All God’s Chillun: Religion and “Painty Faces” versus the NAACP and the Provincetown Players
A few years ago when I was conducting research at the Library of Congress for my book on five African-American women playwrights, I discovered in the NAACP file a treasure trove of material relevant to O’Neill’s production of All God’s Chillun Got Wings. Reading all the letters, news’ articles and reviews fired by the opening of the play in New York, I decided to take a look at the play and the violent uproar it inspired. In the course of my library research, I also found Glenda Frank’s comprehensive essay published in Resources For American Literary Study (2000) which more than enlightens us on the history of this controversy. I don’t know what more I can add but I will try to concentrate on aspects not covered by Frank and add some insights of my own.
The objections to the play came from white and black sources over the interracial marriage that takes place on stage between a black man and a white woman (a “painty face”). At the heart of the conflict, however, was not merely miscegenation but the scene in which Ella kisses Jim’s hand at the end of the play and the more shocking occurrence of a white actor in the part of Ella and a black man in the part of Jim. The outrage was not surprising since the era of the roaring twenties was in full swing. Jazz , born in the black community, the popularity of Harlem night clubs, black musicians, speak-easys, and women’s growing freedom to wear short skirts, bobbed hair, and to smoke and drink with impunity all contributed to the concern and paranoia based on blacks mixing with whites. O’Neill’s play only fanned the flames of the right wing Anglo-Saxon, puritanical bigots and religious zealots and newspaper editors who were hungry to sell papers. Headlines, such as RIOTS FEARED FROM DRAMA, RACE STRIFE SEEN IF GOD’S CHILLUN IS STAGED (New York American), and from an editorial in the Greensboro Daily News: “Inviting a Lynching,” to name a few , were examples of this sensationalism. Although the religious right and far right, in general, were at the center of the objections, white supremacist articles surfaced like those in The New York World. Responding to one by Herbert Swope, Lewis Gannett of The Nation wrote to Mr. Swope: “When you allow murder, ordinary abduction, and just about every other crime on the stage and on the screen why balk at this?” Another respondent who wrote to Gannett said that the “implications in such utterances as the World’s editorial are that if the O’Neill play is produced, the country will be deluged in blood or Anglo-Saxon supremacy will crumble and fall.” Gannett also referred to the editorial as buying into “the Nordic fallacy.”
However, another impetus for the critics was O’Neill’s attack on religion in subtle and not so subtle ways. Christianity takes a hit in this play as argued by our late colleague and friend, Jamie Robinson in a 1978 Eugene O’Neill Newsletter: “The most obvious assault on Christianity occurs in the expressionist setting of the wedding scene which concludes Act I.” Robinson goes on to point out that O’Neill shows that the Church is complicit in the country’s racist tendencies. For example, outside the church residents from both black and white sides of the street line up in opposing lines “staring across at each other with bitter hostile eyes” (319). Another example of such hostility is in the personification of the church building: “Even the two tall narrow church windows on either side of the arched doors are blanked with duel green shades” and as Jim and Ella leave the church, “the doors slam behind them like wooden lips of an idol that has spat them out” (318-320). It is evident that the church is not sanctioning this marriage and will not support it. At the end of the play Jim also seems to lose his senses when he shrinks under the influence of the mad Ella and ironically embraces the Christianity that rejects him and accepts in an act of self deprecation his abandonment of pursuing a law career in a vow to “play right up to the gates of heaven”(342). In other words God’s voice has told him to be humble and self-negating in the face of white oppression. As Robinson asserts, “For the white man has always found the Christian virtues of humility, passive obedience and acceptance of suffering to be convenient instruments for persuading the black to accept his oppression” (2). In addition, Jim’s image at play’s end is that of a slave to a demented white woman.
