The 100 year anniversary of Paul Green at UNC

School is starting again here in Chapel Hill. The students have returned, and a whole bunch of them are brand-new. They shine with eagerness and curiosity these first couple of weeks, until the workload and tests begin to cover that luster little-by-little. I talk to them in class about their "spark," telling them to protect it, to cherish that openness, that curiosity that wells up from inside like the primordial urging of Life.

100 years ago, a young man just like them came here, eager and ready to learn, his spark bright. He was a little older—22 at the time, but afire with longing to learn and to grow. He had worked two years to raise money back home in Harnett County, about 50 miles south of Chapel Hill. Young Paul Green had been warned of this place by a well-meaning teacher and minister. Even then it seems UNC excited suspicions of liberal thinking, as if it were a gateway to godlessness. The man pointed to a field and told him, "I'd rather see you taken out there in your coffin and buried in that ground than to go to the University of North Carolina and run the risk of burning in the fires of hell hereafter."  

Well, Young Paul had already made up his mind. Although he had been raised to mind a plow and to strip a pine for turpentine, the seeds of poetry and philosophy had taken deep root in him. He had a love for literature and a liberal sensibility. Already he was developing what would become a profound sense of justice and equity, especially for a southern white man. (An incident of racial injustice he had witnessed as a child became motivation to write his Pulitzer Prize winning play, In Abraham’s Bosom.) The class of 1920 of course was made up mainly of southern white men, except for a few white women and perhaps the stray carpetbagging Yankee.

The class of 1920 would largely not graduate as such. A war was coming, and Paul, like many others, enlisted and was soon off to war in France. We get a dramatic glimpse of this time in his 1936 play Johnny Johnson, the title character being a young pacifist everyman, an alter-ego of the author, focused on joining a war "to end all wars." (A carefully-reconstructed production of this musical was produced here in 2014.) By 1919, Paul had returned to Chapel Hill to graduate in 1921, begin graduate school, marry fellow student Elizabeth Lay, and—after a year-long stint at Cornell—join the faculty of UNC’s Philosophy Department in 1923. Chapel Hill would be home for the rest of his long life.

Despite this, what he found when he first came here did not meet his expectations. He would later recall his sense of disappointment.

Very rarely, for instance, did I hear any talk about questions of right and wrong, or duty or compulsion, of responsibility, or cooperation among men, or generous attitudes towards different races and nations of mankind. Practically nothing about racial justice or the desperate need of the brotherhood of man in the breaking world—and the world was breaking even then—and the necessity of kindness in that world, yes, of kindness and good will as the prime necessity of the world, as one of the main ingredients in building and preserving a lasting civilization and controlling and containing the surges of hate and animosity that divided so many groups and continue to divide them...
— Paul Green, "The University in a Nuclear Age" speech at UNC, 1963

One of the highlights of that first year was a class with English Professor Norman Foerster, who saw Green’s literary gift and encouraged him to enter a contest for the senior play that year. His play was chosen, and in the springtime, Paul Green’s first foray into playwriting was produced. Befitting for the man who would come to be known as the “Father of Outdoor Drama,” the play was performed in the still-thriving Forest Theatre. This experience would not be enough, however, to cement his dedication to theatre. That took the happy circumstance of the University hiring in 1919 Professor Fred Koch, the Founder of Carolina Playmakers.

‘Proff’ Koch came riding in from the Dakota prairies, his arms full of plays and his head full of dreams. In no time a stage was up, and everybody near and far, little and big, black and white, realized for the first time that he, said body, was an artist of some sort—mainly a dramatic artist. Some went in for designing, some for acting, some for writing. I chose the last.
— Paul Green, “Drama and the Weather,” first published in 'Theatre Arts Monthly' in 1934

This was a community-based theatre. And Carolina Playmakers would not just make its mark on Chapel Hill, but was destined to be part of the efflorescence of Southern literature in the early 20th Century. It promoted “Folk Drama,” where the focus was not on the rich and sophisticated, but on ordinary people, local people even, and matters of importance in their lives. Young writers were encouraged to tell the stories of their home state and of the lives they had witnessed. They should not shy away from tackling taboo subjects such as racial or economic injustice.

Paul Green wrote a number of “Negro dramas,” with which he sought to share the plight of the oppressed and also some of their dignity. He took care to write down in nearly anthropological detail the language and gestures he heard and saw in the people. These plays were published in monthly journals and then books as early as the mid-1920s. There was a thirst for such plays in various places in the country, their themes meshing well with the mission of the burgeoning “Little Theatre” movement. Also, Negro theatre companies were arising at this time and looking for material to perform.

Green’s “Negro dramas” included one-acts and the aforementioned full-length play, In Abraham’s Bosom. This play was produced on Broadway in December 1926. In Abraham’s Bosom is a tragedy that features a powerful and ambitious African-American central character. This depiction contrasted with the norm of black performance on Broadway, which was often marked either by extreme parody or pity. This Broadway production was to be followed in April 1927 with another play of his, The Field God, featuring a central character nearly a mirror of the playwright in his Harnett county surroundings. Paul Green was a rising star, and his success was tied to his writing about his home state and its people.

