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Broadway's Forgotten Man

Non-Fiction

Words by Charles Morrow. 

***

It’s 1945, and our setting is a Christmas party in Manhattan. The celebrants are show-business professionals affiliated with the Theatre Guild, a company enjoying tremendous prosperity due to the phenomenal success of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s stage musical Oklahoma!, which the Guild produced.

Audiences adored the show from the moment it opened on March 31, 1943, and it had played to packed houses ever since—not just in New York but across the U.S. and even overseas, where touring companies entertained U.S. troops. The production, which cost around $92,000 to mount (cheap for a musical even then), was grossing millions every year. Guild personnel had every reason to feel cheery, especially producer Theresa Helburn, who by all accounts was the single individual most responsible for the genesis and development of Oklahoma!

It was Helburn who believed in the project from the beginning and played a key role in hiring most of the show’s gifted contributors—composer Richard Rodgers, lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein, choreographer Agnes de Mille, and others—whose collaborative efforts resulted in an innovative musical milestone that broke many of the unwritten rules of genre, and established new ones. Thanks to Oklahoma!, the Guild, which had been on the brink of bankruptcy in the early ‘40s, was thriving. In the course of the holiday festivities, Helburn encountered a slender, bespectacled gent who was associated with the show and jovially addressed him. “Where have you been keeping yourself, young man?” she asked. “You have been neglecting me terribly. Don’t you realize, sir, that it was I who made it possible for you to become a Gentleman of Leisure?” The man smiled and replied, “I beg your pardon, but don’t you realize it was I who made it possible for YOU to become such a Busy Madam?”

The speaker was neither Rodgers nor Hammerstein, and sure wasn’t Agnes de Mille, and yet he spoke the truth. He was Lynn Riggs, poet and playwright, author of the stage dramaGreen Grow the Lilacs, which had served as Oklahoma!’s source material. Under the auspices of the Theatre Guild, the play had been a modest success on Broadway in 1931, running a respectable 64 performances. Riggs, who was determined to capture the speech patterns and folk culture of the Southwest in his plays, had based Lilac’s characters on members of his family, neighbors, and local figures he had known during his boyhood in Claremore. His play also included 11 folk songs indigenous to the area, sung by cast members in the course of the action or during scene changes by actual rodeo cowboys hired for the occasion; Green Grow the Lilacs was not a musical, and yet it was filled with authentic regional music.

After its Broadway run, the play was performed by community theater groups and at colleges through the 1930s, but it wasn’t until Hammerstein reworked Riggs’s text, and Rodgers added newly written songs, that the story found a wide—or to be more precise, an enormous—audience. Consequently, Riggs occupies a curious position in theater history: Everyone who loves theater knows Oklahoma!, yet practically no one, it seems, knows Lynn Riggs.

His name can be found in playbills for Oklahoma! whenever it is revived, on cast albums, and in the credits of the movie and video adaptations, but the nature of his contribution is unclear. He did not compose the show’s famous songs, nor choreograph its dances. What he did, rather, was recreate the milieu of his hometown, concoct a story, populate it with people he knew, and allow them to express themselves. “I let my characters write their own speeches,” Riggs told a reporter from the New York Post in 1931, just before Lilacs opened. “Whatever poetry may be found in the play is to the credit of my neighbors, not of myself.”

 Before Lilacs

Lynn Riggs wrote 21 full-length dramas, numerous one-act plays, and many poems. He contributed to the screenplays of several movies, and, toward the end of his life, wrote two plays for television. It’s fair to say that nothing in his upbringing suggested literature as a potential career path. His people were ranchers, farmers, and businessmen. Singing, dancing, and playacting were regarded as pleasant leisure-time activities, but the notion someone might earn a living doing these things did not seem to occur to anyone else in the Riggs family.

Rollie Lynn Riggs was born in Claremore, Indian Territory, on August 31, 1899, to William and Rose Ella Riggs. Lynn’s father was brought to Claremore from Missouri in a covered wagon as a boy. Lynn’s mother, who was known as “Eller,” was a native of Indian Territory and one-eighth Cherokee. Lynn was the youngest of Eller’s five children, two of whom died in infancy. He scarcely knew his mother, who died of typhoid fever when he was two years old. Six months later, William Riggs married a woman named Juliette Chambers, and went on to father two more sons with his second wife. Juliette came to embody the cruel stepmother figure for Lynn and his older brother and sister; she reserved all her maternal affection for her own two boys, and ignored her husband’s children by his first wife, except to scold or punish them.

