Green Pastures Recalled

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Just forty years ago this month—on the evening of February 26, 1930—at Broadway’s old Mansfield Theatre, there was uttered for the first time the most awesome entrance cue in all of theatrical history. “Gangway!” shouted the angel Gabriel. “Gangway for de Lawd God Jehovah!”

The context of that line was a play of eighteen Biblical scenes in which the Lord, sometimes walking the earth and sometimes watching it from aloft, was shown to he both guide and follower of mankind along its uncertain way. The play was utterly unaffected. It was also radical: it was conceived as if seen through the eyes of blacks; the Lord was, logically, black too. There were no white roles.

The play was The Green Pastures . It became, on the spot, part of America’s dramatic canon; it would win a Pulitzer prize for its author-director, Marc Connelly.

Transported, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times called the play “the divine comedy of the modern theatre.” Alexander Woollcott commented that it, was “the finest achievement of the American theatre in the hundred years during which there has been one worth considering.” He added pensively, “Perhaps those, whom it most readily moves to tears are people who are crying in the dark and cold, weeping for something their world has lost.”

Marcus Cook Connelly, hale and honed at seventy-nine, is scrubbed, pink, deceptively cherubic, and at ease with his considerable girth. He looks for the best in people and circumstances. He speaks easily of himself both as the son of a McKeesport, Pennsylvania, hotelkeeper and as the author of The Green Pastures . He still seems gently amused by all the fuss. Recently lie recalled the genesis of the fuss:

Actually, I think it was a case of having at least an elbow-rubbing’acquaintance with—well, I talked to the actors who came to niy lather’s hotel in McKeesport. He knew a hell of a lot of them. Instead of staying in hotels in Pittsburgh when they were playing there, they’ll often come out to stay with us. That was about fourteen miles, and they’ll commute back in by train. Now all this is a very belated inference, but 1 think that was probably the start of things with me.

I can remember peope like, oh, Blanche Bates and Chauncey Olcott, Buffalo Bill and Chester de Vaughn and some of the other stars who used to come through. I used to stare at Kellar the Great [a magician of no small repute] when he’d go through the lobby, and God Almighty, I didn’t know what to make of it. It was amorphous; it was just, well, Kellar. A child enjoys, I think, the intangibility of admiration.

You drink in wonder at that age. It has almost the same pleasing effect on you as lemonade, you know. His secondary schooling completed, young Connelly spent the next jew years in Pittsburgh as a reporter and build-up drama critic for the Gazette Times. He also belonged to the Pittsburgh Athletic Association .

The P.A.A. gave me a membership in return for my directing the various entertainments they staged every month. You can imagine what they were like. Well, at one point we put on a light opera at the Alvin Theatre, there in Pittsburgh. I wrote the lyrics for it, and it was pretty awful. But, by God, the whole town came to see it. It did eighteen or twenty thousand dollars in one week. It was called The Lady of Luzon , and one of its sponsors, Joseph Riter—he had some money in steel—asked me to do a libretto for a comic opera. I was about twenty-five or so, making around fifteen dollars a week on the paper.

I’d found a rather pretty story in a book I’d read about the villas on the Italian coast between Padua and Venice. It was the story of a young architect who ironically has to build a villa (it was called Villa Frigimelica—“frozen honey”) as a wedding gift for the doge engaged to the girl the architect had hoped to marry. In musical comedy terms, a fine tale of romance, frustration, and so on. I called it The Amber Empress .

Well, this was in 1915, and Riter, who wanted to produce the thing, had offices in Manhattan, and everybody in New York who had a typewriter rewrote that story. Riter and some adviser he’d lured—fellow named Corey—decided that my book was impossible. I’m in no position to say whether it was any good or not. The likelihood is that it was pretty lousy. Rut anyway, all these librettists rame in on it. I remember I had just one song left in it by the time it got to New York. Jt was a bomb, and I didn’t have enough money to go back home, so I sponged off a friend or two. I was a—well—a guest. Connelly stayed in New York and made ends meet over the next few years by working for the Morning Telegraph, by writing occasional magazine pieces, and by playwriting and play doctoring. He and six other similarly straitened artists and writers lived in a two-room warren on West Thirty-seventh Street. They called it Cockroach Glades . I can remember the day when the beef pie at Horn & Hardart just around the corner on Sixth Avenue went up from ten to fifteen cents. I gave up dessert, which was five cents. Life was a fairly strict regimen at that point.