02 December 2011

The Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes

Apparently I have never explained my fascination with Zora Neale Hurston on this blog, because a search only turned up this post on Seraph on the Suwanee. This is weird, because I could have sworn I wrote a post on Mules and Men, but... I guess not. Anyhow. A few years back, Luke Gibbons gave a lecture at the Irish Seminar where he talked about Zora Neale Hurston as this incredible writer who presents an interesting comparison to J.M. Synge, both of them being ethnographer-artists of sorts who transform folk dialect into lyrical modernist prose. I was really intrigued by this idea, and have been (very) gradually working my way through Hurston's work ever since. And let me tell you - it's a rewarding thing to do. She is incredible.

So I had heard about this play, the only extant collaboration between Hurston and Langston Hughes, and was of course intrigued. To my great surprise, it was free to download on Amazon (along with quite a few other plays of Hurston's). So last night I decided to take a lil' break from Saramago's Baltasar and Blimunda (a gorgeous book but it's like a sumptuous dessert: fabulous but almost too rich, it gets a little overwhelming) and see about these short plays. I read one called Poker! which was aight, extremely short and kind of amusing (the basic gist is: everybody cheats) but not especially satisfying, and then started this one, which I got totally sucked into... only to discover this morning that the amazon version is incomplete. Gah! Thankfully, it turned out the library here has it (and several other Hurston books, which I promptly loaded up on), so I was in fact able to finish it today. Actually, the print version has the added bonus of also having the original short story it's based on (I skipped it; it's in a short story collection of hers I'm planning on reading soon anyhow), an intro by Henry Louis Gates Jr (skimmed, meh), the story of the 'controversy' surrounding the play, and the complete correspondence associated with it. That last bit turned out to be really interesting, especially the correspondence. There's a lot to be said here about the vague misogyny Hurston was subjected to, which is entirely separate from the fact that she did seem to be a little bit, erm, "difficult." It's unfortunate, how things went down with this play (it basically ended Hurston and Hughes' friendship), and it's kind of fascinating to learn about all the crazy politics and drama that went into the situation (and gives you a really powerful look at the kinds of difficulties African American authors were dealing with at the time), but ultimately, the most interesting aspect of the book is the play itself.

Which is great. And really brings home the Synge comparison I mentioned before. This isn't Playboy of the Western World, but it practically begs to be compared to it. It's a similar kind of ethnography-turned-literature work, with a similar humor and beauty, and a similar set of problems in terms of how it presents its own people in ways that arguably compound harmful stereotypes, etc. Perhaps the most delightful example is this exchange in a scene in the courthouse:

HAMBO: (frowns across the aisle at MRS. LUCAS, who is standing)  Whut you doing standing up for a witness? I know you wuzn't there.

SISTER LUCAS: I got just as much right to testify as you is. I don't keer if I wasn't there. Any man that treats they wife bad as you can't tell nobody else they eye is black. You clean round yo' own door before you go sweeping round other folks. (pg 116)

The whole courthouse scene is riotously funny, and subtly brings up various questions about institutionalized justice versus local law. But it could also be seen as a negative stereotype, a bunch of lawless barbarians, etc - just like the characters in Synge. The fact that The Mule Bone was explicitly written as part of a project to develop African American theater, and especially comedy, makes the Synge question even more interesting, I think. I don't remember if Luke mentioned any explicit links/influence, I should ask him about that. Point being, there is an article to be written on the topic. Someday, perhaps, I will write it, if no one else (more qualified) has by then.

Anyhow! The play is really clever and entertaining. It's the story of 2 guys, Jim and Dave, best friends until a woman, Daisy, threatens to come between them. They get into a fight, Jim clocks Dave in the face with a mule bone, and the local townsfolk put Jim on trial. There's also an underlying tension in the story between the Baptists and Methodists in the town, which is milked for extra humor value. It's a simple story, but a highly satisfying one.

The real star of the play though, is the language. While Hughes was apparently responsible for plotting and structuring the play, Hurston's job was to craft the dialogue and give it that local flavor. And it's fantastic. The insults are especially wonderful, but the love language is pretty gorgeous too ("I'd buy you a great big ole ship... and then, baby, I'd buy you a ocean to sail yo' ship on." (145)). It takes the play from simple story to work of art, and a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. Definitely recommended.


Patrick Murtha said...

I adore Zora, too - she is a continual inspiration. If you haven't read Valerie Boyd's biography of her, "Wrapped in Rainbows," you really must treat yourself; it's tremendous.

culture_vulture said...

Thanks, I'll look for it!

Black Irish Girl said...

Are you still working on this project?

culture_vulture said...

No official project thus far, just the pleasure of reading

Black Irish Girl said...

Oh. Ok. I am doing a project comparing Hurston and Synge, which is why I ask. Happy Reading!

culture_vulture said...

I'm a lit professor, but I've got enough on my plate for the time being working on a book on the Gothic and another project on Polish and Irish literature. I'd love to read whatever you come up with though.
You should definitely talk to Luke Gibbons though -- he's a NUI Maynooth. Send him an email and tell him Kasia from the Irish Seminar told you to. He's given a few lectures on the topic, and probably has some good reading recs. also, he's a wonderful person.