Paul Eliot Green

From an early childhood friendship with his family’s Negro tenant’s son Rassie, Paul Green formed deep convictions about the immoralities of racial discrimination, and for the rest of his long life, racism, inequality, capital punishment and military conflict colored everything Paul Green did and wrote. 
In addition to receiving the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his Broadway play In Abraham's Bosom – remarkable for its time in its serious depiction of the plight of the American Negro in the South – Green created in 1937 a new dramatic genre, the Symphonic Drama, a particular form of historical play, usually set on the very site depicted in the action, and embodying music, dance, light, special effects and a strong story line.  Following the first of these, The Lost Colony (1937), about Sir Walter Raleigh's doomed colony on Roanoke Island, he wrote sixteen more that played in outdoor theatres from Texas to Virginia each summer.  It has been said that America has contributed two important new dramatic forms, one being the Musical and the other being the Symphonic Drama, of which over 50 are in production around the country.

Paul Green's total literary output of 46 books includes numerous one-act plays, full-length plays, two novels: This Body the Earth and The Laughing Pioneer, short stories, essays, books of North Carolina folklore, plus a number of Hollywood film scripts including State Fair, Cabin in the Cotton, The Green Years, Time Out of Mind, Black Like Me, for such prominent stars of the 1930s as Will Rogers, Bette Davis, Robert Young, Janet Gaynor, and others.  In 1931, Green’s The House of Connelly was the first production of the famed Group Theatre – its Hollywood film Carolina followed in 1934.  One of Green’s Broadway plays, an early precursor of his symphonic drama form, was the 1936 anti-war play Johnny Johnson, whose music by Kurt Weill was Weill's first American effort after his arrival from Nazi Germany. In 1941 Green worked with Richard Wright in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in adapting Wright's celebrated novel Native Son to the Broadway Stage – the first such collaboration between in Black man and a White man in the Jim Crow South.

Paul Green, born in 1894, grew up on a cotton farm in rural Harnett County, North Carolina, and learned from his father the value of hard physical labor as well as the importance and beauty of literature and music from his talented mother.  He read books in the fields as he followed a mule-drawn plow and taught himself to play the $2.95 violin he ordered from Sears-Roebuck; he would later compose music for his own dramas.  Paul’s mother died suddenly when he was 14 and his sister Mary, age 16 set about helping her father raise the six younger children.  After graduation from Buies Creek Academy in 1914, Green taught school and played semi-professional baseball until he could earn enough money to go the University of North Carolina in 1916 – he was 22. 

After just one year, he followed the call of President Wilson and enlisted in the Army to fight in WWI – he was told, and believed, it would be the “war to end wars.”  Green was quickly advanced to be an officer and was trained to do the dangerous work of an engineer in the trenches of France and Belgium.  In 1919 he returned to the University, where he was a key figure in the early days of Professor Frederick Koch’s famous Carolina Playmakers.  Among his Playmaker friends were author Thomas Wolfe, and Green's future wife, Elizabeth Lay.  After graduation and two years’ graduate work in philosophy at Cornell University, Green returned to Chapel Hill to teach philosophy and drama.  In 1944 he retired from teaching to devote his time to writing. 

In addition to his early Pulitzer Prize, other awards include two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Belasco Cup, National Institute of Arts and Letters, American Letters of the Library of Congress, Albert Schweitzer Medal for Artistry, the National Theatre Conference Award, and nine honorary doctorates.  Green was named Dramatist Laureate of North Carolina and in 1978 the new theatre on the campus of the University of North Carolina was named for the author.  Green was posthumously inducted into Broadway’s Theatre Hall of Fame in New York in 1993, and the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 1996.

All his life Green was active in the cultural life of North Carolina and the country, being one of the founders of the National Theatre Conference, the North Carolina Symphony, the School of the Arts, and the Institute of Outdoor Drama, which serves the large nationwide community of symphonic dramas that sprung up after the model of Green's original The Lost Colony.  His relentless battle against the death penalty has found its successors in a number of organizations active in this field in North Carolina.  He traveled around the world on behalf of UNESCO lecturing about the drama, education and human rights.

A year after Green's death in 1981 at the age of 87, his widow, four children and his colleagues formed the Paul Green Foundation, whose purpose is to carry on Paul Green’s principles in the areas of the arts, human rights and international peace by means of a series of grants and awards.

Paul Green's historical significance stems not only from his influence on the art of the drama, which he loved so well and long, but from his influence on the social values of the South during a period when he stood almost alone in preaching the equality of the races, the richness of Southern tradition as possible source of great literature, and the value and worth of every person, even the condemned felon.   In 1936 Paul Green wrote the powerful “Hymn to the Rising Sun” and sent copies to all the North Carolina legislators to convince them they must eradicate the State’s cruel chain gangs.  Much of Green’s works combine his startling writing talent with his strong sense of humanity.  


Marsha Warren

Executive Director

Paul Green Foundation

June 2013

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