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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 9


Staging Uprising:
Eugene O’Neill’s The Dreamy Kid and Racial Anxieties

Shahed Ahmed
Shahjalal University of Science & Technology
Sylhet, Bangladesh

The Dreamy Kid (1919) contemporises with the racial violence of 1919 and illuminates the turning point of black cultural uprising. It was written and staged in 1919, a year of historical importance for it marks the end of the Progressive Era (1900-19) and the starting point of both Harlem Renaissance (1919-33) and Civil Rights Movement (1919-60). The play involves a stereotypical situation of black-white showdown where a black gang leader, Abe a.k.a. Dreamy who is running from law after murdering a white man in self-defence is gunned down when he comes to stand his final watch over his grandmother’s deathbed on the following evening. O’Neill here underplays the homicidal offence of Dreamy perhaps to ham the racial tone up which makes the violence at play’s end an image common in the cultural quagmire of the time. On one hand, the hegemonic police force, offstage though, is bound by the duty of ethnic extermination and hence has come to take the criminal out; and on the other, the besieged and enraged black youth would not give up easily or alive without a blood-spattered gun battle.

Indeed, racial violence ran high in America during the time the staging of Eugene O’Neill’s The Dreamy Kid took place. Termed as “Red Summer” by Johnson (Erikson 2293-4), The Crisis reported that at least 77 lynching of blacks took place during the summer and the early autumn of 1919. Such Post-war riots characterised by whites’ attack and blacks’ fighting back pepped the cultural climate of the time. For instance, Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,” considered “the inaugural address of the Harlem Renaissance” (Maxwell), draws upon the fierce race riots that shook the urban centres of contemporary America. Published in the July issue of the Liberator, the poem not only depicts a rancorous outcry against white aggression but also implores the blacks towards bloody reprisal. While O’Neill’s play, staged in October on Broadway, may not have caused a nationwide cultural uproar like McKay’s poem, deserves attention for portraying an image of black resilience and resistance through the title character Dreamy.

The Dreamy Kid, in fact, neither had the ripple effect if compared to the works of other Progressive Era artists like Pauline E Hopkins, Bob Cole, Johnson Brothers, and Paul Laurence Dunbar which on stage and page challenged the racial representation and intricate counter-currents of resistance, nor did it have the hype of Noble Sissle’s and Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along (1921), the first musical revue written and performed by African Americans which is considered to have laid the cornerstone of Harlem Renaissance with instant Broadway success. In fact, drama as a genre took the backseat during the beginning of Jazz Age as black musicals were vastly popular amongst both black and white audiences for their tremendous entertainment and commercial values. While Renaissance playwrights Katherine Davis Tillman, Helene Johnson, Willis Richardson, Randolph Edmonds, Arna Bontemps, Rudolph Fisher, Wallace Thurman, and Langston Hughes wrote serious dramas covering and promoting differing facets of black life and culture, many of them had to wait until the creation of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theatre Project in the mid-1930s to stage their plays.

O’Neill’s play, therefore, lured very little critical attention. Yet scholars from time to time applauded the playwright mainly for liberalising and integrating the American stage by giving African-American actors an access to Broadway (Sternlicht 47; Gelbs 399; Bogard 100). While most of them were dismissive of O’Neill for yielding to stereotypes particularly in drawing Dreamy and Mammy, they much-admired O’Neill’s strong resolve, perhaps following Ridgley Torrence’s Three Plays for a Negro Theatre (1917), in casting black actors in black roles warding off minstrelsy, a common practice of the era (Raland 61, Engel 45-6; Shaughnessy “The Development” 88).

Over the years, critics and scholars have started to note certain historical relevance of the play. John Lovell Jr. and Gary Jay Williams were not only very much appreciative of O’Neill’s sympathies for blacks of his time but also tried to label Dreamy as the playwright’s “darker brother” (45; 3). Virginia Floyd claims, “The Dreamy Kid succeeds because its characters and plot are credible” (157). Joel Pfister studies parallels between the strained Black and Irish emigrations to US who, according to him, shared a common lot after arriving in America. Both ethnic groups suffered scientific racism, and were “victims of similar cultural stereotypes disseminated since the mid-nineteenth century.” O’Neill, he views, was well aware of the “N” word applicable to either races in antebellum South, and hence in matters of race-relations he maintained “a stance against ‘discrimination of any kind.’” Referring to Great Migration at the turn of the century and the Black American Dream of assimilation and success, he, like Edwin Angel, affirms, “the doomed Dreamy is O’Neill’s embodiment of the black dream of freedom in the North turned into a nightmare” (124).

