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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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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