Drama at the Crossroads
OUT across the tableland of west Texas, where the gray-green mesquite sprawls along the earth and the arc of sky seems to fill much more than its half of the circle, thirty miles from Abilene lies Albany. Around it stretch ranch lands. Settled against the side of those promontories that rise and fall away again without rhyme or reason in the vast expanse of landscape stands a ranch house, its corrals close by. Twenty miles to the west or the east is another one. This is cattle country. Here and there is a black oasis; this is also oil country — but mostly cattle.
In Albany live two thousand people. There is a courthouse, with a broad expanse of gray-green grass and dirt, that stands in the centre of town. Along a wide, dusty street a couple of blocks of sand-colored two-story buildings face the courthouse.
Away from the centre a little, set among simple frame houses, are two churches. On the edge of town to the west are the oil company’s derricks and engines and sheds; to the cast are the houses where its workers live. On the other side of town is a railroad station. It is closed, for no trains come through Albany these days — except once in a while a night freight. Instead a big blueand-silver Greyhound bus twice a day sweeps along the broad highway, bound for El Paso or Fort Worth.
The oil company and some of the cattle land are responsible for this story at least for my knowing it. Together they put money into the pockets of a few of Albany’s families. In one of these was a serious lad who liked to study and seemed born for another kind of life than the ranch or the oil field. He was sent away — up north and east to a big preparatory school, and on to Princeton. There the theatre attracted him; modestly and quietly he worked backstage in his first two years, for he was not much of an actor. In his upper-class days he began to assume control, to be appreciated. He directed and became president of Princeton’s Theatre Intime; he began to write plays. One, Time of Their Lives, was the undergraduate prize play in 1933; it was a drama of Princeton life, and because it has been unequaled for its humorous, compassionate portrayal of student days, it has been revived by every undergraduate generation since.
By the time this young man graduated, with a Phi Beta Kappa key on his watch chain, he knew he wanted to work in the theatre. But he did not go to Broadway, or to the Yale Drama School. Instead he turned back to the Southwest, and for a few years directed a little theatre in one of Texas’s prosperous cities. But he was an honest young man and he did not like the pretentiousness of the people in the little theatre, who were self-consciously striving for culture for the sake of appearances, as it seemed to him; so back he went to Albany. Several years later a couple of Broadway directors, always searching for new material and having read or seen a revival of Time of Their Lives at Princeton, sent a letter to the young Texan, asking him to write some plays again; they thought they could guarantee him Broadway productions. He replied that he was grat eful for their interest but much too busy to pen any plays for Broadway.
As my train dragged across the hundreds of miles of treeless range from El Paso east to San Antonio, I looked out of the window and thought of Robert Nail — for that was the young man’s name — and wondered what could so busily occupy anyone like him in this desolate no man’s land. When I got to Dallas I took a plane and flew out to pay him a call.
That part of Texas, like all the Southwest, is rich in native lore. Indians, Mexicans, soldiers, settlers with their longhorn steers, the first oil prospectors — all this was only yesterday. The story of it is the stuff of which drama is made. Out of this young Nail fashioned a kind of poetic historical epic of the country and christened it a ‘Fandangle.’ The first one was given in the summer of 1938; in 1939 he wrote another, and in 1940 a third was produced. He would like to do five of them.
A Fandangle takes months of preparation, for not only must it be written, but there are dances to be arranged, parades organized, — all a part of the show, — lines to be rehearsed, music adapted, costumes, scenery, and properties devised, lighting equipment to be secured and set up. Two hundred and fifty people perform in the Fandangle: boys and girls from the high school, townspeople of every age, cowboys in off the ranches. As we walked down the street, a couple of ranch hands were leaning against a street lamp, their rolled cowboy sombreros tilted back to reveal their red leathery faces.
‘Hi-ya, Bob,’ they called.
‘They rode in the last two Fandangles,’ the young man told me.
‘Who trains the dancers in their polkas and schottisches?’ I asked.
‘I do,’ he replied.
