On the Horizon: Thoughts on “A Raisin in the Sun”
On the day that the New York Drama Critics’ Award was announced, a student stopped me as I walked across the campus—where I pass as an expert on the theater—and asked a sensible question. Had A raisin in the Sun won because it was the best play of the year, or because its author, Lorraine Hansberry, is a Negro? Even if the play is a good one (and, with reservations, I think it is), even if it were indisputably the best of the year, the climate of award-giving would make impossible its consideration on merit alone. Whenever an award goes to a playwright who is not a veteran of Broadway or to a play which is in some way unusual, the special case is almost certainly as important a factor in the voting as the play itself. The only contender this year that might have been chosen on its own merits (of which I think it has very few) was Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth. Had J.B. got the award—and the smart money assumed it would and assumed, correctly, that it would also get the Pulitzer—special consideration would have derived from the image of Archibald MacLeish as the poet invading Broadway, and from the critical piety that longs for verse on the commercial stage. Had A Touch of the Poet got the award, respect for O’Neill as America’s greatest playwright and the suspicion (unfounded) that this is very likely the last full-length play to be unearthed from the O’Neill papers and put on stage would have received ballots along with the play itself. It is, then, only sensible to assume that Lorraine Hansberry’s being a Negro, and the first Negro woman to have a play on Broadway, had its influence on the voting critics.
Even if the balloting had been purely aesthetic, the award to Lorraine Hansberry would have been greeted as the achievement of a Negro—hailed in some places as an honor to American Negroes, dismissed in others as a well-meaning gesture from the Critics’ Circle. Such reactions are inevitable at this time. Any prominent Negro—Marion Anderson or Jackie Robinson or Ralph Bunche—becomes a special hero to the Negro community (see the Negro newspapers and magazines), an example of what a Negro can be and do in the United States; such figures are heroes, also, to white Americans who feel a sense of guilt about what the average American Negro cannot be and do. Lists are still compiled, I suppose, of prominent American Jews or famous Americans of Italian or German or Irish origin, but they are no longer urgently needed, by in-group or out, as are the lists of the successful American Negroes. So long as the Negro remains an incompletely integrated part of American society (equal but separate, in the non-legal meaning of the phrase), the achievements of singer, baseball player, or diplomat may be admired as such, but his race will not be ignored—by Negro or white.
The Negro artist and intellectual is particularly marked by this situation. Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, for example, admirable writers both, are Negro writers in a way that Saul Bellow and Herbert Gold are not Jewish writers. A critic may note, as Richard Chase did recently in COMMENTARY,1 that in Henderson the Rain King for the first time Saul Bellow does not use Jewish characters, but this is not the kind of operation that followed Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, by which it was possible to view the book as a Negro novel without Negro characters.
The playwright who is a Negro is faced with a special problem. Broadway has a tradition of Negro shows, inevitably folksy or exotic, almost always musical, of which the only virtue is that Negro performers get a chance to appear as something more than filler. The obvious reaction to such shows is the protest play, the Negro agitprop, which can be as false to American Negro life as the musicals. A playwright with serious intentions, like Miss Hansberry, has to avoid both pitfalls, has to try to write not a Negro play, but a play in which the characters are Negroes. In an interview (New York Times, March 8, 1959), Miss Hansberry is reported as having said to her husband before she began Raisin, “I’m going to write a social drama about Negroes that will be good art.” However good the art, unfortunately, the play will remain, in one sense, a Negro play. The Times interview made quite clear that Miss Hansberry was aware that she was writing as much for the American Negro as for the American theatre. Similarly, an article on Sidney Poitier, the play’s star, in the New York Times Magazine (January 25, 1959), made the point that Poitier avoided roles that might “diminish the Negro’s stature as a human being.” Whatever his ambitions as an artist, the Negro playwright, like the Negro actor, is still forced into a propaganda role. The publicity for A Raisin in the Sun, the news stories about it, the excitement it stirred up among Negroes (never until Raisin had I seen a Philadelphia theatre in which at least half the audience was Negro) all emphasize that it is a play written by a Negro woman about Negroes, a fact which could hardly have been forgotten when the Critics’ Award was passed out.
Having suggested that objectivity is impossible with respect to A Raisin in the Sun, I should like to make a few objective remarks about it. The play, first of all, is old-fashioned. Practically no serious playwright, in or out of America, works in such a determinedly naturalistic form as Miss Hansberry in her first play. The semi-documentary movies that cropped up at the end of World War II, and then television, particularly in the Chayefsky school of drama, took over naturalism so completely that it is doubtful whether the form will ever again be comfortable in the theater. It is now possible to accept on stage the wildest fantasy or the simplest suggestion; but the set that pretends to be a real room with real doors and real furniture has become more difficult to accept than a stylized tree. Ralph Alswang’s set for Raisin, as murky and crowded and gadgety as the slum apartment it represents, is ingenious in its detail; but the realistic set, like the real eggs the young wife cracks for an imaginary breakfast, reaches for a verisimilitude that has become impossible. Raisin is the kind of play which demands the naturalism that Miss Hansberry has used, but in choosing to write such a play, she entered Broadway’s great sack race with only a paper bag as equipment. Her distinction is that she has won the race this year, which proves, I suppose, that narrow naturalism is still a possible—if anachronistic—form.
