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“Tell Everybody I’m Alive”

November, 2009
By Roy Meador

Pablo Picasso insisted, “The important thing is to create. Nothing else matters. Creation is all.” Maybe so, but it’s no secret that Picasso after “creating” insisted on full credit for his achievement and, let’s not mince words, substantial compensation.

Seems only fair that while appreciating the creation, we should honor, or at least know, the creator. Too many writers and artists create away and then blush unseen as others harvest much of the credit and renumeration for their original work. Maybe we can do something here to set the record straight and to pursue a little creative justice for a significant American playwright and poet whose characters are certainly immortal even if he isn’t. His name, Lynn Riggs.

He is indispensably associated with a dramatized story that bears every earmark of perpetual literary immortality. The story’s best known incarnation may set you humming: Oklahoma! Riggs a dozen years earlier than the justly celebrated musical provided all the story, all the characters, much of the dialogue, alternative songs, and a better title, Green Grow the Lilacs.

The same as Paul Green who dramatized the local color, character, pageantry, and scars of the American South, Lynn Riggs is called a regionalist, his region the Southwest. That shouldn’t be construed as a put-down or denigration. What major American dramatist hasn’t been at least in part a regionalist. J. Frank Dobie argued, “The writer is a part of the parcel of land about which he writes.”

So what else might a writer know better. Lynn Riggs focused with the steady gaze of a poet on the American Southwest and wrote play after play about his region and its people, their fortitude, optimism, humor, foibles, and cruelities. His plays emerged as grim chronicles about harsh life on an untamed frontier. They allow us to laugh while sharing the struggles of those who persevere, and just as often they make us flinch in the face of brutal inhumanity and consuming tragedy.

Lynn Riggs interests me in part, I suppose, because we share an Oklahoma pioneer background, he directly and me through my parents and grandparents. Rollie Lynn Riggs was born August 31, 1899 in Oklahoma Territory, also known as Indian Territory. His mother was one-eighth Cherokee. Her son memorably depicted the fate of the Cherokee Nation in a seven-scene play, The Cherokee Night, staged in New York by the Federal Theatre and once cited by the author as his personal favorite among his many plays.

Theatre work made Riggs in his later years a New York resident, although Franklin P. Adams called him a “first-rate writer...whom New York seems to be unable to spoil.” Riggs had experienced Manhattan much earlier as a teenager. After his 1917 graduation from preparatory school at Claremore, Oklahoma (whose other favorite son was Will Rogers), Riggs punched cattle. A cattle train took him to Chicago, and he continued east to look in on New York where he worked as an extra in silent western movies, proofread for the Wall Street Journal, and sold books at Macy’s. Making movies in New York made him curious about Hollywood. He rode there “gratis and illegally” on a freight train where his cowboy skills and affinity for the back of a horse got him more work as an extra in films. Yet what he really wanted to do was write, which indicated the need for more education.

Turning back to me, two of my grandparents made the famous, some might say notorious, “Run” into Oklahoma to claim a homestead. All four of my grandparents were pioneer settlers there long before Indian Territory became a state in 1907, a state which would name the mistletoe its flower, the scissor-tailed flycatcher its bird, the redbud its tree, “Oklahoma” its song, a state with a proud history of being bone “Dry” longer than most states thanks to the influence of the Bible and the bootleggers. My father was born at the end of the 19th century in the Territory eleven months and a few miles from where Lynn Riggs was born.

Maybe I harbor some regional, environmental, mystical, genetic resentment that two city boys, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, got the lion’s share of the credit, not to mention the royalties, for translating Green Grow the Lilacs into the legendary, iconic musical drama Oklahoma!, arguably the most popular and frequently staged musical show of all time. Playbills for Oklahoma! Productions usually say “Based on Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs” but in small type. Take away Lynn Riggs’ people and dialogue, and what’s left, a little bouncy music, dances, and a few lyrics about fringed-top surreys and the like, that’s what. Big deal.

Justice cries out that story is the beginning, that story is crucial. The story of Oklahoma! Certainly came from the inspired son of pioneers, not from New York City tunesmith geniuses, great though they were. Heck, I love the songs myself, and one of the lyrics even includes me. A friend who attended a performance the second week of the original Broadway run in 1945 told me the start of Oklahoma! Always brings me to mind when cowboy Curly sings, “Ther’s a bright, golden haze on the Meador.” The Oklahoma! Story was both lived and recorded by a writer who died young in New York City at 54, whose folk plays are still staged worldwide, and who is unfairly a lot more forgotten than remembered.

