Green Pastures Recalled

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The Telegraph reviewed plays and pretty much gave itself over to theatrical news; it was a sort of daily Variety . I used to go out and get material for Rennold Wolf, a Telegraph columnist. During the war, toward the end of it, really, I used to see a good deal of George Kaufman, who was the Times ’s drama man. Around 1920 he and I sort of got together—began to take on a third dimension, more or less. Connelly and Kaufman got together and got on together indeed. The twenties saw them collaborate on a half-dozen plays and musicals that found enthusiastic audiences. Their first was Dulcy (1921), a play about an eccentric girl utterly addicted to bromides. I guess Duley was our Rrst substantial break. I’d made a little money by reviving Erminie , an operetta nearly thirty years old. But after Duley I was able to move into a decent apartment, to get a good place for my mother to live—she’d been widowed since I was twelve. We moved into 152 West Fifty-seventh Street—it’s now a vacant lot. At least by then I could afford a cook and so on.

Part of that “so on” was that I was able to get to Europe pretty much every year. Those were great days for Americans in Paris. I can remember going up Montmartre in the days when you heard very little French on the rue Pigalle. Life was going fairly well, and it was pretty much by chance that I wrote The Green Pastures . One day late in 1928 I was walking along Fifty-seventh Street when I ran into Rollin Kirby, the cartoonist, who was a friend of mine. “I’ve just read a book you ought to read,” he said. I don’t know whether he saw me considering it as a play or not, but I said what was it and he told me it was Roark Bradford’s Old Man Adam an’ His Chillun . It was a fanciful retelling of some of the stories in the first five books of the Bible. Bradford’s technique was like the old-time preachers’. They’d set the stories in familiar terrain—Cain would flee to, say, Nod Parish, and the prodigal son’s spree was in New Orleans. They were charming sketches. Well, I read it, and I began thinking of it in terms of theatre the moment I finished it.

It was, to my mind, so patently wonderful a device for making an inquiry into man’s spiritual hunger—here was something that was part of the classic pattern of theatre. In the theatre’s earliest days, when man exorcised himself in a religious rite, goddammit, you had the altar right there in the middle of the theatre. Aeschylus did very little, you know, to change the physical circumstances of the satyr plays. And Euripides’ Bacchae : what the hell is it, more or less, but the coordination of the Bacchic rites by a great dramatist? That was the reason I thought this was part of the classic thing—here was man still trying, theatrically, to relate himself to the gods. Green Pastures is a religious play, expressed in the terms of naïve, childlike myth. What I was interested in was the theme that runs throughout the Old Testament—man’s search for the divine within himself. The play is a confirmation of man’s finding it. That’s the whole point.

Well, anyhow, I went to New Orleans for research a couple of times. Of course, I also went to confer with Bradford, whom I’d never met. After all, it was his book I was going to use as my base, and I wanted him happy about it. He took me to a lot of Negro churches, and I met the preachers and the congregations. One time, on a Sunday morning, he and I went across the river from New Orleans to a Negro church.

The minister of this little congregation knew Brad and knew who I was, and we arrived just as the collection was being finished. We sat in the back, and the minister recognized us; he said a little something to one of the vestrymen, and they pantomimed collecting again by pushing the baskets back and forth down the aisle toward us. There was nothing in the baskets, since they’d already been filled and emptied. Well, they came to us, and we put in some money, and it was handed over. Then the minister said, simply and gratefully, “I want to welcome the two noted characters in the back, which gave a dollar apiece.”

I tried to echo Brad as much as I could, so I used a lot of lines straight out of his book. But I do feel it’s my play. Some people used to say, “What’d you do?—you just put a book up on a stage.” Well, in a sense that’s true, but I think I gave it at least a theatrical homogeneity. Brad was writing pretty much for the joy of the separate scenes themselves. He hadn’t given much thought, for instance, to the fact that God in his book was a white granddaddy-colonel sort of figure. The black God was my idea; that’s the only way you could have made it consistent. You had to try to think of the Old Testament as it would be looked at by ingenuous, uninformed Negroes, especially the illiterate, underprivileged field hands of the Deep South.