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Channel X: Two Plays on the Race Conflict

It was not to impugn Mr. Jones’s originality that I began by noting a resemblance between his play and The Zoo Story; what is unfortunate about Dutchman is not that it too closely resembles The Zoo Story in its plotting, but that it does not resemble it enough where it most matters: in its understanding of what the strangers mean to each other, and of how this meaning determines what happens between them. The Zoo Story succeeds because the action begins and ends in Jerry’s desire; this desire is not simple, but that it was a desire from the start is, in the end, clear. When he has impaled himself upon the knife he has tossed to Peter, and which Peter holds up to him, more in fear than fury—in that moment the why of Jerry’s desire is fully revealed. Without the murder, or suicide, what comes before is just a conversation-piece, a hipster baiting a square. The murder redeems this trivia, for now we see it in all its pain and perversity: a strategy embarked upon by Jerry to bring about the death he believes most appropriate to his life. This murder is no symbol for what the play has failed to symbolize about the relationship between an insider and an outsider. Here a man dies for good reason. He wants to.

The Negro in Dutchman dies for no good reason; which is not to say that the point of his death is its meaninglessness. The play tries to convince us that the murdering of Clay is inevitable, that murder is what Lula is after from the start, and furthermore, that this is the way things really are. But it convinces us only that things really are not this way, and that such a murder is not inevitable. Unlike The Zoo Story, the momentum of Dutchman does not derive from the passion of the characters; instead, the play’s construction is at the mercy of the writer’s own racial obsession, or else is in the service of a theory which the play is not able to prove to be true. What is most disheartening about Dutchman is that the writer means it to be a symbolic portrayal of an aspect of our racial struggle, and worse (if I have been interpreting correctly the reviews in praise of it), that audiences think it is—when in fact it is not. For if Dutchman is really about a serious consequence of the race situation in America, then the dead Clay should be able to cry out from his grave, “I am dead because I am black!” and to my mind that is not why he is dead at all.

He is dead at the end of the play because the playwright wants him dead far more than Lula does. It is more necessary to Jones’s theory, or obsession, than to the encounter he has presented, that the white woman murder the black man, and that the other white people on the subway train be her accomplices in the disposal of the body. The Lula presented to us is hardly sufficient to, or in need of, the crime. The answer to the question, “Who is Lula?” is by no means answered with “She who must kill Clay”; in The Zoo Story there is the recognition of a human necessity in the answer, “Jerry is he who must have himself killed by Peter.” In Dutchman all that Lula says and does prior to the moment of stabbing can be understood as mere bitchery; she is a tease, not a murderess. All a Lula requires of a man, Negro or white, is that he be confused by her desire and humiliated by his own lust; she does not need him dead even though it may appear to the man that he might just as well be.

If Dutchman presents a Lula who is not up to defining herself with so violent an act, it offers a Clay whose life is no more clearly defined for having been acted upon so violently. He is really not Negro enough for us to be told that it is for his being a Negro that he is murdered. I don’t mean he is not a recognizable Negro type: Lula tells him he is, and Clay agrees—a ludicrous concession, by the way, given the substance of her description (You come from New Jersey; you’ve been trying to grow a beard; you have a colored friend who speaks with an English accent; you “look like death eating a soda cracker.” Clay: “How’d you know all that? Huh? Really…?”). Nevertheless, a type, some type, is there; it is the Negro who is missing.

The trouble with the character of Clay is that he can only speechify about his torment Here the playwright might see fit to respond, “But a point of my play is that he can only speechify; otherwise, as he himself says, he would murder. He is a poet, he tells her that: his hatred is poured into the making of poems.” But I believe in his poetry no more than I believe in the pressure of his murderous feelings; he does not behave with Lula like a man who is a poet or a murderer. He is simply shy, somewhat embarrassed, and markedly unlike many poets and probably most murderers, real or repressed, in that he is not the slightest bit paranoid. He acts, in the first scene with Lula, as though very little were at stake for him; yet, according to his own vehement indictment of her and white people in the second scene, everything really is at stake. Even all that fury is a disguise, though neither the writer nor the character, I think, would agree to see it that way. To me it seems a fury which is only the cover-up for what more essentially defines Clay’s condition, and that is the depths in him not of anger, but of terror and dread.

The truth that is begging to be dramatized in Dutchman is not that the Lulas murder the Clays—a generalization which, I take it, Jones means us to make when at the end of the play the next Negro victim boards the subway car. Nor is it the truth that other whites, when the Clays are murdered, will obediently dispose of the dead black bodies. This is not a truth anyway; it is a fact we already know from the newspapers. What Dutchman might have revealed was not simply that such atrocities are practiced in this country, as of course they are, but what it is to be a Negro man and a white woman meeting in a country where these possibilities constantly impinge upon the consciousness, and so cannot but distort every encounter between the two angry races. The error in this play was to present as hero a Negro whose feelings and knowledge are wholly inappropriate to the most obvious facts of the world about him. For all his talk of Charlie Parker’s art and how he wanted to be Baudelaire in college, Clay is really an innocent when it comes to realizing where he is and what is happening to him; consequently he dies the death not of a Negro but of a naif. A foreigner who strolls in Central Park at night, and is murdered, dies out of innocence of the city; not so with someone raised in New York who, knowing the lore of the park, takes such a walk in the dark anyway, and is found murdered in the morning.

