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Lorraine Hansberry - Playwright at Work

This 1961 episode shows writer Lorraine Hansberry fresh off her success from "Raisin in the Sun." We see a scene, directed by Lloyd Richards, from a play she's writing about Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture. Her untimely death from pancreatic cancer at age 35 prevented her from finishing the play, but in this scene we see her mastery in creating art out of everyday life.

AIRED: June 04, 2020 | 0:29:41
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TRANSCRIPT

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Naturalism tends to take the world as it is.

This is what it is.

This is how it happens.

It is true because we see it

every day in life that way, you know?

You simply photograph the garbage can.

Frank: Mm-hmm. And that's naturalism.

And realism... Mm-hmm.

...I think, the artist

who is creating the realistic work imposes on it

not only what is but what is possible

because this is part of reality, too,

so that you get a much larger potential of what man can do.

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In "Playwright At Work,"

we're exploring the creative methods,

the philosophies, and the aspirations

of a new group of writers for the theater.

Our guest today is Lorraine Hansberry.

Miss Hansberry won the New York Drama Critics'

Circle Award for her first Broadway play,

"A Raisin in the Sun."

Later in the program, we'll see a scene

from Miss Hansberry's work in progress, "Toussaint."

The scene will be directed for us by Mr. Lloyd Richards,

who also staged the Broadway production of

"A Raisin in the Sun."

Actors in the scene will be Branwell Fletcher

and Miss Marie Andrews.

Lorraine, a pleasure to have you here today.

Thank you.

I'd like to ask you why you write plays,

why you've chosen to write for the theater.

Well, I think it's because I am particularly attracted

to a medium where not only do you get to do

what we do in life every day, you know, talk to people,

but to be very selective about the nature of the conversation.

Mm-hmm.

It's an opportunity to treat character

in the most absolute relief, one against the other,

so that everything, sympathy and conflict,

is played so sharply, you know, even a little more than a novel,

and I suppose it's my own private sense of drama

that makes that appeal to me.

A desire to talk to people?

A desire to talk to people and to, [Laughs] I suppose,

also have them do what you want them to do, ultimately.

Your characters? Yes.

Are there any particular themes which concern you

as a dramatist, or are you -- is it more general?

The human race concerns me

and everything that that implies,

which is the most ambitious thing you can say,

and at the same time, it's the most modest, too,

because I can't think of anything that people do

where conflict is born that isn't dramatically interesting.

And of course it's the role of the dramatist

to select which part is most interesting,

and when you don't, you get a very bum play.

[ Laughs ]

You said in an interview, I think, that you wrote

"A Raisin in the Sun"

from a specific intellectual point of view.

Is that true, and if it is, what was that point of view?

Yes.

I happen to believe that the most ordinary human being,

to almost repeat what I just said,

has within him elements of profundity,

of profound anguish, that there is --

You don't have to go to kings and queens of the Earth.

I think the Greeks and the Elizabethans did this

because it was a logical concept,

but every human being

is in enormous conflict about something,

even if it's how you get to work in the morning and all of that

so that I thought that it would be very interesting

in the contemporary American theatrical moment...

Mm-hmm.

...to explore the most ordinary man,

say, on the South Side of Chicago we think we know.

Mm-hmm. You know, he drives you to work.

And you say, "Well, he's a nice fellow."

But see what he's like at home in some of the ordinary events.

By the time he gets to work,

he's a complicated and large person.

Are you trying to find tragedy in these people,

in the smaller people?

Ultimately, I would like to be able,

but we think in drama

that that's the highest form of drama.

Right. Mm-hmm.

I don't think that the hero in the "Raisin in the Sun"

ever achieves true tragic stature.

Mm-hmm. But as drama,

it's that's the route that I'm trying to go, yes.

It's the direction you're going. That's fascinating.

Do you -- Would you call "Raisin in the Sun" a naturalistic play?

I would not.

And what would you call if if you had to put a label on it?

I hope that it is genuine realism.

What's the difference? It's enormously different.

Well, naturalism tends to take the world as it is and say,

"This is what it is. This is how it happens.

It is true because we see it

every day in life that way, you know?"

You simply photograph the garbage can.

Mm-hmm. And that's naturalism.

And realism... Mm-hmm.

