‘A Strange and Secret Thing’: Staging Heredity in the Harlem Renaissance

W.E.B. Du Bois is best known for his pioneering work on race across the first half of the twentieth century, especially in the literary work The Souls of Black Folk (1903); however, his original dramatic works—which number nearly 2,000 pages—remain almost completely critically neglected. This paper draws on extensive archival materials in order to recover Du Bois’s theatrical writings in the context of European modernist drama. This is done in three interlinked ways: by highlighting the historical links between the playwrights of the Abbey Theatre and Harlem Renaissance; by showing Du Bois’s engagement with evolutionary science on stage through such themes as heredity, embryology, and race; and by close-reading the plays through the lens of ‘anti-theatricality.’ I argue that attending to Du Bois’s drama forges new connections between Du Bois—as well as other critically-neglected playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance such as Willis Richardson and Marita Bonner—and George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats and Samuel Beckett. These global relationships place new emphasis on theatre in modernist accounts of literary innovation.

Sandwiches provided.