Black Drama of the Federal Theatre Era: Beyond the Formal Horizons

By E. Quita Craig | Go to book overview

SIX
AFRO-AMERICAN VERSATILITY WITH EURO-AMERICAN TECHNIQUES

WRITING IN 1966 about white American playwrights, Brooks Atkinson recalled that they made the twenties "the most dynamic decade the American theater ever had." In marked contrast to this superlative evaluation, the black playwrights of that period had been widely criticized for various and conflicting forms of ineptitude, including too much realism and non-realism. Doris Abramson, also writing in the sixties, recorded the prevailing opinion that they were not considered "ready artistically or intellectually" for experimentation; "they were hardly free of melodrama and the minstrel tradition,"2 and of the Federal Theatre era she concluded from the available information that the Federal Theatre did not "live" long enough for its black playwrights to master the sophisticated techniques used by its Living Newspapers.3

But was this presumption, by white critics, of black ineptitude with the experimental techniques of the Euro-American stage, really justified? Were the efforts of the white American stage to master the latest European techniques really that much ahead of them?

Actually, in the first three decades of the twentieth century, realism, as a dramatic mode, dominated the American stage, and it continued to do so well beyond that time. Plays like Processional by John Howard Lawson , The Adding Machine by Elmer Rice, and The Emperor Jones by Eugene O'Neill were strictly in the minority, and white experimental drama was mostly confined to college drama units, such as the Vassar Experimental Theater over which Hallie Flanagan had presided.4 Perhaps the most powerful deterrent to experimental drama was the fact that Broadway had its eye perpetually on the box office, and the eternally optimistic audiences in the land of hope and glory continued to demand euphemistically happy endings that did not disturb the American dream -- at a time when most of Europe was already reflecting the sordid and disillusioning facts of life in dramatic modes created to cope with its changed vision. Not even the work of the great Bertolt Brecht, "who changed the face of European drama," succeeded

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