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All God's Chillun Got Wings


O'Neill's musical directions for All God's Chillun Got Wings are unusual, and they importantly affect the style of the play's presentation.  The action, which centers on the marriage of a black man, Jim Harris, and Ella Downey, a White girl, begins by pointing a strong polarity between the two races housed in adjacent neighborhoods.  O'Neill's setting requires a "flat iron" building dividing two streets, one inhabited by blacks, one by whites, angling up form center stage.  A group of children of both races are playing marbles.  City noises are heard, including a horse car and the steam locomotive of the elevated train.  Passers-by are seen, the blacks "frankly participating in the spirit of the spring," the whites laughing constrainedly.  Then, after the pantomime, from the white street, offstage music is heard—"Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage," sung by an adenoidal tenor.  The song finished, from the other street a black responds with George M. Cohan's minstrel song "I Guess I'll Have to Telegraph My Baby."  The two choruses finished, racially distinct laughter sounds briefly.  Silence falls, the sunset light intensifies, and the play begins.  At the end of the scene as the boy Jim tells the girl Ella that he's her "feller," an organ grinder appears and plays "Little Annie Rooney," accompanying the youthful romance with childish, sentimental music.

In the second scene, nine years later, the opening pattern is duplicated, with the soulful tenor singing from the white street "I Wish I Had a Girl," followed by the black singer's mocking lament, "Sympathy."  Laughter is followed by silence.  Again the lights change, dimming as night comes on, and the scene begins.  As before the organ grinder appears at the scene's end, this time playing the racist song, "Bon Bon Buddy."

The third scene, set five years later, repeats the same pattern setting "When I Lost You" against the ragtime "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee."  Within the scene, Shorty, a "typical gangster," sings a phrase from "Frankie and Johnny" and a Salvation Army Band is heard offstage playing "Till We Meet at Jesus' Feet," concluding their performance as they come on stage.  At the scene's end, the organ grinder makes his third appearance, this time with "Annie Laurie" to interrupt the love scene between Jim and Ella.  The two listen quietly to the music, and when it is over, Jim asks Ella to marry him.

O'Neill has given careful thought to the relationship of the music and the action.  The introductory songs are set against one another for ironic contrast.  The kept woman, the bird in the gilded cage, is contrasted with the kept man who must telegraph his baby for train fare home.  The man who laments his lack of a girl is encouraged by a lyric that tells the singer not to worry because "There's lots of fish down in the brook.  All you need is a line and a hook."  Irving Berlin's sentimental and slightly wilted waltz, "When I Lost You," is played off against the party-time syncopation of the "shufflin' throng" waiting for the Robert E. Lee.  The organ grinder's playing of "Little Annie Rooney" with its child-like, street-waltzing rhythm that accompanies the declaration of Jim and Ella's childish affection is intended to contrast with the emotionally richer melody of "Annie Laurie" as the mature Jim and Ella express their love.  The organ grinder's second appearance at the end of scene 2 comes at the moment when Jim's friend Joe turns on him violently, crying "Tell me befo' I wrecks yo' face in!  Is you a nigger or isn't you?  ...Is you a nigger, Nigger?  Nigger, is you a nigger?"  Joe's reply is an acceptance of his blackness:  "Yes, I'm a nigger.  We're both niggers."  The hand organ man plays a chorus of what was once know as a "coon song," "Bon-bon Buddy," as the two listen in silence to its discouraging minstrel.-show cheerfulness.

The music in scene 4 provides a profile of the play's action.  The setting is before the church in which Jim and Ella are to be married.  from the blacks' street, a less maudlin voice sings three verses of the spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Mourning Dove."[1]  O'Neill is specific as to how the song should be sung:  the first is "with a contented, child-like melancholy" reflecting the early childhood of the lovers.  The second verse is sung "with a dreamy, boyish exultance," suggesting perhaps, the initial happiness of their romance.  The third verse is give a "brooding, earth-bound sorrow" anticipating what is to come in act 2 as Jim and Ella lose hope and their love is destroyed.  At the scene's end, the organ grinder appears to play a chorus of "Old Black Joe," ironically anticipating the ending when Jim, faced with the madness of his wife, must agree to play the role of "kind old Uncle Jim who's been with us for years and years."  In act 2, when the characters are bound in a small room whose walls and ceiling seem to contract as the play progresses, making the room seem smaller and more oppressive from scene to scene, no music is called for.  The world that music has in part delineated is shut out by Ella's madness and Jim's surrender to it.  Nevertheless, in act 1 the music has graphed the play's action.