‘I didn’t know you knew how to do that.’
‘I didn’t, but I learned. It’s really easy, and lots of fun.’
‘Who makes the costumes?’ I inquired.
‘I do,’ he answered, ‘with some of the women to help. It’s funny how you can do all sorts of things you never thought you could when you have an incentive like this.’
The Fandangle takes place outdoors in the athletic field behind the school. Great boughs of mesquite and cottonwood are hauled in off the range to be set up as a background. There are covered wagons and horses galore, pioneers with broad-brimmed hats and sunbonnets, Indians in paint and feathers. Flowing through it all come the words of the young author’s vibrant verse. There is only one performance, and the bleachers are filled to capacity with eighteen hundred people, some of them having driven in for miles across the plains.
The Fandangle is only one of the things that keep the young man too busy to write plays for Broadway. At. Christmas time, in the larger of the churches, he produces a Nativity play which he also writes himself. I say the larger church, but it seats only two hundred; so ten performances are given in order that everyone in Albany and the surrounding ranches who wishes may have a chance to attend. Tickets are distributed free, so that the capacity will not be exceeded on any one evening. But word of the Nativity play has spread widely. It rained a good deal last Christmas lime, nevertheless every night a crowd stood outside on the church steps for an hour or more in the drizzle, hoping that some of those who held tickets would not show up and they might get in.
The Fandangle is in June, but preparations begin in March; work on the Nativity play is started before Thanksgiving. Between times the young man writes a one-act play or two for the high school to enter in the state-wide drama tournament. Then there are book reviews — How Green Was My Valley or For Whom the Bell Tolls — which he delivers from time to time to a crowd that packs the movie theatre.
’I don’t know what we’d do here if Bob ever went away again,’ said the superintendent of schools to me; ‘but I guess you can see that for yourself.’
Nick Ray worked for the Resettlement Administration. Part of his job was to help people put on plays. One day while he was working in Alabama a letter came from the students in the white high school of a little town about forty miles south of Birmingham. It asked him to come down and help them put on a play. He replied that he’d come as soon as he could. When he got there he found himself in the heart of the Alabama coal mines — the toughest mining region in the country. The highschool class had all ages lumped together. He looked at them dubiously.
‘What kind of show do you want to do?’ he asked.
‘Well,’ they replied, ‘we don’t rightly know. We never did have one before.’
‘Have you looked at the catalogues?’ Nick inquired.
‘Yes, but the stuff they talk about there sounds pretty silly. We had an idea maybe we could write our own — if you’d help us.’
‘O. K. What do you want to make a play about?’
‘We’ve been talking, and it seems like most of us’d like to have a show that would tell about some of the troubles of the Negroes hereabouts.’
That set Nick back on his heels: a white high school in the deep South wanting to write a play about the problems of the Negro! But if that was what they wanted — great! They set to work and composed a sort of scenario; around it they improvised dialogue. It lacked all literary quality, but it rang true. Together they worked for several weeks. The time came for the performance.
Into the little hall were packed a crowd of tough, burly miners and their wives; little boys and girls darted in and out. Most of them, young and old alike, had never seen a play before. A sleazy curtain hung across one end of the hall to separate them from the stage. The problem of make-up had bothered the boys and girls: they didn’t want to black their faces, and anyhow they hadn’t the money for make-up. When the audience had assembled, one little boy came before the curtain to explain this.
‘Everybody in the show is supposed to be black except the judge. Since you won’t have any trouble telling which he is, and since everybody else is a Negro, we aren’t any of us going to be black. Only you must remember that we’re all supposed to be.’
Then the show began. It lasted for an hour. When the final curtains closed, there was a heavy pause. Then someone clapped. Soon the long, low room jammed with hot humanity was reverberating to applause, cheers, whistles. Suddenly someone yelled, ‘We want to see it again!’
Nick went back to the youngsters. ‘Do you want to do it again?’ he asked.
‘Sure!’ they said. In ten minutes the performance was being repeated. No one had left the hall.