Lynn hated his stepmother but received no sympathy from his father. William Riggs, who worked as a bank official and raised cattle, was a self-centered and emotionally distant man. He showed little interest in the bookish Lynn. When the situation at home grew tense, Lynn would be sent across town to stay with William’s sister, Mary Thompson. This was a preferable arrangement for all, for Mary was a good-hearted, gregarious person. She was a divorcée with eight children, mostly girls, and her household was suffused with warmth. When Lynn became gravely ill at age 11 with typhoid fever, it was Aunt Mary, not his stepmother, who nursed him back to health.

Upon graduation from high school in 1917, Lynn got a job as a cattle-puncher, and rode with a herd on a freight train to Chicago. For the next couple of years he lived in various cities and took all kinds of jobs. In New York, he clerked at Macy’s, read proof for the Wall Street Journal, and picked up work as a movie extra. Back in Oklahoma, he reported for the Oil and Gas Journal, and began writing poetry on the side.

Next, he hopped a freight train for Los Angeles and tried unsuccessfully to sell a movie scenario to Goldwyn Pictures, then got a job as a proofreader at the Los Angeles Times. This was the period of the “Red Scare,” when a wave of terrorist bombings erupted in cities across the country. Lynn was present when one such bombing occurred, resulting in several casualties. His eyewitness account of this tragedy, which he sold to the McClure Newspaper Syndicate, earned him $300. He used the money to go to Norman and enroll in the University of Oklahoma as a fine arts major for the fall 1920 semester.

At OU Lynn studied music and drama, and wrote his first play, a one-act called Cuckoo, a “folk comedy” with songs. His poems and short stories appeared in campus publications. William Riggs, who by this time was president of a bank in Claremore, contributed no money to his son’s education; luckily, Lynn’s mother had left her three surviving children land granted her by the Dawes Allotment Act. Lynn was able to mortgage his portion of the land to put himself through college.

Unfortunately, mid-way into his senior year, he was jilted by his girlfriend, suffered a nervous breakdown, and left OU without graduating. He went to an artists’ colony in Santa Fe to recuperate, and it was there, surrounded by poets and writers in a setting he came to love, that Lynn made a significant personal discovery. Under the benign encouragement of a flamboyant poet named Witter Bynner, Lynn became aware of his homosexual orientation. Unlike Bynner, he would maintain discretion in his personal life, in keeping with the code of silence that prevailed at the time. According to scholar Phyllis Braunlich, whose biography of Riggs is titled Haunted by Home, he was freed by the realization of his sexuality but “constantly wary of Oklahoma’s judgments.” Years later, when Riggs was profiled in the Southwest Review, he asked the article’s author to omit Bynner’s name.

Lynn recovered his health in Santa Fe and made many friends. At the behest of Ida Rauh Eastman, ex-wife of writer Max Eastman, he focused his efforts on playwriting. Over the next two years, based in Santa Fe, he wrote and staged several dramas, starting with Knives from Syria, which concerned a Syrian peddler who sells hard-to-find goods to women in remote Southwestern towns. (The character would return in Lilacs.) In 1926 Lynn moved to Chicago, where he taught at the Lewis Institute and wrote a tragedy called Big Lake, about an innocent young couple menaced by bootleggers. This play would mark Riggs’s Broadway debut in April 1927, and although it was not a success, it brought him attention. His crime drama The Domino Parlor was next slated for production, but this project ended badly when Lynn refused to make plot changes demanded by the producers, the powerful Shubert brothers. They closed the show while it was still in previews. The author’s resentment would persist.

Writing Lilacs

In the summer of 1928, Riggs became the first Oklahoman to be granted a Guggenheim fellowship. He sailed for Europe, where he lived the life of an ex-pat artist, alongside many of America’s best-known literary figures. He saw bullfights in Pamplona and attended the theater in Paris. During the cold winter months, Lynn left Paris for Cagnes-sur-Mer, several miles from Nice, where he began a new play initially titled Shivaree. A “shivaree” was a wedding-night folk custom of European origin, common in 19th century America, particularly frontier communities, which involved boisterous mockery of newlyweds by locals.

