts Theater is established in Harlem in 1965.
- 1860s: In the Post-Civil War era, white Southern resistance to the efforts of Reconstruction leads to the organization of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in 1866. The KKK reaches the height of its membership and activities in the period of 1868-70.
1870s-1980s: Federal legislation becomes involved in efforts to both limit and defend the Ku Klux Klan. In 1869, the KKK is ordered disbanded. Congress attempts to curb KKK activities via the Force Act of 1870, and the Ku Klux Act of 1871. However, these efforts are partially reversed in 1882, when, in the case of the United States vs. Harris, the Supreme Court rules that the Ku Klux Act of 1871 is unconstitutional.
1920s: Re-organized in 1915, the Ku Klux Klan enjoys renewed participation, with as many as five million members. The burning cross becomes the symbol of the KKK.
1930s-1940s: During the Depression era, KKK membership sharply declines, and the organization is disbanded in 1944.
1960s: In response to the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement to integrate the South, as well as new federal legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the KKK is once again revitalized. In Alabama, after the murder of a civil rights worker and subsequent arrest of four Klan members, President Lyndon B. Johnson makes a television address denouncing the KKK.
1980s-1990s: The Ku Klux Klan begins to form a coalition with other hate groups and white supremacist and anti-federalist organizations, such as the Neo-Nazis.
and produced—as well as during earlier periods in U.S. history which bear upon this era.
During the late 1920s, in which the play was first created, as well as the 1930s, during which it enjoyed enormous popularity among white Northern audiences, the legacy of racial discrimination in the United States, both in the South and elsewhere, involved a number of conflicts and struggles. The Ku Klux Klan, an organization formed in the Post-Civil War Era, with the aim of maintaining white supremacy through violence and intimidation tactics, experienced a revival in the teens and twenties. In 1915, the Klan, which had essentially died out by the 1880s, was reorganized in Atlanta, Georgia—inspired in part by the 1905 novel The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon, which glorified the Klan, and the popular 1915 film adaptation of Dixon’s novel, entitled The Birth of a Nation (directed by D. W. Griffith). This revived Ku Klux Klan flourished in the South and Midwest, boasting a membership of some four to five million during the 1920s. Membership in the Klan was at its highest of the twentieth century in 1928, when The Green Pastures was written. However, membership sharply dropped in the 1930s. Racist activities such as lynching, while not necessarily always organized by the Klan, also remained rampant from the early 1880s through the early 1950s, during which some 3,437 African Americans were lynched in a seventy-year period. In 1918, for example, sixty-three African Americans were lynched. By 1940, however, the number of lynchings had greatly declined. Great efforts to combat racial discrimination were also made throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Anti-lynching campaigns were waged by such African-American activists as Mary Elizabeth Church Terrell, and Walter White, and by white activists such as Jessie Daniel Ames, who founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching in 1930. Efforts at improving the status of African Americans in the U.S. through legislation included the foundation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in 1909, with the leadership of W. E. B. Du Bois.
The Prohibition Era
In The Green Pastures, drinking alcohol—particularly on Sunday—is one of the sinful activities that God observes among the people he has created. Reference to drinking in 1929 is especially significant because it was in the midst of the Prohibition era in the United States, during which the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol was prohibited by federal law. Prohibition began in 1919, with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, and lasted until 1933, when it was rescinded by the twenty-first amendment. Prohibition was ultimately deemed unsuccessful because many law-abiding citizens continued to purchase and drink alcohol. That the entire liquor industry was run illegally by “organized crime,” which was characterized by violent warfare among competing producers and distributors of alcohol. Prohibition, largely supported by Protestant organizations, was a major issue in the presidential elections of 1928, during which The Green Pastures was written. Republication Herbert Hoover won the presidency that year in part due to the support of Protestant, Pro-Prohibition voters. A major incident in 1929 was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, in which the gang led by Al Capone shot and killed seven members of the gang led by “Bugs” Moran. The Green Pastures represents a Protestant practice of Christianity and depicts drinking as a sign of sin and human corruption. Audiences watching The Green Pastures in 1929 would have been aware of the national issues surrounding drinking.
The Algonquin Round Table
Connelly was a member of the “Vicious Circle” of the Algonquin Round Table, also called simply The Round Table, an informal group of writers, dramatists, editors, and intellectuals who met daily for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, during the 1920s and 30s, although the first meeting of The Round Table took place in 1919, and the final meeting in 1943. The Algonquin Round Table became known for its members’ capacity for witty repartee and acerbic comments. Paul T. Nolan describes the “Vicious Circle,” which they also called themselves, as “a group of wits that included half of the quotable men and women in New York during the 1920’s.” Among its prominent members were: the drama critic, poet, and prize-winning short story writer, Dorothy Parker; the comic film actor Harpo Marx; the writer Edna Ferber; the author, critic, actor, and informal leader of the Round Table, Alexander Woollcott; colorful stage and screen actress Tallulah Bankhead; drama critic, playwright, and speechwriter for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Robert E. Sherwood; and playwright and screenwriter George S. Kaufman. Connelly collaborated on a number of plays with George S. Kaufman, and with Edna Ferber. The New Yorker, a weekly magazine, was founded by Harold Ross, a regular member of the Algonquin Round Table, in 1925, and many of the members of The Round Table became regular contributors to the magazine. Connelly was among the first members of the editorial board of The New Yorker, which became popular for witty and urbane coverage of arts and culture in New York City. It was in the context of this milieu of screenwriters, actors, drama critics, and intellectual theatre-goers that Connelly created The Green Pastures, and one can only assume that the writing of the play was influenced by his association with The Round Table.
