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Channel X: Two Plays on the Race Conflict

BLUES FOR MR. CHARLIE

In the brief note James Baldwin has written as an introduction to the published version of Blues for Mr. Charlie,1 the only character he mentions at any length is the man appearing in the play as Lyle Britten, a white store-owner in a Southern town who murders a young Negro Baldwin says of the killer, “We have the duty to try to understand this wretched man.” But in the play that follows, the writer’s sense of this particular duty seems to me to fail him. The compassionate regard for the character that Baldwin means to convey by the adjective “wretched” is not the same quality of emotion that informs his imagination when he is examining the man in his wretchedness. Being dutiful to the murderer is not Baldwin’s overriding moral impulse. Rather, a conflict of impulses—duties towards a variety of causes of which, unfortunately, the cause of art seems to have inspired the weakest loyalty—prevents Baldwin from fixing his attention upon his subject and increasing “understanding,” his or ours. I think of this Introduction (dated April 1964) as an attempt by the writer to remember where it was he may have begun, for that is not where he has ended. I don’t intend to hold a play deficient for failing an intention whose execution may properly have been thwarted in the act of writing, and is perhaps only recalled here in nostalgia for some purity of purpose. The deficiency is in the failure to be true not to the particular intention announced in the Introduction, but to those numerous intentions apparent in the first act, all most worthy, but none able to survive the unhealthy competition.

The play begins with the murder of the Negro, Richard Henry, a young man who has returned to the South from New York, where he started out as a jazz musician and ended up as a junkie. The man who shoots him, Lyle Britten, owns a country store which returns him little profit in good times, and is now returning hardly any because of a Negro boycott. Britten is a simple, ignorant young man married to a simple and ignorant young woman; they have a baby they love and friends who are fond of them and who, like the Brittens, are baffled and angered by the demonstrations, the marches, the boycotts, organized by the Negroes in the town. Britten and Richard meet shortly after Richard’s arrival back home. Instantly Lyle hates Richard for being black and arrogant, as Richard hates him for being white and arrogant—and for being a killer too, for Lyle had already murdered a colored man years ago and gone unpunished for it. After a couple of accidental but angry encounters, culminating in Richard knocking Lyle down in front of his wife, the white man comes hunting the black man with a gun.

It is the shots fired from this gun that open the play. When the curtain rises, we see Lyle carrying the dead Negro over his shoulder; he dumps him to the ground and says, “And may every nigger like this nigger end like this nigger—face down in the weeds!” He exits, and now the play begins again: the time is the day before the funeral of Richard Henry, the place is a Negro church in the town, whose minister is Reverend Meridian Henry, the father of the dead young man. The action moves forward from this moment through Richard’s funeral in Act Two, to the scandalous trial and eventual acquittal of Lyle Britten which comprises almost all of Act Three. But it also moves backward in a series of flashbacks which begins with Richard’s arrival in town and goes on to reveal the events leading up to his murder. If by the end of the play this flashing backwards has become nothing more than a mechanical device used to fill us in on historical data that is either unimportant or uninteresting, in the first act it seems a genuine inspiration of form. For the direction the play takes is an expression of the will of one of the characters, Richard’s father, who searches for the meaning of this murder for himself, for his son, and for the man who committed it. Unlike his son, Reverend Meridian Henry believes that the dignity of his race is not served by violence; he despises injustice no less than Richard, but his passion to gain his people their rights is subsumed by the passion to save souls, not for the next world either, but for this one.

Consequently Richard returns home to a father whose values can only anger him. As the scenes move back in time, we learn that Richard, who died by another’s violence, had come home prepared to protect himself against such violence. He had returned armed with a gun, and now, in the past, we hear him say that he will use it in his own defense if he has to. He has supposedly been demoralized by his failure in the North (ending in the narcotics cure at Lexington) and this demoralization only feeds his ancient hatred of the white man. It was the white men lusting after his mother who one day pushed her down a flight of stairs to her death; Richard’s departure from home was in part an attempt to leave that horrid memory behind, and to leave his father, whose powerlessness before such humiliations he had come to hate as well. He is rich with anger, and yet in the very first scene with his father, he surrenders to him the pistol he has brought back with him from the North, an act for which he will in the end have to pay with his life.