Certainly, the Christian religion must bear the responsibility of its previous attitude and rhetoric against the black race, not to mention the prejudice against homosexuality and gay marriage, among other issues, in our contemporary society—issues that have replaced race. In having Jim turn to God at the end of the play, O’Neill cleverly covers the other attacks on Christianity. However, the fact that Jim does call on God at the end must have further upset the Christian population because, after all, he and Ella remain together. O’Neill was sure the loudest critics had not read the play: “The pick at a headline about Ella kissing Jim’s hand and their indignation grows stupendous. If they would only take the trouble to look up this passage in the printed play, they would see how entirely innocent of all the inferred action is. But they don’t.” (letter NAACP file) A case in point is in Adam Clayton Powell’s diatribe where he says, “The kissing of a white woman by a big strapping negro is bound to cause bad feelings,” and “many women of our race …. know that the relations between the two races were never better than today” (New York American, 3/16/24). Mrs. Lillian R. Sire, president of “The Women’s Democrats Club” claimed that “the understanding between the colored and white races was never better than today. Let us not permit anything which will hurt that understanding.”
Powell, a minister and known segregationist, obviously didn’t read the play and is ignoring the racial strife that existed in the 1920’s. As Glenda Frank explains in her essay, riots and lynchings were not uncommon and the “times were indeed dangerous” (83-84). From this perspective, the black leaders who opposed the play because of the threat of riots had a legitimate point. As reported in the New York Telegraph many negroes were flocking to the Players just to be voyeurs at the scene where Ella kisses Jim’s hand – obviously a ploy to keep whites from attending the performance (Frank 85). In spite of threats to O’Neill’s son’s life, the play was produced in May, 1924 without incident and ran for 100 performances (Frank).
O’Neill’s long statement to the press housed now in the NAACP Collection at the Library of Congress probably added to the actual reception of the performance. In it he debunked the hue and cry of the opponents making a case for the play’s human interest as opposed to racial provocation.
Like Lorraine Hansberry and Alice Childress after her, O’Neill tries to universalize the portrayal of the two main characters. Lorraine Hansberry insisted that the play A Raisin in the Sun and The Drinking Gourd, which was barred from television, were plays relevant to all humans. Speaking of The Drinking Gourd in her essay “Genet, Mailer and the New Paternalism” Hansberry said, Guilt would come to bear too swiftly and too painfully if white America were really obliged quite suddenly to think of the Negro quite as he is, that is, simply as a human being (quoted in Nemeroff Collected Plays 207).
In Childress’ case, her controversial play Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White (1972) was never mounted on Broadway although it came close – nor were her other plays. The play portrayed the illicit sexual relationship between a black woman and a white man in the South circa 1918. Although they never kiss, they are seen by the audience on a double bed which resides as the center piece of the set. Childress may have read O’Neill’s play because, in addition, Julia turns to God out of guilt and desperation. The scene in Wedding Band in which Julia’s white lover dies seems more than reminiscent of the scene at the end of the wedding in the O’Neill play. Julia speaks almost hysterically into Herman’s ear:
In All God’s Chillun Ella fearfully walks with Jim through the two lines of white and black hostile eyes. A trembling Ella is encouraged by Jim’s dramatic monologue:
O’Neill punctuates his satiric wedding scene with Jim’s satiric fantasy—“we are all the same.”
Childress’ feelings about critics of her plays are expressed in her article, “Knowing the Human Condition,” this way: “Major judgments are made by white critics who are not always unfair or unenlightened but the evaluations are theirs, not ours.” (9). In the case of All God’s Chillun, O’Neill was the fortunate recipient of an endorsement from the NAACP when the president expressed his dismay at the “mob methods” used to prevent the production of O’Neill’s play and his strong objection to the newspapers’ role in the dissent and New York Mayor Hylan’s attempts to stop the play.
