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The Darker Face of the Earth, by Rita Dove

Published by Story Line Press (c2000)

The Darker Face of the Earth is a play by Rita Dove that shows how a playwright produces energy through psychological action, which is what "a play" is. It also showcases how Dove's energetic imagination superimposes textures to create theater — by adding music, ritual, and a classic Greek art form.

As writers, we are always on a railroad car as part of a very long train. It is as if "now" is a railroad car with the "present" all around us, with what can be known at the moment. The "future" is in the car ahead of us and that can only be imagined. But if we want to write about the "past", it must be referred to through legend and myth. In fact, this is what history is based on… these two pillars… and that is the armature that this story rests on.

Darker Face of the Earth is based on the Greek Myth Oedipus. And we all know how the psychologist Sigmund Freud appropriated the myth to describe young men who fall in love with their mothers; (Psychiatrists always steal from writers.) In Rita Dove's play the story is set in South Carolina on a pre Civil War plantation. This tells us right away that slaves will predominate our tale. The plot can be summarized by saying that the main character Amalia, a white owner of the plantation, gives birth to a slave's child, and must give it up for adoption because of the threats of her husband, and through the complicity of the white doctor. Years later, Augustus is brought to the plantation in chains, is seduced by Amalia, and we find that this man is her son. When Augustus realizes he has made love to his own mother, he murders his father, Louis (as Oedipus did) and would kill his mother, Amalia, in keeping with the myth, but she kills herself to save her son.

The slaves believe the "murder" is part of the planned uprising that Augustus has been partner to. There are clever turnings throughout the play as the characters lift the veils of what is known, and because the audience knows something the characters do not know, we have suspense throughout and a foreshadowing of tragedy that eventually erupts into action.  However the way this play becomes theatrical spectacle rather than dramatic literature is through the slave rituals, spells, conjuring, and "music."

The elements of playwriting here begin with character. Because characters always make situation and not the other way around, Rita Dove has highly epitomized leading roles, among the whites and slaves and when you put them together, something is going to happen; it is the inevitability designed by creating excellent characters who want something from each other and know what they are willing to do to get it… seduce a man, as in Amalia's case, or commit murder as with Augustus. The difference between Augustus and Oedipus is that Dove's protagonist does not blind himself in grief, but is carried off triumphantly in the end.

The dialogue happily is that of a playwright keeping poetry away from the confines of spoken language.  Poetry in itself doesn't work – as "talk" – on stage unless it is in a context of psychological action, and Dove knows this. She does however spread her wings with the sorcerer slave woman; magic spells and poetry go together in her speeches. The important feature in this play is that the Greek chorus is enacted by slaves who comment on the play as the chorus did in ancient times in the plays of Sophocles. The chorus is integral to the plot and this is why the writing is necessary, not gratuitous.

There are good teaching points at the end of the book in the published play, with expositional arguments, and literary analysis. Highly recommended for classroom use.

Excerpted from a lecture on "The Energy of Rita Dove"
Notre Dame College,
Ohio Writers Celebration, Ohio bicentennial 20

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