The Green Pastures is Connelly’s most outstanding literary achievement, garnering him a Pulitzer Prize, and, according to Ward W. Briggs, Jr., “theatrical immortality.” Paul T. Nolan states, “The Green Pastures is the finest single piece of writing that Mr. Connelly has ever done,” adding, “‘The Green Pastures’. . . is the one play by Connelly that has never, except for minor cavils, been criticized for artistic ‘faults.’” Walter C. Daniel comments that, during its first year-and-a-half run in New York, The Green Pastures“had gained praise from practically every source. It had kept the legitimate theater alive, literally, and had brought thousands of Americans and many visiting foreign dignitaries to see the spectacle at the time the nation was reeling from the pangs of economic disaster.” Daniel goes on to state, “The Green Pastures presented night after night the dramatization of a shared religion and a vision through which both black and white Americans who realized their common bond in this experience could approach a social, moral, and philosophical coalition needed for the day. The artifacts of Hebrew folk stories, Negro spirituals, the dramaturgy of Marc Connelly with its superb stage sets, and the acting of the superb cast led by Richard B. Harrison combined to provide the crucial thought-piece for a frightened and desperate 1930 America.” Nolan notes, “The Green Pastures is, undoubtedly, among the half dozen or so most respected plays in American dramatic literature,” adding, “It gave Mr. Connelly an international reputation, a private fortune, and a great deal of personal satisfaction.”
The Green Pastures opened at the Mansfield Theater in New York City, where it ran for 640 performances in 1930 and 1931. The play then made a national tour. It returned for a second run in New York in 1935, running for seventy-three performances, and only closing upon the death of Richard B. Harrison, the actor who had starred as God (“De Lawd”). A revival performance of the play on Broadway was attempted in 1951, but closed after a short run. Connelly wrote and directed the screen adaptation of The Green Pastures, which was produced in 1936 by Warner Brothers. Nolan notes, “The success of the film not only helped to make Connelly ‘the highest paid’ writer in Hollywood, but it also spread the fame of The Green Pastures.” Connelly later wrote a television adaptation of the play, which aired in 1959.
The Green Pastures won immediate popularity and critical acclaim following its opening night on Broadway. According to Daniel, the New York Times drama critic J. Brooks Atkinson “wrote that Connelly’s play excelled as comedy, fantasy, folklore, and religion. He, who became the play’s most continuous and most ardent supporter, wrote that it was a work of surpassing beauty from almost any point of view.” Further, “Atkinson believed Connelly created a miracle on the stage, which, after all, is what the theater is supposed to do.” Nolan asserts that the play may be as famous a theatrical phenomenon as it is a literary and dramatic achievement: “The popularity of The Green Pastures is such that the history of the play, from its composition through its long runs both here and in Europe, has become a part of the legend of American drama; it is not too much to argue, in fact, that the ‘story’ surrounding The Green Pastures is probably the best-known single piece of theatrical history in America.” Nolan adds, “The Green Pastures and all associated with it have become part of the general cultural history of the 1930s.”
Briggs, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, asserts that Connelly is “a central but not pivotal figure of twentieth-century American theatre: a man of enormous popularity but little lasting influence, of considerable instinctive talent but scant genius, of grand ideas but slight thought.” Briggs sums up Connelly’s theatrical career as one in which he “enjoyed the good fortune of early success, the advantages of a brilliant collaborator, and the services of the leading stars of his day.” Briggs concludes, “Regardless of how his plays appear today, Connelly remains one of the most important figures of the Broadway stage in the first half of this [the twentieth] century.”
Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema. In the following essay, Brent discusses elements of legitimate African-American culture in Connelly’s play.
In the “Author’s Note” to the 1929 edition of The Green Pastures, Marc Connelly explains his intent in depicting stories from the Old Testament as peopled by everyday African Americans and set in rural Louisiana:
The Green Pastures is an attempt to present certain aspects of a living religion in the terms of its believers. . . . Unburdened by the differences of more educated theologians, they accept the Old Testament as a chronicle of wonders which happened to people like themselves in vague but actual places, and of rules of conduct, true acceptance of which will lead them to a tangible, three-dimensional Heaven.
Connelly’s commentary likely strikes today’s reader as based on an offensive stereotype of African Americans as simple and childlike. Thus, while prominent black religious leaders and intellectuals
such as W. E. B. Du Bois praised the play upon its first run in the 1930s, later critics, influenced by the Civil Rights Movement and Black Nationalism, found it offensive in its stereotyping of African Americans. In the published script, stage directions describing “happy negroes at a fish fry,” are reminiscent of the Sambo figure, and the character of a “Mammy angel” recalls the Aunt Jemima or black Mammy stereotype—both prevalent images throughout American cultural history.
Nonetheless, Connelly’s play includes a number of more or less authentic elements of African-American culture, including: a well-researched rendition of the speech patterns of African Americans in rural Louisiana; the use of an all-black cast; the singing of “spirituals,” or gospel songs, by a choir throughout the production; and reference to blues and jazz musical traditions.
While The Green Pastures does not necessarily reflect an accurate representation of African Americans or folk culture, it does use an authentic rendition of a Black Louisiana dialect. In the “Author’s Note,” Connelly acknowledges the source that inspired him to write the play: “The author is indebted to Mr. Roark Bradford, whose retelling of several of the Old Testament stories in ‘01’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun’ first stimulated his interest in this point of view.” Roark Bradford (1896-1948) grew up on a plantation in Tennessee, where he, a white child, heard many African-American folk stories from the black workers. In 1920, he began working as a reporter, and, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, “met the colorful characters of various southern cities, including the musicians, preachers, and storytellers on the riverfront of New Orleans.” Based on these experiences, Bradford wrote down a series of African-American folk stories, which were published in the New York World. His first book, a collection of the retelling of biblical stories from among his published works, Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun, was published in 1928. Bradford’s work, however, cannot be considered an accurate or authentic representation of African-American folk culture. As is noted in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “A major weakness of Bradford’s work is his reliance on stereotypes of his black subjects. Yet his writing accurately reflects their dialect, and his approach is gentle and humorous.”