When I attended high school in the small Oklahoma town of Clinton, I didn’t keep it a secret that my quixotic plan was to write for a living, whenever the vast, word-famished public would let me write. To prove I had a fighting chance of avoiding starvation, I submited manuscripts to the Scholastic Magazine annual competition for high school writers and in 1947 won a “Third Prize Literary Article” award. I was on my way!

More encouragement came that year when the Clinton Literary Department of the Allied Arts Club gave me a book as an award for creative writing. I still have the book, Writing Non-fiction, by Walter S. Campbell, well-known as a western historian (The Old Santa Fe Trail, Mountain Men, etc.) using the pen name Stanley Vestal. As Campbell he was a Professor of English and Director of Writing Courses at the University of Oklahoma. He dedicated the book I received to “My Pupils in Professional Writing.” One of his star pupils, who became a close friend of the professor, was Lynn Riggs.

Lynn Riggs entered the University of Oklahoma in 1920. He washed dishes for room and board and began impressing students and teachers with his gifts for poetry and prose. He edited the campus literary magazine and became a star contributor to the humor magazine Whirlwind. In 1922 a check for $15 dollars from H.L. Mencken for poetry published in Smart Set launched him as a professional writer. A lifelong aficionado of the guitar and western folk songs, he was also second tenor in the “Sooner Singers” which toured America on the Chautauqua circuit. A fellow Sooner Singer recalled, “As soon as we got to a town, Lynn would head for the book store and spent all his spare time browsing.” One of us!

Before he graduated, consumption struck the young writer. His friends Walter Campbell and poet Witter Bynner suggested he go to Santa Fe to recover his health. He went there at 24 fearing he was leaving Oklahoma to die in New Mexico. He didn’t, and later he realized that he actually learned how to live and to write at Santa Fe where he emerged in time as a prominent member of the writer’s and artist’s colony there in the 1920s. For a long period as a penniless poet he lived on one side of a chicken house and tended the chickens to pay his rent. In November 1923 he wrote Campbell that he was working as a laborer to build an adobe house, described his growing interest in Robert Frost and Willa Cather, and poignantly ended his letter, “Tell everybody I’m alive.”

Following the pattern of many other writers—Thomas Wolfe for one—who departed their homelands and then looked back nostalgically to write about them, Lynn Riggs became an empathetic spokesman for the people and culture of the Southwest writing about them at a distance. His first play to receive a New York production was a tragedy about two doomed adolescents, Big Lake, written while he taught English in Chicago. The play was staged in 1927 by the theatre eminences Maria Ouspenskaya and Richard Boleslawski, distinguished alumni of the Moscow Art Theatre.

Play after play followed. He wrote A Lantern to See By in a cramped New York City room with “elevated rumbles and the screaming of Italian children in Washington Square.” He wrote plays at Provincetown and at Yaddo, the famous retreat for artists subsidized by the Trask family on their Saratoga Springs estate. At Yaddo in 1927 he began Borned in Texas, also titled Roadside, “a romance of the roads...of the folk who travel the roads in ramshackle wagons through Oklahoma, stopping at night by a stream, stealing roasting ears and young chickens.” In a 1927 letter, he wondered if Oklahomans would be irate “when my plays are published—in all their fever and horror and brashness and lewdness and all the things that accumulate and throw their shadows over the inner gentility and fragility which is at their core.”

Borned in Texas dealt humorously and touchingly as well with a theme which would appear often in Riggs’ plays, the passing of the frontier, the end of the time when freedom and recklessness were commonplace and viewed with equanimity, the triumph of “barbed wire” and the settled way of life. Another play he began shaping at Yaddo was The Lonesome West, “a play such as America has never seen—an epic of frustration that follows pioneering...I’ll probably go mad—but I’ll finish it.” The play was autobiographical in that it was set in an isolated Oklahoma farmhouse and featured a domineering step-mother, similar to the one Riggs had known as a child. Another Yaddo project for Riggs was compiling an anthology including both words and music of the western folk songs he loved.

