The Success of Amiri Baraka's Play Dutchman

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

24 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction: the first presentation of the play and the audience’s reactions

2. Reasons for its success
2.1. The complexity of themes
2.1.1. The representation of the situation of the blacks in the 1960s
2.1.2. The representation of gender and class issues
2.2. Its revolutionary character
2.3. The appeal to a new black consciousness
2.4. The appeal to the society on the whole
2.5. The effect of authenticity
2.6. The autobiographical line
2.7. Its symbolism

3. Summary and conclusion

4. Sources

1. Introduction: the first presentation of the play and the audience’s reactions

Dutchman was first presented at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York in 1964. As the best Off-Broadway Play it gained an Obie-Award the same year[1] and was made into a film in 1967 which made it widely known.2 Later, Dutchman was internationally successful because of being produced and performed in other metropolises like Paris, Berlin and Spoleto (Italy). Being Baraka’s most widely acclaimed play, which is often regarded as his break through and the break through of African American theatre, it convinces up to now and gives occasion for discussions about its intentions and its historical background. It is titled as […] a triumph of stagecraft, a model two-acter whose economy and handling of pace and denouement were not to be doubted.3

Although the play was generally well received4, it provoked critical controversy amongst its audience as well5. Dutchman was performed for a dual audience. Initially, it played to primarily white audiences until Baraka moved it to the black audiences of Harlem6. For both, it was something new: The white audience was confronted with a new type of black man because up to now they had just known the nigger minstrel who was harmless and acceptable to them because he was de-sexed, trapped in a role which combined self-mockery with an endearing musicality7. The Negro is not presented as a primitive African savage8 anymore. For the black people, precisely for the black non-reading audiences of the lower classes, it was the first time to be confronted with theatre. As differently these two audiences may read the play as differently are their interpretations, criticism and attitudes toward the play. Dutchman had been praised and refused at the same time. Above all it incited indignation because of being interpreted as a white-hating play (Bigsby: 375) with its radical language and its racist attitude against white people. Beyond that it broke the habitual theatre form and presented a two act play far from following the rules of conventional theatre plays.

Now, the question is what it made that successful that it was not only performed in Harlem’s streets in front of a black audience which the play mainly aimed at with its intention, but even internationally for black and white people altogether although it provoked such divergent reactions. Why did it even have the possibility to be performed in front of such a dual audience, that means two opposing social groups, in a time of white racism against blacks? To answer these questions several aspects have to be considered. They concern Dutchman ’s relation to the historical period of the 1960s in the US, its character as a theatre play, more precisely the examination of its form and language, and its intentions for the black and white world and for society in general. This paper will put up thesis about the reasons of Dutchman ’s success which are to be proved.

2. Reasons for its success

2.1. The complexity of themes

When Baraka moved his play Dutchman to Harlem it was quickly labelled as a white-hating play. The interpretation of a black racism against white people is just one, maybe even wrong aspect. Dutchman is thematically working on several fields at the same time which can be attributed to the fact that it was written in Baraka’s transitional time in which he himself was in search for an orientation in the American society but I will come back to that later. The play is concerned with a variety of social issues (MacNicholas: S. 51): racial betrayal9, anti racist sentiments and black consciousness-raising combined with gender and class themes. Further on, it is about American history (Bloom: 89) and it describes Baraka’s own autobiography (Bigsby: 397) in which he asks the general question of personal identity and the nature of the relationship between the self and society (Bigsby: 375). All these themes are embodied by only two characters, Clay and Lula, who therefore have racial, social and sexual roles in one plot (Bigsby: 399) which leaves his work open to ambiguity (Bigsby: 402).

The following parts will now try to examine each of these issues in detail.

