The author and director of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Green Pastures” recalls the struggle to get a play about a black God produced in 1930.
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.
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.
But I had more than one reason for writing the play, once I got into it. I wanted to find, as I wrote, some reason for the rejection of conventional liturgy that was spreading through my generation. We were all becoming agnostics. I wasn’t profound enough, in my own mind, to be able to recognize what I see now—that we simply wanted conscious escapes from tradition, from the childhood habits of religion. I was never obliged, as a kid, to go to church. My father was a renegade Catholic, and that undoubtedly helped me to my freedom. I was allowed to do as I pleased. I remember when I was little and didn’t know what the hell I was doing, I’d go down with some of my friends from Market Street School, and we’d go past the Catholic church screaming, “Ya dirty Micks, we’ll hit ya with bricks!” Well, we didn’t have any bricks, of course, but it was a nice thing to yell. You know, a battle cry—a good one—is frequently almost as enjoyable as being in a battle.
Anyhow, the play was finished by the summer of 1929, but nobody wanted to touch it. Literally everybody turned it down. I don’t know, I guess it was the idea of a black God that frightened them off. One producer said he liked it all right and would love to do it if only he could see how to, whatever he meant by that. One sent it back saying, “It’s got lots of laughs in it.” That really hurt. Anyhow, they all turned it down, so I just put the thing on the shelf.
In the late summer I went on a cruise in the Mediterranean. My hosts were John and Alice Garrett—he’d just been made ambassador to Italy. Well, they and the others aboard knew I’d just finished a play, and one lovely moonlit night, when we were in the harbor of Samos, they invited me to read it. That was the first public audience Green Pastures ever had, and the reaction was heartening.
Late that fall I met Rowland Stebbins, who’d been a Wall Street broker and who’d gotten out about five minutes before the crash. He wanted to produce on Broadway. Actually, he was talking with Kaufman, but George didn’t have a play just then. He said Connelly had one he hadn’t sold. We started to work right away.
I told Stebbins that I didn’t think the movies would ever be interested. I also told him the play might land us in jail. He just said, “Okay by me.” I guess we mounted it for around seventy-five thousand dollars. We didn’t “bring it in” for that, don’t forget: we never took it out . We had a cold opening, because we didn’t dare take it on the road. If we’d taken it to the hinterland, we might very well still be in jail someplace.
We did our casting at John Carey’s agency, up on 132nd Street. There was a pretty steady flow of applicants coming in—they’d queue up out on the sidewalks —because there just wasn’t much available for Negro actors at that point. This play gave some of them a chance to get out of broad comic roles and into serious theatre. At 131st and Seventh Avenue there was a plain little tree that everybody called the Tree of Hope. It was supposed to be pretty good at landing you work if you touched it and prayed. Well, that tree was pretty well rubbed clear of bark by the time we started rehearsals.
Yes, there was a little trouble during the rehearsal schedule. I remember one day when four different theatres refused to let us rehearse—they were empty and could have used the business, and it was obviously because we had an all-Negro cast, although they never gave us any reasons. They never said it, but you could tell they figured we probably were going to steal the fixtures from the dressing rooms.
But there was never any discrimination or nastiness within the company; quite the opposite. I recall one morning up in Engineers Hall in Harlem: the company was sitting around, maybe a hundred of them, and I was rehearsing the children in some scene. I made them do it over and over again. Finally they were all a little tired, and I said, “All right, go on back to your seats. You’re as bad as a bunch of white actors.” I said it for the benefit of the rest of the company. They had a good laugh and a good rehearsal.
Opening night was at the end of February—the twenty-sixth—of 1930. I’d worked very hard, and felt I had a professional production. I could sense the audience was liking it; otherwise there wouldn’t have been that sea of handkerchiefs during the Exodus scene. (I used to go to matinees just to see whether they were as thick in the afternoons.) But I’d overlooked one little thing. About five minutes before the play ended I realized we hadn’t organized any curtain calls! I got backstage and grabbed hold of an assistant. I said, “I think they’re going to like it, so when the curtain goes down just hold it through the applause, and I’ll go out.” Well, out I went, and when I came back in again—all hell was busting loose in the audience—I told the company, “We’ll have two curtains—up, down, up, down. Then I’ll rearrange you.” So that happened, and then I had to start breaking the cast up into little groups. Finally I had them going out there one at a time taking individual bows. It all kept up for half an hour.
Most of the reviews were on our side. Only a few critics got on us. A couple of “hysteroids” up in Harlem did some heavy drum beating, but it was to such a small extent, over-all, that it meant nothing. The Amsterdam News up there put out an editorial blasting hell out of them, saying they didn’t know what the play was about, that it wasn’t debasing to the Negro, and so on. It said the play just happened to have found in one stratum of Negroes a kind of ethos in which this kind of adventure could take place.
There was a party for us up in Harlem at Florence Mills’s club sometime during the second week of the run. Success had meant a lot; many of the cast were eating again, had roofs over their heads. That night all the principals entertained and told jokes and poked fun at the producer, Rowland Stebbins, and me. That night was the first time I’d ever heard “Happy Days Are Here Again”—it was just out—and we all sang it as though we meant it.
A little later in the year I was in France with friends. We were somewhere in the château country of the Loire, I forget just where, when I got a cable from my secretary: “You have won a prize. Do I have to tell you which one?” I hadn’t even thought about prizes; hell, I was happy to be getting such good royalties.
But it could never be revived now, under the present climate. God, no. The Negro’s picture of himself right now, in this unconscious snobbism in which he is existing, wouldn’t allow it. He would denigrate the play, would say that this is Uncle Tomism, that this is what we’re trying to get rid of. The thing is that my play used the ambiance, the milieu, of the Negro, but it’s a bigger than race. I never saw my play—and I certainly don’t now—as part of any civil rights movement, as for or against any movement. It was no more simply about a race of people than The Weavers , say, or The Lower Depths was simply about one particular class of people. My play had little to do with Negroes—or, rather, it had as much to do with yellow and white and red as it did with black. Green Pastures was, at heart, about humanity, but maybe that’s a little hard to explain today.