There might not be a more (terrifyingly) apt moment to talk about Dixon’s 1905 play, which provided the basis for D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. 1 There’s a legend surrounding a presidential endorsement of the film: after the viewing of the movie, President Wilson supposedly declared that it was “like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” 2 And, of course, the Ku Klux Klan endorsed the person being sworn into the office of the presidency today. There has been a lot of talk about how we cannot – must not – normalize white supremacy: but the KKK has been normalized – even romanticized – in popular culture since its founding in the Reconstruction period – and Dixon’s play is certainly an instance of this.
The Clansman as play-text found its origin in Dixon’s “Reconstruction Romance” trilogy: The Leopard’s Spots (1902), The Clansman (1905), and The Traitor (1907). Dixon had the theatre bug, and decided to adapt the first two novels into a stage play: he was both co-creator and co-financier of The Clansman. Dixon’s play was not the first time Klan characters appeared on the American stage, but it was certainly their most popular appearance. 3 Dixon took the stage at the premiere in Norfolk, Virginia during the third act curtain call, to tell the mixed race audience in attendance that his play was a “sequel” to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, claiming that his object was to “teach the north, the young north, what it has never known—the awful suffering of the white man during the dreadful reconstruction period.” 4 Of course – in all The Clansman’s manifestations – all the African American characters were played by white performers in blackface.
It is worth noting, too, how Dixon’s play would have undermined audience expectations, starting with the very first scene. The Southern plantation – especially in the decades following the Civil War – had been romanticized ad nauseam in popular culture, and melodramas had long drawn on picturesque Southern settings. 5 So the charming Southern house called for in the stage directions, with honeysuckle, roses, and a “rustic arbor” with “mountains seen in the distance beyond the river valley” were all familiar settings to an audience at the time. Dixon, however, chose to disrupt the “idyllic” (read: white-dominated) Southern atmosphere with “characteristic crowds of negroes” including “negro troopers” milling about and stuffing the ballot box, while a handful of whites make their way to the Cameron family house. 6 The first words of the play are spoken by a black preacher, who asks his followers: “Ain’t I done tole ye dat de Lawd call de cullud men ter come up on high…de judgemen’ day done come fur de white Man!” 7 Right from the get-go, Dixon is setting up antagonistic race relations: he is creating the conditions of a race war, an invasion of white-dominated utopias, and lamenting the “suffering” due to disrupted racial hierarchies.
More importantly, this was not a “typical” depiction of a stage dominated by black characters, for the time period: this was not a plantation spectacle, or a minstrel show. The black characters here are declaring the end of the white man, and are explicitly making a travesty of the democratic voting process. This would have created an even deeper rift between audience expectations (in regards to plantation spectacles or Southern melodramas), and Dixon’s racial melodrama. 8
At its most simplistic, The Clansman establishes the need for the Klan in the South immediately following the war – mostly to protect the white ladies. Flora, the hero’s younger sister, commits suicide rather than be raped by a black man. Cameron’s sweetheart Elsie, daughter of the carpetbagger August Stoneman, must be revenged or protected by the Klan. The racial politics of August Stoneman – based on Thaddeus Stevens, who Dixon seemingly believed was nothing short of demonic – jeopardizes the virtue of white women. White men – abused and divested of voting and political power by the corrupt Radical Republican process – must be reinstalled as the head of the hierarchy. General Nathan Forrest makes a brief fictional cameo, convincing the hero Ben Cameron that the South is at the brink of destruction. He describes his visit to the “black parliament at work:”
I…watched them through fetid smoke, vapors of stale whiskey and the deafening roar of half drunken brutes, while they voted millions in taxes their leaders had already stolen, and I had a vision. I stood beside the open grave of the South! Beneath that minstrel farce I saw a tragedy as deep and dark as was ever woven of the blood and tears of the conquered people. I heard the death rattle in the throat of my race, barbarism strangling civilization by brute force. 9
At the vortex of this white race death is Silas Lynch, a “mulatto” who lusts after Elsie, dupes Stoneman, and manipulates the black characters (mostly portrayed as simple or ignorant) around him to try and assert his domination.
The Klan dispatches of one of Lynch’s henchmen, Gus, the would-be rapist of Flora, in a dramatic and macabre cave scene, where the white-hoods rode on live horses, lit a cross, hypnotized Gus to affirm his guilt, and then summarily dispatched him after a ritualistic blood-pouring.