The House of Connelly (1931) would continue in this vein with its story of a plantation in decline. This would be the debut production of the soon-to-be-famous Group Theatre. It was a Broadway hit, directed by Lee Strasburg and Cheryl Crawford and featured performances by Stella Adler, Franchot Tone and Rose McClendon. The company had asked Green to change the ending of the play, to make it more “hopeful.“ He went along with this, although he preferred his original (and less racist) ending. (Margaret Bauer of ECU has recently published a valuable critical edition of this play.) The House of Connelly was then taken up by Hollywood, the result being an entirely rewritten and thematically-neutered Southern Romantic Comedy called “Carolina.” It not only eliminated any power of its African-American characters, but featured the lazzi of Stepin Fetchit, the poster boy of 1930s minstrelsy.

While his career had him bouncing from New York to Hollywood to Europe, Green never lost his dedication to social justice here in the Tarheel State. His 1935 one-act play, Hymn to the Rising Sun is a powerful call to prison reform. Set in a North Carolina prison, it features, like so many of his plays, a mixed-race cast. Green was taking aim at the specific institutions that perpetuated injustice. He became a fierce opponent of the death penalty, calling attention to its racially-biased application. For decades, he wrote letters on behalf of prisoners, visited them, met with governors and prosecutors, and stood vigil outside courthouses and prisons. He himself was largely responsible in 1943 for securing a governor’s pardon and saving the life of William Mason Wellmon, an innocent man on death row. [Both Hymn to the Rising Sun and samples of Green’s letters are included in former UNC Professor of English Laurence Avery’s book, “A Paul Green Reader” (UNC Press, 1998).]

In the summer of 1937, the first production of The Lost Colony came to Roanoke Island, celebrating the 350th Anniversary of the first attempted English settlement in the New World. This sprawling production, written by Green and directed by fellow Carolina Playmaker Sam Selden, was performed outdoors in the very spot where that history had taken place. It had a magical effect and featured music and dance of both the English and the Native peoples. It was such a hit that it became an annual event, attracting to the Outer Banks thousands of visitors from near and far. It is still performed to this day. It was such a hit, it impelled Paul Green to direct his energies to producing more of these outdoor “symphonic dramas”—17 in all he would complete, helping bring to life the histories of Texas and Ohio, Kentucky and Florida and elsewhere. He would earn that title “Father of Outdoor Drama” and, more importantly, help establish the form for the future in The Institute of Outdoor Drama, which was housed for a long time in UNC’s Department of Dramatic Art, but has recently spun off on its own. 

Besides being a playwright, Paul Green was a compiler of folk vernacular and a writer of short stories; most of his stories were based in the fictional Little Bethel, modeled on the community of his birth. He was perhaps foremost an educator. He saw Carolina as a place where greatness could be unleashed. He saw this as a perennial process, with greatness ever ready to emerge from the present day stewards and attendees of the great trust that is the People’s University:

This is not only home. It is a shrine to me, a home-shrine. And I tell you whenever I feel low in my mind I can come up here on the campus from my house some two miles out, walk under these old and beautiful trees out there, think of the old days, remember the perished friendly comrades… and feel a sweet rich sense of their nearness, their living presence, again, as I walk under these trees, feel again not only inspiration of the past but the dynamic pressure and push of the present in the hurrying and criss-crossing figures of the students, say, and the professors. And as I watch them go by I dream and ponder on the days ahead. And my heart begins to beat right again, and my low spirits to lift…

And as I walk about, pass by and hear and see the processes of young minds and bodies at work inside the dozens of classrooms, hear the professors inside talking away — and sometimes I get in there and talk away too — then I know that a mighty miracle is at work here, the miracle of human creativity…
— Paul Green, "The University in a Nuclear Age" speech at UNC, 1963

As you walk around campus, you walk where he walked. Go down to the Forest Theatre where his first play was performed, or to Historic Playmakers, where his early folk dramas were first done. Visit his cabin where he did so much of his writing; it now sits in the lovely NC Botanical Garden just south of campus. Come over to the Center for Dramatic Art, and in the halls you’ll see original oil portraits of him hanging in different spots. In the large lobby, where the names of history's great playwrights sit like constellations in the firmament of the Dramatic Canon, there is an exhibit area dedicated to the history of Playmakers with photographs, programs and other ephemera of those early days. An expressionistic bust of Green waits for you just outside the bustling theater that bears his name. Go outside just in back of the theatre to the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery and you’ll find his resting place, there beside his wife Elizabeth. And there on his gravestone is the simple summation of his life: “Teacher. Dramatist. Philosopher.”

Perhaps we don't make this pilgrimage in awe or reverence, but with the spirit of communing with a fellow, separated from us by time and experience. Paul Green started off here as a spark that became a shining light in our community. That same spark that was his is there now in the heart of these first year students. Each one can be a star, if not in Dramatic Art, then in Journalism or the Sciences or Public Health or Global Studies. And, of course, a star is not made so by its fame, but by the light it gives. Paul Green passed away in 1981, but his light remains.

The Lost Colony is going strong nearly 80 years later, with crowds of thousands each week all summer long. If you haven't gone yet, go. It still holds the magic. That his other plays have mostly fallen out of circulation speaks more to his generation than to his essence. He came of age before American playwriting did, before a viable dramaturgy had coalesced in the Zeitgeist of the generation of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. We most celebrate Paul Green because he fought the good fight and sought to use the stage for its highest purpose — to uplift, to educate, to ennoble, to right the wrong, to dignify the victim, to chasten the unjust, to build community.

Mark Perry

(This blog was first posted as "UNC’s Paul Green: a like-mind in a different time" in Sept 2015.)