Concern for this real people’s theatre, for the men, women, and children off the beaten path of culture, has prompted several state universities and certain other organizations to undertake the dissemination of drama to gatherings from the hamlets and the crossroads and the solitary farms.
Into the office of the University of Wisconsin’s beautiful theatre came Marie Kellogg to tell me the story of the University’s work out through that state. Mrs. Kellogg is one of the few full-time drama specialists in the country attached to an agricultural college; for in this field we do not deal with a drama department, but with the Department of Rural Sociology in the College of Agriculture.
For years the University has held farm group meetings to discuss cattle breeding, dairy methods, soil enrichment, and allied agricultural problems. In 1926 playlets were introduced into these conference programs. As interest and enthusiasm in dramatics grew, Ethel G. Rockwell of the University Extension Division was pressed into service to help train people and to arrange a state-wide program of activity. Miss Rockwell has now retired and the work has reverted to the Rural Sociology Department.
This theatrical program is carried on through three organizations: the Farm Bureau, the Farmers’ Equity Union, and the state Grange. Working through the County Agricultural Agents, Mrs. Kellogg and her colleagues reach into Homemakers’ Clubs, Community Clubs, 4-H Clubs, and churches to bring the glad tidings of Thespis. The County Agents set up one-day institutes for Mrs. Kellogg in courthouses, normal schools, church basements — in any place large enough to hold the group of from fifteen to fifty who come to learn to be dramatic leaders. These institutes are repeated in the same spot every month or six weeks, so that in the course of a season there is time to bring up a number of subjects: choice of plays (which is a real problem throughout this field, where the maximum royalty that can be afforded is five dollars), casting, direction, and principles of stage movement, make-up, stage equipment, and scenery.
From these institutes the farm people (most of them women) go back to their clubs. As the days grow shorter and colder in the Wisconsin autumn and as the evenings grow longer, groups of boys and girls, men and women, gather in grange halls and schoolrooms and farm kitchens to make plans and rehearse for the state one-act play tournament. Approximately ninety plays are offered all over the state in county contests and the best are brought to Madison for Farm and Home Week in January.
The gala opening of the Wisconsin Union Theatre was in October 1939, with the Theatre Guild production of The Taming of the Shrew. In January it was opened in a sense for the second time — this time to the people of Wisconsin. To celebrate the occasion the people gave a ‘pastorale of Wisconsin rural life,’ called ... Of Folks and Fields — a play with music, in which a chorus of sixty and two hundred others participated. The program notes that ‘this play seeks to demonstrate what rural people can create out of their own history and express for their own entertainment. Each of the three acts is played by rural community groups from different counties, yet preserving the continuity of “the Chester family” ‘ whose life on Wisconsin’s farm land through three generations became the theme of the play: ‘the farm family, 1895; the community, 1928; youth, 1940.’ Music and dance were provided by a Yuba band, Bohemian Folk Dancers, a student orchestra, the Cottage Grove P. T. A. Chorus, Sauk County Male Chorus, Dane County Farm Bureau Chorus.
I do not suggest that the theatre is more concerned with ... Of Folks and Fields than with the Guild production of The Taming of the Shrew. This rural drama is new and young and halting; it stands unsteadily on spindling legs. To minds set upon Broadway and to tastes whetted by the Lunts it seems unfamiliar and easily shrugged off. I should not be surprised, however, if the theatre that rises from ... Of Folks and Fields may in another ten years be as familiar an ingredient of American culture as adroit Theatre Guild productions. We cannot do without the Lunts; neither can we do without these spontaneous expressions of the people.
The story of Cornell’s rural extension work in drama parallels Wisconsin’s: there is the same cooperation through 4-H Clubs, Farm and Home Bureaus, and occasionally the Grange; there are comparable institutes, except that Miss Mary Eva Duthie’s are three-day affairs and sometimes as many as two hundred leaders attend — schoolteachers, ministers, farm wives; there are extension libraries, and play lists are sent out, as in Wisconsin. At Cornell, too, the dramatic program for these rural groups comes to a head during Farm and Home Week and during the 4-H Congress. The four best plays among the adult community drama groups of fifteen counties are presented, and the three best out of 250 4-H Clubs from thirty counties.
