Places: Dutchman

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1964

First produced: 1964, at the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York City

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Political

Time of work: 1960’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*New York City

*New DutchmanYork City. Literally an “overdrop” for the play, the city serves both as the realistic urban setting for highly charged racial dynamics between black and white Americans in the 1960’s and as Amiri Baraka’s mythic and symbolic setting for a critique of black consciousness and the Black Arts movement.

Subway tunnels

Subway tunnels. Subterranean passageways for the subway trains that symbolize places in which social and psychological realities are exposed in their true terms through interactions between characters moving underneath the surface of American culture. Below ground, violent truths of American history erupt into stark view, with profound consequences for particular human beings who cannot escape to the surface and its delusions of safety. The tunnels also function as metaphorical space: the interior consciousness of “the black artist,” who struggles to create (and literally, to survive) in a world controlled by the norms of white Western culture and aesthetics. At this symbolic level, the subterranean tunnel setting of the play is itself the action of the mind of an artist, struggling to freedom.

Subway car

Subway car. Train car on which Clay and Lula encounter each other. With its passengers literally pressed into close proximity with one another, the car becomes the site of a compressed narrative of American racial history as it passes through the dark subway tunnels. Within this car, explosive conflicts are framed in harsh light and within sharply delineated space. Clay and Lula are trapped within historical roles and identities, on a stage that is speeding forward into time. The intensely philosophical and politicized violence that unfolds between the two characters is also a social violence shared by other riders when they eventually toss Clay’s body off the train. On this level, the car is America, exposed to light. Within the other symbolic space of the play, the mind of the “black artist,” the subway car serves as an illuminated moment of sharp insight into the threats posed to black artistic consciousness in America.

BibliographyBenston, Kimberly W. Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976. Argues that Clay’s is a tragedy of lost direction and lack of knowledge: In deciding not to kill Lula, he rejects the power and violence that would allow him to dominate the situation; he thus reaffirms his vulnerability and falls victim to Lula’s malevolence.Bigsby, C. W. E. “Black Theater.” In Beyond Broadway. Vol. 3 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Analyzes the play in the context of the early 1960’s, as reflecting the self-awareness of a black playwright balancing a successful career as a writer and political necessities that seemed to require actions rather than words.Brown, Lloyd W. Amiri Baraka. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Although Clay is killed, Brown sees a kind of triumph in the assertion of humanity that makes his death inevitable.Fabre, Geneviève. “LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka: An Iconoclastic Theatre.” In Drumbeats, Masks, and Metaphor: Contemporary Afro-American Theatre. Translated by Melvin Dixon. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. For Fabre, a paradox of the play is that Lula reveals Clay to himself. His awakening comes too late, because he has already made too many compromises and too soon, because it is merely an individual, rather than communal, awakening, and therefore it is ineffectual.Luter, Matthew. “Dutchman’s Signifyin(g) Subway: How Amiri Baraka Takes Ralph Ellison Underground.” In Reading Contemporary African American Drama: Fragments of History, Fragments of Self, edited by Trudier Harris and Jennifer Larson. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. Argues that Baraka, despite his claims to the contrary, was strongly influenced by Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and that Dutchman is as much informed by Baraka’s worries about staking out an identity as an original African American writer as it is about his concerns with how to be an authentic African American man.Sollors, Werner. Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a “Popular Modernism.” New York: Columbia University Press, 1978. Asserts that Dutchman combines a realistic look at American society with the absurdist and surrealist traditions of European theater. Lula, although a negative force in the play, expresses many of the playwright’s own ideas in his own language.Walker, Victor Leo, II. “Archetype and Masking in LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman.” In Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora, edited by Paul Carter Harrison, Victor Leo Walker II, and Gus Edwards. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002. Looks at the antirealist aspects of Baraka’s play and their function in the representation of racial identity.Watts, Jerry Gafio. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. New York: New York University Press, 2001. Frank reappraisal of Baraka, focusing on the contradictions between his public and private personas and balancing his brilliance with the more derivative aspects of his work. Based on rereadings of other people’s interviews, rather than new interviews conducted by the author himself.
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