Excerpted from "Glamour and Purpose: Broadway in Review" by Rosamond Gilder, in Theatre Arts, May 1941
...There is no laughter at all in
Richard Wright's Native Son. The author clothed his message, even in
its novel form, not in wit but in violence, not in comedy but in melodrama,
and in the play this emphasis is accentuated. Paul Green and Richard Wright
together undertook the difficult task of recasting in dramatic form Mr. Wright's
impassioned indictment of a social order, his picture of the baffled fury
of a submerged race as it finds unconscious expression in the sudden rages,
the violences and explosive terrors of Bigger Thomas. The novel achieved its
purpose by forcefully buttonholing the reader's attention with a violent opening
sequence which included the young Negro's quarrel with his friends, his accidental
murder of the white girl, Mary Dalton, daughter of his employer, his disposal
of her body by burning it in the furnace of the Dalton house, and the ultimate
discovery of his crime. From this point on, the book, like O'Neill's The
Emperor Jones, is a terror-ridden flight. Bigger Thomas is hunted, as
was Brutus Jones, by the Great Fear and the Little Formless Fears, by his
own complete lack of faith in anything or anyone, even in the girl who loves
him and whom he kills in one of the most devastating chapters in modern literature.
He is pursued by cold and hunger, by men with guns, by the rabid mob. As Bigger
runs and dodges through alleys, tenements, dark stairways, ominous streets,
Mr. Wright leads us deeper and deeper into the subjective mind of the hunted
man, the haunted race. Bigger is caught, brought to trial, defended by a lawyer
who has fought for the underprivileged all his life, who speaks to Bigger,
as does Jan, the Communist friend of Mary Dalton, in terms of a new social
order where the mass injustices which breed Bigger Thomases will no longer
play follows the main lines of the book not subjectively, as the novel does,
and as Eugene O'Neill did, but objectively in terms of the events themselves.
It opens with a speech by the prosecuting attorney, picks up the story in
the Thomases' overcrowded tenement room and carries it rapidly through the
main scenes of Mary's murder, the uncovering of Bigger's crime, his flight,
capture and trial. The weaknesses of such an external treatment are obvious:
episodes such as the actual murder of Mary when her blind mother is in the
room and would certainly have detected something violently amiss, the necessary
omission of whole sequences, such as the ones between Bigger, Mary and J an
which preceded the killing, the unbridged gap between Bigger's escape from
the Dalton's house and his capture, and the complete elimination of all the
passages between that moment and the scene in the death cell must be confusing
to those who have not read the book.
Yet with all these faults of structure the play in the hands of so inventive and bold a director as Orson Welles proves violently exciting, absorbing, not a little lurid, as might well be expected. Mr. Welles, with John Houseman at his side and Bern Bernard as co-producer, has enlisted a number of his former collaborators in this 'Mercury Production' -notably James Morcom, who designed the setting for this as he did for The Five Kings. In order to give unity to the ten scenes that make up the unbroken sequence of Native Son, Mr. Welles framed his play in a shifting proscenium and side-walls of brownish brick, the kind of arid, man-made desert which confines the lives of Bigger and his like. The successive scenes are ingeniously devised for variety in size and shape and even in stage level, occasionally opening out to take in the whole fore-stage, apron, orchestra pit and auditorium, as in the trial scene when Lawyer Max defends Bigger, or concentrating on an acting level well above the stage floor , as in the scene in Mary Dalton's bedroom. This type of realistic but highly flexible stage treatment indicates at once Mr. Welles' approach to the material of Native Son. He directs it for melodrama, for speed, for effective theatricalism. His virtuosity is such that it occasionally runs away with him. Now and again he allows his enthusiasm for lighting and sound effects to get the better of his sense of proportion, especially at the moment when Bigger is cornered in the deserted warehouse. Here flashing lights, gun-play, shouting and shooting converge on the stage from balcony and boxes. The theatrical illusion, far from being increased, is shattered, and the scene becomes nothing more than a nineteen-forty-one version of Eliza crossing the ice. Mr.Welles' direction is weakest in his two most violent episodes, this one of Bigger's capture and the murder of Mary. His handling of the play as a whole, however, is masterly, especially such passages as the scene between Bigger and his three pals, the moment in the furnace room when the newspaper man picks up the clues that inculpate Bigger, and the final, deeply moving moments in the condemned cell.
No small measure of the play's powerful effect must be credited to Canada Lee's interpretation of the leading role. Much of what is important in the novel but is lost in the play -the profound subjective exposure of the Negro's unconscious motivations- is restored by the actor's performance. Bigger's smouldering resentment against the world as he has always known it; his unreflecting violence breaking out even more easily against the things he loves -his mother, his friends, his girl- than against the things he hates; his profound frustration stemming from the denial of his right to live; these and the varied tensions and releases provided by the succession of events through which he moves are admirably expressed by the actor in every attitude and movement of his powerful body, in his speech, his gestures, his silences. All the Negro members of the cast acquit themselves with honor, particularly Evelyn Ellis as Hannah Thomas, Bigger's mother, whose brief scene in the first act expresses admirably the background acceptance and fortitude against which Bigger's revolt flashes to its tragic end. The white characters, less clearly realized both in the novel and in the play, are not as satisfactorily performed, except for the role Paul Max, to which Ray Collins brings a florid force. The lawyer's defense of Bigger in a speech delivered straight from the apron of the stage makes abundantly clear, lest anyone should have missed it in the excitements of the chase, the message Mr. Wright so passionately proclaims.
PICTURED: Canada Lee as Bigger