As early as 1919, Alexander Drummond was taking the Cornell Dramatic Club to the State Fair at Syracuse to give performances, in the hope that by that example rural communities might be stimulated to produce plays themselves. Mr. Drummond is a stickler for excellence. The choice of plays of many of these groups displeased him. When Orville’s Big Date, Aunt Jerushy on the War Path, When Paw Has a Fit, Who Gets the Car Tonight? and plays of that kind were repeated year after year, Mr. Drummond felt that something should be done. The most desirable procedure, he felt, would be to persuade upstate New Yorkers to make use of their own rich material, the folklore indigenous to the mountains and valleys of the Empire State. Thus the New York State Play Project was established under a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
For the past three years a young playwright, Robert E. Gard, has worked on this project under Mr. Drummond’s supervision. Mr. Gard has written a number of short plays himself or in collaboration with Mr. Drummond; the full-length The Cardiff Giant has been the most pretentious and successful of their collaborations. A number of plays have been submitted by various amateur dramatists inspired to the task by Mr. Gard’s field trips. These plays Mr. Gard has edited or revised or simply passed out in the form in which he received them.
Some idea of the results of the theatrical pioneering of Miss Duthie and Mr. Drummond may be gained from a survey conducted for three years by H. Darkes Albright at Cornell. For the purposes of his survey, Mr. Albright concentrated on the ‘small community’ — ‘a village of less than five thousand population.’ In 1939 he reported that there are in New York State’s small communities a minimum of 2300 producing units yearly, and that they publicly present between four and fin e thousand plays. The number of active workers (that is to say, actors as well as production assistants) involved in these productions has, in recent years, approached thirty thousand annually.
Delaware is a tiny state; yet here in 1939 eight amateur theatre groups produced forty-five full-length plays and fifty one-act plays to an audience of thirty thousand; more than fifteen hundred persons took part. For much of this dramatic activity the University of Delaware at Newark is responsible. Through its Dramatic Centre, set up by a slight, energetic young man, Professor C. R. Kase, it ministers to the needs of high-school and community groups in the surrounding Delaware hills. In many other states the drama of the crossroads receives its stimulus from the campus. At the universities of Iowa, Indiana, Maine, Washington, and Oklahoma statewide play festivals are encouraged and play-lending libraries and consultation services are offered.
It’s a long jump geographically from tiny Delaware to vast Texas. Everything in the Lone Star State is on a big scale. Notwithstanding, I was startled to learn that 668 high schools, in 1940, competed in a state-wide one-act play contest, one of many in various fields conducted by the University Interscholastic League (again the state university is the pivot) under the leadership of F. C. Winship, Director of Speech Activities. All over Texas these schools meet annually to present their plays. Judges select the eight best, which are brought to Austin; out of them a state winner is determined. Mr. Winship claims that as a result of this contest the production of plays in Texas high schools becomes an end in itself and does not, as often happens in other states, serve as a money-maker for some other cause.
Although it may be true, as critics of the contest idea claim, that the competition takes the emphasis off the values of play production and places it all on the idea of winning, nevertheless, under whatever circumstances so many schools are producing plays in any one state, more people are becoming aware of the stage than would otherwise be the case.
The real pioneers in this movement to bring drama to the crossroads, the two men whose names are enrolled at the head of that band of missionaries who have devoted their lives to the cause of a true people’s theatre, are Alfred G. Arvold and Frederick H. Koch. A consideration of their work forms a fitting conclusion to this study of rural and regional drama.