Connelly prominently acknowledged this source for his play, subtitling it: A Fable Suggested by
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Voices Off-Stage: A Book of Memoirs (1968), by Marc Connelly, is Connelly’s autobiographical account of his life on Broadway and in Hollywood.
- Marc Connelly (1969) by Paul T. Nolan provides discussion of nearly all of Connelly’s major works to the late 1960s.
- “De Lawd”: Richard B. Harrison and The Green Pastures (1986) by Walter C. Daniel is an account of the history of Connelly’s play, as produced in the early 1930s. The discussions focuses on actor Richard B. Harrison, whose role as God (“De Lawd”) in the play contributed in no small measure to its success on the stage.
- The short story “Coroner’s Inquest” (1930) by Marc Connelly won an O. Henry Award.
- Southern Sketches, “Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun” (1928) by Roark Bradford is the retelling of Bible stories through African-American folklore and inspired Connelly to write The Green Pastures.
Roark Bradford’s Southern Sketches, “Ol’ Man Adam An’ His Chillun.” However, Paul T. Nolan asserts in Marc Connelly that the influence of Bradford’s work on The Green Pastures was minimal:
Bradford’s book, as [Connelly] acknowledged in the preface to the play, had ‘suggested’ the play to him; but, largely, beyond the fact that Ol’ Man Adam gave Connelly the idea of a biblical play done in southern American Negro dialect, The Green Pastures owes its literary source to the Old Testament and its diction to Connelly’s research on the scene.
Nolan praises Connelly for his extensive and accurate research into the dialects of African Americans in the South:
Connelly spent considerable time in Louisiana, researching the subject. . . ’I went into the farm country of St. Francis Parish—near Baton Rouge,’ he wrote of his experiences in Louisiana; ’. . . I read my play to sharecroppers.’
Nolan adds, “Connelly’s ear for oral language, although given little attention in the discussion of his earlier plays, was always one of his great assets as a playwright.” Nolan concludes, “Connelly was wonderfully trained and admirably suited by talent and interest to make the kind of careful language study that was necessary to give The Green Pastures its authenticity.”
Although written, directed, and produced by white men, and attended by primarily white audiences, The Green Pastures was a significant event in the world of black theater. The Harlem Renaissance, a literary movement that flourished in New York’s black Harlem neighborhood, inspired the development of black theater in the 1920s and 1930s. Theaters devoted to black productions were established in major cities throughout the United States, the most prominent being the American Negro Theater and the Negro Playwrights’ Company.
While not a black production, The Green Pastures represented a new development in the presence of African Americans on the mainstream stage. According to Walter C. Daniel in “De Lawd”: Richard B. Harrison and The Green Pastures, New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson saw The Green Pastures as a milestone in the on-stage representation of black culture:
Atkinson judged that audiences were rapt in attention because they realized they were in the presence of a new cultural artifact being performed before their eyes. That was the elevation of the folk art from riotous low comedy to something not yet named but essentially and demonstrably different from the ribald jokes and denigrating stereotypes of the black stage idiom.
Casting for the play created shock waves in the black drama world. Daniel observes, “Black actors hoped the play would bring them a new significance. Never before had so many black actors and singers been employed in a single stage endeavor.
A play about African-American culture and religion, written by a white author and featuring an all black cast, The Green Pastures was bound to raise racial issues at the time of its initial production. Connelly had had great trouble selling the play to a producer in the first place, for a variety of reasons, one being that, according to Nolan,“There were. . . fears that a play with a Negro actor playing God would offend the white, religious theatergoers.” However, the casting of unknown sixty-five-year-old actor Richard B. Harrison as God (“De Lawd”) turned out to be one of the production’s finest attributes and a key factor in the long-running success of the play; upon Harrison’s death in 1935, the play quickly lost its box-office appeal. Daniel observes, “The trick of putting a black God on the stage turned into fortune as Richard B. Harrison’s talent at acting, dignity, rich voice, and gentle, endearing humor flooded over the auditorium and balcony.” Furthermore, Harrison proved an important link between Broadway and African-American communities. According to Daniel, “Few of them could purchase tickets to see him [Harrison] perform at the Mansfield, but they related to him and clamored for his presence in their little theater groups, social gatherings, and churches.”
Daniel observes that “equally important as the newspaper critics’ comments on the play were indications of approval that came early from the clergy and from New York black intellectuals.” W. E. B. Du Bois, for example,“praised The Green Pastures because in it Marc Connelly ‘has made an extraordinarily appealing and beautiful play based on the folk religion of Negroes.’” Daniel adds that Du Bois “could not agree with those who considered the play sacrilegious.” Furthermore, “Sermons preached in black and white local churches frequently included some reference to the play.” In 1931, Harrison was awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Spingarn Medal for making the most significant contribution to the advancement of African Americans in the country that year; the award speech was delivered by Du Bois.
The Green Pastures brought authentic African-American culture to the stage through the key role of music in the play’s production. Stage directions call for a choir, which breaks into spirituals as accompaniment to the biblical narrative of the play. Daniel describes the effect of the first sounds of the choir on the play’s opening night, when “from the darkness came the burst of the magnificent sounds
“WHILE THE GREEN PASTURES DOES NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT AN ACCURATE REPRESENTATION OF AFRICAN AMERICANS OR FOLK CULTURE, IT DOES USE AN AUTHENTIC RENDITION OF A BLACK LOUISIANA DIALECT.”
of the Hall Johnson Choir” singing “Rise, Shine, Give God the Glory.”