The musical scheme in the theatre has an unusual effect on the style of the play, forcing it away from such a realistic mode as in Elmer Rice's Street Scene to a stylized manner of presentation.  The street noises diminish from scene to scene in act 1 and the passersby appear increasingly fatigued.  Laughter heard at the first is silenced by the act's end.  A kind of immobility comes over the scene, as if the actors are framed by music so that they become participants in a series of tableaux, scenes-without-words.  Repeatedly they are called upon to stop their action and to stand silently while the songs are sung—a matter of as much as two minutes in some sequences.  As the songs interrupt it the action freezes.  The play slows to a halt, and the experience takes on the quality of a still life while the music comments on what is taking place.  As it enlarges the social background of the first act, the music prevents the play's presentational style from becoming simple realism.

[1]  Paul Robeson, who played Jim n the first production of the play, sang at least one of the black songs.  According to Heywood Broun, he sang offstage "in a voice of great beauty and richness."  Probably he sang O'Neill's variation.

(From the street of the whites a high-pitched, nasal tenor sings the chorus of "Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage.")  [II, 279]

A Bird in a Gilded Cage - words by Arthur J. Lamb, music by Harry Von Tilzer, published 1900

(On the street of the blacks a Negro strikes up the chorus of "I Guess I'll Have to Telegraph My Baby.")  [II, 279]

I Guess I'll Have to Telegraph My Baby - words and music by George M. Cohan, published 1898

(Twilight has fallen on the street.  An organ-grinder comes up to the corner and plays "Annie Rooney."  [Jim and Ella] stand hand-in-hand and listen.  He goes away.  It is growing dark.)  [II, 282]

Little Annie Rooney - words and music by Michael Nolan, published 1890

(People pass, white and black.  They laugh as in Scene One.  From the street of the whites the high-pitched, nasal tenor sings "Gee, I Wish That I Had a Girl"...)  [II,283]

I Wish I Had a Girl - words by Gus Kahn, music by Grace Le Boye, published 1907

(...and the Negro replies with "All I Got Was Sympathy."  The singing is followed again by laughter from both streets.)  [II, 283]

Sympathy - words and music by Kendis and Paley, published 1907

(The same hand-organ man...comes to the corner.  He plays the chorus of "Bonbon Buddie The Chocolate Drop."  [Jim and Joe] stare straight ahead listening.  Then the organ man goes away.  A silence.)  [II, 288]

Bon Bon Buddy - words by Alex Rogers, music by Will Marion Cook, published 1907

(From the street of the whites the tenor, more nasal than ever and a bit drunken, wails in a high barbershop falsetto the last half of the chorus of "When I Lost You.")  [II, 289]

When I Lost You - words and music by Irving Berlin, published 1912

(The Negro voice, a bit maudlin in turn, replies with the last half of "Waitin' for the Robert E. Lee."  Silence.)  [II, 289]

Waiting for the Robert E. Lee - words by Wolfe Gilbert, music by Lewis F. Muir, published 1912

Shorty—(indignantly)  Yuh bum!  Ain't yuh ever comin'?  (He begins to sing)  "And sewed up in her yeller kimona, She had a blue-barreled forty-five gun, For to get her man Who'd done her wrong."  (Then he comments scornfully)  Not her, dough!  No gat for her.  She ain't got de noive.  A little sugar.  Dat'll fix her.  [II, 289]

Frankie and Johnny - traditional, published 1912

(A Salvation Army Band comes toward the corner.  They are playing and singing "Till We Meet at Jesus' Feet."  They reach the end as they enter and stop before Ella.)  [II, 291]

God Be with You (Till We Meet at Jesus' Feet) - words by Jeremiah Eames Rankin, music by William Gould Tomer, published 1883

(The organ-grinder comes to the corner.  He plays the chorus of "Annie Laurie."  [Jim and Ella] sit listening, hadn in hand.)  [II, 294]

Annie Laurie - words by William Douglas, music by Lady John Scott, published 1838

(From the street of the blacks...a Negro tenor sings in a voice of shadowy richness...)  [II, 295]

Sometimes I Feel like a Mourning Dove - traditional words adapted by Eugene O'Neill, tune Motherless Child, published 1899

([The] waiting broken by one startling, metallic clang of the church-bell.  As if it were a signal, people—men, women, and children—pour from the two tenements,...  They hurry to form into two racial lines...rigid and unyielding, staring across at each other with bitter hostile eyes.  The halves of the big church door swing open and Jim and Ella step out from the darkness within....They become aware of the two lines through which they must pass; they hesitate and tremble; then stand there staring back at the people as fixed and immovable as they are.  The organ-grinder comes in from the right.  He plays the chorus of "Old Black Joe."  As he finishes the bell of the church clangs one more single stroke, insistently dismissing.)  [II, 295-6]

Old Black Joe - words and music by Stephen C. Foster, published 1860


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