In an article, Shaughnessy sees O’Neill’s “integrity” as “unassailable” and adds that the playwright’s depiction of Africans and Irish-Americans in theatre should be perceived as “faithful realism” (“O’Neill’s African and Irish-Americans” 161). While he claims that O’Neill dealt characters on three levels: “the cultural,” “the psychological,” and “the spiritual,” he denies Dreamy the third stage for failing to “meet on an existential common ground” (150-51). JP Diggins, on the other hand, applauds Dreamy as “a hardened black man rising to individual responsibility and moral choice.” According to him, Dreamy falls into the “authentic Negro character” type that theatre critic George Jean Nathan detected in the middle of second decade of twentieth century. Dreamy, Diggins views, is a character “capable of sensing the conflict of values that is at the heart of tragedy.” He adds, if Dreamy lacks any “spiritual value,” it is due to the erosion mainly caused by the mainstream white culture that implanted a sense of “double consciousness” among blacks which DuBois explained a decade before (138-42).

O’Neill’s play stands in interstice between the end of Progressive Era when the idea of black culture burgeoned and the start of Jazz Age when that very culture experienced renaissance. He wrote at a time when minstrel tradition had not completely fallen off, and hence if we see “blackface” as a contaminated form of interracial desire, following Lott’s and Kaplan’s observations, O’Neill’s drawing upon a black subject can be seen as a white playwright’s gazing upon a black matter out of that “desire.” Yet critics underscore his Irish root as a potent force that helped the playwright know racism firsthand to draw upon white hegemonic control through The Dreamy Kid.

O’Neill understood and recognized the plight of blacks because he and his family lived through the American “melting-pot” set up. Gelbs and Sheaffer, the playwright’s biographers, mentioned how the Yankee New Londoners of his neighbourhood used to rebuke O’Neill’s family for being Irish immigrants. In fact, the antebellum “white nigger” phrase became synonymous to an Irishman where “to be an Irish” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries meant to be black and to be black meant to be “subhuman” (O’Toole). Between the wars, the Congress made arrangements to limit the Irish immigrants’ influx by calling them the most degenerative and defective of all immigrant sects (Barkan 199-200). Whether as a playwright O’Neill deflects or draws upon the racial politics in his plays or simply played the race card has been a matter of interesting speculation. While Diggings says O’Neill wrote keeping in mind “the need of a writer to transcend his background than to express it” (139), Pfister considers a salient part of the playwright’s work deals with the effect of internalised racism where both classes of immigrants (Irish and black) are presented as “victims of similar cultural stereotypes” (123). O’Neill staged most of his plays during the first quarter of the twentieth century when the “negro-phobic” structure of United States advocated racial self-preservation and claimed that culture was a creation of race.

O’Neill exploits his stage to put forward various positions in the racial debates through The Dreamy Kid. As Progressive Era’s ethnic taxonomies led to systematic black exclusion through “visible” and “invisible” (Galtung) racial violence, black survival depended upon a tightrope of highly organized structure of white power. Between the wars, Jacobson and Kaplan views, there arose a major reconceptualisation of “whiteness” as a system of meaning positioned to verify inclusion in the imagined “American” national identity. While a number of sociologists had misgivings about the legitimacy of racial differentiations, especially as social Darwinism was applied to ethnic classifications, the nation’s perception of race was refigured along black and white borderlines. Whiteness’ such historically contingent positionality solidified the difference in social and cultural levels which Kaplan called “eradication [of blacks] and celebrations [of whites]” (Kaplan 152-53). The inclusiveness of other white sects, migrated Caucasians like Jewish and Eastern European, largely banked upon reinforcing of racial conflict as a “Negro problem” (Jacobson 103-10).