Clay is no foreigner. He is black, the girl is white, the country is America, the time is now. It suits Jones’s purpose to allow Clay his furious insights in the second scene; what he has not permitted him are his fearful insights in the first. I can think of Clay not so much as a potential murderer with a steely grip on himself, as a man who has genuine cause to imagine that he himself may be murdered. And I don’t believe it would in the least compromise Clay’s virility for the play-wright to admit to such terror. That the only terror Clay has is his fear that he may murder a white man seems to me a very penetrable posture, and one which does indeed put his virility in doubt. Too bad that Jones did not penetrate this posture, rather than endorse it as yet another truth.

Clay might in fact have been created—Dutchman itself might even have been imagined—by the kind of white liberal mentality that he himself seems to find most offensive. Unlike Lula, for instance, who seems to desire him because he is black, Clay, when he wants Lula, seems to want her as a woman. If he does not know what to expect next from Lula (and mostly she doesn’t really unsettle him; for all his embarrassment, he is cool), it is because she is slightly bizarre; it is because of her kooky personality. But the Clay who would make sense in Dutchman, the Clay who might have made a play of what is finally a staged newspaper headline, is a Clay who does not know what to expect from her because she is white: a Clay who fears that a white woman who wants to take him to bed, and with whom he wants to go to bed, probably hates him enough to want really to kill him. A Clay then, who knows or imagines from the start that Lula is carrying a knife in the handbag from which she finally extracts one.

Though frequently Jones seems to me to deserve calling down for gross artistic errors (particularly a pretentiousness of language and symbol, not to mention title), I am not here simply calling him down on a point of craft; no more than Chekhov is making a point of craft, and nothing more, when he says that a gun hanging on the wall in the first act had better go off by the third. If I suggest that Lula’s knife should in some way be there from the beginning, it is not to increase “suspense.” I am talking about admitting openly to the conditions within which the characters choose to act, so that by their choices they can define themselves to the audience. James Baldwin often attempts to tell us what white men know “at the bottom of their hearts.” What I want to know is what Clay knows at the bottom of his heart, and the man it causes him to be. Oh, Clay can spout about the predicament of the Negro in this country, but so can I, and so can Richard Nixon, and probably, however each of us says it, we will agree that it is awful. Clay can tell us that when Bessie Smith is singing at us white folks she is really telling us “Kiss my black ass,” but knowing that must be pretty easy to know if Jones’s hero knows it. For about the predicament he is in—about being a black man with a strange white girl who keeps putting her hand on his thigh—he knows nothing, or acts as though he does. His innocence is guarded at every turn, as though, if he had the slightest suspicion of any kind of danger, his own victimization would be compromised in the eyes of the white audience, whom I believe this play is written for—not so that they should be moved to pity or to fear, but to humiliation and self-hatred. For that purpose, nothing but a black innocent and a white devil will do.

I am not too happy to see Mr. Jones being hailed in the papers and on television for his anger; for it is not an anger of literary value, and he is a writer. Rather it is rage, it is blind, and, artistic considerations aside, it may well have made it nearly impossible for him to write an important play. The sad and depressing fact about Dutchman is that the writer so hates Lula, and so wants us to hate and detest her too, that he has not patience or strength enough to reveal the true nature of what it is she does. I hesitate to make the chilling observation that perhaps Jones has not really interest enough at this point, and that like certain policemen or professional soldiers, he has come to hate the criminal more than he hates the crime. If only the playwright could have admitted not only to Negro anger, but to Negro dread and Negro lust. But instead of identifying the fear in the hero, he cleanses him of it by projecting the fear as a reality which is not even feared, and the lust is the lust of any healthy man. Jones seems unwilling, or unable, to believe that a crime more horrible than a crazy white woman killing an innocent Negro man with a knife is the crime committed against the spirit which causes it to imagine knives. To symbolize the attempt to murder a man’s sexuality by having him actually murdered is to indulge a literary pretension at the expense of a human truth, to substitute false profundity for real sorrow. The truth that Dutchman might have forced through our baffled sense of the racial nightmare is that the Negro humiliation has been so profound and so deep that a man as intelligent and educated and disciplined as Clay is supposed to be, living in a moment so full of possibility for Negroes as this one, cannot but be burdened with the most primal fears for his flesh. Ironically, in making Clay so baldly innocent of his condition, and Lula so madly and viciously secret in her intention, Jones finally lets the white audience off much too easily. They may leave the theater saying, as in their genial and useless masochism they are more than willing to say, “Yes, yes, we are guilty,” but of what and why they cannot have much knowledge. And refusing them such knowledge, Mr. Jones, for all his anger, will never force their well-intentioned liberal ideas to be converted into feelings of compassionate suffering.

Letters

Channel X July 9, 1964

Channel X July 9, 1964

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