Baldwin’s theatre

E. Patrick Johnson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

3 Scopus citations


Baldwin always had a flair for the dramatic – whether manifesting itself in his highly stylized way of speaking while holding his cigarette just so, through the provocative tone of his soul-stirring essays, or the unforgettable dialogue between the characters in his fiction. Drama, it seems, was part of Baldwin's prerequisite for self-presentation and for his representations of others – whether black, white, or another “self.” Yet the drama referenced here does not indicate a formal genre, but more an effect/affect of Baldwin's personality and his art. In other words, Baldwin's unrelenting critique of race and religion is made more powerful through his ability to engage his plays' readers and audiences both effectively and affectively by imbuing them with dramatic tension that potentially alienates or captures them, or else leaves them feeling ambivalent, but never indifferent. Baldwin's appeal to affective response at the expense of adhering to traditional theatre conventions prompt some critics to define Baldwin as a “bad” playwright, failing to understand that it is these very affective tensions in Baldwin's plays and fiction that make them so compelling and relevant across generations. Through analysis of reviews of productions of the plays, critical essays, and adaptations of Baldwin's fiction for the stage, this essay argues that Baldwin's plays are not confined within traditional American theatre conventions – for example, linear plot construction, realist staging, and catharsis through identification – and it is this nontraditional engagement with theatrical form that reinforces their political message – that blacks are not solely victims of racism and whites are not purely evil. The popularity of these plays today, therefore, is not necessarily because they are great plays as plays in the traditional sense, but because they capture the historically complex role of racism and religion in the daily lives of U.S. blacks. Baldwin's Antitheatrical Prejudice To understand Baldwin's aesthetic choices as a playwright, one must understand how he became attracted to the genre of drama, which, ironically, was initiated through his disappointment in film.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781107337725
ISBN (Print)9781107043039
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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