The play, set in turn-of-the-century Claremore, concerns a young cowboy named Curly McClain and the girl he fancies, an 18-year-old orphan named Laurey Williams, who has been raised by her Aunt Eller. Laurey is attracted to Curly, but disturbed by the attention of a crude farmhand named Jeeter Fry, who is obsessed with her. Curly and Laurey are wed, but their wedding night shivaree turns into a nightmare: After jeering rowdies force the newlyweds up a ladder to the top of a haystack, Jeeter arrives, drunk, and attempts to set the hay on fire. The two narrowly escape. Jeeter fights Curly, then falls on his own knife, and dies. Curly is arrested, but breaks jail and returns to Laurey. The marshal’s men follow, but the couple is permitted to consummate their marriage in privacy, with the understanding that Curly will be taken into custody in the morning.

In writing this play, which would become Green Grow the Lilacs, Riggs was motivated to do more than simply tell a story. As he explained in letters to friends, he wished to capture the melodies of Southwestern speech, “that lustrous imagery, that beautiful rhythmic utterance.” He chose not to write about well-educated or privileged folk, but rather “the ones with the most desolate fields, the most dismal skies.” He sought to “publish the humanity” of people who did not otherwise receive much attention, and in something resembling their own language. When Riggs wrote poetry he employed a formal, classical style, but when he wrote his Oklahoma plays he tried to channel the language he recalled from childhood:

AUNT ELLER

Sing me a song,
Curly McClain.

CURLY

Aw, I cain’t sing now! I told you. Not if I tried and tried, and even et cat-gut. And even ‘f I drunk the gall of a
turkey gobbler’s liver, I couldn’t sing a-tall.

AUNT ELLER

Liar and a hypocrite and a shikepoke! Ain’t I heared you? Jist now. You sing! Er I’ll run you off the place.

CURLY

I cain’t sing, I told you! ‘Ceptin’ when I’m lonesome. Out in the saddle when it ain’t so sunny, er on a dark night close to a fa’r when you feel so lonesome to God you could die . . . Whur you been, anyhow, whose side meat you been eatin’ all yer life, not to know nobody cain’t sing good ‘ceptin’ when he’s lonesome?

Riggs would identify his Aunt Mary as the model for Lilacs’ Eller, and one of her daughters—his cousin Laura—as the model for Laurey. A cowboy who worked for the family was the play’s Curly, while Jeeter (rechristened Jud in Oklahoma!) was based on a farmhand named Jeter Davis, who was recalled by one of Lynn’s cousins as a “dirty old boy” and a drunkard.

When Riggs wrote to friends or spoke to journalists about his plays, he never claimed that the dialect he endeavored to preserve was his own; nor was it said that he drawled, or dotted his speech with homey metaphors. He was cultured and well-spoken. In his statements about giving a voice to the Oklahomans of his youth, he referred to “them,” not “we” or “us.” He seldom returned to Claremore as an adult, and when he did visit he did not tend to linger. Riggs’s friend and fellow playwright Paul Green observed that Lynn had an effete, “Parisian” quality, hated gardening and farming, and had “turned away from the Oklahoma environment that he often wrote about.” Riggs was an ethnographer among his own people.

[pullquote]He chose not to write about well-educated or privileged folk, but rather 'the ones with the most desolate fields, the most dismal skies.'[/pullquote]

Staging Lilacs

In October of 1929, the Theatre Guild agreed to produce Green Grow the Lilacs, but for various reasons, the premiere was postponed over a year, until January of 1931. The play’s climax was a point of disagreement. Theresa Helburn and her colleagues felt that audiences needed assurance that Curly would be acquitted for the death of Jeeter. Riggs, still pained by his Domino Parlor experience, reworked the finale with reluctance, and eventually satisfied all parties. (Meanwhile, he wrote to a friend that if the producers didn’t like his revised ending, “they can hang from a sour apple tree.”)

