The House of Connelly (1931)
by Paul Green
This play came at the peak of Green’s fame, after he’d received a Pulitzer Prize and a couple Broadway productions in the late 1920s. The highly-influential Group Theatre chose this to be its first production. “The House of Connelly” takes place at the turn of the century on a decaying plantation in North Carolina. The Connelly family no longer has its patriarch, and young Will is well-meaning and principled, but weak-willed and not made of the legendary Confederate stuff his father and grandfathers were. As a result the large estate goes to seed and all its tenants scrounge for food. Some new white tenants, a father and a beautiful daughter, offer some promise of either redeeming the estate or usurping it, depending on whose perspective. Will’s family—mother, sisters and uncle—is mainly of the latter opinion. Two witch-like Black women, Big Sis and Big Sue, haunt the premises with their dancing, their chanting and their laughter. They have their eyes trained on Patsy, the uppity tenant.
This is probably the most dramaturgically-sound full-length play of Green’s that I’ve read. The crisis of the plantation in disrepair with the inciting incident of the arriving tenant and love-interest make it more of a piece than, say, “In Abraham’s Bosom” or “Johnny Johnson.” It seems modeled largely on a melodramatic convention, but as with much of Green’s playwriting, he strives to complicate his characterizations. His central character is full of angst and passion, though he can seem rudderless. The female black characters have a surprising degree of sass and agency, though leaning into the daemonic. (Does this thereby reduce their “femaleness”?)
Green was vigorous about including authentic place, costume, dialect, song and other aspects of culture. This was part of his “Folk Drama” ethic. Furthermore, the play seems to channel Shakespeare and his witches from “Macbeth”, and even Chekhov with some of the random and naturalistic crosstalk. The character of Uncle Bob might be a workover of a melodramatic buffoon, but he also feels related to Gayev. And Mrs. Connelly to Ranyevskaya for that matter. Paul Green is not as masterful with characterization as Chekhov, but he does fill the characters with idiosyncracy and local flavor.
The original ending of the play is quite shocking and apt, if misogynistic. The revised ending for the Group Theatre is supposed to be happier, but today it just feels racist.
Dramaturgical point: It seems when Green sought to defy type characters, he would try to summon a whirlwind of internal feeling, ups and downs, characters in the throes of passions they couldn’t control. Today it reads as inconsistency. Character is mettle not air, however strong. You can see how this would be a reasonable direction to experiment: If a melodramatic type character had passion going consistently in one direction, would not a complex character would have it going in several? Of course, this is the case, but the difference comes down to plotting. Character complexity must be understood as responses to seemingly lifelike external events and not simply obscured and possibly irrational internal currents. Ibsen was the one who discovered this territory in the European Era of Realism. America lagged behind, however, and it was probably Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, of the generation after Green, who found it here. Indeed, Tennessee Williams may well have watched the 1939 production of “The House of Connelly” (with the original ending) as a student at the University of Iowa.