Why does he surrender the pistol? Meridian himself does not demand it, although his values may seem to. Instead, at his son’s provocation, Meridian admits that the mother was in fact pushed, and did not slip as apparently he had once tried to make his son believe. Richard now gives him the gun supposedly because Meridian has given up the truth, and given it up to him. But this truth his father speaks only verifies what Richard had already known. Surrendering the gun at this point, then, is either psychological perversity on Richard’s part (a clue to a motive of which he himself is unaware), or sentimentality on the part of the writer, who may so want a scene of loving and forgiveness between a father and a son on the stage that he will have one even if it means destroying the most authentic facts about his own characters. Or else it is just so much piety about that word truth. Whatever the cause, at the most important dramatic moment of the act (and maybe of the play) the sense of the drama is hopelessly distorted: Meridian Henry, rather than disputing his son’s judgment of him, accepts it, asks to be forgiven; and Richard, instead of finding his strength of purpose hardened by his father’s truthfulness, surrenders his purpose by surrendering the gun. At whom then was his fury directed in the first place? Against whom was the gun to protect him? The white men who murdered his mother (and might try murdering him) or the father whose illusions he believes allowed her to be murdered?

These complexities of motive are hardly uninteresting, but in this instance have less to do with the play than with the playwright. They may even tell us that beneath the play presented, there is a hidden play about a Negro father and a Negro son—a drama that did not really come to light, but may perhaps have spread a kind of haze over the writer’s imagination which only further confused his purpose. How telling, how unclouded, the scene between father and son, if Meridian were with Richard the man he is with the Negro students in the brief but brilliantly ironic opening scene where he is seen firing at them abusive epithets and insults, pretending to be the worst of white men in order to turn them into what he truly believes are the best of the black: men of iron self-control who will not weaken to violence. How to the point of what the play at first appears to be about, if Meridian had said, “You cannot live in my house with a gun”; if Richard had replied, “That’s how you killed my mother”—and if Meridian had answered, “You are wrong. I want the gun.” Then that struggle which also seems to remain confused in the heart of the writer, the struggle between love and hate, would have been untangled in the drama, even if it could not, and cannot, be resolved for either the playwright or the audience. But this required the dramatist to permit one of his characters to become a hero, and his play, perhaps, to aspire to tragedy. For a while, I thought Baldwin had chosen Meridian to fill the role of tragic hero in what is really a tragic story. If he had, then real blues might have been sung in the end for the Negro rather than those spurious blues for Mr. Charlie, who is the white man, and who can hardly be said to be the play’s hero either.

The first act does present a white man Baldwin may originally have thought of as his suffering hero, however; or one he might have allowed to be. He is Parnell James the editor of the local newspaper, a buddy to Lyle Britten, the murderer, and a friend to Meridian Henry as well as the other Negroes of the town. It is Parnell James who arranges that Lyle be brought to trial, a betrayal which Lyle does not resent since apparently (and incredibly) his feelings of betrayal are negated by his understanding that no jury of white men is going to convict him. But Parnell betrays his buddy for his friend—and his principles. Having taken his first righteous action, he is pushed by Meridian to go further. Meridian demands that Parnell make Lyle admit to him what he will not admit to the court, that he killed Richard. When Parnell replies, “Meridian—what you ask—I don’t know if I can do it for you,” the minister answers, “I don’t want you to do it for me. I want you to do it for you.” Here the first act ends.

Why the drama of the past has been running parallel to the drama of the present is suddenly made clear. Both courses of action begin in the force exerted by the preacher on two different men: the first his son Richard—by accepting his gun the preacher sets in motion the drama that is to end in Richard’s dying unprotected; the second his friend. For if anybody is to be saved by Richard’s death perhaps it is this white man who may have it in his power to cause the murderer and the town “to face the evil that it countenances and to turn from evil and do good.” To Meridian, Parnell is the one who may yet save them all. So the act ends, with the minister putting to the test one last time his faith in the possibility of salvation through moral instruction—through words. One would think that the rest of the play will be devoted to Parnell’s struggle, as the action proceeds in the present, and to Richard’s struggle—living without a gun—in the past.

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    Dial, 192 pp., $3.95

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