Mr. Arvold’s headquarters are in Fargo at the North Dakota State Agricultural College. Upstairs in a Victorian brick-and-stone college building is the Little Country Theatre. From an unprepossessing institutionalized entrance one enters the simple hall: three stainedglass windows, gifts to the theatre, are its only relief; the stage is poor, and its equipment outmoded. Upstairs are several rooms fashioned to look like a log cabin; they are the workshops and social rooms of the Little Country Theatre. The walls and shelves are filled with souvenirs and curios, gifts to the theatre also. Downstairs in a big goldenoak room is the theatre’s loan library, containing thousands of plays.
This rather shabby spot Mr. Arvold looks upon with indulgent eyes as a thing of beauty. On its stage he recalls performances of plays like Eyvind of the Hills by young farm lads and girls who came to Fargo, as ninety-five per cent of his students do, never having seen a play at all. In the auditorium his mind’s eye conjures up the rows of men and women in off the prairies to see his plays — rough farmers, with the names of that region: Peterson, Severson, Henrikson, Opgaard, Bjornhai, Skonnard. In the rooms above he remembers the informal community gatherings before the fire when he has told a circle of these same farmers what possibilities and impulses for drama lie in themselves.
The ‘package library’ is not for him just a collection of books to be loaned out. Each copy brings back from its wanderings some story familiar to Arvold — of a little gathering of Scandinavians in the New World plains arranging a home-talent show to present in a grange hall or church. Arvold recalls these gatherings so vividly because he has participated in hundreds of them, has been directly responsible for many. All year round he is off in his car to some out post or other to hold a one, two, or four day drama institute. By day the women come, in the evening the men join them to hear Arvold read plays aloud to them, to have him tell them how to produce these plays, to listen to his encouragement of indigenous drama.
Sometimes Mr. Arvold stages the production himself. Shortly before I came to Fargo he had presented Peer Gynt at Fort Ransom, North Dakota, in a cow pasture, which he euphemistically called in the program ‘The Hall of the Mountain King — a natural outdoor theatre.’ There were fifty participants, and more than a thousand people assembled in the pasture to see the two performances. Neighboring farmers had blown out the stumps that cropped up in the pasture where audience and actors needed flat ground.
Mr. Arvold is a real pageant-master. Harvest festivals, May Day celebrations (the non-political kind), lilac pageants, historical and patriotic programs, chase each other around his calendar every year. These are a wise brand to sell, for they require no individual excellence — just hundreds of willing people, big splashes of color, wide spaces, and a simple message as familiar with repetition as ’O, Beautiful for Spacious Skies.’
With Salvation Army enthusiasm Air. Arvold believes in the country and country people. He has written: ‘When the people who live in the small community and the country awaken to the possibilities which lie hidden in themselves through the impulse of a vitalized drama, they will not only be less eager to move to centres of population but will also be a force in attracting city folks to dwell in the country. The monotony of country existence will change into a newer, a more beautiful and a broader life.’
There is one thing about the story of the Little Country Theatre that disturbs me. Mr. Arvold is doing in 1941 just what he was doing in 1929. The missionary zeal and the dedicated faith with which he was serving the students at Fargo and the country people of North Dakota then are as strong today and are wonderful to behold. But I see few signs of progress. Perhaps that is too much to expect in this situation, where one man works single-handed in such a vast area and where there is such a dearth of developed talent; or perhaps I was too much influenced by the comments of a middle-aged, rough-knuckled Norwegian artist-farmer, who had come into Fargo the day I was there to hear Kirsten Flagstad sing. I admit he sounded like one of Job’s comforters.
‘Arvold is a fine fellow,’ he murmured, ‘and when he’s around everybody is glad to do as he says. But he can’t be everywhere at once, and when he’s gone nobody seems to be up to carrying on the kind of thing he says we ought to do to make ourselves happier.’
He paused and sighed. ‘It’s the young people,’ he said, looking at me apologetically. ‘They don’t seem to like old-fashioned get-togethers any more. Instead of having home-talent shows and such, like Air. Arvold talks about, they’re always running off in twos and threes in cars or going ten miles to the nearest movie. They don’t speak Norwegian much any more either; and the choirs in which we all used to take such pride in these parts — singing our folk tunes and Scandinavian airs — they’ve gone to pieces too because the young people don’t care about singing together.’
