Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Theatre and Performance


Marvin Carlson


James V. Hatch

Committee Members

Joyce Rheuban

Judith Milhous

Subject Categories

Theatre and Performance Studies


This dissertation surveys African American approaches to dramatic theory from 1900 to 1965, demonstrating that in the period the issue dominating the field was a great debate that defined black drama as art on the one hand and as propaganda on the other. In an African American cultural history replete with covert and overt struggles for social and political equality, the art or propaganda question necessarily reached a magnitude and importance found in no other area of twentieth-century dramatic theory. The comprehensiveness of the debate that interrogated this question and its historical and cultural depth has largely gone untreated. Moreover, the intersections of black thought on the nature of dramatic art, in Africa as well as the United States, with the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Antonin Artaud, Jacques Derrida, Jean Genet, Edward Albee, and others have been generally overlooked or at best minimized in theatre studies.

The early musical comedy drama (1898 to 1910) of Bob Cole and Will Marion Cook contained both classical assumptions about art and elements of traditional black thought related to West African cosmology. Cole's dramaturgy and performance established black theatre artists as equal or superior to their white counterparts, while Cook's theatre practice put the "genuine Negro" on the American stage. The differences in their philosophies of Negro stage art signaled the unarticulated, twentieth-century beginnings of the Art or Propaganda debate. By the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Angelina Grimke, Willis Richardson, and Hubert Harrison had codified and expanded the tensions in Cole and Cook's differing philosophies into a full blown Art or Propaganda debate, and that debate pitted Du Bois and Grimke's Negro Protest theory against Locke and Montgomery Gregory's "Inner Life," folk-inspired school of Negro drama.

In the High Harlem Renaissance (1925–1929), the discourse on the nature of African American drama reached its zenith as Theophilus Lewis, Langston Hughes, Eulalie Spence, James Weldon Johnson, and others joined the Art or Propaganda debate. The debate continued into the 1930s and 1940s; but its propaganda elements were deeply reshaped by the onset of the Great Depression, World War II, and the resulting plays of Theodore Ward, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, James Baldwin, William Couch, and others took up Locke's anti-propaganda position, while Negro Protest theory was, yet again, reshaped by the postwar rise of the civil rights and racial integration movements and the resulting plays of Lofton Mitchell and Lorraine Hansberry. Finally, in the 1960s, LeRoi Jones' (Imamu Amiri Baraka) Black Arts movement again reshaped the propaganda elements of the Art or Propaganda debate into a Black Nationalist, separatist image.

Other major African American theatre artists and thinkers included in this dissertation are George Schuyler, Randolph Edmonds, Abram Hill, Owen Dodson, Alice Childress, William Branch, Ossie Davis, Philip Hayes Dean, Ed Bullins, August Wilson, and Sidney Poitier. Theatre companies include the Pekin Theatre in Chicago, the Lafayette Players, the American Negro Theatre, the Negro Playwrights Company, the Greenwich Mews and St. Marks theatres in New York, and the Karamu House Theatre in Cleveland.


Digital reproduction from the UMI microform.