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Who is Paul Green?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 17, 2024
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Paul Green is an American playwright best known for his 1927 play In Abraham’s Bosom. Over the course of his life and career, Paul Green ranged in style from straight-forward moralistic realism to esoteric expressionism. Although not often produced in the modern age, Green remains one of the more influential American playwrights, especially in the area of early expressionism.

Green’s work is largely characterized by moral lessons, especially revolving around segregation and racism. In Abraham’s Bosom deals with a man in North Carolina who is of African-American descent, and his troubles in bettering the lives of those around him. It was seen as an astonishingly stark look at the plight of African Americans in the south during the 1920s, and quickly earned him great praise, as well as a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

In the late-1920s, Paul Green traveled to Europe, and there was heavily influenced by the new forms of theatre being created. He was particularly drawn to the Epic theatre of Brecht, and began experimenting with expressionism in his own work. He rejected Broadway, seeing New York as far too commercial to produce truly meaningful theatre, and his later plays, such as Shroud My Body Down and Tread the Green Grass were played in his home town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, but never New York City.

Later in life, Paul Green created a new form of theatre, which he dubbed the symphonic drama. The symphonic drama was a particular type of historical play, usually performed on or near the site it was referencing. Symphonic dramas were often produced as outdoor performances, and often made heavy use of grandiose set and costumes, and music. The new form shared much with classical Greek theatre, incorporating poetical dialogue, pantomime, and dance, while telling historical tales. It is often said that America has given two theatrical forms to the world: the musical and the symphonic drama.

In the mid-1930s Paul Green came back to New York, bringing with him a musical, Johnny Johnson, which was a pacifist morality play. It was directed by Lee Strasberg, and was either hailed as genius or pointless by various reviewers. The play was written in three different genre styles, with the acts progressing from comedic to tragic to satirical, and the style shifting from realism to expressionism to absurdism.

Paul Green is generally looked on as one of the great promoters of the great Southern tradition in the arts at a time when it was undergoing some confusion. He stood strongly for racial equality at a time when many of his peers dismissed such thoughts, and fought for the idea of the Southern gentleman writer. He was an idealist to the core, and his plays deal with many idealistic themes, from pacifism in the face of war to the idea of redemption for even those who society often finds irredeemable. Although most people have long forgotten about Paul Green, his legacy lives on in more modern historical dramas that echo his symphonic dramas, produced throughout the country and inspiring millions.

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