To restore the flagging spirits of the reader, and of Mr. Arvold should he read this, I must record that I sat next to this Norse Jeremiah at Flagstad’s concert that night. He was hearing her for the first time. When it was over, he turned to me sadly and said, ‘It’s too bad she hasn’t a better voice.’ . . .
Little, gray-haired, pipe-smoking Frederick H. Koch is such a master of publicity that the story of his ‘Carolina Playmakers’ manages to work its way into every account of the American nonprofessional theatre. I am consequently loath to reiterate its history and recount the usual anecdotes about ‘Proff’ Koch and his Playmaker colleagues during their twenty-year missionary campaign to bring the theatre to the natives of the North Carolina bush.
There is no doubt that the Carolina Playmakers, like the Little Country Theatre at Fargo, have had a profound effect on the lives of many untutored folk who would otherwise have never seen a play. Koch’s attack has differed from Arvold’s in several respects. In the first place, the Dakota leader has gone out into the field to produce plays with the people themselves. Mr. Koch puts his company of Playmakers into a truck and takes the show to the people. Probably the chief difference, however, lies in the disregard Arvold has had, through lack of personal inclination or talent, for stimulating regional writing, as contrasted with Koch’s almost fanatical obsession over original play material.
Mr. Koch believes firmly that ‘anyone can write a play.’ His corollary is ‘ Everyone should write a play.’ The result has been a plethora of exceedingly bad stuff—vast fields of weeds; for while ‘Proff’ may be right in saying that ‘anyone can,’ certainly it is not at all clear that ‘everyone should.’ Nevertheless his enthusiasm has resulted in widespread awareness of theatre throughout the area in which he has worked. The Carolina Dramatic Association in 1940 included ninety-two member organizations, thirty-five of them directed by Koch graduates, and undoubtedly all of them called into being by his example and propulsion. That is a sizable output even after twenty-one years of tillage, for North Carolina is not a heavily populated state. That tillage has also resulted in basketloads of original plays, most of them one-act, to which the long published series of ‘Carolina Folk Plays’ bears testimony.
Mr. Koch’s approach to playwriting is fundamentally sound and is the only possible basis on which native drama can be built: ‘Write of what you know.’ His constant preaching of this dictum and his long insistence on ‘folk’ material have earned him the right to be considered the archprophet of regional drama in this country: a drama devoted to portrayal of simple human experiences in whatever environment they occur.
The pivot around which the work at the University of North Carolina revolves is, as might be expected, playwriting. The courses in acting, directing, technical production, and historical background are neither numerous nor remarkable; the Playmakers’ theatre is not above the average. Samuel Selden, who appears to be the power behind the Carolina throne, makes a stab at inculcating some standards of excellence, but the soft-scented breezes of Chapel Hill and the aroma of ‘Proff’ Koch’s pipe combine to work a critical lethargy for which there are but two antidotes.
The first of these is the presence at Chapel Hill of Paul Green. Most noted Playmaker alumnus, this ex-professor of philosophy, Pulitzer Prize dramatist, and ex-Hollywood scenarist is now on the faculty of the Drama Department to lead seminars in play and radio writing. Among all the artists of the theatre with whom I talked throughout the country, none had greater vision or wisdom than Paul Green. His playwriting is the epitome of all that Koch seeks in the theatre. To young people trying to follow Koch’s precepts and in Green’s footsteps to write of what they know in the simple folk tradition, the counsel and encouragement of such a master must be very precious.
The second valuable possession of the Carolina Playmakers has already been referred to: Mr. Koch’s personal enthusiasm, which is pervasive and indomitable. After twenty-one years at Chapel Hill he retains a buoyancy and relish for the task that must be as great as the day he arrived.