The spiritual is a form of American folk music, characterized by the singing of hymns. Over time, black and white folk culture developed the spiritual along different lines, although sharing many hymns and tunes. Both are rooted in revival and camp meetings, a practice of Christian religious worship popular in the South. Important differences, however, developed between the two folk cultures. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Black spirituals were sung not only in worship but also as work songs, and the text imagery often reflects concrete tasks.” The spiritual thus developed as “a complex intermingling of African and white folk-music elements,” in that “complementary traits of African music and white U.S. folksong reinforced each other.” The musical style of spirituals in particular is derived from African culture, as imported by the slave trade. “Most authorities see clear African influence in vocal style and in the. . . clapped accompaniments.”
Spirituals sung in the play include: “When the Saints Come Marching In”; “So High You Can’t Get Over It”; “Hallelujah”; “A City Called Heaven”; “Go Down Moses”; “Mary Don’t You Weep”; and “Hallelujah, King Jesus.”
Jazz and blues music, both strongly rooted in African-American culture and history, play a small but important role in The Green Pastures. The roots of jazz in African culture are especially strong. As stated in Encyclopaedia Britannica,
Had it not been for the traffic in slaves from West Africa to the United States, jazz would never have evolved, either in the United States or Africa, for jazz is the expression in music of the African native who is
isolated both socially and geographically from his natural environment.
In Connelly’s play, both jazz and blues are contrasted with the spirituals sung by the heavenly choir, and represent the human descent into sin.
In act 2, scene 7, when God returns to Earth on a Sunday to see how the people he made are doing, he first encounters Zeba on a country road. Zeba, “a rouged and extremely flashily dressed chippy of about eighteen,” is sitting on a stump, singing “a ‘blues’” and playing a ukulele. God immediately disapproves, saying “Now, dat ain’t so good.” He tells Zeba to “Stop dat!” When Zeba responds with indifference and resumes singing, God tells her, “Don’t you know dis is de Sabbath? Da’s no kin’ o’ song to sing on de Lawd’s day.” This encounter represents the first of many in which God finds that man has descended into sin, paying no heed to the Sabbath.
Act 3, scene 5, takes place in “a room vaguely resembling a Negro night club in New Orleans,” where “about a dozen couples are dancing in the foreground to the tune of a jazz orchestra.” The costumes are meant to “represent the debauches of Babylon.” Connelly thus chose to depict a city which has descended into sin as a jazz club, and the sinners as flashily dressed young people dancing to jazz music.
Jazz music and, to a lesser extent, blues have long been associated with sin and debauchery. Flourishing in the red-light district of New Orleans, jazz became associated with moral depravity. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, “jazz, linked to the black performer and the social events of black life in the city, retained a connotation of sin and dissipation for many years after the New Orleans pioneers were forgotten.” The setting of Connelly’s play in Louisiana, and the portrayal of Babylon as a New Orleans black Jazz club, is especially appropriate, as New Orleans is known to be the birthplace of jazz.
While today’s reader will most likely balk at the stereotypical and condescending representation of African Americans in this play, it is important to acknowledge the significant impact it had on the black theater of the day, as well as the elements of legitimate African-American culture used within the play itself, such as black spirituals, references to jazz and blues music, and the use of an accurately rendered black Louisiana dialect throughout the dialogue.
Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Paul T. Nolan
The following chapter essay discusses elements within and surrounding Marc Connelly’s play, including the composition and history of the work, its critical and social status, and its thematic elements.
The Green Pastures is, undoubtedly, among the half dozen or so most respected plays in American dramatic literature. It gave Mr. Connelly an international reputation, a private fortune, and a great deal of personal satisfaction. Unfortunately for his other works, it also gave many theater critics and historians the general impression that Marc Connelly was a one-play author. Such an impression came not merely because The Green Pastures is the finest single piece of writing that Mr. Connelly has ever done, but also because, in various superficial ways, it appears to be utterly different from all his other works. It is his only play about Negroes; it is his only full-length play on a religious subject; it is his only play without a conventional happy ending.
I The Composition and History
The popularity of The Green Pastures is such that the history of the play, from its composition through its long runs both here and in Europe, has become a part of the legend of American drama; it is not too much to argue, in fact, that the story surrounding The Green Pastures is probably the best-known single piece of theatrical history in America. In 1928, Harper and Brothers published a collection of dialect stories by Roark Bradford, Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun, which was popular immediately with the Broadway literary colony. F. P. Adams, for example, on December 28, 1928, reported to his readers that he had had lunch with Bradford, “the author of my favorite book. . . and so to dinner with M. Connelly. . . .” This linking of Ol’ Man Adam and Connelly by Adams was, probably, not accidental. Sometime earlier that year, Rollin Kirby, three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for cartooning, had recommended the book to Connelly, who immediately saw dramatic possibilities in its materials; and in 1929, when he went to New Orleans to see Bradford, he wrote “the first act of The Green Pastures on the boat S. S. Dixie en route.”
Connelly spent considerable time in Louisiana, researching the subject. Bradford’s book, as he acknowledged in the preface to the play, had “suggested” the play to him; but, largely, beyond the fact that Ol’ Man Adam gave Connelly the idea of a Biblical play done in Southern American Negro dialect, The Green Pastures owes its literary source to the Old Testament and its diction to Connelly’s research on the scene.’ I went into the farm country of St. Francis Parish—near Baton Rouge,” he wrote of his experiences in Louisiana; “. . .1 read my play to sharecroppers.” Connelly’s ear for oral language, although given little attention in the discussion of his earlier plays, was always one of his great assets as a playwright. Sometimes critics, like John Mason Brown, had complained that his ear for the idiom—“the half-written Algonquins”—led him to sacrifice plotting for tone, theme for “local color”; but, if his friends on Broadway had thought about the problem of research in terms of language, they would have agreed that Connelly was wonderfully trained and admirably suited by talent and interest to make the kind of careful language study that was necessary to give The Green Pastures its authenticity.
