“A classical people deserve a classical art.”
– Lorraine Hansberry, notebook fragment, early 1950s
Part One: A Classical Drama Foretold
Lorraine Hansberry is most well known for her landmark debut, 1959’s A Raisin in the Sun, which made her the first African-American (and one of the first women, period) to be produced on Broadway. Working in poetic mode, with a plot anchored firmly in domestic realism (Raisin’s title comes from Langston Hughes, but its dramaturgy is pure Sean O’Casey), Hansberry boldly brought the African-American experience to a world stage. As her notebooks reveal, however, she had even larger ambitions. She sought to create nothing less than a kind of African-American classicism, in which a burgeoning political consciousness was accompanied by aesthetic breakthrough. Hansberry’s tragically early death at the age of 34 meant her credo would remain only partly realized, a clarion call for future ages.
Extant drafts of Les Blancs reveal the formidable nature of her achievement. A world away from Raisin, Les Blancs draws on the heights of the western playwriting tradition to address an agony of historic proportions. With a thrilling dialectical sweep, alternating between her characteristic humanism and a profound political acumen, Hansberry leads us into a composite vision of pre-Mandela Africa. As the forces of black nationalism and white imperialism collide, Hansberry depicts the cost on fragile, individual human lives.
The setting is an unnamed colony “yesterday, today, tomorrow—but not very long after that.” Hansberry alternates between two worlds—a mission hospital and a tribal hut from the nearby village—both haunted by absent father figures: the godlike Reverend Neilsen (modeled on Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer), and his counterpart, Abioseh Matoseh, a “great man” and tribal elder. At the center of the drama are American Charlie Morris and African expatriate Tshembe Matoseh, two outsiders who arrive on the same fateful day.
A liberal journalist, Morris plans to write an optimistic feature on the Mission, which he calls a “temple to man’s possibility … a way station in the darkness.” He is surrounded by a cast of conflicted, well-intentioned whites, including doctors Marta Gotterling and Willy DeKoven, the latter an acerb raisonneur reminiscent of Ibsen’s Dr. Rank from A Doll’s House, and Madame Neilsen, the aged wife of the Reverend.
Tshembe Matoseh, on the other hand, appears already terse and laden with pathos. Capable of Shavian rhetoric, the proleptic imagination of a Shakespearean protagonist, and the dignified simplicity of a Greek mask, Tshembe is one of the most complex roles in the African-American canon, if not 20th-century drama. Working with a minimum of ornament, Hansberry stages a family drama of primal intensity between Tshembe and his two brothers. All three possess endlessly divided identities, a testament to three centuries of colonialist plunder of the black body. Provocatively, Hansberry suggests in them the fault-lines of contemporary identity politics, the schisms that run deeper than blood. Even more boldly, Hansberry leaves behind realism altogether in the oneiric figure of “The Woman,” an expressionistic vision who visits Tshembe at crisis points in the narrative. Beyond any fixed semantic meaning, the Woman lives as a testament to Hansberry’s dream of a drama for yesterday, today, tomorrow—but not very long after that.
Part Two: The Text Today and Tomorrow
In order to stage Les Blancs, one must be conscious of its unfinished nature. Hansberry died in 1965, revising the play from her hospital bed. Begun in 1960 in the immediate wake of Raisin’s success and redrafted extensively thereafter, the play was a source of both passionate commitment and frustration. Hansberry regarded it as potentially her most important work, and she struggled mightily to birth it, even as she was dying. Aware she was short on time, Hansberry insisted others complete her vision. “If anything should happen before ’tis done,” her final journal entry reads, “may I trust that all commas and periods will be placed and someone will complete my thoughts.”
In 1969, Hansberry’s surviving former husband and literary executor Robert Nemiroff performed the vital task of gathering all of the extant drafts into a comprehensive production text. Able to rehearse the play, Robert was afforded what Lorraine did not have: the blessing of time, the opportunity to hear her words being spoken, the chance to see how things “read” on the stage instead of the page. This, a crucial stage in every playwright’s process, was one denied to her.