Koch’s enthusiasm is a match for Arvold’s missionary zeal. In each case, however, it is combined with a joyous disregard for any kind of standard — a situation which I regard as too serious to be overlooked. The Carolina Playmakers have occasionally been compared with Ireland’s Abbey Theatre. In so far as each has been concerned with the authenticity of folk expression and stimulating appreciation for native lore they are comparable. Each revealed to its countrymen the untapped resources of drama and poetry in the lives of the simple people among them. Beyond this the Abbey playwrights soared because they had the wings of genius. Except for Paul Green, the Carolina dramatists have remained on the ground, scratching in the earth in search of substitutes for poetry.
Is it simply dearth of genius that has prevented the Carolina Playmakers from releasing the contents of the Pandora’s box they discovered? The constant reiteration of the fact of discovery is not enough. Perhaps there are other reasons why in their actual work Koch and his disciples have been unable to realize the folk-play dream adequately. Mr. Koch’s own apparent lack of critical acumen, to which I have already alluded, stands in the way, I feel sure. Artistic discipline is not practised at Chapel Hill. William Peery, in an informal but penetrating portrait of Carolina playmaking,1 puts his finger on several other weaknesses: —
Carolina folk drama has been too largely an escapist drama. . . . Professor Koch’s student of the second generation no longer comes from the world portrayed In the first Carolina folk plays. He is a product of the consolidated school, a son of the radio and cinema. He can quote the batting average of every player in the American League. When Paul Green wrote his first play, it is reported, he had never seen a play performed. The present crop of student authors has been acting in plays since childhood. The Playmakers cannot for twenty years take their theatre, as they do in their annual tours, into the isolated hamlets of the state and expect those hamlets to remain dramatically inexperienced. North Carolina has been drama conscious for more than ten years — at the expense of the naive wonder which made the early Carolina folk play so effective. ‘Write what you know,’ Professor Koch repeats, and I doubt that anyone will disagree with this part of his doctrine. But recent student authors do not know at first hand, and they are not a part of, the life with which Playmaker plays most commonly deal. They will have to face problems typical of today or lose that creative power of native materials which largely accounts for the success of folk movements in the past. . . .
Many early Playmaker efforts . . . through their strange beautiful dialect, their eccentricity of character, their antiquarianism, and the earnestness with which they were first acted, appealed strongly to audiences weary of superficial drama — without ever having to meet high standards of dramatic effectiveness.
Now, however, there remain few uninitiated audiences in North Carolina. . . . Playmaker audiences have seen many a comedy of mountain life, of preachers leaning too heavily on their jugs of corn liquor, of still operators ‘het up t’ git them revenooers’ — comedies very close to farce because of exaggeration in speech and such character traits as punctuating one’s sentences by spitting tobacco. Since Harold Williamson wrote Peggy, that ancestor of Tobacco Road, they have seen many a tragedy of the tenant farmer whose womenfolks ‘crave purties’ and whose children cry for ‘a tech o’ fatback’ to eat with their hominy. Shorn of his novelty, the typical folk character is no longer so interesting; the young author may no longer use him for a crutch to a play lacking structural backbone.
Elsewhere in his essay, Mr. Peery speaks of the ‘confusion of life with art which has been characteristic of the Playmakers and of other folk writers. At Chapel Hill the stock rebuttal of any criticism of authenticity or motivation is: “But I used to know that man. He did do just that!”’ This confusion is chronic among our recorders of folkways for the stage. But Synge and O’Casey never suffered from it.
My chief criticism of much of regional drama is that it exploits the idiosyncrasies of a locality without attempting to examine or express their cases. The value of regionalism in the art of a vast country like ours lies in its ability to interpret one part of our people to the rest of us. Most folk drama makes no effort at all to interpret; it is content to portray the superficial oddities of local behavior and to revel in its quaintness. Mr. Koch is right in challenging his disciples to look about them and find the ingredients of drama in their own experience and surroundings. He is wrong in thinking that any formless projection of those ingredients on the stage automatically makes a play.
- Carolina Playmaking won the Gray Essay Award of the Dramatists’ Alliance at Stanford University in 1939. — AUTHOR↩