Mr. Connelley, moreover, had always had a great deal of sensitivity to intent. Charley Bemis in The Wisdom Tooth, J. Daniel Thompson in The Wild Man of Borneo, and Merton in Merton of the Movies
“FEW RELIGIOUS PLAYS SUCCEEDED AT THE BOX OFFICE, AND, AT THE TIME, NO PLAY WITH AN ALL-NEGRO CAST HAD EVER BEEN A GOOD INVESTMENT. THERE WERE, MOREOVER, FEARS THAT A PLAY WITH A NEGRO ACTOR PLAYING GOD WOULD OFFEND THE WHITE, RELIGIOUS THEATERGOERS.”
are all treated as heroes, not because they perform heroic actions or make heroic speeches, but because, in spite of their doing the weak thing and saying the wrong thing, Connelly “intuits” their good intentions. This sensitivity to intent, as well as Connelly’s eye and ear for accurate detail, has made The Green Pastures appealing to millions of viewers and readers who have been able to gain from the experiences of the characters some insight into their own lives.
Connelly spent over a year writing the play and then another six months looking for a producer. All of the established New York producers turned down the play, in spite of Connelly’s reputation for commercial success, convinced that, for a variety of reasons, The Green Pastures would be “bad business.” Few religious plays succeeded at the box office, and, at the time, no play with an all-Negro cast had ever been a good investment. There were, moreover, fears that a play with a Negro actor playing God would offend the white, religious theater-goers. Finally, Rowland Stebbins, a retired stockbroker, made himself a part of American theater history by risking his reputation for financial shrewdness by backing the play. Connelly’s casting of the play—especially the selection of Richard B. Harrison to play the Lawd—is almost a separate story, certainly an important episode in the history of the Negro actor in American theater.
The play opened in the Mansfield Theatre in New York on February 26, 1930; and, although there were still a few doubts about the financial future of the play, there were none about its worth as drama. Burns Mantle summed up critical opinion when he wrote of the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize to The Green Pastures as the best play of the year: “In the awarding of the prize, not a single dissenting voice was heard, either in the committee or in the press. . . .” Variety approved of the play as “art theatre,” but expressed doubts that the play would run long in a commercial theater.
Some critics, to be sure, had reservations about certain aspects of The Green Pastures. Mantle, for example, felt there was some injustice done to Bradford, who was given credit merely for “the suggestion,” rather than as a collaborator. Francis Fergusson, in answering that charge, called The Green Pastures “a myth [belonging more to the Bible than to Bradford] which Mr. Connelly discovered nearly intact and devoted himself humbly to translating into stage terms.” Fergusson argued that Connelly’s discovery of the “truth” in Bradford’s “farcical” tales deserved special credit. “Discovery of this kind,” he wrote, “. . . is of course more creative than confecting something supposedly new.” Fergusson, however, complained that the “sinful folk” were modeled on “smart Harlemites,” rather than on the Louisiana Negro, perhaps unaware that the New Orleans native, of any race, is also metropolitan, “smart.” In commenting upon Fergusson’s complaint, Mr. Connelly told me, “The Harlem aspect mentioned was an actual attempt to create the atmosphere I found in the ‘barrel-house’ in New Orleans.” Fergusson’s complaint was, moreover, only a qualification; and he approved of Connelly’s other characters. “He has managed,” Fergusson wrote, “to avoid condescending. . . .”
The Green Pastures and all associated with it have become part of the general cultural history of the 1930s. Mantle, in writing of a new play that Rowland Stebbins produced a dozen years later, for example, identified Stebbins as the man “who will be known to the end of the century as the noble soul who had enough faith in Marc Connelly’s ‘Green Pastures’ to bring it to production after so-called wiser heads of Broadway had neglected to do so.” The Green Pastures was even given credit for “saving” the reputation of the Pulitzer Prize. In commenting upon other Pulitzer Prize selections for 1929-30, a reviewer for the Literary Digest argued that The Green Pastures was the only work awarded the prize that year that “No one questions. . . .” All the other Pulitzer choices were challenged, sometimes bitterly. Why should Oliver LaFarge have been selected rather than Hemingway, or Conrad Aiken rather than Elinor Wylie? With obvious approval, the Literary Digest concluded its account with a statement from Woollcott’s article in the Morning Telegraph: “’The Green Pastures’ does not need the Pulitzer Prize, but, oh, how the Pulitzer Prize needs ‘The Green Pastures.’”
Perhaps longer than any other twentieth-century American play, The Green Pastures was important for its news value alone. In the 1930s, the production of the play, the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize, the suggestion that the play demonstrated an awakened social conscience, the various long-run records that the play established, all were reported with enthusiasm by the press. And then in June, 1935, while the play was still enjoying an unbroken run throughout the United States, Warner Brothers purchased the film rights to it on terms that “were all Connelly’s.” He directed it, staged it, cast it. The success of the film not only helped to make Connelly “the highest paid” writer in Hollywood, but it also spread the fame of The Green Pastures.
In 1951, Connelly again staged The Green Pastures in New York. It opened at the Broadway Theatre March 15 and closed April 21.“No amount of enthusiasm on the part of the individual critic, including this editor,” John Chapman wrote of that production, “could make this American miracle play stick. Modern Broadway was just not interested in de Lawd, Gabriel, and the fish-loving angels.” Although in one respect The Green Pastures on the professional stage is past history at the moment, the play still has its supporters by the thousands, men like John Mason Brown, who, as late as 1963, summed up his critical opinion with this statement: “Let’s face it with proper gratitude. The Green Pastures is a masterpiece.”