2.1.1. The representation of the situation of the blacks in the 1960s

The first intention which Dutchman expresses is being an evidence of the period. It describes the unambiguous reality of the situation of the American blacks in the 1960s and gives an impression of the American history and politics of that time. Racism as the previous condition was a living death (Berkowitz: 146), so black people were faced with two alternatives, assimilation or revolt10. They had to find new identities (Berkowitz: 146). Dutchman presents Clay who has chosen the first one and who therefore denies his origin. He takes the white world as a model which is expressed by his appearance, language (his mastery of language gives him access to the white world (Bigsby: 397)) and behaviour like numerous other young black people did it. Lula is the one who proves this by saying: “Is Warren Enright a tall skinny black boy with a phony English accent?”11 , or “I told you I didn’t know anything about you …you’re a well-known type.” (Jones: 12). Later, she guesses his name and proposes typical black names: “[…] Gerald or Walter […] Lloyd, Norman? One of those hopeless colored names creeping out of New Jersey. Leonard?” (Jones: 15). These examples show how blacks adapt themselves to the white society and how they deliver their own individuality. When Lula says “I bet you never once thought you were a black nigger.” (Jones: 19), it comments on the status which blacks had in America in the 1960s12: they made themselves invisible by ignoring their African origin and took on the protective colour and language of white middle-class America13 which they saw as a disguise because they could not identify with it. Consequently, they lost their orientation and found neither their old ways nor the imitation of white behaviour fully satisfactory14.

The text of Dutchman can be seen as a representation of the black situation. Several evidences represent Lula as the white class dominating the black one. She forces him to assimilation which is expressed by giving him the symbolic sinful apple with which he accepts her discriminating attitudes and denies himself. Regarding the whole dialogue, Lula’s dominance is unmistakable when she dictates Clay what to do and when he cannot do anything but asking questions. In a wider sense, Lula as the white woman dictates Clay white values and norms which he believes to have to assume. In scene two, when Lula describes a fictive evening together with Clay at and after a party, Clay again asks questions about how the evening might go on. Symbolically, he allows her to decide about his life because he is not able to manage his life beyond his ideas because he always has been living under white “control”. In his submissiveness he renounces to use his own power against the white group because that would be his own disaster. Here we see the contrast between white liberalism and the vulnerability of black integration15.

Dutchman is a mirror which shows the black reaction to white racism: assimilation. By means of Clay as a black stereotype, he play shows the inner feelings, especially anger, of an entire black group oppressed by the white one which is in search for their identification. Like Baraka said, “Dutchman is about the difficulty of becoming a man in America.” (MacNicholas: 53).


[1] Knaak, Alexander: Things have come to that. (31.07.2006)

2 Schlueter, Paul/ Schlueter, June: Modern American Literature. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1985.

3 Bloom, Clive (ed.): American Drama. London: Macmillian Press CDD, 1995.

4 MacNicholas, John (ed.): Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol 7: Twentieth Century American Dramatists Part 1: A – J. Detroit/ Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1981, p. 51.

5 Wilmeth, Don B./ Miller, Tice L. (ed.): Cambridge Guide to American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 59.

6 Amiri Baraka. (31.07.2006)

7 Bigsby, C.W.E.: A Critical Introduction To Twentieth-Century American Drama. Volume Three Beyond Broadway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 375.

8 Boan, Devon: The Black „I“. Author and Audience in African American Literature. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2002, p. 34.

9 McMichael, George: Anthology of American Literature. II – Realism to the Present. New York: Macmillian Publishing Company, 1980, p. 1895.

10 Clay, Richard: Three Negro Plays. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1969, p. 13.

11 Jones, LeRoi: Dutchman and The Slave. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1964, p. 10.

12 Mr Africa: Amiri Baraka. (31.07.2006)

13 Bigsby, C.W.E.: Modern American Drama 1945 – 1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 280.

14 Berkowitz, Gerald M.: American Drama of the Twentieth Century. London: Longman, 1992, p. 146.

15 DLB 38, p. 29

Excerpt out of 24 pages


The Success of Amiri Baraka's Play Dutchman
University of Rostock  (Institut für Anglisitk und Amerikanistik)
African American Plays of the 1960s
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ISBN (eBook)
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Success, Amiri, Baraka, Play, Dutchman, African, American, Plays
Quote paper
Ireen Trautmann (Author), 2006, The Success of Amiri Baraka's Play Dutchman, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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