Paul Laurence Dunbar's Overlooked Play

By Leuchtenmuller, Thomas | African American Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Paul Laurence Dunbar's Overlooked Play


Leuchtenmuller, Thomas, African American Review


DUNBAR

Ah, how poets sing and die! Make one song and Heaven takes it; Have one heart and Beauty breaks it; Chatterton, Shelley, Keats and I--Ah, how poets sing and die!--Anne Spencer

Paul Laurence Dunbar is mainly known as a poet. And scholarship has practically neglected the importance of the author as a playwright. More precisely, concerning stage productions, Dunbar is--if at all--almost always only mentioned as a writer of lyrics for musicals; examples of this have for a long time been present in historical approaches to the black theater, such as work by Henry Elam and David Krasner (177), Genevieve Fabre (250), James Haskins (37), and Loften Mitchell (47). Whereas nearly all biographical studies, including those of Eleanor Alexander, Felton Best, and of Benjamin Brawley, radically ignore Dunbar's dramatic achievements; solely Thomas D. Pawley (71-73) and Peter Revell (97-98) offer some information in a few sentences. But this neglect may come as no surprise since Dunbar's most elaborated known play, "Herrick" (Dunbar 17-83), had been located by Herbert Woodward Martin as late as 1993--before it was published in 2002.

In which historical context is "Herrick" to be put? The end of the nineteenth century was a busy period in the history of--what was actually to become--the African American theater, especially in the scene's heart, New York. Take the year 1898, for example, when "A Trip to Coontown" opened at the Third Avenue Theatre. "Coontown" was the first show to be organized, written, produced, and managed exclusively by blacks (Haskins 37). Apart from that, it is considered the first completely non-minstrel show (Haskins 35) and the first musical show with an overall plot that carries the cast of characters from beginning to end. Eighteen ninety-eight was also the year when another group of talented blacks presented the short musical play "Clorindy--The Origin of the Cakewalk" at the Casino Roof Garden; the music was composed by Will Marion Cook, and the star was Ernest Hogan, a well-known black comedian. Finally, 1898 was the year that lyricist for "Clorindy" (Haskins 37) wrote a piece that was never produced (Martin and Primeau 3): I am referring to Paul Laurence Dunbar and his drama "Herrick."

When the black musical show reached its peak, a man in his mid-twenties from Dayton, Ohio, had already demonstrated that he was an outstanding writer and publicist. (1) He had edited and published at least three issues of the Dayton Tattler, a black district newspaper; he had continued to contribute poems and stories to local newspapers and high-ranking magazines; he had read publicly and often, across the United States and in England; and, most importantly, he had published outstanding collections of poems--Oak and Ivy (1892) and Majors and Minors as well as Lyrics of Lowly Life (both 1896). Now he was up to something new: a serious play in so-called standard English, based loosely on the life of poet Robert Herrick, as Martin and Primeau note (4). An analysis of "Herrick," including its biographical and historical context, shows us an unknown Dunbar. We become acquainted with the dramatist who personally broke new ground in terms of language, dialogue, comic action, and the dramatic form of the comedy of manners. Perhaps inspired by the real Robert Herrick, Dunbar uses "Herrick" to fictionalize specific private, artistic, and political views and ideas, and to create a play that stands as a monolith in the history of African American drama.

A copy of "Herrick," which Dunbar created close to the end of his career, was sent to Richard B. Harrison (1864-1935), who promoted Dunbar's book Oak and Ivy on tours and later became known for his acting as De Lawd in Marc Connolly's play Green Pastures (1930) (Martin and Primeau 3), which won the Pulitzer Prize. In spite of good connections, in 1908 Harrison could not find anyone to produce "Herrick" and returned the manuscript to Dunbar's widow. …

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