For the past two decades, however, there has been a general feeling that the play is too simple for complex academic criticism, too soft for an age of revolution, and perhaps too patronizing for the new role of the Negro in the United States, too much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Just a few years ago, for example, the Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church charged that the play was “irreligious” and “perpetuated outmoded stereo-types” of Negroes. As these various comments indicate, much of the existing criticism of the play has been concerned with its stage history rather than with its literary merit and ideational content. A recent edition of The Green Pastures, with sensible, religious essays by W. R. Matthews, John Macmurray, and Henry Self, gives hope that a new interest in the play—a critical interest—is coming into being.
II Critical Status
The tremendous success of the play in the theater, strangely enough, seems to have discouraged serious dramatic criticism about the merits of the play as literature, to a large degree, perhaps, because its “literary merit” was never questioned. Most critics have been content merely to state a verdict. Joseph Wershba, for example, has said that for this play alone Connelly has “assured himself a lasting place in American drama . . . “; and this judgment has been rendered hundreds of times. The Green Pastures, which has been republished in at least thirty-three different anthologies in the past thirty-seven years, is the one play by Connelly that has never, except for minor cavils, been criticized for artistic “faults.”
During the past twenty-five years, however, it has become the fashion to praise the play for what it was, not for what it is. John Gassner, for example, calls The Green Pastures, “a play that is inscribed in the permanent records of the American theatre.” His critical discussion of the play, however, is limited to a short statement concerned with the difficulty of classifying it: “The Green Pastures is unique; it cannot be placed in any existing classification without some reservations. . . . Is there no discrepancy between the ‘Harlem’ scene and the spirit of the play? Is the play entirely free from a spirit of condescension toward primitive folk and their notions? Yet one cannot overlook the tremendous fascination the play exerted for years after it opened on Broadway. It seemed the culmination of everything we considered a movement toward folk drama for at least a decade, and it was also the only religious drama anyone succeeded in making tolerable to the American public since Charles Rann Kennedy’s old-fashioned morality play, The Servant in the House.”
E. Bradlee Watson and Benfield Pressey also defend the play in historical terms: “. . . The Green Pastures. . . seems itself both miraculous and inevitable—miraculous because it arose out of such unpredictable comings-together; inevitable because by 1930 the theatre in America was overripe for a great Negro play and a great religious play. . . . Unconsciously. . . America needed The Green Pastures.” In judging the play as living dramatic literature, however, they are less certain: although “. . . it remains a monumental attainment in the American theatre,” they write, “. . . it is not likely to be often available in revivals. . . .”
The Green Pastures, to be sure, is an expensive play to stage; but the modern reader still finds it an exciting experience, not merely an historical monument. In an interview with Ward Morehouse in 1951, following its last full-scale professional revival, Connelly said of the play: “I’m glad that the critics find it a simple play. I feel that it is offered as an honest inquiry into man’s attempt to find dignity and virtue within himself, that it invites introspection and a search for old dignities.”
III The Play
The Green Pastures is not a play utterly different from everything that Connelly had done before; The Deep Tangled Wildwood, The Wisdom Tooth, and The Wild Man of Borneo, for examples, are quite obviously searches for “old dignities.” What distinguishes The Green Pastures from these earlier plays is its scope. In this play Connelly selected his materials, not from minor aspects of contemporary society, but from the central religious-philosophical myth of Western civilization, the Hebraic-Christian accounts in the Bible; and he then applied some of the implications of that myth to one group of suffering American humanity, the Southern Negro.
The play is divided into two parts: the first, in ten scenes; the second, in eight. The first part opens in a Negro Sunday School in New Orleans, where the kindly preacher, Mr. Deshee, is beginning a study of the Bible for his young charges. Although, seemingly, the selection of the Biblical episodes—life in Heaven before creation, the creation of Adam and Eve, the fall of Cain, and the Noah story—merely follow a chronological account, they have a thematic purpose: they deal with a theory of human reformation. They present, from the Lawd’s point of view, a theory of crime and punishment. Man—especially starting with Cain—has sinned; and with the flood, he has been punished. The new world—that is “startin’ all over again”—is founded only by the virtuous, the chosen few who survived the flood.
Many of Connelly’s earlier plays stopped at this point, the moment of the new start; but quite obviously, in the context of The Green Pastures, a good life created by the “remaining virtuous” is too narrow a view of man to succeed. It is not merely that the first part ends with God saying softly, ’ I only hope it’s goin’ to work out all right”; it is, also, that Gabriel, while still respectful of the Lawd, has “no enthusiasm” for the success of the project.
In the second part of The Green Pastures, the materials are selected from episodes in the Bible from the story of Moses to the fall of Jerusalem; and, upon first observation, the second part seems merely to repeat the theme of the first: man, in spite of God’s help, again proves incapable of reform. This time, God does not punish with a flood, but with a renunciation. Quite obviously, the history of man, from the Lawd’s point of view, demonstrates that mankind is incapable of being “worthy of de breath I gave you.”
Starting with the sixth scene of Part Two, however, The Green Pastures moves from a concern with the “reformation” of man to a concern with the “nature” of man. The question is no longer, “How can man be reformed?”; instead, it becomes,“What is man?” In the seventh scene, the Lawd gets a suggestion of an answer to that second question: man is a creature full of weaknesses, but he tries. He has hope in the midst of catastrophe, courage in the midst of despair, and compassion in the midst of suffering. And he learned to be so wise “Through sufferin’,” as Hezdrel tells God.