...I think, the artist

who is creating the realistic work imposes on it

not only what is but what is possible

because this is part of reality, too,

so that you get a much larger potential of what man can do.

Mm-hmm.

And it requires much greater selectivity.

You don't just put everything that seems.

You put what you believe is.

Mm-hmm.

In this framework, would you call Shakespeare

a realistic writer?

The greatest of them all. [ Laughs ]

Really? [ Laughs ]

This is why, for instance, that the ghosts and whatnot

are not outside of realism in "Hamlet."

In "Hamlet." Yes.

Because it's based in the reality

of what a man envisions in himself.

It's simply a way to embody conscience.

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

I think Shakespeare was the greatest realist.

If we could get that element back into contemporary theater,

I think we'd be closer to drama of stature again.

I understand.

The play you're working on now is called "Toussaint"

and is about...

Well, perhaps you might tell us

who Toussaint was and, briefly, what it's about.

Well, Toussaint is the first name

of the great Haitian liberator, Toussaint Louverture,

who most Americans have never heard of,

despite the fact that, in my opinion,

he was probably greater than even José Martí or Simón Bolívar

or even our own Washington.

When did he live? There is this possibility.

In the 18th century. Mm-hmm.

And he was a field slave who ultimately organized

the Haitian people to throw out the armies of Bonaparte...

Mm-hmm.

...and to create the Haitian Republic.

Will we see Toussaint in the scene

that we're going to see -- himself?

No.

From my own point of view, I think what is interesting

is something that we'll try to show --

the nature of the people who are involved in the struggle

which is about to envelope Haiti.

The first scene deals with the plantation manager

and his wife and what the slave society

does to all people involved, not merely the slave.

Good.

I think with that introduction,

we'll have a look at the scene if we can.

We'll ask Lloyd Richards to set the scene for us

if you would, please, Lloyd.

Haiti, 1780, the year of insurrection,

the year before major rebellion.

The place is the upstairs bedroom of Bayon de Bagerret

and his wife, Lucie.

Bayon is the manager of a plantation, Bréda,

and they're preparing for dinner,

preparing to entertain Monsieur Petillo from France.

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Lucie: Oh, Bayon, Bayon, Bayon,

the point remains that I am in no mood to hear your dull,

tiresome talk of acreage and harvest

or an equally dull, tiresome discussion

of the present political state of affairs of France.

The current palpitations of the French directory

don't interest me.

Napoleon himself doesn't interest me.

I am not interested in your guests,

and I shall not want to hear one single word

that they have had to say when they are gone.

Well, my sweet, you will hear it this evening.

Not only that, you will listen the entire length of time

that their entertainment may require.

In fact, you will make it seem to our guests

that you have never enjoyed anyone's company quite so much.

[ Laughs ]

You will laugh your disarming

and enchanting little laugh at each and every anecdote

that Monsieur Petillo may care to tell.

And you will set your eyes wide with delight

at each item of Parisian gossip

that Madame Petillo will care to offer.

You will do it. You will do all of it.

[ Groans ]

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[ Sighs ]

Now I'll ring for Destinee so that you may

begin your twilight.

How you do sigh of late, Bayon.

You have turned into one long sigh.

Is it any wonder?

I should only tell you how tired I am.

What did you say?

I said, "If I could only tell you of my agonies."

Oh, Bayon, don't.

It is too dreadful when you are feeling agonized.

It is the measure of our marriage now, Bayon,

that you wear the clay from her grave right into our bedroom.

Remember when you still cared enough

to at least have the mud meticulously cleaned

before you came home to me after your visit up there?

I had, I think, a shred of love left for you because of that.

Do you still take wild orange blossoms?

I've often wondered about the specialness of orange blossoms.

Did she used to wear them in her hair?

Bayon: How foolish you are to go on with this.

And when you put them on her grave, does she cry out to you?

"Oh, mon petit, my strong one, my ivory god.

How good that you come to see me.

Do you still love me, my love, my master?"

[ Shoes clatter ]

Lucie: What made you bury her up there, Bayon?

Was it some special, romantic plea on the deathbed?

I can't talk to you when you're like this!

Mm, yes. You're right, Bayon.

I am being suffocating.

I should've taught myself not to care or not to know,

as is the fashion of the wives of Santo Domingo.

