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Reactions of a "highly-strung girl": psychology and dramatic representation in Angelina W. Grimke's 'Rachel.' (Women's Culture Issue)

Grimke's Rachel is a play that is frequently credited with historical significance but which has rarely, since its first performances and publication, been the subject of extensive or individual critical analysis. With few exceptions, the more recent tendency has been to situate and consider the play within some larger context. the development of black playwriting in America, the tradition of dramatic writing established by a number of black female playwrights in the early century, or Grimke's literary career as seen in its overall perspective or in relation to other writing of the Harlem Renaissance. As a result, there is surprisingly little current criticism that focuses exclusively on Rachel's own particular theatrical identity or upon what Grimke has wrought in purely dramaturgical terms. Part of the reason for this may arise from the play's relative unfamiliarity, or from perceptions concerning aspects of Grimke's dramatic style, which has often been rather apologetically characterized as romantic, Victorian, or sentimental.(1) Despite the possible legitimacy of such reservations, however, what Grimke has created in this first play of hers is an extraordinarily complex title character. Rachel is a figure of considerable psychological intricacy and emotional volatility, and these are factors that continually complicate and enrich the larger drama and provide many of the play's interactions with an arresting, unusual, and highly charged dramatic tension.

Of Rachel's historical importance there can be little doubt. Produced in March of 1916 by the Drama Committee of the NAACP in Washington D.C., it was, according to Locke and Gregory, "apparently the first successful drama written by a Negro and interpreted by Negro actors" (414)--an assertion that has been qualified in certain ways by later critics.(2) Moreover, the play was a first in terms of its deliberate program and platform. The playbill for its premiere production contained the following message: "This is the first attempt to use the stage for race propaganda in order to enlighten the American people relative to the lamentable condition of the ten million of colored citizens in this free Republic" (qtd. in Hull 117). As Hatch and Shine report, the play was immediately controversial, even among members of the Drama Committee, some of whom favored a more "artistic" approach over deliberate propaganda; the play's black audience was also divided in its response (137).(3) Such controversy apparently intensified in the aftermath of subsequent productions (in 1917), and especially following the publication of the play in 1920. Kathy Perkins writes that Rachel's publication "drew a large number of reviews that were primarily favorable. However, there were those critics who charged Rachel with advocating genocide" (9).

Responding to criticisms of the play, Grimke clarified her own ambitions for the work, defined the audience she hoped to reach with it, and denied that it "preaches race suicide."(4) In an article in the January 1920 issue of The Competitor, the author provided significant clues about the "nature" of her title character and also about the particular "purpose" that her play would address:

Because of environment and certain

inherent qualities each of us reacts

correspondingly and logically to the

various forces about us. For example, if

these forces be of love we react with

love, and if of hate with hate.... Now

the colored people in this country form

what may be called the "submerged

tenth." From morning until night,

week in week out, year in year out,

until death ends all they never know

what it means to draw one clean, deep

breath free from the contamination of

the poison of that enveloping force

which we call race prejudice.... Now

the purpose was to show how a

refined, sensitive, highly-strung girl, a

dreamer and an idealist, the strongest

instinct in whose nature is a love for

children and a desire some day to be a

mother herself--how this girl would

react to this force. (51-52) Here, then, we have an indication of the central relations the play proposes between Rachel and the "force" of love (as seen, perhaps, in the Loving household), and that of hate and race prejudice also have a key allusion to a fundamental aspect of the play's dramatic configuration: It is to a large extent the reactions of this "highly-strung girl" that Grimke sets out to dramatize.

Let us examine the psychological nature of these reactions, the stresses they exert upon Rachel's character, and the way such reactions are evoked in Grimke's dramaturgy.