At New York’s Fraternity Club he wrote The Domino Parlor about a men’s center in a dry Oklahoma town “God and the oil boom forgot.” The play was put into production by the Shuberts with Irene Fenwick, Mrs. Lionel Barrymore, as the lead for an out-of-town opening in Newark. Then Riggs displayed his integrity and independence by refusing to allow changes the Shuberts insisted on for New York. He thought the changes falsified his characters and said no, which must have astonished the imperious Shuberts. To Riggs authenticity mattered more than seeing his play on a Midtown stage.

His book of poems, The Iron Dish, mainly inspired by his time in New Mexico, was published by Doubleday-Doran in 1930. Find a copy and you deserve a prize for tracking down the consummately elusive. Green Grow the Lilacs, his six-act play that others fiddled with and made famous under another name, was written in France on a Guggenheim grant and published by Samuel French in 1930. That first edition is another for the don’t-hold-your-breath-till-you-get-a-copy list.

A Guggenheim Fellowship of $2,500 for one year was granted to Riggs in March 1928, making him the first Guggenheim Fellow from Oklahoma. His application indicated he would pursue “creative writing in drama and study of the European theatre.” In July 1928 he sailed for Europe. There he went to plays, took notes, found Paris theatre “dreadful,” and worked on a new play at 12 Rue Kepler in Paris. Paris’s damp winter chill got him down to the point where he said in a letter, “I’ve decided I’m no good, and that I might as well jump in the river.”

He was unusually reflective about his writing in Paris and another letter noted that in his plays he sought “a germ of light, a germ of poetry about a dark and sometimes fierce and nearly always ignorant people.” He added the people he knew were made special and distinct by “the quality of their taciturnity.” Those who settled Oklahoma were “a suspect fraternity...Men disdainful of the settled, the admired, the regular ways of life. Men on the move. Men fleeing from a critical world and their own eyes. Pioneers.” He also saw wisdom in the people, gentleness, and “the singing of old songs.” His goal, he said, was “to publish their humanity.”

Parisian gloom melted away in the warm south when he took a room for $2 per day at Cagnes-sur-Mer near the Riviera, seven miles from Nice. Writing in pencil at a table in the small “off-Riviera” room, in memory he revisited his youth and began what would be an immortal drama-romance, Green Grow the Lilacs.

To whoop ti aye ay, git along, you little dogies

Lynn Riggs did not wait for Broadway songwriters to put music in his nostalgic tribute to early-day Oklahoma farmers and cowboys. The play showcased cowboy and folk songs he had heard and sung from childhood. “An Old Song,” he thought could serve as a subtitle. After the play was staged by the Theatre Guild in 1931, Riggs’ publisher Samuel French issued a thin volume, now rare, Cowboy Songs, Folk Songs, and Ballads from Green Grow the Lilacs.

Reporting to the Guggenheim Foundation, he said about his play in progress, “I hope it will be my best. It’s a play about a varnished era in the Middle West—an era a little more golden than the present one; a time when people were easier, warmer, happier in the environment they had created. Song flourished. There were the usual human anguishes, of course. But there was wholeness in the people, there was great endurance. And in spite of ignorances and darknesses, there was a cool wisdom our radios and autos have banished.”

Scribling at the table in France, Riggs took himself back to Indian Territory in 1900. His heroine Laurey and his spokesperson of pioneer wisdom Aunt Eller he placed in a handsome white farmhouse which some would challenge as too fancy for the frontier. Riggs knew it was authentic since “it was where I was born.”

In a Preface to the published play, he explained his use of dialect along with old songs to recapture “a kind of nostalgic glow...and try to exhibit luminously, in the simplest of stories, a wide area of mood and feeling.” The play’s singing hero was a cowboy. As the play approached completion in the French springtime of 1929, Riggs wrote in a letter, “No one has done the Cowboy correctly yet—his romantic dash, his droliness, his humour, his childishness, his stupidity, his charm. Curly in Green Grow the Lilacs, if I may say so, is the only step in that direction in American fiction.” If anyone knew the cowboy, he did. He had lived with them, laughed and sang with them, been one of them.

His Guggenheim year completed with a new play manuscript to show for it, Riggs returned to the U.S. And took up residence at the Fraternity Club in New York. He was “broke as usual” and his father wanted him to return to Oklahoma. He refused, fearful that he couldn’t work there. He needed distance, even the cramped confines of a city, to write effectively about the country that had “more sky than is alloted to most sections” and “to give voice and a dignified existence to people who found themselves, most pitiably, without a voice, when there was so much to be cried out against.”

