Langston Hughes: The Poet As Playwright; A Love-Hate Relationship
"If you want to die, be maladjusted, neurotic and psychotic, disappointed and disjointed...just write plays, Go ahead."(2) These are the words of Langston Hughes, words of advice given to a young James Baldwin when he came to him with questions about the direction his own writing might take. These are the words of advice from an author who had distinguished himself with an impressive list of stage productions including Little Ham, Soul Gone Home, Tambourines To Glory, Black Nativity, Street Scene, The Barrier, Simply Heavenly, and Joy To My Soul. True, Langston Hughes was best known as a poet but he had very definitely made his mark as a playwright as well. In a letter to Arna Bontemps, his long-time friend and sometimes collaborator, Mr. Hughes offered the following observation, "I warn you one more time about fooling around with the theatre," he said, "It does more than cripple your legs. It cripples your soul."(3) Again, these are not the observations of a theatrical "Wanna Be," but the cautionary words of a respected and experienced author whose works had been seen in just about every theatrical venue. The name Langston Hughes had been seen on playbills in small community theatres, off-broadway, colleges and universities, on Broadway, and stages throughout the world. Clearly, Langston Hughes was one who wrote for the theatre but was not, by his own definition, a man of the theatre. If the attitudes expressed above represent the playwright's feelings about the industry, why would he (already successful in various others forms of writing) continue to punish himself by writing for and working in that hated artform? Obviously, there was something about theatre that drew him, offering satisfactions that neither poetry nor fiction could give. What was it about the theatre that turned the writer off so much that he could not bring himself to encourage others to enter the field unless he first "armed them for battle"?
Mr. Hughes was not a sometime contributor to the theatre. Throughout his entire career, he was active as a playwright or lyricist. On several occasions he was an administrator for various dramatic groups and projects. In short, there is evidence of a commitment born out of love for the artform. There must have been some "happy times" in the theatre for Mr. Hughes, otherwise this paper would be about the poet's masochistic streak or his love of self abuse. Instead the paper will attempt to shed some light on the playwright's somewhat contradictory association with the theatre as industry. When interviewed concerning Langston Hughes' dealings with theatre people, Alice Childress, herself an outstanding playwright and a close friend of the author, had this to say:
I remember once being with [Langston Hughes] just before a meeting he was to have with some important theatre people...I was just about to leave the room when he stopped me. "Don't leave me here to face them alone", he practically pleaded. I was amazed that he, Langston Hughes, should be so scared of anyone. But he hated the tricks and the egotism of so many theatre people. He simply wasn't prepared to act that way, and it hurt him to see it in others.(4)
That this description of the playwright should come from Alice Childress demands that we take notice. Unfortunately, she passed from us earlier this year; but those of us who were privileged to know her will remember her as one "tough cookie" who was always able to handle both the egotism and the tricks of the theatre. Apparently, she saw Mr. Hughes as one lacking the hard edge needed to protect the artists who choose to work in this highly competitive artform. Arnold Rampersad, in his two volume biography of Langston Hughes, voices further support of the playwright's problem. He states that "Langston quietly despised and feared the world of the theatre which seemed to breed or attract aggression and egotism."(5) While people of the theatre commit themselves to the idea that "the play's the thing," it seems that Langston's allegiances were rooted in the value of the people who make the theatre work. …