- Lorraine Hansberry's Absurdity:The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window
To face the fundamental ambiguity of existence is to live authentically: on Beauvoir's analysis, women's lives offer greater scope for existential authenticity—and greater risks of existential failure. Existentially speaking, under patriarchy women risk more, fall deeper and rise higher than men; while the woman who fails in her struggle for authenticity is not to be condoned, she most certainly is to be understood.Toril Moi, Simone De Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman
What (I was reasoning to myself) could be more absurd than a theatre in which the esthetic criterion is something like this: a "good" play is one which makes money; a "bad" play (in the sense of "Naughty! Naughty!" I guess) is one which does not….Edward Albee, "Which Theatre Is the Absurd One?"
Writing in The Village Voice in August 1959, Lorraine Hansberry analyzed the poor reception of A Raisin in the Sun among "the ultra-sophisticates" ("Willy" 194). Although such disapproval was typically expressed by "gazing cooly down their noses" and calling the play "soap opera" (194), the deeper problem was that the drama challenged the "accustomed … dynamics of 'Negro' personality as expressed by white authors" (196). When Walter decides to move the Younger family to the Clybourne neighborhood, he defies "what [End Page 742] American radical traditions wish him to be: an exotic" (195). Thus while Walter's action may be progressive politically, it is retrograde culturally, completely out of touch with "the ever-present (and ever-so-popular) vogue of despair" (198).
Hansberry's formulation "the vogue of despair" echoes Langston Hughes's analysis of the Harlem Renaissance in The Big Sea (1940), "When the Negro Was in Vogue" (223), but in the postwar period, as French existentialist discourse informed avant-garde art and counter-cultural positions, black experience came into vogue insofar as it provided the occasion for sophisticated whites to confront, and perhaps transcend, the powerlessness they experienced living in a cold war culture. Rather than foreground the social oppression of black people, however, the cultural vogue for black despair tended to dematerialize the condition, turning particular situations into universal abstractions or romanticizing the black criminal as an existentialist hero. This was essentially Hansberry's criticism of Richard Wright's The Outsider (1953): the psychopathic "Cross Damon is someone you will never meet on the Southside of Chicago," she wrote in 1953; for he is "the symbol of Wright's new philosophy—the glorification of—nothingness" (Rev. 7).1 Therefore, when Hansberry dramatizes Walter's struggle with oppressive conditions on Chicago's South Side, she was determined that this struggle not be used by whites to symbolize absurdity. Reflecting on a negative Village Voice review of the 1961 film version of Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry wrote: "What they found most objectionable was the fact that the hero did not make the payoff at the end. 'He should have played the game,' [the reviewer] Miss [Angus Speare] Julliard, told me, 'that would have been the swinging thing to do'" ("Genet" 14). Raisin's affirmative resolution harks back to an older tradition of socialist realism, but for Hansberry and other African American dramatists working in the postwar period, the realist form could also be an intervention within a contemporary cultural formation, a means to defy and resist the [End Page 743] appropriation of black experience by an art scene they considered to be white, European, and potentially racist.2
At the same time, however, there remains unresolved despair in Hansberry's drama; absurdity is never contained fully by the realist plot. Take, for example, the scene that begins the third act of Raisin: Walter has lost the family's insurance money, and Beneatha confronts the fact that her dreams are contingent upon material circumstances beyond her control. Rather than recognize that her lack of power in the family follows from her gender, Beneatha voices a vague, existential despair: "Me, I'm nothing," she tells Asagai (132). And when the Nigerian revolutionary speaks about black African resistance to colonial oppression, Beneatha calls his idealism naive: "Don't you see there isn't any real progress...