Every production, then, has to honor not only Hansberry, but also the extraordinary dedication of Nemiroff. This production’s text is the product of months of collaboration between Yaël Farber, Joi Gresham, and myself. The work began in December, when I consulted, with Joi’s blessing, Hansberry’s extant notebooks and drafts at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. In January, the National Theatre’s New Work Department sponsored an exploratory “workshop” so the three of us could meet in Montreal to discuss the drafts and the form Hansberry was reaching toward when she died. All along, we have sworn by the Hippocratic Dramaturgical Oath: to first do no harm, but also to clarify the shape. Above all, we have sought to illuminate the text rather than interfere or otherwise impose meanings that aren’t there.
In countless instances, we have struggled with a scene until we have learned from Lorraine’s wisdom. Equally as often, Robert has been our guide. Most of all, taking Hansberry at her own words, we have focused on her classicism. That is to say, how radically Greek, on a formal level, Les Blancs is and was designed to be. Whereas the dramaturgy of the Mission, with its porch and veranda architectonics, seems to recall the 19th-century drama of Ibsen and Chekhov, the Matoseh hut, drawn boldly and simply, looks to ancient models in order to move forward. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Aristotle take precedence.
Every draft that Lorraine wrote was a Crisis Drama, that subgenre unique to works such as The Oresteia and Oedipus Rex. Time is compressed, resulting in a real-time action, a limited number of locations. The events are arranged artfully to begin just before the crisis, the inflection-point of the narrative, strikes home. The characters (and audience) don’t know it yet, but an event of world-shaking proportion is just around the corner.
The characters in the play are, as Elinor Fuchs once observed, “deliberately non-colloquial,” and Greek resonances run deep. As Charlie digs into the Mission’s corrupted past, for example, he becomes mysteriously stricken. It’s not too much to say he begins to resemble a modern-day Oedipus who has embarked on an archetypal journey from ignorance to knowledge, a sufferer of spiritual sickness in a modern-day Thebes. (Hansberry’s original working title was “Fungus,” in reference to this metaphysical plague.) Madame Neilsen, the Reverend’s aged wife, even suffers from blindness, the same self-inflicted Greek stigmata of Sophocles’ Theban king. “I am quite glad to be going blind,” Madame Neilsen says of her condition: “the less one sees of this world, the better.”
“It’s an old problem, really,” Tshembe Matoseh tells a befuddled Charlie in a late draft: “Orestes … Hamlet … we have so many other things we’d rather be doing.” Like Orestes, Tshembe is a libation bearer, a son come home to mourn his father. Like Hamlet, he is itinerant, ironic, troubled by the problem of knowledge and the necessity of action. Try as he may to live like Shakespeare’s avatar of modernity, Hansberry suggests that in times like these one needs to pick up the knife, to fulfill the Greek burdens of virtue, vengeance, and violence.
“You’ve come in time to witness the end of something,” Madame Neilsen says to Morris, in a line cut from Nemiroff’s version. “Few men get to see the end of an epoch and the opportunity to know it at the same time.” While listening closely to what’s there, we have heard Hansberry’s daring departures from the quotidian. The closer we have looked, the more we have glimpsed the theatre of symbols lying beneath the minutiae of its realism, the Greek “tug” within the work, the larger the sweep of its semantic meaning has become.
Hansberry died at a moment when many despairing American blacks were turning away from pacifism toward increasingly militant separatism. Les Blancs captures and dramatizes this schism. In the idyllic light of the early 60s, Lorraine was writing about nothing less than the end of the world. The cultural deprivations of the Middle Passage; the genocidal agonies of colonialism; three centuries of rape and self-acquittal, leading to a war of civilizations. Attention must be paid.
The reckoning Hansberry prophesied never came true in her lifetime. Indeed, it has yet to come true in our own. The only way to honor her memory, to stage Les Blancs properly, is to embrace its utopian expanses, its apocalyptic visions, its proud humanity, its political brilliance.