Heyward, Dorothy (Hartzell) Kuhns

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HEYWARD, Dorothy (Hartzell) Kuhns

Born 6 June 1890, Wooster, Ohio; died 19 November 1961, New

York, New York Wrote under: Dorothy Heyward, Dorothy Kuhns

Daughter of Herman L. and Dora Hartzell Kuhns; married DuBose Heyward, 1923

Although best known for two plays written in collaboration with her husband, Dorothy Kuhns Heyward established herself as a dramatist and novelist in her own right. Her commitment to writing for the stage began shortly after her marriage, when Nancy Ann (1924), a prize-winning play she wrote for George Pierce Baker's 47 Workshop, was produced on Broadway. Instructed to write about what she knew, Heyward filled the three-act comedy with "aunts, debuts, and theatrical waiting rooms."

Heyward attended the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., Columbia University, and Radcliffe College, where she took the famous Harvard playwriting course. On the strength of her writing for this class, she was invited to the MacDowell Colony for Artists in Petersboro, New Hampshire, during the summer of 1922. There she met her future husband, who was also spending his first summer at the colony. During the following year, Heyward toured as a chorus girl in a musical to gain firsthand experience in the theater.

Similarities of taste, temperament, and appearance were frequently noted in Heyward and her husband by their acquaintances: both were tall, slender, fair, brown-eyed, and fragile-looking. DuBose Heyward was an insurance salesman who had published two volumes of poetry; Heyward persuaded him to become a full-time writer, and they went to live in a cabin in the Great Smokies. Drawing upon his youthful experience as a cotton checker among the Gullah-speaking blacks on the waterfront of his native Charleston, South Carolina, DuBose wrote his first novel, Porgy (1925).

Heyward suggested a dramatization of Porgy, but DuBose was already working on his second novel, Angel (1926). Letting him think she was writing a mystery story, Heyward alone prepared a rough draft of the play, which he then helped to polish for production. For both of their collaborative dramatizations, Heyward supplied the technical knowledge of theater while her husband contributed his sense of local color and poetic language. Porgy, produced by the Theatre Guild, opened 10 October 1927 for a run of 217 performances; the following season, a revival ran for 137 performances. The folk-opera version, Porgy and Bess, was scored by George Gershwin and adapted by DuBose and Ira Gershwin in 1935.

Mamba's Daughters (1939), the Heywards' dramatization of DuBose's 1929 novel, was again set among the Gullah blacks of South Carolina. The play is melodramatic and awkwardly constructed. There are intervals of several years between some of the 10 short scenes. It was a popular success largely because of the use of Negro spirituals and the stirring performance of Ethel Waters as Hagar.

Heyward was less fortunate in her collaborations with other dramatists. Jonica (1930), Cinderelative (1930), and South Pacific (1943) all reached Broadway, but were unfavorably reviewed. South Pacific, written with Howard Rigsby and with incidental music by Paul Bowles, is unrelated to the later Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Heyward's South Pacific maroons a black American seaman on a Japanese-held island, where an improbable encounter with native blacks helps him to appreciate the positive values of the American society that had exploited him. The play closed after five performances.

In 1948 the Theatre Guild presented Set My People Free, a historical drama Heyward had written seven years earlier, based upon an aborted Charleston slave rebellion of the 1820s. The insurrection was led by a former slave named Denmark Vesey, but the focus of the play is on the dilemma of George Wilson, who is torn between loyalty to his race and devotion to his master. Despite encouraging reviews, the play had only 36 performances.

Heyward's two novels, like her plays, are uneven. The Pulitzer Prize Murders (1932), a haunted house mystery, is rambling and predictable. Three-a-Day (1930) is more engaging; this romance set in a theatrical milieu has a standard plot enlivened by the local color and jargon of the world of vaudeville in the 1920s. These two novels and Set My People Free, the last play she wrote alone, demonstrate the overambitiousness of her approach and the compassion for human situations she brought to her collaborative efforts.


Durham, F., Dubose Heyward, the Man Who Wrote Porgy (1954). Miller, J. Y., American Dramatic Literature (1961). Nadel, N., A Pictorial History of the Theatre Guild (1969).

Reference works:

Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

NYT (1 Apr. 1924, 30 Dec. 1943, 14 Nov. 1948, 20 Nov. 1961).


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