In the brief note James Baldwin has written as an introduction to the published version of Blues for Mr. Charlie, 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 …
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