God, when He comes to understand His own creation, learns the lesson: even a God must suffer, must be involved with mankind as man is. The Green Pastures ends in the spectacle of Christ on the cross; and the “Voice,” man, learns not to behave differently, but to feel beyond himself. The play ends with the extension of human sympathy to a suffering God: “Oh, dat’s a terrible burden [involvement with suffering mankind, as well as the cross] for one man to carry!” As Vincent Long comments in his “Introduction” to the play, however we start our association with The Green Pastures—with “amusement” or with “indulgent condescension”—“We soon find. . . that we are entering into an experience of real religion.”
The “religious truth” of the play is not, however, concerned with a question of theology. It is, rather, concerned with man’s relationship to man. If, the play seems to ask, even with a just God, man sins but is yet redeemed because he knows suffering and has learned mercy, how should men treat each other? Specifically, the question raised for an American audience centers around the attitude the fortunate white-American theater-goers should have toward “the least of these, thy brothers.”
IV The Use of Sentimentality
Modern Negroes, weary of the “Uncle Tom” picture of the “Good 01’ Darky,” may be offended at the opening scene of The Green Pastures. Although Mr. Deshee is shown as a good man, he is a kind of “Uncle Tom,” a man who seems so simple that his goodness appears to be the result of simple-mindedness rather than of virtue. In the first Sunday School scene, for example, he is teaching a class of small Negro children. In his opening speech, he summarizes the first five chapters of Genesis; and the emphasis is entirely upon long life: “Adam lived a hundred an’ thirty years an’ begat a son in his own likeness. . . Seth. An de’ days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years!” The only reference to contemporary life is that “ol’ Mrs. Gurney’s mammy” is called “ol’ Mrs. Methusaleh caize she’s so ol’.” This summary, with its list of begats and deaths, Mr. Deshee calls “de meat and substance” of the first five books; and he concludes his lesson with the question, “Now, how you think you gonter like de Bible?”
All questions from the children are answered with a proper respect for conventional morality and a dependence upon the literal truth of the Bible as Mr. Deshee understands it. In the third scene, for example, one boy wants to be certain that Adam and Eve had been married a proper length of time before the birth of Cain.“My mammy say it was a hund’ed years,” the boy says. Mr. Deshee admits that it is now difficult to be exact about the number of years, but his answer assures the boy that at least the proper number of months had passed.
This concern with age and with proper behavior seems to suggest a lack of understanding of the “central truths” of the religious story, at least from the view of modern, educated Americans in the 1930’s. Mr. Deshee, however, is not ignorant of life. As the spiritual leader of a people who live hungry, die young, and face day-after-day indictments that they are “by nature” immoral, Mr. Deshee’s concern with age and conventional behavior is part of an attempt to translate the abstract religion into a practical guide. A people who die young must be impressed by old age.
Connelly avoids making obvious social-protest associations. Mr. Deshee’s life among the poor, the hungry, and the shamed—the Negro scene—is never mentioned. Rather a kindly, old preacher and a chorus of innocent children set the stage. No one, whatever his racial opinions, would deny the basic goodness of such people; but the audience’s sympathy for this group must also be mixed with some mild, sophisticated contempt. Undoubtedly in such a state, the folk are good; but the suggestion is that “such a state” is, therefore, necessary for them.
The first scene in Heaven, the second scene of Part One, develops the same concept of the good, simple “Darky” and suggests the kind of state necessary for his goodness. This scene does show “adults”—Angels, God, Gabriel; but the notion of their “simple goodness” is strengthened by their childlike responses and by the fact that, in terms of the religious story used, they are naturally good. Connelly, moreover, surrounds them with children, Cherubs. The use of characters who conform to the stereotype of the “good Darky” and who are yet loosely drawn from the Biblical story makes a sentimental appeal to the audience. Showing the “naturally” good, simple Negro in his pursuit of “naturally” good, simple goals reinforces a sentimental view with a religious overtone. The normal audience response, it seems to me, is largely sentimental; but there must also be the slightly uncomfortable feeling that this sentiment has the support of powerful forces.
V The Harlem Evil
In the following scenes—with Cain, with the blues-singing Zeba, with the Children of Noah, with the Children of Israel, and in the “Harlem” scenes that Francis Fergusson and John Gassner did not like—the Lawd and the audience have another view of man, the Negro. To some degree, the desired response is also to a stereotype: the Negro as naturally violent and naturally brutal. The evidence offered is overwhelming. He is a “depraved being” capable of any crime: he kills his brother, he steals, he lies, he betrays. He does, in fact, everything that all the imperfect heroes and villains of the Old Testament did; and he does it all in a fashion that will allow those who view the Negro actors in the play to conclude that what is being shown is a Realistic portrayal of “Negro behavior.”
The uneasiness of those who would like The Green Pastures to be a propaganda piece for the Negro—both white critics in the early 1930’s and Negro leaders in the 1950’s and 1960’s—is a clear demonstration that Connelly did his work well. The audience is ready to join the Lawd in His weariness with sin. “Dat’s about enough,” the Lawd announces. “Fs stood all I kin from you. I tried to make dis a good earth. I helped Adam, I helped Noah, I helped Moses, an’ I helped David. What’s de grain dat grew out of de seed? Sin! Nothin’ but sin throughout de whole world. . . . So I renounce you. Listen to the words of yo’ Lawd God Jehovah, for dey is de last words yo’ ever hear from me. I repent of dese people dat I have made and I will deliver dem no more.”
Connelly’s insight into the nature of the “Good Outsider,” weary with the “transgressions of the folk,” seems so fresh that this characterization might have been created in the 1960’ s, rather than in 1930, as the play relates to the race problem in the United States. White Americans still complain that the Negro drive for “equal rights” is moving too fast, some evidence perhaps of a repentance of past “deliverances.”
The accumulative view of these central scenes of the play contrasts with the first three scenes and shows the Negro as violent and depraved. At first, a sentimental solution seems suggested; for, if the Negro could move back to the world of Mr. Deshee’s Sunday School and the Heavenly fish fry, there would be no necessity to deal with the world of Cain and Harlem; however, the Lawd, like the audience, must contemplate punishment and desertion as the answer.