We shall forget it all when we're back home in France.

I am home.

Of late you seem to forget, my darling,

that I am a Creole.

This is my home.

The sea is in my blood, the mountains my very brain,

and the cane fields down there -- why, Bayon,

they are the stuff of this buccaneer flesh of mine.

I intend to die here.

The great romance of the Creoles.

If you like.

Oh, tell me about the Petillos.

You knew them in Paris, didn't you?

I never met his wife.

I met him once or twice at Noes.

Hmm. What's he like?

Tell me that, and I shall tell you

to a detail what his wife is like.

I am brilliant at that. You say so yourself.

He's a man.

Where are my garters?

What sort of man?

He's a man, that's all. Where are my garters?

Why are you sullen now?

I've changed my mood. Why don't you change yours?

I'm not being sullen. I'm looking for my garters.

If you were a true gentleman,

you would have someone dress you.

I despise having anybody hovering over me

while I'm dressing.

[ Laughing ]

I asked you to tell me about Petillo.

I've told you all there is that you need to know.

Monsieur Petillo is a courier of my employer in Paris,

Monsieur Louis.

He's come to visit the estate, return to France,

and give his personal estimation to Louis.

If I am to stay here one more year,

I must have a good report.

Just one more year.

And then we shall go to live in Paris.

Then we shall go to live in Paris.

Now, my sweet, you get dressed.

Do none of the servants ever come

when they're called in this house?

If I ran my fields the way you run this house...

Oh, Bayon, how you love to give orders.

You do try so hard to be an ominous old grand blanc.

Poor little Bayon.

Poor little petty bourgeois who likes to sit astride his horse

in the fields and playact at being master,

not merely manager, of a great plantation

while his most highly esteemed employer,

who esteems nothing at all,

is too occupied to care to see for himself

how one of his boring old plantations is faring...

but sends instead his insignificant little couriers

year after year to spy on you.

[ Piano playing ]

Hmm, how badly your Claude plays.

But I like it.

Yes, you would like it, and do not call him my Claude.

I-I do not wish to warn you about that again, Lucie.

Poor Lucie.

Poor little Creole pig

who lacks all sense of the refinements of style

that should accompany the playing of a minuet.

You have stated the matter as it is.

You self-absorbed, prancing,

affected little bourgeois worshiper of the aristocracy!

How your insults have ceased to affect me,

how pallid they have become!

Isn't that depressing?

It depresses me terribly that nothing about you matters,

not even your insults, your treasured insults.

I'm sorry. I should have hurt you with my regrets.

Hurt me? I told you 1,000 times...

How eloquent you are!

...I have had my own difficulties in those days.

It is etched here! You should forgive me!

Forgive?

How does one forgive hearing one's own grandmother described

as spawned or hearing your own father

called the whelp of the discharge

of an incoherent, pankling buccaneer?

I have never heard such contempt, even for the slaves,

but then, of course, they fetch higher prices on the block!

Lucie!

A creature purchased is a creature purchased!

To dress one in laces and sit her

at the head of your dining board is no true index of value,

nor is it an index of the daily,

hourly humiliation of my awareness of the bastard legions

roaming this plantation, opening and closing doors for me,

waiting me on my own table, and playing minuets in my own home!

[ Piano stops playing ]

I will not have these words in this house.

You will stop it this instant.

Suppose the girls can hear it!

Hear it? You think they don't know it?

They are island-born, too, Bayon.

[ Woman screams in distance ]

Who is your Toussaint having punished now?

It looks like Simeon is being whipped.

Toussaint is a brute.

He's a steward and an excellent one.

What would happen to the plantation

if he ever ran away, Bayon?

He wouldn't run away.

He's content.

Toussaint has his own sense of the order of things.

Yes. [ Chuckles ]

I think so.

How strange the two of you are together in the fields,

you with your wide-brimmed hat astride your horse

seeming to command,

and he, the slave, barefoot beside you

with the yellow handkerchief and hideous face commanding.

I've told you time and time again that he's not a slave.

Well, is he free? No, he's not free, either.

Then he must be a slave.

You are either one thing or the other.

It's a special situation.

As a woman, you wouldn't understand it.

Oh, but explain it to me, Bayon.

I will try very hard to understand it.

And tell me about yourself.

Are you a free man, Bayon?

