From Folklore to Mythology: Paul Green's Roll Sweet Chariot

Article excerpt

In spite of the abundance of myth criticism in our time, the degree to which twentieth-century literature has exploited myth has yet to be realized. Recognized as a present writer of the outdoor pageant play (in his words, "symphonic drama"), and a past writer of regional, "folk," and experimental drama, Paul Green is another of those dramatists such as T. S. Eliot and Tennessee Williams who have turned to myth in search of universal meanings. Indeed, Green began writing plays in the early 1920's when myth was in the air. The seminal work, Sir James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, was published between 1890 and 1915, claiming to show the universality of myths. Jesse Weston's From Ritual to Romance, 1920, had a similar impact. And T. S. Eliot revealed the significance of these writers in his notes to The Wasteland (1922). Green's plays written between 1920 (The Last of the Lowries) and 1934 (Roll Sweet Chariot) show a progress from folk materials and realistic manner toward a blend of folk-mythic matter and symbolic, anti-realistic technique. Green recapitulates, then, an historical development from the superficial American regionalism of the late nineteenth century to the search for deeper reality through myth, symbol, and experimental form.

It may be well to note Green's early accomplishment as a realistic and "folk" dramatist before attempting to show how folk elements blend with myth in what may be Green's finest achievement, Roll Sweet Chariot. (1) That Green sought the essence of life and art in the elemental and the ceremonial, or ritual, is evident from his theoretic and critical works. In Forever Growing he writes that festivals such as those celebrated on May Day show that there is "throughout the land a people alive with the sense of celebration." He feels that "all folk arts" exist as "the decorations of life, the inspiration, the fire, and color and drive and depthful meaning of life." (2) Green's mentor, Frederick Koch, would make primitive ritual a direct progenitor of sophisticated theater:

   The elaborate snake dances of our Hopi Indians on the mesas of New Mexico
   and the three-day sun dance of the Shoshones in their Wind River country of
   Western Wyoming are colorful illustrations of the ancient culture of our
   aboriginal Americans. The civilized theatre is but the natural evolution of
   the song-and-dance drama of such primitive worshipers. (3)

Green's early plays, of course, have provoked an image of the playwright as a rather simple, forthright craftsman who scarcely modifies the material he finds at hand in his region. Barrett H. Clark, evaluating him primarily on the basis of the early plays, justifiably emphasized the regionalism, simplicity, and artlessness evident in these plays. Because Clark was writing at such an early stage in Green's career, it was easy for him to overstress Green's being a farm boy who had made good in the theater, a figure not unlike the legendary Bobby Burns. Green was for Clark no "literary man," in that he showed little tendency toward contrivance. Clark observed, "In reading him I am stirred by no formal pattern of art or rearrangement of human characteristics." (4) He felt that Wide Fields and In Abraham's Bosom were "direct transcriptions of the lives of men and women whose hearts are laid bare in all their simplicity.... The Field God and The Hot Iron are untouched pictures drawn with passion and gusto, set down without comment or factitious decoration." (5) Such judgments by Clark have perhaps been instrumental in leading other writers to view Green in the same light. Felix Sper writes that Green in the Negro plays copies "life, not the theater." (6) One may detect a certain disdain in Sper's observation. For him, assuredly, the native writer in his innocence and ignorance is closer to the wells of truth than is the sophisticated or learned writer who draws from a literary tradition. Confessing that Green's plots may be weak, Sper argues that "in compensation, the air of casual progression he sometimes achieves resembles life itself. …