The confrontational face-off that The Dreamy Kid posits is in the black resistance in response to the power and dominion wielded by the white to control the black. The theory of black survival through resistance was a significant point in the era of black cultural uprising. Black intellectuals became furious when racial hostility reached a disastrous peak after the much-hyped White’s and Dyer’s bills had failed to secure anti-lynching legislation. DuBois, in October 1916 issue of The Crisis wrote, “If we are to die, in God’s name let us not perish like bales of hay.” Violence against blacks would cease, DuBois stated, “when the cowardly mob is faced with effective guns in the hands of the people determined to sell their souls dearly.” Similarly, A. Phillip Randolph, editor of The Messenger, viewed, “The black man has no rights which will be respected unless the black man enforces that respect.” Calling “self-defence” a “recognized and accepted law,” he also asked the African-Americans to carry out the act as the means of survival (qtd. in Graham and Gurr 402).

Dreamy in the play is an on-the-run streetwise African-American youth who just a day ago murdered a white man in a brawl in an act of self-defence. When Ceely, the matron asks Dreamy what he has done that he is too finicky about visiting Mammy on deathbed, a restless Dreamy “with … a careless bravado” replies, “I croaked a guy, dat’s what! A white man.” While Ceely recoils in horror hearing this, he “boastfully” narrates the incident that it was merely an act of self-protection. Before the deadly encounter with the white fellow took place, he continues, he had been warned that the white man would kill him surely. According to him, he did his best to stay out of the encounter, but his attacker was pigheaded, and that is what forced his hand:

’T’warn’t my doin’ nohow. He was de one lookin’ for trouble. I wasn’t seekin’ for no mess wid him dat I would help. But he tole folks he was gwine ter git me for a fac’, and dat fo’ced my hand. I had ter git him ter pertect my own life. (1.680-81)

According to Dreamy, if he didn’t kill the white fellow, the latter must have killed him. The general law of nature bears the fact that the greatest instinct in every human being is self-preservation, i.e. if the life of any creature is jeopardised, s/he would instinctively fight against all odds and circumstances to ward off the attacker. That is what Dreamy did, and he could expect the law to back him up later. But Dreamy lived in an era of burgeoning “scientific racism” in US when the law of the land was “raced,” and hence was determined and influenced by colour and position. He lived in a time when “a set of Jim Crow ‘race laws’” was put in place to “prevent” black access in almost all spheres of life so that whites could continue to dominate blacks (During 163-64). Dreamy’s murdering a white man therefore posed a threat to the enactment of “systematic” black exclusion. As he grew up in New York, he knew how the state system functioned. If he turned himself over to police, the white-biased law would not have protected him. As the law of the state, Dreamy views, would surely have him “sent to de chair” if caught (685), he chooses to run away from it.

If Dreamy’s killing the white man in self-defence may be seen as an example of black resistance, which is “the natural result of centuries of scornful treatment, industrial oppression, and constant assertion of race superiority” (Pickett 17), his evading the arrest, sheer determination of not to be taken alive but rather killing more when attacked is the result of the new racial awareness that the blacks had in Post-war America. Constant feeling of indignation and repulsion that the blacks harboured gave way to the feeling of assertion of militancy and aggression. The “New Negro” formula called for self-assurance and self-defence to redress the racial grievances that would enact a change in and definition of black rights in Post-war America (Lewis 3; Huggins 71). Therefore, when Irene apprehensively tells him that police might hunt him down someday, Dreamy proclaims: “Dey’ll have some gittin’. I git some o’ dem fust. Dey don’ git dis chicken alive! Lawd Jesus, no suh. Not de Dreamy” (688)! He later reiterates this in the same confident vein, “Dey don’ get the Dreamy alive—not for the chair! Lawd Jesus, no suh” (690)! Dreamy is a prototype of such image who, with militant intent, vows not to be taken alive but fight back with severe aggression in the hope that this would overhaul his race’s centuries old despised identity.