The writer goes on to say, however, that “colored” people who deplore the play do so for the reason that Jim “is so anxious to have a White woman that he is willing to take anything he can get, even the leavings of a low white gangster and put up with every sort of humiliation to keep her.” This in my estimation is a weakness of the play. I can understand Ella’s madness over her inability to accept the reality of marriage to a black man. But why an intelligent man who could have been a lawyer and made a better marriage surrender everything – his career and his identity and pride for a selfish crazed “painty face” is beyond the pale of reality. Heywood Broun, writer of a column in The New York World called “It Seems to Me” says that almost none of the critics who have written to him “have read the play.” Eugene O’Neill, Broun continues, “has merely set forth a story of a certain man and a certain woman, and “the only possible generalization which can be drawn […] is that miscegenation does not work well.” Another statement by anonymous WWB asserts that “I doubt if any Negro with Jim’s dogged determination to make a place for himself in the world would have chosen a moron for a wife.” I agree given Jim’s background, family money and the education and intelligence of his sister Hattie. Broun further comments that O’Neill is one of the very few to have the “audacity” to write about a subject sorely neglected in American Drama.
Another theme in the play that has been overlooked is the one of class. Ella does not want Jim to succeed to be better than she is – her lack of education and low self-esteem motivates her desire to drag down Jim. This class conflict comes up in Long Day’s Journey and A Touch of the Poet. Joe Weixlmann in his essay comparing Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie and All God’s Chillun feels the play “crumbles at the end,” as well, because of the unlikely situation that “Jim, a would be lawyer […] would be willing to play ‘Uncle Jim,’ ‘Little boy,” and ‘Painty Face’ for a white woman who is luxuriating in the fact that her husband has just failed his bar exams” (35). The end of the play signals the identity confusion of both Ella and Jim as Jim aquieces to play all the parts listed above.
In the last analysis, O’Neill wrote a play that was about human conflicts, the role of religion in those conflicts, that love can lead to self-destruction, and that miscegenation is a bad idea. I would add that the play prefigures the double-consciousness, cultural confusion and schizoid attitudes prevalent in America—even today—as exemplified in the ultimate poster boy for painty faces—Michael Jackson.
Broun, Heyward. “It Seems to Me.” New York World. 11 March, 2006.
Childress, Alice. Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White. New York: Samuel French, 1973.
_____. “Knowing the Human Condition.” Black American Literature and Humanism. Ed. R. Baxter Miller. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1981. 8-10.
Frank, Glenda. “Tempest in Black and White: The 1924 Premiere of All God’s Chilllun Got Wings.” Resources For American Literary Study. Ed. Jackson Bryer. 26.1 (2000). 76-89.
Gannett, Lewis. “Letter to Herbert Swope.” NAACP Collection: C-299, Manuscript Division of Library of Congress.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Signet, 1988.
_____. The Drinking Gourd. Les Blancs: The Collected Plays of Lorraine Hansberry. Ed. Robert Nemeroff. New York: Random, 1972. 221-310.
“Hylan Bars Scene in O’Neill’s Play.” New York Times. 16 May 1924.
“Inviting a Lynching.” The Greensboro Daily News. 23 Feb. 1924: 3
“Letter to Provincetown Players. From President of NAACP.” NAACP Collection. March 1924.
O’Neill, Eugene. All God’s Chillun Got Wings. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. II New York: Random House. 1955, 301-342.
_____. Letter to NAACP. March 19, 1924. NAACP Collection. LC.
Powell, Adam Clayton. “Negro Clergy Bitter at Play.” The New York American. 15 March, 1924:1.
“Race Strife is Seen If ‘God’s Chillun’ is Staged.” The New York American. 15 March, 1924.
Robinson, James. “Christianity and All God’s Chillun Got Wings.” The Eugene O’Neill Newletter. Ed. Frederick Wilkins. Vol.II no. 1 (May 1978): 1-3.
Swope , Herbert. “An Ill Advised Performance.” New York World. 4 March 1924.Weixlmann, Joe. “Staged Segregation: Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie and O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings.” Black African American Literature Forum. (1977): 35-36.
[This paper was originally presented at the Sixth International Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Society in Provincetown, Massachusetts in June, 2005.]
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