Once the script was completed, Helburn saw to it that the play was carefully mounted and properly cast. Franchot Tone starred as Curly, Helen Westley was Aunt Eller, and the role of the peddler was taken by Lee Strasberg, who would become a renowned acting teacher. Latter-day fans of Oklahoma! will find noticeable differences between the play and the musical: Ado Annie is little more than a minor character in Lilacs, while lariat-twirling Will Parker is mentioned only in passing, never seen. But the tense, emotional triangle comprised of Laurey, Curly, and Jeeter (a.k.a. Jud) is prominent, and extensive passages of Riggs’ dialogue between these characters would be retained in the musical, as librettist Oscar Hammerstein readily acknowledged.

Green Grow the Lilacs was greeted with generally positive reviews. Riggs’ use of vernacular language was widely applauded, even by critics who were otherwise lukewarm. The predominant response was captured by the New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson, who admired the playwright’s dialogue but felt that he had not fully dramatized the action, concluding that “when Mr. Riggs has learned more about the theater and found a concrete theme he will bring rich material into focus.” Despite the economic impact of the Depression, the show played to good houses for several weeks, and after it closed a road company toured the U.S. under Guild auspices.

After Lilacs

 Riggs’ Broadway success brought him offers to write for the movies. In the mid-1930s he lived in Hollywood, wrote screenplays, and rubbed elbows with stars. He became a popular escort for actresses who were divorced or otherwise unattached. Lynn was a witty conversationalist and a good dancer, and as a gay man, he provided their male companionship without complications.

During one period, he escorted Bette Davis to so many events they were assumed (by some) to be romantically involved; a columnist for the Hollywood Reporter announced that Riggs and Davis were “ablaze.” She was amused, but he was mortified. In 1935, he attended the wedding of Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone, Lilacs’ original Curly. Crawford became a close friend and gave Lynn a Scotty dog he named The Baron.

Riggs made good money in Hollywood, but he didn’t keep it. It was said that when he had money, he spent it, and when he moved back to Santa Fe in the late ‘30s to refocus his efforts on playwriting, his savings were meager. Two more of his plays made it to Broadway—Russet Mantle and The Cream in the Well—but neither found great success. He got by on teaching jobs, and then when the war broke out he was drafted into the Army. Riggs was in the Signal Service in Ohio, making training films when a community theater production of Lilacs in Connecticut prompted Theresa Helburn to consider turning the play into a full-fledged musical. She contacted Richard Rodgers, he contacted Oscar Hammerstein, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Riggs was granted leave to attend the Broadway opening of Oklahoma! with a friend named Miranda Levy, a clerk at the posh Bergdorf-Goodman department store. According to Levy, he was delighted with the show and came to the store the next day to buy gifts for everyone in the cast. Privately, however, he told his friend Ida Rauh Eastman that he regretted the loss of Lilac’s genuine folk songs. Nonetheless, the musical’s spectacular success was a welcome windfall: Over the course of Oklahoma!’s five-year run, Riggs earned approximately $2,000 per month in royalties.

At least one critic, Richard Watts of the New York Herald Tribune, declared that Riggs did not receive sufficient credit for his contribution to the show. Lynn’s attitude is difficult to determine. When the libretto was published by Samuel French, Inc, he complained to the company about the placement of his name on the cover; with friends, however, he joked that the royalty payments had kept his liquor cabinet well-stocked with bourbon.

As he reached his early 50s Riggs, long a heavy smoker, began to struggle with his health. He bought a home on New York’s Shelter Island, continued to write, and turned his attention to a novel. Oklahoma! supplied him with one more pleasant surprise in 1953 when MGM purchased the movie rights. A neighbor recalled the day when Lynn ripped open an envelope, read the contents, and shouted: “My God, I’m rich! This is $75,000! It’s more money than I’ve ever had in one piece all my life!” Sadly, he didn’t have long to spend it. Lynn Riggs died of cancer on June 30, 1954, at the age of 54. He left an unfinished novel, whose plot was based on an unsolved homicide he recalled from his boyhood in Oklahoma. Haunted by home, it seems, to the very end.

 ***

Sources for this story include Phyllis Cole Braunlich’s Haunted by Home: the life and letters of Lynn Riggs (Univ. of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 1988); Tim Carter’s Oklahoma!: the making of an American musical (Yale Univ. Press: New Haven, 2007); Max Wilk’s OK! : the story of “Oklahoma!” (Applause: New York, 2002); and the clippings files of the Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 7, April 1, 2014.


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