Dreamy thus has been raising a gang of army for some time as he has developed an entrenched feeling of hatred towards the white system of the legal, political, and social structures that hindered his race’s progress for long. Ceely’s description of Dreamy conforms to such picture. Dreamy, according to Ceely, has been clubbing around with “tough young niggers” for some time, and has raised a “gang” of army of which he is the “boss.” He does not work, is busy “fightin’ wid white folks,” and is always “totin’ a pistol in his pocket” (676). Calling him the “lowflung young trash,” Ceely, who like many blacks of the time, concedes to “internalised racism” that permits accepting hegemony, says she knew Dreamy would soon fall in serious trouble. Dreamy is hanging around with his black militia gang because it provides him with “group sense” and security, and he takes “pride” in his ability in and determination of taking the fight to the policemen, the agents of institutionalised racism, since he believes he has done nothing wrong. Such projection distils a typical platform where stereotyped black and white are involved in racial conflict, and are shown to put off cultural pluralism. O’Neill’s play further traffics in historical and political foundations of the great racial division through the conflict between Dreamy and the offstage policemen.

Dreamy’s kaleidoscopic projection both as an innocent and a brute black youth, however, anatomises the conflict that the play aims to decode. While the antithesis is a result of the rapid changes in black life and identity that needed to be reconstructed in North, it also gives potent clue for such relegation. Dreamy’s diatribe needs to be assessed side-by-side Mammy’s dialogues in the play. Between her drift offs, Mammy, other than requesting Dreamy not to desert her in her last moments, revisits the time when she gave Abe the moniker “Dreamy:”

Down by de crik—under de ole willow—whar I uster take yo’—wid yo’ big eyes a-chasin’—de sun flitterin’ froo de grass—an’ out on the water— … yo’ was always—a-lookin’—an’ a-thinkin’ to yo’se’f—an’ yo’ big eyes jest a-dreamin’ an’ a-dreamin’—an’ dat’s w’en I gives yo’ dat nickname—Dreamy. (690)

As per Mammy, an innocent Dreamy, as an infant, would gaze at the world with joy, admiration, and eyes full of dream. The innocent, dreamy eyes spurred her to give him such name, she tells. Mammy even recollects the very moment when she gave him the nickname: “Does you know how yo’ come by dat nickname dey all calls yo’—de Dreamy? Is I ever tole yo’ dat? Hit was one mawnin’ b’fo’ we come No’th” (684).

Giving Abe the moniker “Dreamy” a day before migration therefore carries paramount significance for Mammy. To Mammy, Dreamy has always been a good boy and she shows strong faith in him. She says to Ceely, “Dreamy ain’t gwine let his ole Mammy die all lone by he’se’f an’ him not dere wid her” (1.682). She seems content and proud with the good upbringing she provided Dreamy with: “if dere’s one thing more’n nother makes me feel like I mighter done good in de sight er de Lawd, hits dat I raised yo’ fum a baby” (1.684). She “anxiously” waits for her grandson on deathbed and prays not to be withdrawn from the world until she sees him for the last time: “All I’se prayin’ fer is dat God don’ take me befo’ I sees Dreamy agin” (676).

The word “Dreamy” is a sort of commemoration of the moment of belief that time in North would heal the deep scars of South for Mammy. Dreamy the word stands not only for Dreamy the person, the apple of her eye, but also the “Dreamy” North of betterment. Therefore, the moniker is a tribute to the black American dream, a yearning that moved the lives of millions. Craving Dreamy to see therefore is a solemn hymn to the belief in the dream of better days which brought blacks like Mammy here in North. Seeing Dreamy would re-emphasise the belief with assurance that the dream is still alive and kicking and not lost into oblivion.

Mammy does not know her dream has already turned into a nightmare in Dreamy. Dreamy is no longer the meek, jolly kid she once reared. He, in fact, is a killer wanted by police. A stage description of the interior, “a washstand with bowl and pitcher … [b]ottles of medicine, a spoon, a glass, etc. … on the stand,” (675) clarifies the fact that she has been laid up for quite some time with hardly any communication with or knowledge of the world outside her room. Mammy doesn’t know the outer reality on street for blacks like Dreamy kids as her movement is constrained. She asks Dreamy why he has not been around for some years to talk to her: “I wants ter talk. You knows you ain’t give me much chance ter talk wid yo’ dese las’ years” (683-84). It suggests that she does not know the reason why Dreamy is unable to come and visit her all these days as she is in the dark about Dreamy’s carryings on nowadays.