The Theatre Guild in 1929 accepted his play for production, and the First Night at the Guild Theatre was January 26, 1931. Riggs during the interim worked hard on other plays as well as on organizing his poems for book publication. An article by Stanley Vestal in the autumn 1929 Southwest Review discussed Riggs and declared, “There is not a writer in the Southwest whose work is more deeply rooted in his native soil...No one has been more meticulously careful to reproduce the actual rhythm and vocabulary of a specific community...Time after time he has refused to alter his plays even in the slightest degree in order to placate those who might have showered rewards upon him.”

He had no need to placate the Theatre Guild which mounted a first-rate production of Green Grow the Lilacs. The world’s first Curly came on stage singing “Get Along, Little Dogies,” “like the voice of the morning.” The setting for Scene One is described by Riggs as, “a radiant summer morning several years ago, the kind of morning which, enveloping the shapes of earth—men, cattle in a meadow, blades of the young corn, streams—makes them seem to exist now for the first keep alive a loveliness that may pass away.” Read that and we know without being told where Oscar Hammerstein found the inspiration for “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” The lyricist freely acknowledged that Riggs’ Scene One description gave him the theme to “introduce the lighthearted young man who is the center of the story.”

Perhaps you can use this rare bit of trivia; The world’s first singing Curly was actor Franchot Tone. Tone became a close friend of Lynn Riggs in New York and later in Hollywood when Riggs went there to cash in on his growing fame by writing movie scripts. When Franchot Tone married Joan Crawford, the pioneer boy from Oklahoma stood beside them in the wedding picture. At the film colony, the fact that Lynn Riggs was quietly gay made him a useful escort for Bette Davis and other unattached ladies of the movies. Ernie Pyle in a newspaper column thought he should hunt up Riggs and “see how he does it.” Yet Riggs in Hollywood was much more than a friend of the stars. He became a well paid dialogue specialist and co-authored many well-known movies including The Garden of Allah with Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer and The Plainsman with Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur.

The opening night of Green Grow the Lilacs, Riggs was visiting Paul Green in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He was too keyed up for opening night hoopla. Phone calls around midnight let him know the play had been well received. He had his first Broadway “hit.” Critic Robert Littell in the Morning World called it, “full of rich, free humor, salty poetry, and some reckless tenderness that was America’s before she was tamed and civilized by fences and mortgages and chain grocery stores...a glorious breath of fresh air.” Brooks Atkinson introducing a 1954 Limited Editions Press edition of the play wrote about that first night: “It was a lyric occasion. Mr. Rigg’s rolling, cadenced dialogue and robust story conveyed a joyous mood...Of all the folk plays we have had, this one is the most jubilant.”

The Theatre Guild gave 64 performances in New York and then toured major cities to fulfill Guild obligations to other theaters. In addition to Franchot Tone, genuine cowboys sang the songs that Riggs considered crucial. They were sung by rodeo cowboys hired after their show closed at Madison Square Garden. Burns Mattle in the New York News called the songs “rough and rugged and pitifully simple in expressing the heartaches and longings of a people who conquered the west.”The Lilacs

Grow Into Oklahoma!

Lynn Riggs held discussions with Aaron Copland about adapting Cherokee Night and other plays into operas. That never happened. While George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was startling audiences and critics, Riggs and George Gershwin also talked about collaborating on an opera. This exciting prospect was shelved by the composer’s death in 1937. Yet there were Riggs’s characters in a play on the shelf who had to sing and like Gene Kelly in Singn’ in the Rain “Gotta dance.”

Early in the 1940s, the Theatre Guild floated the idea of acting on Riggs’ long-held idea of using music and dance to advance the plot of a stage story. Green Grow the Lilacs seemed ideal for such an experiment. Yet finding investors wasn’t easy. The play was too rustic, who cared about farmers, the hired man gets killed—not normal ingredients of a musical. Later, those who said “no” rued the day. Courageous and nervous investors of $1,500 received over $50,000 as Oklahoma! Took off and conquered the world. The remarkable collaboration, of course, still flourishes as the lilacs never stop growing.