The playwright begins with a familiar mise-en-scene and a basic pattern of character and incident that is fairly typical of the time in which Grimke was writing and also of her gender. Perkins indicates that play, by black female writers in the early century often featured domestic situations in which mothers and children were prominent, with the husband either deceased or absent. Such plays were generally set in the home, and often began with the mother character "sewing, cooking, cleaning or praying" (2); the event of a lynching is often significant in the play's action (9-10). True to such conventions, Rachel takes place in the living room of the Lovings' small apartment; as the play begins, Mrs. Loving--who makes her living as a seamstress--is sewing. Her husband is dead, having been lynched, along with her son, exactly ten years earlier "by Christian people--in a Christian land" (21). The action features a number of children, not only Mrs. Loving's own, who are grown, but the little neighborhood girls who look up to Rachel and the little boy Jimmy, who is adopted into the Loving household and relates to Rachel as a mother. Much of the writing, indeed, is concerned with the issue of motherhood, not only through Mrs. Loving's (and also Mrs. Lane's) relationship to her offspring but, more importantly, through Rachel's avowed desire to be a mother herself.

In many ways, however, the play transcends its more familiar setting and configuration of character. In particular, it is Rachel's psychological and emotional constituency, and the force of her reaction to events and interactions, that elevates the play beyond its fundamental patterns and mitigates against its possible sentimentality. According to Helene Keyssar, "The response of [Rachel] to the situations and histories she encounters is anything but facile or maudlin" (227). Indeed, the intensity of Rachel's action arises not so much from its exterior plot as from an interior struggle within its central character's psyche; the primary "drama" in the play is one that is enacted, not between characters, but among severe internal stresses. The play's central conflict, in fact, is not between its people, or even between Rachel and the outside world of racial prejudice; it is rather a battle that this character wages in the arena of religious doubt and faith. Rachel is thematically preoccupied with issues of theodicy, and it is in this context that its main character approaches an authentically tragic identity, as manifested in her direct and impassioned arguments with God.

To look more closely at Rachel's personal history, and at the foundations of her psychological state, it is important to consider the information we are given, non-sequentially in the play's action, about what her early life might have been like, and to examine the implications of such clues. It is not, in fact, until the play is nearly over that we are allowed a key insight into Rachel's background. She has just told her gentleman caller, John Strong, about Jimmy's traumatic response to what happened to him after school ("They chased him through the streets calling him, 'Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!' One boy threw stones at him"), and now she correlates this with her own experience:

... I have seen that look of deadly

fear--in the eyes--of other children. I

know what it is myself.--I was

twelve--when some big boys chased

me and called me names.--I never left

the house afterwards--without being

afraid. I was afraid, in the streets--in

the school--in the church everywhere,

always, afraid of being hurt. And I--was

not--afraid in vain. (94) When we first meet Rachel, at the play's beginning she is eighteen years old. At his point we know nothing of what happened to her when she was twelve, nor have we yet learned of the lynchings that took place ten years prior to this date--October 16. And yet, by way of constituting her psychological background, one might speculate on what the juxtaposition of these two events can suggest.

When Rachel was eight, she lost both her father and older brother, suddenly and inexplicably; she doesn't find out the reason for this loss until ten years later. At age twelve, she experiences a trauma that sends her into hiding, afraid to leave her home for fear of being tormented. And so we wonder what this household refuge may have been like during these years of childhood, adolescence, and early womanhood. Superficially, the Loving family appears to be nurturing; the mother is apparently quite able to sustain the household financially, at least with her son Tom's help, and the relationships among the three family members appear to be close and supportive. Rachel is antic and cheerful in the play's early sequences, and her interactions with Tom are lively, playful, and witty. Their mood is belied, however, by Mrs. Loving's own; she is distracted and somber, especially when Rachel introduces her to Jimmy (who reminds her of her dead son George) and in her general awareness of what this anniversary means to her family. What lies beneath the exterior behavior presented in this household is, in fact, a fearful and insecure psychological world, a realm that is characterized by absence and dread. Rachel is tom between two realities, the external behavior of the household in which she energetically participates and the darker internal world of loss and torment. It is the perpetual tension between these opposing conditions that produces in Rachel a neurotic, and finally hysterical reaction.

She is fixated upon motherhood; ostensibly, she wants to be a mother herself. One must look, however, at the models of motherhood that provide her main points of reference. In Mrs. Loving, we have a woman who--in in Rachel's view, between the ages of eight and eighteen--is simply without a husband. The image that has been presented to Rachel is that of a mother alone, apparently self-sufficient and with no need of a conjugal relationship. But are we to believe that Rachel never questioned the absence of the other parent, or never sensed that her mother was keeping a secret from her children through all of these years? Aside from Mrs. Loving, the other model of motherhood that Rachel refers to is the Blessed Virgin, pictured on the wall of the living room in a reproduction of Raphael's Sistine Madonna. Early in Act I, Rachel "raises her eyes" to this portrait and sings "Mighty Lak a Rose." Finishing the song, she exclaims: "I think the loveliest thing of all the lovely things in the world is just (almost a whisper) being a mother!" (11-12). Soon after this, in the company of her own mother, she reveals her strong personal identification with this second model of motherhood. She tells Mrs. Loving of the dream she had in which "a voice" told her: "Rachel, you are to be a mother to little children." Following this dream, Rachel has "known how Mary felt at the' Annunciation." In a whisper, Rachel says, "God spoke to me through some one, and I believe" (12). Here is our first clue, not only to the way in which Rachel deals with a variety of models of motherhood (including a projection of herself as mother), but to her sense of the will of a God who participates directly in her life. Significantly, there is also evidence in this sequence of one of Rachel's more deep-seated "reactions": a tendency toward role-identification self-aggrandizement that marks her behavior throughout the play.

Despite the apparently comfortable and inviting qualities of the Loving household, one quickly discerns that this is an extremely insular environment. Its inhabitants have turned in upon themselves in retreat from the hostility of the world outside. Mrs. Loving rarely goes out, as we discover in Rachel's first scene with John Strong:

... when you're poor, you

have to live in a top flat. There

is always a compensation,

though; we have bully--I

mean nice air, better light, a

lovely view, and nobody

"thud-thudding" up and

down over our heads night

and day. The people below

have our "thud-thudding,"

and it must be something

awful, especially when Tom

and I play "Ivanhoe" and have a tournament

up here. We're entirely too

old, but we still play. Ma dear rather

dreads the climb up three flights, so

Tom and I do all the errands. (7) That Rachel and Tom have chosen Ivanhoe as a source of play might be seen as an effort on their part to deal with matters of prejudice--and also religion--through means of fantasy and role-playing, at once enacting and distancing themselves from the real prejudices that both of them confront. Did Rachel play the role of Rebecca, the condemned Jewess who is to be burned but is instead saved by Ivanhoe? If so, then Rebecca (whose mother's name is Rachel) might be construed as yet another model for role-identification: She ultimately decides to devote her life to God and good works, never to marry or have children.

On Rachel's choice of character in Ivanhoe one can only speculate. Yet her allusion to the games that she and her nineteen-year-old brother play, though "entirely too old," is critical to our understanding of this family's inward-turning retreat from a hostile exterior world. It is not only Ivanhoe that Rachel and Tom enact in this apartment; their ongoing interplay is a charade of safety and respectability. Their exaggerated, courtly dialogue with each other ("May T. Loving be of any service to you?" [37]) is an attempt to create a shared image of a desirable and attainable reality, an effort to offset the rejection that they continually experience outside of the household.

Rachel has, in fact, constructed a complex fantasy life which has allowed her, at least through adolescence, to maintain a degree of equilibrium. But it is a fantasy that is not at all congruent with outside realities, or with her developing womanhood. Her images of what life is supposed to be--a peculiar amalgam of her mother fixation, her own mother's lack of a husband, her relationship to the Madonna, her charades with Tom--cannot finally withstand either the social realities that she is awakening to or the energetic courtship of John Strong. The illusions that she has intricately constructed for herself within this household refuge must inevitably be shattered. Rachel seems to know this intuitively from early in the play's action, and yet she continues to struggle determinedly with a series of self-contradictory impulses.(5) She cannot reconcile a loving God with her own treatment or that of "colored" people; she cannot make her own desire for motherhood congruent with her models of fatherless conception; she cannot, finally, make peace with her life-giving instinct in the face of a stronger impulse to destroy rather than "torture." These powerful conflicts are manifest in a suppressed hysteria from the play's outset, and they lead inexorably toward Rachel's breakdown at the end of the action, and toward her hint at suicide.

Let us now examine the way in which this progression develops, and how the reactions of this "highly-strung girl" are intensified. Toward the play's end, after Rachel has crushed the roses sent to her by John Strong and then fallen unconscious to the floor, Mrs. Loving has a scene with Strong in which she describes the way that Rachel has behaved since this event. She tells him: "Tom and I believe her soul has been hurt. The trouble isn't with her body. You'll find her highly nervous. Sometimes she is very much depressed; again she is feverishly gay, almost reckless" (84). In saying this, Mrs. Loving means to characterize Rachel's recent behavior, but the truth is that Rachel has been exactly like this throughout the play's action--and perhaps for longer than that. Her "soul has been hurt" at least since she was twelve, if not since the age of eight when she lost both her father and brother. Her behavior from the play's opening moments continually vacillates between episodes of nervousness (as she is with Strong in Act I), forced gaiety (of the sort that we see around the dinner table, in her interplay with Tom and her mother), and sudden, intense sobriety--as when she accuses Mrs. Loving of laughing at God. Rachel has just finished singing "Mighty Lak a Rose," and has confessed her feelings about motherhood, when the exchange continues:

Mrs. Loving (Turns and laughs):

Well, of all the startling children,

Rachel! I am getting to feel, when

you're around as though I'm shut up

with dynamite. What next? (Rachel

rises, goes slowly to her mother, and

kneels down beside her. She does

not touch her mother.) Why so serious,


Rachel (Slowly and quietly): It is

not kind to laugh at sacred things.

When you laughed, it was as

thou you laughed--at God!

Mrs. Loving (Startled): Rachel!

Rachel (Still quietly): It's true. It was

the best in me that said that--it was

God! (12) Here Mrs. Loving has inadvertently, yet quite accurately, characterized her daughter's condition; living in this insular household with Rachel, she is indeed "shut up with dynamite." Rachel continually fluctuates between explosiveness and introspective sobriety. When she tells her mother about meeting little Jimmy, she proclaims, "I nearly hugged him to death, and it's a wonder my hat is still on my head" (5).

Moments later, when Strong comes in, Rachel is "manifestly in at ease at being left alone with a stranger, attempting however to be the polite hostess" (6). Just before he leaves the apartment, there is a cryptic exchange which follows immediately upon her reference to Ivanhoe:

Rachel: ... I've got to grow up it


Strong (Evidently amused): It is

rather hard being a girl, isn't it?

Rachel: Oh, no! It's riot hard at all.

That's the trouble; they won't let me

be a girl. I'd love to be. (7-8) In the first act, Rachel is no longer the adolescent she was when she was taunted by "some big boys," nor is she the twenty-two-year-old woman we encounter in Act II. Here she can still maintain a naivete, still be "a girl," even if her efforts seem forced at times. On the issue of racial prejudice, though, she has fewer illusions. When Mrs. Loving tells her about Strong's background, and the reasons for his work as a waiter, Rachel says: "Just because he is colored! (Pause.) We sing a song at school, I believe, about 'The land of the free and the home of the brave.' What an amusing nation it is" 9).

Rachel has developed a complex anxiety about growing up in this "amusing nation." Although she has yet to reach her later conclusion, that to kill black babies would be a mercy, she is still deeply ambivalent about becoming an adult. In one sense, she has a strong feeling for her own messianic mission, as revealed in the "Annunciation" dream. Yet at the same time she muses, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could keep all the babies in the world--always little babies" (10)? She has postponed her own growing up as long as possible; later on, she will deny herself the possibility of biological motherhood. In the first act, though, she is simply confused about her relationship to a complex ideal of motherhood. After accusing her mother of laughing at God, she says:

.. I pray God every night to give me,

when I grow up, little black and brown

babies--to protect and guard.

(Wistfully.) Now, Ma, dear, don't you

see why you must never laugh at me

again? Dear, dear, Ma, dear? (Buries

her face in her mother's lap and sobs.)

(13) Did her mother laugh at her or at God--or at God within her? There is a profound confusion in this character, arising from her relationship to her own mother, her attachment to the Madonna and her memory of the "Annunciation" dream, her aggrandized self-image, and her apparent conviction that it is up to God--not a man--to bring her babies once she "grows up." Rachel is already grown up, but since she cannot begin to untangle her filial and religious allegiances, or discern between her human self and her divine mission, or reconcile her mandate to be a mother with becoming one sexually, she can only insist on remaining a child, sobbing in her mother's lap.

The encounter between the two of them that ends the first act brings this confusion to a climax. Rachel that Jimmy, when he grows up, might well meet the same fate as George, the older brother who was lynched. The nation where such things can happen is no longer "amusing":

Why--it would be more merciful--to

strangle the little things at birth

And so this nation--this white

Christian nation--has deliberately

set its curse upon the most holy

thing in life--motherhood. Why--it-makes--you


Mrs. Loving: Oh, hugh! little girl


Rachel (Suddenly with a great cry):

Why, Ma dear, you know. You were a

mother, George's mother So, this is

what it means. Oh, Ma dear! Ma

dear! (Faints in her mother's arms.)


In the second act, Grimke creates the impression of a tragically fateful series of events. By a curious and highly selective visitation of smallpox upon the apartment building, little Jimmy has lost both parents and come to live with the Lovings. "Ma Rachel" is now the mother figure to the child who will be the agent in bringing back the memory of her childhood trauma. Mrs. Loving wonders if "perhaps, God--hasn't relented a little--and given me back my boy, my George" (35).

It is four years later (Rachel is now twenty-two) and the games played by Rachel and Tom have evolved into a charade of parenthood. Their relationship has an incestuous quality, hinted at in Act I when Rachel chases Tom around the dinner table trying to kiss him, and then again in Act II when it is Tom who kisses her, with exaggerated courtly formality: "May I request, humbly, that before I press my chaste, morning salute upon your forbidding lips, that you--that you--that you--er--in some way rid yourself of that--er--knife?" (37). Jimmy refers to him as "Uncle Tom," but it is clear from their play-acting and breakfast table discourse that Tom has taken over father role with respect to the boy, complementing the mother role that dates to Rachel's first meeting with him. The game of "Ivanhoe" has developed into a game of marriage, and yet the purpose behind the play-acting hasn't substantially changed. The game is still designed to bond Rachel and Tom close together in a protected world that is their joint creation.

In spite of their achievements--Tom is an "electrical engineer" and Rachel is a "graduate in Domestic Science"--they still cannot find a place in the exterior world, and so they remain faithful to the illusions that can only be nurtured, albeit with increasing difficulty, in the insular world of the top-floor apartment. For Tom, as for Rachel, this prompts a questioning of "God's justice." Mrs. Loving urges him not to lose faith, but then she concludes: "Each one, I suppose, has to work out his own salvation" (42). As the remainder of the play's action indicates, finding her "own salvation" is precisely what Rachel can never accomplish.

The possibility for escape, if not salvation, takes the form of John Strong's courtship. He asks Rachel to the theatre, and suggests that if she had "a little more fun in [her] life, [her] point of view would be--more normal" (51). Yet "normal" is exactly what Rachel's point of view can never be. In the rhythm of the play's action here, whenever she allows herself a vision of possible happiness, such illusions are immediately frustrated or destroyed. Following Strong's departure, Rachel has a moment of reverie; she "is lost in a beautiful daydream. Presently she sighs happily, and after looking furtively around the room, lifts the palm John has kissed to her lips" (52). Such moments cannot last, and Rachel's daydream is abruptly interrupted by the arrival of Mrs. Lane and her daughter--"Little, black, crushed Ethel" (59). The experience of yet another black child is fiercely impressed upon Rachel once again, and she sinks back into despondency.

Mrs. Lane: ... We strive and save

and sacrifice to educate them--and

the whole time--down underneath

we know--they'll have no chance.

Rachel (Sadly): Yes, that's true, all

right.--God seems to have forgotten


Mrs. Lane: God! It's all a lie about

God. (58) The play's original title (Blessed Are the Barren) is echoed in what Mrs. Lane tells Rachel: "If I bad another--I'd kill it. It's kinder." She adds, "Don't marry--that's my advice" (58).

By now the play's preoccupation with issues of theodicy has been considerably intensified and complicated, and Rachel's argument with God comes to a climax at the end of Act Il. Rachel despairs as she equates the plight of her own family and little Ethel (59), but then the roses that have been sent to her by John Strong arrive, and once again she enjoys a brief moment of imagined happiness. As she looks at the rosebuds, her "face softens and grows beautiful" (59). She compares the flowers to happy babies, and says: "When--I look--at you--I believe--God is beautiful" (60). But once more the rhythm of the action fatefully cuts short her moment of peace. Jimmy comes home from school, having been called "Nigger" by "some big boys" (61), thereby bringing Rachel's childhood experience directly in line with another child's trauma. Rachel recalls the "Annunciation" dream, and concludes that she was betrayed by God: "Why, God, you were making a mock of me; you were laughing at me. I didn't believe God could laugh at our sufferings, but He can. We are accursed, accursed!" (62-63). The second act ends with a powerfully impassioned address to God:

You God!--You terrible, laughing

God! Listen! I swear--and may my

be damned to all eternity, if I do

break this oath--I swear--that no child

of mine shall ever lie upon my breast,

for I will not have it rise up, in the

terrible days that are to be--and call

me cursed. (63) Rachel too, can laugh, as she does here in a "terrible, racking" manner. Here again we see her in the act, not only of arguing with God, but in elevating herself to a god-like level. If God can laugh, then so can she, if God can destroy, then she can, too. She, like God, will assume power over life and death. She tears the rosebuds from their stems, thereby killing her imagined happy babies, and cries: "If I kill, You Mighty God, I kill at once--I do not torture" (63).

In Act III, Grimke continues to use the motif of laughter as a reflection of mockery and desperation as well as happiness. In a lengthy story, Rachel tells Jimmy of a "Land of Laughter," where it is indeed possible to find happiness, but as the act develops we see that Rachel's own pained laughter will take her to another of the story's realms--the "Land of Sacrifice."

Rachel is caught, in the third act, in a state of extreme tension that arises not only from her arguments with God but from the divergent demands of Jimmy and John Strong--forces that she can find no way of reconciling. The physical signs of her suffering are quite apparent: Mrs. Loving refers to "her face pale and haggard" with "black hollows" under the eyes (78), and she tells Tom that when Rachel comes out of Jimmy's room, after trying to still his crying, "her face is like a dead woman's" (79). Following his trauma, Jimmy cries continually at night, and Rachel is unable to console him. At the same time, she is unable to deal with Strong's courtship. When they are alone in the apartment together, Rachel attempts to fall back on the kind of charade she plays out with Tom, this time by enacting what she imagines is expected of a young lady with a "gentleman caller." He pushes his case further, refusing to be dissuaded by her evasions, she, in her role as "hostess," goes to the piano and sings. When he takes her in his arms and "kisses her many times," she "breaks suddenly into convulsive laughter" (90).

Here again we see Rachel's own confused and tortured journey to the "Land of Laughter." In this moment, when there is overt sexual contact with a man, a man who intends to marry her and who could father her children, Rachel retreats immediately into a mocking laughter which she then connects not with the sexual male but with God: "God is laughing.--We're his puppets.--He pulls the wires,--and we're so funny to Him.--I'm laughing too--because I can hearmy little children--weeping" (91). In spite of her efforts to duplicate what she feels is God's laughter, she does not, after all have god-like power; she cannot still the cries of children that she now hears in the night, in nightmarish contrast to the "Annunciation" dream.

When Strong holds out the possibility of another insular apartment, where they could live together as man and wife, she is temporarily enchanted with the idea. Yet once again, the play's fateful pattern is enacted, her moment of imagined happiness is sharply interrupted by Jimmy's crying, and she refuses Strong's proposal. Jimmy's soul has been "bruised" (94), just as hers has been "hurt," and she has no recourse but to attend the weeping child. And yet, as the play ends, we may wonder how long Rachel will continue her role as Jimmy's mother. In the final scene with Strong, she alludes to her own death, and we are led to believe that suicide, not marriage, may well be Rachel's way out of these circumstances, the only escape possible from the cries that haunt her soul. The song she sings for Strong at the piano ends with lyrics that she hopes he will remember:

The roses of white are sere,

All faded the roses red,

And one who loves me is not here

And one that I love is dead. (90)

In light of the complexity with which Rachel's character is drawn, and considering the intensity of her expression, it is perhaps fair to consider the extent to which Grimke has brought aspects of her own experience to this portrayal. As Gloria Hull puts it, "A provocative question that Rachel's characterization raises is the degree to which she may be autobiographical." Hull points to the fact that Grimke herself "made an early decision not to many and have children" and mentions a "disastrous love affair" that may have had a bearing on this choice (124). Grimke's own mother, who was white, separated from the family when her daughter was very young; Grimke was raised by her father, with whom she apparently had an unusually close and binding relationship. Parallels can no doubt be imagined, psychologically, between the black woman who loses her white mother at an early age and the character she creates who fervently wants to be mother to "little black and brown babies" (13). One might speculate, as well, on the relation between Grimke's lesbianism and her title character's rejection of both her male suitor and the possibility of biological motherhood.(6)

Such considerations, however, are finally subordinate to what Grimke has wrought in her portrayal of Rachel, and to the precise form that her "propaganda" takes in this play. Rachel is more than a protest against lynching, more than an outcry against prejudice, more even than a deliberately fashioned portrait of the "lamentable conditions" of "colored citizens." What takes this drama beyond the level of its overt purpose and content, and raises it well above its possibly sentimental or melodramatic qualities, is Grimke's dramatization of the progressive destruction of a "hurt soul," the disintegration of a complex and contradictory character whose outcries must ultimately be directed, not only at white society, but at God. Rachel's point of view on racial hatred is directly stated at the play's end: "We are all blighted, we are all accursed--all of us--everywhere, we whose skins are dark--our lives blasted by the white man's prejudice" (93). The way in which Grimke has chosen to dramatize such a blight, however, is neither straightforward nor easily fathomed.

Grimke's drama, at its most potent, is located in the psychological effects of racism upon the development of a single personality, from early childhood to barren womanhood, and in the impossible circumstances in which this character must inevitably find herself at the end of her fated journey. Grimke's strategy in Rachel is to create a dramatic situation with ever-narrowing possibilities, a tragic series of developments that, taken together with the particular constituency of Rachel's character, can only lead to a solitary confrontation with divine will. Rachel's belittlement at the hands of schoolmates at age twelve sends her into retreat within the family, and then into a world of fantasy where she can only act out scenarios of happiness or romance--or normalcy--with her brother. She and Tom, unable to grow up and join society, can only grow more and more insulated in this world of retreat, finally enacting the roles of mother and father to Jimmy, who, like Rachel before him, will in his own turn be "accursed."

The role of biological mother is one that Rachel cannot play. There is no place for a sexual male in her scenario of motherhood, she can only imagine motherhood in light of her own mother's solitary life, the Virgin Mary, or the message of the "Annunciation" dream, which said that she would be mother "to" instead of mother "of" the little children. Indeed, Rachel's confusion over motherhood, brought about perhaps by the secret of her father's disappearance and her own mother's inability to "protect and guard" her in the outside world, has led her to the opposite of the belittlement to which she was subjected to as a small child. What Rachel exhibits, finally, is a personal grandiosity that is her only form of compensation or retaliation for what has befallen her.

Rachel can arrive at no coherent sense of selfhood that allows for God, sexual desire, and motherhood--and racial prejudice. The equation will not work, no matter how she configures it. Her response to prejudice is at first confusion, then a suppressed hysteria, and finally an image of self that borders on megalomania. Her invented, grandiose self can not only play "Ivanhoe" and other courtly games with her "chaste" brother, but can equate itself with the Madonna and enter into argument with the deity. Rachel's is a tragic pride that is born of hatred; it emerges directly from an experience of early girlhood, only to expand its reach in doomed womanhood. It is Grimke's achievement to have fully dramatized the degradation and also the aggrandizement, and to have given birth to a character who is so tragically stranded that she can only find discourse with another child "accursed" like herself--or with God.


(1.) For example, Hatch and Shine refer to "a concession the modern reader must make: acceptance of the sentimental style.... Miss Grimke is writing with true feeling, but the four wars since the writing make her tender feelings seem Victorian and precious" (138). Brown-Guillory writes that, "A contemporary audience might find the sentimentality in Rachel objectionable, but one must bear in mind that Grimke was born in 1880 and grew up with Victorian influences" (6). (2.) Locke and Gregory's use of the word successful as a modifier already qualifies their statement in certain ways. Hatch and Shine observe that, "Some critics have said that, Rachel is the first pla to be written by a black that was publicly performed by black actors. This is true only if musicals ignored--and Mr. Brown's King Shotaway of 1823 is disregarded" (137). Kathy Perkins refers to "the first twentieth century full-length play written, performed, and produced by blacks--Rachel" (8 (3.) On the issue of the "artistic" versus propagandistic intention, Hatch and Shine quote from Locke and Gregory: "A minority section of (the Drama Committee) dissented from this propagandist platform and were instrumental later in founding the Howard Players organization, promoting the purely artistic approach and the folk-drama idea" (414). (4.) Grimke begins her article in The Competitor as follows: "Since it has been understood that |Rachel' preaches race suicide, I would emphasize that that was not my intention. To the contrary, the appeal is not primarily to the colored people, but to the whites" (51). (5.) For a contrasting view of what I call the "contradictory" elements in Rachel's character, see Helene Keyssar's discussion, in which she describes the character's "double existence as woman and black person," Rachel's "hybrid self," and her "polyphonous voice" (228). (6.) Hull specifically relates Grimke's sexuality to her literary work, especially her poetry, notin that Grimke's "poetic themes of sadness and void, longing and frustration ... relate directly to Grimke's convoluted life and thwarted sexuality," and drawing a "connection between [Grimke's] lesbi and the slimness of her creative output" (145). Hull also comments on Grimke's ties to her father, with whom she had an "extremely close relationship." In Hull's words, "Lacking lovers, husba her own family, these these grew into an unhealthy, lifetime dependency" (149).

Work Cited

Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. Their Place on the Stage. Black Women Playwrights in America. Westport: Greenwood, 1988. Grimke, Angelina W. Rachel. 1920. College Park: McGrath, 1969. --. "Rachel: The Play of the Month--The Reason and Synopsis by the Author." Competitor Jan. 1920: 51-52. Hatch, James V., and Ted Shine, eds. Black Theater, U.S.A.: Forty-Five Plays by Black Americans, 1847-1974. New York: Free, 1974. Hull, Gloria T. Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Keyssar, Helene. "Rites and Responsibilities: The Drama of Black American Women." Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights. Ed. Enoch Brater. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. 226-40. Locke, Alain and Montgomery Gregory, eds. Plays of Negro Life: A Source-Book of Native American Drama. New York: Harper, 1927. Perkins, Kathy A., ed. with intro. Black Female Playwrights: An Anthology of Plays Before 1950. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

William Storm is completing his doctoral studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His dissertation, "The Face of the Tragic," proposes a theory of relationships among dramatist characterization pattern, and the cosmos of tragedy.
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Author:Storm, William
Publication:African American Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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