Mammy learned racism in South and Dreamy in North. She dreamt of living a non-racist life in North and thus wished to provide Dreamy with an unconstrained upbringing. But for Dreamy even the confines of Mammy’s bedroom is under racist attack. As Mammy talks endlessly of the moments she thinks worth reminiscing, he raises his ears continuously to every sound that comes from hallway staircase and peeks through the window curtains to make out if he is tailed by the plainclothesmen. Thus, while Mammy tried to unlearn racism in North, Dreamy encounters it on and off, here and there. Keeping her unlearned cost him his life because he knew seeing Mammy on deathbed would be a death-trap for him since the cops are after him. Yet he chooses to be beside her jeopardising his life and not heeding his gang’s advice to stay away. On one hand, O’Neill’s stagecraft spares her the agony of learning the bitter truth, and on the other, shows a failed black resettlement. Mammy’s such illusion versus Dreamy’s lived reality not only serves as the central conflict of the drama but also brings to fore twentieth century’s one of crucial intellectual debates: whether moving from South to North really paid off for blacks. As August Wilson considered black migration North, in his words, “a transplant that did not take,” so his Seven Guitars and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom show African-Americans making “atonement for this so-called original sin” (Shannon 660). O’Neill, through Mammy and Dreamy, representatives of two generations of blacks, shows how the black dream was conceived and what it has turned into. Mammy’s traditional, southern “red-and-yellow quilt” may still look “gaudy” as is the case in Morrison’s Beloved, but the “white curtain” separating her one-room tenement from overlooking the neighbourhood streets is “ragged.” The tattered condition of the curtain not only tells of poverty, but also stands for the squalor of which Mammy is unaware.

Mammy thus seems to be living in social amnesia as she has forgotten the knowledge of racism, which is part of the centuries long US history that repeats itself. Although Ceely, Irene, and the whole neighbourhood know Dreamy’s true self, they hide it from Mammy lest it would break her illusion. Mammy’s perception of Dreamy stands in contrast when the stage description reads: “His eyes are shifty and hard, their expression one of tough, scornful defiance. His mouth is cruel and perpetually drawn back at the corner into a snarl” (680). With a revolver tucked inside the “flashy” dress, the description suggests there is hardly any innocence or dreaminess in Dreamy’s eyes now. Mammy is unable to detect this transmutation in Abe.

Dreamy loses his innocence because the very society he lives in denounces and castigates him for his racial affiliation or skin colour, deprives him of the basic opportunities of sustenance, job or descent living. Floyd views, “As years passed, Abe’s eyes lost their dreaminess, which was crushed by the harsh realities of his life on the streets of New York” (154). Thus he invariably resorts to disreputable or violent means to stay alive. Blauner recounts a testimony of a black American living in that era to delineate how wretchedly they survived: “We need jobs. I got eight kids, and I’ve only worked ten days this year. I ain’t ever been a crook, but if they don’t do something, I’m gonna have to take something. I don’t know how they expect us to live” (200). The social system that banks upon systematic exclusion and breeds racial narrow-mindedness and oppression made it impossible for a coloured person to maintain a livelihood to exist respectably in society.

Dreamy, therefore, like many blokes of his race hardly had any opportunities to advance in a racially prejudiced society. That is why he is involved in “fightin’ wid white folks,” since he considers them as an entrenched vehicle of his people’s oppression, his folks’ poverty and repression. George S Schuyler observed in the twenties: “It is difficult enough to survive and prosper in this world under the best of conditions, but when one must face such an attitude on the part of those who largely control the means of existence, the struggle is great indeed. … Nothing else could be expected from a people who confront a continuous barrage of insult and calumny and discrimination from the cradle to grave. The Negro is a sort of black Gulliver chained by white Lilliputians, a prisoner in jail of color prejudice, a babe in the forest of bigotry” (285; 291). Dreamy is already a “prisoner” before even committing a felony. He is “chained” by the “invisible” complex dynamics of power structures that existed in the then America.

