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Paul Eliot Green

March 17, 1894--St. Patrick's Day--is the birthday of playwright and novelist Paul Green.  Born near Lillington, North Carolina, he's best known for writing about conflicts between whites and blacks in the southern United States during a period in history when doing so was controversial.

Green grew up on his father's farm, picking cotton, shucking corn, and cutting wood side-by-side with black laborers and sharecroppers.  Intensely curious about the world around him, he bought as many books as he could and read them as he plowed the fields.  He taught himself how to play the violin by taking a correspondence course and practicing in the pine woods behind his home. 

As a young man, he dreamed of going to college.  He had earned some money by pitching ball, farming, and working as the principal of a small school.  But the money never seemed to be enough.  "I borrowed $5.00 to buy myself a yellow suit," he once said, "and I've been in debt ever since."

Finally, at the age of 22, he managed to enroll in the University of North Carolina, where his writing was so highly regarded that, as a freshman, he was assigned to teach freshman English.  He took his class through the entire semester's work in a few dazzling weeks because he based their capacity upon his own.

When his college career was interrupted by World War I in 1917, he volunteered to serve with a company of British Engineers.  He rose to the rank of Second Lieutenant, so impressing the Foreign Legion that they offered him a commission in the French army.  Luckily for the world of literature, he turned it down.

After the War, Green began writing seriously.  Several of his early one-act plays featured all-black casts, which was rare for the time.  That enabled many black actors to perform in their very first starring roles.  Green's first full-length play was In Abraham's Bosom, produced by the Provincetown Players in 1926.  It's about a black man who, against the opposition of his white half-brother, opens a school in rural North Carolina to try to improve the education of blacks in the area.  He ends up killing his half-brother and is subsequently killed by members of the Ku Klux clan.  In Abraham's Bosom won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927.

Green went to Hollywood in the '30s, as did most talented young writers of the day.  He wrote films for Clark Gable, Greer Garson, Bette Davis, and Will Rogers (for whom he wrote the first and, many people feel, the best version of State Fair).  He wrote some fine movie biographies such as Voltaire.  And, in Cabin in the Cotton, he wrote for star Bette Davis her favorite line: "I'd like to kiss you, but I just washed my hair."

When he first came to Hollywood, Tinseltown regarded him as a genuine phenomenon.  Together with his charming red-haired wife and his own vigorous good looks, he took the town by storm.  Here was a man who actually knew the works of Plato, a lusty North Carolina farmer who also taught college.  Katherine Anne Porter, the short story writer, said of him, "The honest, tender and gifted soul stood out like a stalk of good sugar cane in a thicket of poison ivy."

Gradually, Green's enthusiasm for Hollywood waned, although he continued to write occasional movie scripts from time to time, including John Griffith's Black Like Me, the true story of a white man who dyes himself black in order to find out what racial prejudice is all about.

In 1937, Green began a new movement in American theater when he wrote the first of what he called his "symphonic dramas."  It was The Lost Colony, and it portrayed the first British settlement in the New World on present-day Roanoke Island, North Carolina.  It combined drama with music, dance, poetry, and folklore and had a cast of more than 150.  It was first produced in a huge amphitheater on Roanoke, where performances are still held every summer.

In 1941, Green collaborated with Richard Wright to produce a dramatic version of Wright's novel, Native Son (1940).  The first production of the play was directed by Orson Welles.

In the following decades, many southern cities commissioned Green to write "symphonic dramas" about events in their local history.  He would research an area, find a story he thought particularly compelling, and write a stage play about it.  He even composed much of the music for his plays and helped to build many of the amphitheaters where his works were performed.

Paul Green's total literary output included not only symphonic dramas, but also other plays of various types, along with essays, books of North Carolina folklore, several novels, and a number of cinema scripts for such prominent stars of the 1930s as Will Rogers, Bette Davis, Janet Gaynor, and others.

On the fourth of May, 1981, the prolific and talented author lay down in the guest bedroom of his Chapel Hill home, turned his face to the wall, and slept his way into a new world.  He was 87.

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