'Course I'm a free man.

Then why haven't you left Santo Domingo long ago?

What is it that keeps a free man where he does not wish to be?

Tell me, what is freedom, Bayon de Bagerret?

It is an abstraction

that is something that's hard to explain,

least of all, these days, for a Frenchman.

[ Whip cracks, woman screams in distance ]

[ Woman screams in distance ]

[ Piano playing ]

Do you think he gets pleasure from it?

'Course he does.

Personally, I don't think so.

I've watched his merciless way with the slaves,

and I saw no pleasure in it.

What do you mean?

Hmm.

[ Laughs ] A woman's reasoning.

It would bore you or make you laugh.

I shall keep it to myself. Excellent.

I only know that Toussaint knows how to drive men.

Men?

Isn't there a difference between slaves and other men, Bayon?

In the sense that I meant it just now, they're all the same.

I saw him once when he was having Sidely whipped.

He stood quite near with his arms folded across his chest

watching with the most complicated expression

on his face that I have ever seen.

Yes, he's a weird old buck if that's what you mean,

but one thing is certain.

He's content.

Mm.

I wish I could say the same for the others,

what with their running away and their rebelliousness.

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But Toussaint is a special kind of black.

There's something strange

and almost mystical in his acceptance.

I asked him one day quite casually, you know,

about the insurrections.

He waved the question away as though he were

impatient of listening to the subject.

Yes, Toussaint is a wise man.

Now, my sweet, you'll get dressed.

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Um...

I shall expect you downstairs in at least an hour...

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and in excellent humor.

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[ Laughing ] I love that smile.

Lloyd, thank you very much, indeed.

Well, thank you, Frank, and thank you, Lorraine.

I'd like to open the discussion by asking Lorraine

what you were working for in this scene

and how well you feel it was achieved.

Well, as a preliminary scene, as what will,

I still hope, be the very beginning of the play,

it was an effort to set preliminary character

of two principles... Mm-hmm.

...and to discover some personal aspects of their lives

before we see them in conflict with other people in the play

so that the audience is able at once

to begin to relate to them

in what may not be entirely sympathetic roles

as the play evolves but as human beings,

which is always a certain measure of sympathy.

Mm-hmm.

This is why I want them to be people in our minds first.

Lloyd, what problems did you deal with in doing the scene,

and how well do you think it came off?

Problems?

The problem was to get it all in. [ Laughs ]

I mean, the fascinating, absolutely fascinating part

of working on Lorraine's work

is that there are so many levels of work...

Mm-hmm. ...to get in.

It isn't just the obvious.

There are things being said about not just the characters.

There are things being said about the time, the meilleure,

and to suggest those things and to work out of those things,

particularly like in this scene...

Yes.

...for me, there were the three levels of slavery --

the level of slavery that existed or exists

with Toussaint and the relationship to Toussaint,

the actual slaves, which you see in the scene,

even setting up the table.

You don't see it here, but it happens

if you see it on the stage.

Then there's the level of slavery of the wife,

a woman bought, you know, not a woman loved,

a woman purchased, really,

and the effect of slavery on her.

Then ultimately, Bayon himself,

a man who's a slave to the system.

He can't break out of it himself.

It dehumanizes him right down the line,

and this effect on each individual

and what it causes them to do to the other

was the thing that I was working for in the scene

and the thing that I think is there and must be realized,

and it's fascinating to work on.

I certainly think it was realized.

Did you have those three levels in mind

when you wrote the scene, Lorraine?

Yes.

I'm so glad to hear that this is what Lloyd feels about it.

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

It grows out of a thought of mine that,

as I study history, that virtually all of us

are what our circumstances allow us to be...

Mm-hmm.

...and that it really doesn't matter

whether you're talking about the oppressed or the oppressor.

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

An oppressive society will dehumanize

and degenerate everyone involved. Including, yes.

And in certain very poetic

and very true ways at the same time...

Mm-hmm. ...it will tend to make,

if anything, the oppressed have more stature

because at least they are arbitrarily placed

in the situation of overwhelming that which is degenerate,

in this instance, a slave society.

So it isn't -- That doesn't become an abstraction.

It has to do with what really happens

to all of us in a certain context.

And which is what really happened in Haiti

with Toussaint, isn't that correct?