Dreamy, however, is “passing” as innocent. He is, therefore, an impostor to Mammy. In the eyes of the society he might be a murderer but Mammy needs him beside her for her peaceful removal from earthly life. She says, “Dreamy! Yo’ promise yo’ sacred word yo’ stay wid me till de en” (688). She even goes far to threaten Dreamy with the superstitious curse saying that if he departs her on deathbed he wouldn’t have much luck in life: “If yo’ leave me now, yo’ ain’t gwine git no bit er luck s’long’s yo’ live, I tells yo’ dat” (688)! She asks him to say prayers for her on his knees and clutches to his hand when her time nears. She is sure that her withdrawal would be peaceful beside a meek, innocent, God-fearing Dreamy. While she reads Dreamy’s uttering of “Lawd Jesus” as tinged with religious ecstasy to smoothen her release, the audience knows it is blasphemous and pronounced from a different perspective by Dreamy. Masking his newly evolved identity, Dreamy may play Jesus to Mammy, but he is a Judas in the eyes of white law.

Dreamy, nevertheless, fits the racist image of a violent black man circulated for a long time and thus formed a common American perception that coloured youths are criminals and less than human. In the eye of law, he is, then, an obstinate criminal or flagrant lawbreaker who is a threat to white civilisation that needs to be continuously controlled, confined, disciplined, and punished. The “invisible” police force in the play plays such “racial duty” of checking the blacks. The way Negrophobia is not seen but felt in the systemic ways of its operation that prevents black progress and undermines black attainment, the presence of police in the play likewise is not visible, but reported on stage by various characters before and after Dreamy’s arrival in Mammy’s one-room shabby tenement. While the “visible” effects of violence would result in killing, like Dreamy’s killing the white and possible more killings in Dreamy-police encounter at play’s end, the “invisible” effects of violence are even more vicious as it reinforces the existing structural and cultural violence caused by “visible” or “direct violence” (Galtung). Dreamy’s homicide disturbed the hegemonic formation, so now he has to undergo institutional and cultural violence. The police would run the cleansing operation by target shooting to quell an uprising to set the structure right, i.e., re-establishing white hegemony.

Using force, i.e., police to effect hegemony has been a common phenomenon in the US which pervaded particularly throughout Jim Crow era. The play seems to insist on the common black perception of the police force as a racist organization, which not only limited free movement of blacks, but also served the interest of white people by either killing blacks in encounters or supporting the whites in interracial riots. Historians often charge members of police force with harassment and unconscionable brutality against the blacks. The police offstage, invisible yet omnipresent, represents one hostile force propagating “institutionalised racism.” As Blauner views, “Of all establishment institutions, police departments probably include the highest proportion of individual racists (97),” Sullivan’s and Mickey’s advances from pub to streets of the neighbourhood, which Dreamy and Irene notice peeking through the curtain, are bound to provoke a counter-racist tirade from Dreamy. The conflict between Dreamy and the policeman vis-à-vis the runaway black felon and the institutional white force, therefore, is accentuated by the playwright as part of the central action of the play.

When the police reach the doorstep and their “sound of movement from hallway” seems silent like on tiptoes since they are about to break in from outside, Mammy “groans weakly” to breath her last holding Dreamy’s right hand. Cocking the revolver in the other hand, violent Dreamy makes his “pledge” to shoot down some of the policemen as he “aims his gun in the direction of the door (691).” The police perform the modes of racial dominion with a view to rooting out the “undesirables,” making sure the boundary is marked. Dreamy on the other hand shows a counter current of resistance by threatening to undermine white supremacy.

Dreamy’s crisis, nonetheless, is the crisis in American civilisation. His cultural inclusion would require a structural overhaul of the institutions. Centuries old cliché regarding the land acquisition and the utilisation of labour force that prompted Indians to be relegated and Africans to be enslaved has pulverised deep into the state system. Racism that soaked into all parts of American society established a system where xenophobia against the people of colour has been a common verity.

Did Dreamy have any choice? What could he have done? He must have wanted to meet violence with violence as means to ensure his race’s coexistence, inclusion, and cultural and structural assimilation in the long run. Dreamy’s death in such manner might be read as an act of cultural genocide. While this death provides no utopian opposition to Negrophobia, it may stand as an image for a black “racial counterculture” (Gilroy 200). O’Neill’s play in no way suggests that a biracial awareness of whiteness is achieved. Although it shows formation of a new black identity through Dreamy who achieves a sort of communal plenitude by resisting white dominance, the black man is still left mired in his “place.”


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