Genius and Alienation

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Genius and Alienation

On October 24, 1935, Langston Hughes's play Mulatto opened on Broadway. The performance by Rose McClendon, who played Cora, the tragic hero's mother, was generally praised. However, as Arnold Rampersad points out in The Life of Langston Hughes, the script received harsh criticism. The script was heavily revised without Hughes's knowledge or consent. However, the comments in The Daily Mirror are most pertinent here. The reviewer described Bert Norwood, the tragic hero and indeed "the mulatto" in question here, as "a noisy and obnoxious little brute, richly deserving chastisement regardless of race." The play became a source of painful embarrassment and irritation for Hughes in a year complicated by his mother's illness and his own persistent poverty. (Rampersad, pp. 317-319) Deprived of a healthy relationship with his iconoclastic father, Hughes, then in his middle thirties, was burdened by his parents' relationships with him rather than sustained and enlivened by those important liasons. As Rampersad notes, Hughes was angry with his mother, Carrie Clark, and quite weary of her exploitation of their consanguinity through her endless inveigling, so he castigated her in his play Soul Gone Home, his unfinished play The Road, and a dramatic adaptation of Mother and Child from his collection of stories, The Ways of White Folks. (Rampersad, p. 319)

Approximately near the end of 1935, Hughes wrote his memorable poem entitled "Genius Child," reflecting, perhaps, on Mulatto.

Genius Child

This is a song for the genius child.

Sing it softly, for the song is wild.

Sing it softly as ever you can --

Lest the song get out of hand.

Nobody loves a genius child.

Can you love an eagle,

Tame or wild?

Wild or tame,

Can you love a monster

Of frightening name?

Nobody loves a genius child.

Kill him -- and let his soul run wild!

Unloved, yet protected by his own charming humility, we have no doubt that Langston Hughes thought himself a genius, here taking genius as manifesting rare and exceptional talent in one or more art forms. It is no revelation, I should hope, to offer Hughes as a prodigy. It may be a stretch of some critical credos to say to what extent Hughes exorcised his psychological demons in his writings, as I endeavor in this brief essay to examine the dynamic of Hughes's confessional lyric. At times Hughes's autobiographical content may seem relatively unobtrusive, in view of his own peculiar choice of lending voice to a multitude of personas in the African-American society rather than submitting to meticulous, psychoanalytic self-evaluation in explicit terms in all of his writings. In fact, the confessional mode in American poetry did not come until the fifties, when Hughes had largely mined his lyrical voice in poetry. However, I maintain what is perhaps obvious to many in varying terms, which is that Mulatto and "Genius Child" are clear workings of an intense psychological trauma for Hughes, that of being an unloved genius. His agony was perhaps exacerbated by his own quiet belief in his own genius, which was a false humility which, no doubt, angered those from whom he only wanted love -- his parents most obviously, but then members of his audience as well. Hughes explained to some that he wrote out of the pain of loneliness. Thus, I shall maintain in this brief essay that the genius and alienation of Bert, the tragic mulatto of Mulatto, grew out of Hughes's identification of himself as genius and the consequent alienation stemming from that assessment of his own talent.

"Nobody loves a genius child."

Hughes's identification with Bert was perhaps not as conscious as it would have been in a more seasoned playwright, but the drama after the play and the miserable ending of the year in which it opened provided Hughes with the seeds for the mood of the poem which summed up his feelings. Mulatto was Hughes's first professional production in a theatrical career of many years. …