- A Drama of the Southwest: The Critical Edition of a Forgotten Play by Jean Toomer
Writing a seamlessly unified review of A Drama of the Southwest: The Critical Edition of a Forgotten Play by Jean Toomer is a bit of a challenge. On the one hand we have Toomer’s unfinished and unpublished 1934 play, while on the other we have Carolyn Dekker’s critical commentary. To these, add a sizable selection of letters between Toomer and second wife Marjorie Content as well as a handwritten variation of one scene and a fragment of another, and you have quite a mix of diverse materials.
The play itself, what there is of it, is amply thought-provoking. It focuses on the lives of a handful of privileged easterners who have adopted Taos, New Mexico, as their home away from home. In this regard, the play is somewhat autobiographical as Toomer and his wife did indeed spend time in the early 1930s in the Taos artists’ community that included such luminaries as Georgia O’Keeffe, D. H. Lawrence, Mary Austin, and Mabel Dodge Lujan.
As a writer more interested in ideas than narrative, Jean Toomer the playwright resembles Jean Toomer the novelist, raising keenly interesting questions related to outsiders’ problematic attempts to become “natives” of a land that was never really theirs. The play seems to ask the crucial but seldom-asked question: can anyone [End Page 478] buy his or her way into a place, become an authentic part of that place, and in the process achieve a measure of querencia? The result of such probing is a play that is profoundly talky and rather static. The principal characters do little more than enter a room and exit it, in between discursively discussing regional culture and identity.
While some may argue that the unfinished play is a disappointment—and Toomer himself may have felt that way; after all, he never completed it—its real value lies in its examination of cultural, racial, and class notions of ownership of place, asking questions neither easily nor glibly answered. Lamentably, it’s an interrogation that never reaches fruition. That said, however, A Drama of the Southwest is a text scholars of place-based identity will find worth reading.
While the play’s fragmentary condition is problematic, Dekker’s critical commentary is illuminating, providing meticulous albeit brief exegesis as it explores Toomer’s transracial, transcultural dimensions and fits them into his New Mexico experience. In the process Dekker has fun with the play’s roman à clef qualities, identifying and then dismissing characters as a possible Georgia O’Keeffe, maybe a Mabel Dodge Lujan, and so on.
Equally interesting are the selected letters between Toomer and Marjorie Content written in 1934 while Content and O’Keeffe traveled to New Mexico. These help to explain the interconnectedness among the network of expatriated East Coasters celebrating the exotic vitality of New Mexico and its population of Hispanos and Native Americans. The letters and especially Toomer’s notes likewise shed light on the various outsiders trying without much success to become insiders or neo-natives of the Southwest.
Although brief, Dekker’s book should appeal to Toomer scholars specifically and to scholars of the Southwest in general. More important, readers interested in the storied Taos arts colony of the 1930s will find this book a genuine treat. [End Page 479]