If the set suggests 1910 and Eugene Walter, the play itself—in its concentration on the family in society—recalls the 30’s and Clifford Odets. It tells the story of the Younger family and their escape from a too-small apartment on Chicago’s South Side to a house in which they have space and air and, unfortunately but not insurmountably, the enmity of their white neighbors. The conflict within the play is between the dreams of the son, Walter Lee, who wants to make a killing in the big world, and the hopes of his mother and his wife, who want to save their small world by transplanting it to an environment in which it might conceivably flourish. The mechanical means by which this conflict is illuminated—the insurance money, its loss, the representative of the white neighborhood association—are completely artificial, plot devices at their most devised. Take the loss of the money, for example. From the first moment that Walter Lee mentions his plans for a profitable liquor store, his connections, the need for spreading money around in Springfield, the audience knows that the money will be stolen; supposedly, in good naturalistic tradition, the audience should sit, collective fingers crossed, hoping that he might be spared, that the dream might not be deferred and shrivel, like a raisin in the sun, as the Langston Hughes poem has it, I found myself, fingers crossed, hoping that the inevitable would not come, not for the sake of Walter Lee Younger, but for the sake of the play, of which the solid center was already too hedged with contrivances. No one’s crossed fingers did any good.
Of the four chief characters in the play, Walter Lee is the most complicated and the most impressive He is often unlikable, occasionally cruel. His sense of being trapped by his situation—class, race, job, prospects, education—transfers to his family, who become to him not fellow prisoners but complacent jailers. Their ways of coping with their condition are his defeats, for to him the open-sesame that will release him (change his status? change his color?) is money. The play is concerned primarily with his recognition that, as a man, he must begin from, not discard, himself, that dignity is a quality of men, not bank accounts. Walter Lee’s penchant for taking center stage has forced his wife to become an observer in his life, but at the same time she is an accusation. For most of the play she wears a mask of wryness or the real cover of fatigue, but Miss Hansberry gives her two scenes in which the near-hysteria that lies beneath the surface is allowed to break through. The mother is a more conventional figure—the force, compounded of old virtues and the strength of suffering, that holds the family together. She is a sentimentalized mother figure, reminiscent of Bessie Burgess in Awake and Sing, but without Bessie’s destructive power. The daughter, who wants to be a doctor, is out of place in this working-class family. Not that her ambition does not belong with the Youngers, but her surface characteristics—the flitting from one expensive fad to another—could not have been possible, on economic grounds alone, in such a household. Although Miss Hansberry, the daughter of a wealthy real estate man, may have enjoyed poking fun at a youthful version of herself, as reported in the Times interview, the result of putting the child of a rich man into a working-class home is incongruous.
Despite an incredible number of imperfections, Raisin is a good play. Its basic strength lies in the character and the problem of Walter Lee, which transcends his being a Negro. If the play were only the Negro-white conflict that crops up when the family’s proposed move is about to take place, it would be an editorial, momentarily effective, and nothing more. Walter Lee’s difficulty, however, is that he has accepted the American myth of success at its face value, that he is trapped, as Willy Loman was trapped, by a false dream. In planting so indigenous an American image at the center of her play, Miss Hansberry has come as close as possible to what she intended—a play about Negroes which is not simply a Negro play.
The play has other virtues. There are genuinely funny and touching scenes throughout. Many of these catch believably the chatter of a family—the resentments and the shared jokes—and the words have the ring of truth that one found in Odets or Chayefsky before they began to sound like parodies of themselves. In print, I suspect, the defects of Raisin will show up more sharply, but on stage—where, after all, a play is supposed to be—the impressive performances of the three leads (Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Claudia McNeil) draw attention to the play’s virtues.
A Raisin in the Sun deserved the Critics’ Award as much as any other play of this season, and more than most. That statement, however, is as much an accusation of the season as it is praise of the play. Every fall, when the advertisements begin to bloom in the pages of the New York Times, I am filled again with certainty that something is about to happen on Broadway. Every spring, when the results are in, I am aware of a dream deferred, a raisin shriveled. This season, however, has been duller than most. I cannot recall any moment of real excitment. There were small pleasures, small merits, but no revelations. The one real experiment in form, Shimon Wincelberg’s Kataki, a full-length monologue play (and it came from television), was put quietly to sleep by tepid reviews. It is perverse to expect something really fine, I suppose. The Ibsens, the Shaws, the Chekhovs have always been the exceptions in the theater and they have had to make their way against the theater itself. The Broadway business is at present congenial to adaptations of novels and television plays, to mechanical comedies, to the Pinero-like seriousness of William Inge and Robert Anderson, to anything that is safe, even though a high percentage of the safeties turn out to be bombs.
American fiction, it seems to me, is alive now and aware of its life. American drama, except perhaps for musical comedy (Candide, after all, is the best American play in many years), is, if not dead, often deadly—and does not particularly care that it is. Arthur Miller is the only one of the postwar American playwrights whose concern with the theater is likely to engender excitement and he, perhaps wisely, works slowly and appears infrequently. Even Tennessee Williams, whose mixture of old expressionism and new neuroticism once had vitality, seems now mechanical in his flamboyance; Sweet Bird of Youth, for all its acclaim, looked to me like the same old rabbit out of the same old hat. There is something sad about the fact that the Critics’ Award went to a play that not only uses an outdated form, but often uses it clumsily. I do not want to disparage Miss Hansberry’s achievement with A Raisin in the Sun. It is a first play and a good one; more important, it has hold of one of the central dramatic problems of our time. If one were to compare her with Chekhov, however, as Brooks Atkinson did in his review, the comparison could hardly be as flattering as the Times critic made it. I hope that Lorraine Hansberry will go on to write more plays and that all of them will be as good as or better than A Raisin in the Sun, but I do not expect to find in them any real hope for a vital American theater. A Raisin in the Sun is the best play of the year, but the American theater today is an old man in a dry season. Where does that leave us? Waiting for fall, of course.
1“The Adventures of Saul Bellow,” April 1959.