It was wartime; maybe what America needed was a musical set in a simpler era. Theresa Helburn and Lawrence Langner were the producers. Helburn recalled, “we wanted to recapture that special American flavor in the original script. We wanted to keep the gaiety and freshness, the poetry and humor of the people in Lynn Riggs’ play.”

Richard Rodgers agreed to replace the folk songs with new music. This of course greatly reduced historical authenticity—and no doubt exponentially expanded profits. Oklahoma! Would not be a global sensation without the professional songs, but it would be more genuine with the original songs, “A-Ridin’ Old Paint,” “Skip to My Lou,” “Green Grow the Lilacs,” etc. A speed specialist with a sheet of music paper, Rodgers claimed he wrote the entire fresh score in a total composing time of about five hours, not counting months of discussion with the lyricist.

Oscar Hammerstein took the job of doing the book and the lyrics. He didn’t hold back in acknowledging the indispensable contribution of the poet and dramatist who made Oklahoma! Possible: “Mr. Riggs’ play is the wellspring of almost all that is good in Oklahoma! I kept most of the lines of the original play without making any changes in them for the simple reason that they could not be improved upon...Lynn Riggs and Green Grow the Lilacs are the very soul of Oklahoma!”

Oklahoma! Triumphantly opened at the St. James Theater in Manhattan on March 31, 1943. (Decades later the same theater housed Mel Brooks’ raucous masterpiece, The Producers, which featured a terrific tribute to Oklahoma! Called Hey, Nebraska! Which was dropped. The unused lyrics included lines such as “Oh, the corn is as high as a homesteader’s fly.” Good taste, alas, prevailed.)

Lynn Riggs was a wartime Army Staff Sergeant in Ohio when his made-over-play was wowing theater-goers with Rodgers-Hammerstein songs and Agnes De Mille dances. In May 1943 he wrote a letter of gratitude to Henry Moe at the Guggenheim Foundation: “The sensational hit Oklahoma! Is just our old friend Green Grow the Lilacs in a new dress. It’s a great delight to me...I’d like to thank you and the Foundation herewith—for of course Green Grow is a Foundation baby.”

The musical version cost about $80,000 to stage, earned millions, and still earns. It gave Oklahoma a state song and put long pants on stage musicals by forcing them to mature. John Chapman proclaimed Oklahoma! As “American as a buffalo nickel.” A few highbrows followed their natural bent and snickered derisively. E.B. White said it was understandable why a “serious” critic might avoid the show from fear “he might have fun.” Robert Benchley in The New Yorker thought the new version heightened the material without omitting “anything of consequence” from Riggs’ original.

Riggs was sorry the old songs were sacrificed, but on the whole he was delighted by the amazing rebirth his play received. He certainly appreciated the steady income the musical version gave him the rest of his life. It “kept me in bourbon all these years,” he said, and he used some of his earnings to purchase his final home, an 1860 farmhouse on Shelter Island near the tip of Long Island.

In the old house he entertained friends and continued to write plays, poems, and stories. He worked on a novel based on a murder entitled The Affair at Easter and set in Oklahoma that was never finished. He saw his old plays and new ones staged in regional theaters nationwide. In 1950, Anthony Quinn headed the cast for a Broadway production of Borned in Texas. The summer 1953 issue of Gentry ran his autobiographical short story, “Eben, the Hound and the Hare.” He was amused by the irony of finding a Gentry ad promoting a “mink ice bucket for $150.” He wrote a friend, “Do you know that incredible Oklahoma! Is still touring this country and England? Do you know that I’m still solvent?”

The writer, “borned in Indian Territory,” died at the end of June 1954. The following year the film version of Oklahoma! Shared his immortal Territory characters with the wide wide world and all posterity. How lucky for us and posterity that Riggs decided against taking to the river in Paris. What a sad and insane artistic sin if he had jumped in the Seine just before he started writing the play that has kept his memory green along with the lilacs. How lucky he decided to buck up and follow the wise counsel of Aunt Eller in Scene Six: “That’s the way life is—cradle to grave. And you c’n stand it. They’s one way. You got to be hearty. You got to be.” Lynn Riggs kept himself hearty, and his writings may help us do the same.

Roy Meador, a writer and book collector in Ann Arbor, Michigan, died on January 16, 2007. Roy was the coauthor with Marvin Mondlin of “Book Row”, their history of the bookshops that once flourished along Manhattan’s Fourth Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood.