Another obscure Pulitzer Prize-winning play

Continuing my lackadaisical progress through Pulitzer Prize-winners of the past, hit Hell-bent Fer Heaven by Hatcher Hughes. As the “fer” in the title suggests, this is a play written in dialect about hill people in the South (reportedly based on a branch of Hughes’s family). And yes, it is troublesome to plow through the dialect. It reminds me that Shaw wrote the first few speeches of Eliza in Pygmalion in dialect and then tossed in a stage direction writing, “Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London.” After that, Eliza’s lines are written in plain English and he trusts to the actress to supply the accent. I wish Hughes had done so. For that matter, there are significant corners of our literary history that could do without this cutesy attempt to replicate accents and mispronunciations. It’s usually hard to decipher and almost always comes off as condescending.

Anyway, Hell-bent Fer Heaven is a kind of hillbilly Tartuffe. A religious hysteric named Rufe, believing that God justifies anything he wants or does, tries to steal his brother Sid’s fiancee and get the brother killed by an easily-manipulated lunkhead. It depends on everybody around him being incredibly gullible or stupid. Why this was chosen by Columbia University for the Pulitzer over The Show-Off by George Kelly, who knows. Unless the fact that Hatcher Hughes was teaching at Columbia at the time. Nah, that’s way too cynical.

If you’re willing to accept that everybody onstage is dumb and you can put up with the dialect, you might see how the play could hold the stage in an exuberantly crude way. It helps that there’s a rattling thunderstorm, a dam blown up by dynamite and flooding on a Noah scale happening in counterpoint. And I suppose a story of evil done in the name of religion always has relevance. Even now, you think?

Bit of trivia: George Abbott played Sid, the good brother, in this on Broadway, sometime before he established himself as a director-writer. Apparently it was made into a silent movie, though I haven’t found it yet. Given that the silent film of Miss Lulu Bett was pretty good, I’d be curious.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at dgsweet@aol.com.
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