Yes. Exactly.

Are there any particular problems you found inherent

in writing or working on a historical play?

Yes, what I think a dramatist has to do...

Mm-hmm.

...is to thoroughly inundate himself or herself...

Mm-hmm.

...in an awareness of the realities

of the historical period and then dismiss it

and then become absolutely dedicated to the idea

that what you are going to do is create human beings

whom you know in your own time...

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

...you see, so that all of us

sitting out in the audience feel that,

"Oh, yes. We know him," no matter what period.

This is the 1700s, but we must feel,

"I have had this experience, I have known this person,"

so that once you know the realities of the time,

you use them, really, as residue at the back of the head so that,

you know, you don't have them go out and get in an automobile,

but where the human emotion is universal in the time sense

as well as the world sense.

Well, you spoke in the first section

about the realistic play,

the dramatist superimposing his own solution.

Aren't you stuck with the facts of history in a play like this?

Oh, you have to be true to the facts of history.

Mm-hmm.

But within that context, many things are possible

about the supposition of human reactions to...

In the character? ...a situation.

Mm-hmm. I understand.

But you don't have the French win the revolution, obviously,

because that is...

I understand.

That would be against realism.

And wishful thinking by some people's standard.

[ Laughs ] On the French part, not mine.

Lloyd, in a hypothetical situation,

if you were putting this play into rehearsal tomorrow,

would you ask Lorraine for any changes in this scene?

Oh, if I was putting the play

into rehearsal tomorrow, no, I wouldn't.

I don't think even now... Mm-hmm.

...completely able to judge.

I think this scene, as it exists,

works with minor changes here and there.

I know she has some ideas about that.

But this scene exists with other scenes

that are going on at the same time.

Mm-hmm.

This scene is upstairs. Mm-hmm.

Downstairs, the slaves are setting the table.

You find too many people, you know,

which is also indicative of slave society,

where, as Lorraine said once when we were discussing it,

40 people to wait on four, you know.

One only brings in the... The napkin rings.

...pickle forks or the napkin rings,

and that's all he has to do,

and just people standing around, the waste of it.

That you see. And that will show in the scene?

Yes, and the outside, the waste of human energy,

the waste of human life, and this taking place within it.

Now, I'd have to see all that to see what minor changes...

I understand.

...would have to be made. I understand.

But I don't think they'd be major at this point.

Lorraine, did you learn anything from seeing the scene performed?

Yes, both in terms of strengths and weaknesses.

I think it does work dramatically.

There are points where it's a little static,

and some static quality in this kind of work is desirable.

I have toyed with the idea in my head already,

which this makes me wonder about again,

the possibility of a third character...

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

...being in the scene, the wife --

In the room? Yes, who would be a slave,

a male servant who really is dressing him.

This would be one of the affectations of the aristocracy

that Bayon has taken on

where this man is literally there doing --

And would they play the same emotions in front of this man?

Exactly -- their most intimate revelations

in front of this human being because this, again,

is the dehumanizing character of such a social order.

Got it, and it does affect the oppressor.

And this would be very theatrical, I think.

Yes. I may not do it. I don't know.

I understand. But it's one of the things.

And it's indicative of today, too.

Yes.

Any bellboy can tell you that this goes on.

Or a taxi driver, I suppose.

Yes. Or a maid.

[ Laughs ]

Lorraine, what would you say

have been your most satisfying moments as a playwright?

Well, I would think just immediately

the audience reaction to the one play,

after all, that has been before the public,

and that is "Raisin," that --

The audience reaction how? In what sense?

Well, we were often struck with the fact that,

As theatergoers, it seemed to us we had the most responsive,

spectacularly so, audiences...

Mm-hmm.

...that I'd seen a long time in Broadway theater

where people literally were almost talking to the actors.

I don't think our curtain ever came down

when you didn't hear the women say,

"Don't forget your plant"...

Ah. You reached them.

...to the mother. Yeah.

And that's what I'm trying to say,

that I do feel that it did reach the audience,

and no writer ever really wants more than that.

No matter how we say it, that's ultimately what we want.

Thank you.

Today on "Playwright at Work,"

we've investigated the working philosophy of two

gifted additions to the American theater.

Our guests were Lorraine Hansberry

and Lloyd Richards.

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