- Du Bois’s Forgotten Plays
The following concerns an unpublished collection of plays written by W. E. B. Du Bois between 1907 and 1931. The plays are The All-Mother (retitled The Slave, the Serf, and the Blond Beast), Black Hercules, Black Man, The Christ of the Andes, and Seven-Up. Outside of a brief extract, there is no record of their being published, nor have they ever been performed. The plays can be found only as typescripts in the Du Bois Papers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. This introduction provides a brief history of their development and documents some of Du Bois’s correspondence about them. It also demonstrates how Du Bois envisioned the plays as an embodiment of the black theatre aesthetics he developed contemporaneously with their writing. It ends with an excerpt from one of the plays.
Du Bois wrote the first of the plays, The Christ of the Andes, in 1907 for a contest held by the Boston Pacifists (Du Bois, “Tabu of Christ on the Andes”). The following year, he printed an extract from the verse play in his magazine Horizon. Du Bois went on to write over thirty plays and “playlets” in the early decades of the century, and by 1915 was sending them to theatre companies for consideration (Horne and Young 55; Cahn). In 1931, he chose five of the plays for a collection he called Playthings of the Night. Alongside the plays, Du Bois wanted to include a series of essays criticizing both Broadway and the contemporary black theatre. By 1941, Du Bois had revised the plays, editing them to appear more like short stories. He also gave the collection a new title in The Sorcery of Color (although he toyed with calling it The Darker Wisdom). Du Bois was still having the plays edited for publication as late as 1956 (Symington).
Du Bois sent the plays to a number of colleagues, theatre groups, and publishers. He gave The All-Mother to the Krigwa Players, a company he helped set up, but they never performed it (Clifford). He sent the plays to Owen Dodson, Arnold Perl, George Streator, Eslanda and Paul Robeson, and Rowena and Russell Jelliffe, among others. In 1937, Du Bois sent two plays to Shirley Graham (later his wife), then director of the Chicago Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project. She found Black Man “a beautiful and moving piece of literature,” but to be “so highly artistic that it would appeal only to those who have developed a sense of aesthetic values.” Years later, Graham herself submitted Black Man to Hallie Flanagan Davis, the national director of the Federal Theatre Project. Davis saw a “confusion of intention” in the play:
There are two ideas running through the phantasy: that of slavery and white supremacy, and the destructive force of human nature. That there is a plausible correlation between the two is acceptable, but as it is worked out here it is beyond understanding. The remainder of criticisms stem from the above. The play lacks persuasive power because it is too far away from the world.
These plays, as this assessment might seem to imply, were generally not well received, although Du Bois’s editor at Henry Holt thought them “as fine as anything you have ever done” (Sloane). Du Bois was still circulating them in 1960, showing a commitment to the plays he sustained over five decades (Letter to Bobrysheva). [End Page 309]
Darwin T. Turner believed that Du Bois, “unlike Wordsworth or T. S. Eliot, never created in his fiction, drama, and poetry the great work which would both illustrate and justify his literary theory” (2). While the plays might not have swayed Turner, they result from Du Bois’s deliberate attempt to illustrate and justify what has been described as his propaganda/protest black theatre aesthetics. This is evinced in the essays Du Bois wrote in 1931 to be published in Playthings of the Night. Among these is “Negro Tabus in American Theatre,” in which Du Bois lists clichés and misconceptions of blackness that proliferated on Broadway at the time:
1. Negro-American drama must be defeatist. It must not intimate...