VI The Reconciliation
With the Lawd’s renunciation scene, however, a pronounced change takes place in the tone of the play and in the response from the audience. Until the last few scenes, the white, sophisticated audience has been watching—with some amusement, some sympathy, and probably some impatience—the history of “the folk” from the point of view of the Lawd. In another place, I have argued that, in spite of the fact that the Lawd was played by a Negro actor, his character, in part, is based on a stereotype of the “Good White Man,” as he sees himself in relationship to the folk. There may be some question as to the validity of that argument, but there is little to the assumption that the Lawd in his renunciation speech reflects the varied attitudes of well-meaning, sympathetic, tired outsiders to the problems and errors of the folk.
From the moment of renunciation, however, the Lawd, in dramatic terms, loses his superiority. In the sixth scene of Part Two the Lawd recognizes the righteousness of Hosea, now a resident of Heaven, although Hosea obviously disagrees with the Lawd’s renunciation. He becomes the Lawd’s superior, and in their conflict—an unspoken agon—Hosea overwhelms the Lawd. The Lawd’s final speech in this scene shows his capitulation to a superior force. “You know I said I wouldn’t come down,” the Lawd shouts down to the voice of goodness on earth after Hosea’s silence has weakened his resolve. “Why don’t he answer me a little? Listen, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I ain’t goin’ to promise you anythin’, and I ain’t goin’ to do nothin’ to help you. I’m just feelin’ a little low, an’ I’m only comin’ down to make myself feel a little better, dat’s all.”
In the last dramatic scene of the play, the Lawd comes in conflict with Hezdrel, one of the characters Connelly created without Biblical authority. If the characters to this point in the play can be divided into “good, simple” and “bad, smartalecky Harlem” Negroes, Hezdrel is something new. He is good, courageous, faithful, but he is also a complicated human being, wiser in the matters of man than the Lawd himself. The Lawd, in fact, finally has to ask Hezdrel for the secret of knowledge—how does one (even God) discover mercy? Hezdrel’s answer—“Through suffering”—leaves the Lawd confused, but full of admiration. The Lawd is now an “inferior being” who must be removed from the scene of the heroic action for his own safety. He can be only a supporting character as He leaves the heroic Hezdrel, giving the battle cry of man, “Give ‘em eve’ything, Boys.”
In these two scenes, the audience’s sympathy must shift from the Lawd to Hosea and Hezdrel. They are, in terms of The Green Pastures, morally superior. They hold, in terms of their agons with the Lawd, the same position that Tiresias holds against Oedipus, Antigone against Creon: they are right. At this point, the audience must become aware that, although the actors are Negroes, the subject is man; and the Lawd’s renunciation of “dese people” includes not merely the folk in the play, but the folk in the audience.
The identification of the audience with the Lawd has now ceased. The history of the play is no longer a Negro history, but the history of Hebraic-Christian man. If the white outsider continues in his sympathy with the Lawd’s decision to withdraw from the Negro world, he must put himself in a world from which God has withdrawn, and he must approve of that withdrawal. The sophisticated audience has been sentenced by its own biases to a Godforsaken world.
The Lawd of The Green Pastures concludes that He cannot judge men fairly from without, and the play ends with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Whether this is orthodox Christian doctrine or not is a matter for theologians, but from a dramatic point of view, Connelly’s The Green Pastures offers a successful pattern for the writer of folk drama. He starts with the biases for and against the folk, and he forces his audience to examine these biases and their assumptions not only about the “folk” but about themselves. Once we are caught up in The Green Pastures, it is difficult to refuse Connelly’s invitation to introspection.
Source: Paul T. Nolan, “The Green Pastures,” in Marc Connelly, Twayne Publishers, 1969, pp. 79-91.
Briggs, Jr., Ward W., “Marc Connelly,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale Group, 1981, pp. 124-30.
Connelly, Marc, The Green Pastures: A Fable, Farrar & Rinehart, 1929, pp. XV-XVI.
———, Voices Offstage: A Book of Memoirs, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968, p. 258.
Daniel, Walter C., “De Lawd”: Richard B. Harrison and The Green Pastures, Greenwood, 1986, pp. 90-4, 99, 105-7.
Nolan, Paul T., Marc Connelly, Twayne, 1969, pp. 79-83.
Baker-Fletcher, Garth, ed., Black Religion after the Million Man March: Voices on the Future, Orbis Books, 1998.
This book is a collection of articles discussing the role of religious life in African-American politics and thought after the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C.
Bascom, William, African Folktales in the New World, Indiana University Press, 1992.
Bascom’s book is a collected discussion of African-American folktales derived from traditional African folktales. It serves as a useful counterpoint to Connelly’s representation of African-American interpretations of the Bible in terms of folk narrative.
Bryan III, J., Merry Gentlemen (and One Lady), Atheneum, 1987.
This work is a cultural history of the Algonquin Round Table, an informal affiliation of writers, artists, and intellectuals in New York City with whom Connelly was associated.
Filler, Louis, ed., American Anxieties: A Collective Portrait of the 1930s, Transaction, 1993.
Filler provides a cultural history of the era in which Connelly wrote. The collections are from several historians.
Hurston, Zora Neale, Dust Tracks on the Road, Harper-Perennial, 1991.
This book has come to be considered a classic work of African-American folklore in the South, as collected by novelist and anthropologist of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston. It includes a forward by celebrated African-American poet and novelist Maya Angelou.
Lincoln, C. Eric, and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience, Duke University Press, 1990.
Lincoln and Mamiya present a history of the role of religion in African-American culture, thought, and politics.