What Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright has a work still running 50 years after its debut as well as five other plays in virtually perennial production?
You might think of his contemporaries -- Eugene O'Neill, Elmer Rice, Philip Barry -- or even names from a later period, such as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, Kaufman and Hart or Lillian Hellman. But the unique dramatist in question is Paul Green.
Paul Green? You may not find his name chiseled into Broadway's Gershwin Theater Hall of Fame, but few American dramatists come close to the apparently lasting influence of his idealism.
This summer, Green's "The Lost Colony" is observing its 50th anniversary at Manteo, on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Elsewhere, his "Trumpet in the Land," "Cross and Sword," "The Stephen Foster Story," "The Lone Star" and "Texas" are rolling along.
It was Green who gave the celebrated Group Theater its first production, "The House of Connelly." He won his Pulitzer in 1927 with "In Abraham's Bosom," and his "Johnny Johnson" gave composer Kurt Weill his American bow.
Only recently his adaptation of Richard Wright's "Native Son" had a respectable revival. His films had such stars as Lionel Barrymore, Bette Davis and Will Rogers.
It wasn't the gold or glitter that inspired Green, who died six years ago at the age of 87. He was a North Carolina farm boy who picked cotton, pitched baseball either right- or left-handed and was principal of a three-teacher school before he entered the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, to study philosophy. The first play he ever saw was one he wrote -- about the university's history -- and it also gave him his inspiration.
Green aligned two personal observations: the lack of theater for most Americans, who seldom, if ever, saw "live" actors, and a passionate belief that all across the country there are dramatic sources for each region's history.
These coincided with the aims of the Roanoke Island Historical Association, chartered in 1932 "to celebrate and depict by exhibitions, pageants . . . historic narratives" the birth of English-speaking civilization in America. The dramatic fact was that though much was known through writings and artists' drawings about Sir Walter Raleigh and his colonists, who landed on Roanoke Island in 1584, the settlement vanished after three years, and dramatists see fascinating material in mysteries.
In its first year "The Lost Colony" had state support as well as backing from the government's Federal Theater Project of the WPA -- the depression-inspired Works Progress Administration.
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt visited that first summer, and Mrs. R. gave the pageant many a boost in her syndicated newspaper column, "My Day." Except for the war years, "The Lost Colony" has been running every summer since and, with other area attractions, has lured visitors from every state. The Wright brothers' first takeoff spot is just a short distance down the beach, and those struggling to garden in sandy soils can learn much from the Elizabethan garden and nearby museum.
Green's notion that his "symphonic dramas" should be about local history brought about his later misadventure in Rock Creek Park.
This was inspired by the creation of an open-air theater to commemorate the city's 150th anniversary as seat of the federal government. To celebrate this in 1950, President Truman appointed a committee headed by Carter T. Barron, who headed the Loew's theater chain here and was considered MGM's ambassador to Washington.
Anxious to avoid the segregation issue then involving all Washington theaters, the one-time Georgia Tech football star decided to create an open-air theater. There was no segregation of blacks and whites in open-air theaters, unlike, say, the downtown Capitol, Palace or Columbia of the Loew's chain.
On a snowy day some 18 months before the projected celebration, Barron showed playwright Green a Rock Creek hillside that formed a natural amphitheater. Green agreed it would be a fine spot for a drama about the nation's capital. Before the opening, Carter Barron would die of cancer, but Truman saw to it that the amphitheater was named for him.
Green called his play "Faith of Our Fathers," and though it dropped the names of all the early American icons, it wasn't much of a play. Green's usual solution -- "We'll fix it next year" -- didn't suffice, for even its appearance the following summer failed to generate any enthusiasm. Production workers and cast were largely drawn from local universities, but the work failed to exude Washington's flavorsome atmosphere. The metropolitan audience was used to more sophisticated fare.
Which takes us to spots where his creations have caught on. In the summer months, St. Augustine, Fla., sees the story of Spain's settlement in "Cross and Sword." The Moravian story is told in "Trumpet in the Land" produced in Dover, Ohio. Stephen Foster's is set in Bardstown, Ky., accompanied by "My Old Kentucky Home" and "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair." Texas is large enough for two Green plays: "The Lone Star," about Austin, Houston and Davy Crockett, played in Galveston; and "Texas," about the Panhandle, was done in the Palo Duro Canyon at Canyon.
In Green's wake have come scores of playwrights saluting their area's backgrounds. Leading them has been Kermit Hunter, almost as prolific as Green. His "Horn in the West" has been playing in Boone, N.C., since 1952, his "Unto These Hills" for almost as long at Cherokee, N.C., and his "Honey in the Hills" shares the stage at Beckley, W. Va., with "Hatfields and McCoys," by Billy Edd Wheeler and Ewell Cornet.
All share Green's basic idea: They are performed on or close to the spot of their action. Usually the central characters are actual historic figures. Green's initial note -- "though in the main true to the facts of history, the author has in some instances had to use his imagination in telling the story" -- is applicable to all. Their strokes are broad, music and dance are integrated into the action, settings are relatively simple, lighting has become increasingly sophisticated and the intent is to avoid that "pageantry" that critics scorned.
The directors and staff heads are professionals. This is Fred Chappell's second season at Manteo, following a 21-year run by Broadway's Joe Layton.
The performers are modestly paid, and though they are not all professionals, leads in many of the productions may be played by Equity members and those from the companies of regional theaters closed for the summer. Some are from university theater departments. While many such theaters are in the South, they stretch north to Minnesota and Wisconsin and west to California, where Helen Hunt Jackson's "Ramona" was a feature in Hemet, long before the bow of "The Lost Colony."
North Carolina's previous leads have included Andy Griffith and Betty Smith (who later wrote "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"). When Washington saw "Les Mise'rables" last winter, there was a "Colony" graduate in Javert -- Terrence Mann. Goldie Hawn started in a Green state salute, as did Louise Fletcher and Kathleen Turner. The first time I saw Glenn Close, or so her colleagues told me years later, was just after she'd graduated from William and Mary when she was appearing in a "Twelfth Night" produced by Ellie Chamberlain at the Washington Monument's Sylvan Theater.
As Green had hoped, these works have been a stepping-off point for young careers.
Keeping track of all such events -- from scripts and productions to training personnel on how to cope with wind, rain, heat and traffic problems -- is another offshoot of the Manteo original. Still headed by founder Mark R. Sumner, the Institute of Outdoor Drama operates year-round from Green's Chapel Hill base.
Allied with groups presenting Shakespeare, recent musicals, biblical plays or Inuit history in Alaska, 80 such centers are scattered across the states. All were sparked by Green's opening night 50 years ago on the Fourth of July. Richard L. Coe is theater critic emeritus of The Washington Post.