As Ben pours his sister’s blood, diluted with water, in the cave, he swears revenge:
on this spot made holy ground by the sacrifice of a daughter of the South…I raise the symbol of an unconquered race of men – I quench its flames in the sweetest blood that ever stained the sands of time. 10
It is only the Klan, in Dixon’s world, who can see through Lynch’s devilish plots, and as he makes his final grab for power – and Elsie – it is the Klan who literally burst forth on the scene as knights in white hooded finery. Unlike Thaddeus Stevens, Stoneman cannot stomach amalgamation in reality (especially and hypocritically when it involves his daughter), and cries out in thanks when the Klan interrupts the impending forced marriage of Elsie to Lynch: “The Klan, Glory to God, the Klan!”
Stoneman promises to withdraw his earlier protest of the Klan to the president, and will ask that the “army be withdrawn and water be allowed to find its own level.” 11
There were three (that’s right – THREE) different touring companies of The Clansman. The first company traveled South after the Norfolk tour, and the reception below the Mason-Dixon was enthusiastic throughout the fall of 1905. The play’s brand of bigotry was approved by white Southern audiences, with a Norfolk critic claiming that the premiere production “only reiterates to southern people what they already know.” 12 The spectacle and scandal of the production inspired disgust and fandom alike – but sold many tickets either way. The initial Southern leg of the tour grossed close to $10 thousand a week in ticket sales. 13 A critic for the Washington Post admitted that the “whole South is now given over to hysterical controversy apropos of Mr. Thomas Dixon’s play.” 14 Even as some press denounced the play – North and South, though the dissenting voices were much louder in the North – and protests flared up on occasion during the many years of touring company productions, the play in its various touring manifestations remained popular for years.
At the Norfolk premiere, African American audience members sat in the gallery. They were “packed and jammed” by the hundreds there, and the reviewer claimed that they emitted “hisses [that] were just as cutting as those of the whites, but they were directed at the white characters” – and in particular at Stoneman. 15 The review does not clarify when the hisses from the gallery were loudest, but perhaps it was when Stoneman begins to reject and express horror at the realities of racial equality – namely, the “mulatto” who wishes to bed his white daughter – that the black audience turned on a seeming political ally. While the white reviewer might have inflated the number of black audience members in this instance, it is clear that many (white and black alike) found Dixon’s overt white supremacist message troubling. African American protesters appeared in Philadelphia – both in the theatre house and outside – and several Western towns banned the production from appearing there, but no serious repercussions that jeopardized the fiscal and popular success occurred. 16
The explicitly negative portrayal of African American and mixed-race characters throughout The Clansman leaves little room for argument with regard to Dixon’s racial philosophy. The black characters and the mulatto villain are corrupt, evil, mostly ignorant (Lynch, half white, being the sole exception), and rapacious, save for the two harmless (though still ignorant) loyal ex-slaves of the Camerons – who at least know their place in the bigoted world of the play, and refuse to vote Republican.
Dixon was also quite public in his declamations of racial inequality. Booker T. Washington happened to be visiting New York at the time of The Clansman’s Broadway premiere at the Liberty Theatre in 1906. Dixon offered Washington a ten thousand dollar donation to Tuskegee Institute if he would revoke his belief in racial equality during his upcoming appearance at Carnegie Hall in front of an audience consisting of the Rockefellers, several Peabodys, and Mark Twain. Washington did not bother to reply, and in his speech on January 22nd he certainly did not declare the black race inferior. 17
When questioned about the violence his play might incite, Dixon declared in an interview that he did not believe the “people of the south are such drilling idiots” that they would “rush home from a theatre in their Sunday clothes, grab a gun and kill a negro just because he is a negro.” 18 In the same interview, Dixon said he hoped that the play would even “allay…race antagonism and race hatred,” though how such an alleviation of tensions could occur on account of a cultural product so committed to endorsing racial inequality is not clear.
But connections between the theatrical productions and real-life race violence were soon drawn. Very early during the first Southern tour, an African American man named Gus Goodman – who allegedly shot a white sheriff – was lynched in Georgia. One paper directly attributed the violence to the production, claiming that the “feeling against negroes, never kindly, has been imbittered [sic] by the Dixon play.” 19 Others believed that the play also led to the 1906 Atlanta race riots, and the play was not allowed to be revived there following that initial tour. 20
Of course, violence against African Americans was hardly new in the American South: though the Klan in its early Reconstruction period was a short-lived and rather disorganized vigilante group, the lynchings and violence perpetrated in the name of protecting white privilege/sexuality did not end with the removal of federal troops and the demise of Reconstruction. Estimates of African Americans murdered by white extralegal violence range from 3,300 to 10,000 during and following Reconstruction, and it is little wonder that Mark Twain called the country the “United States of Lyncherdom” in 1901. 21 Just a decade after the ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson—with all the established measures to ensure social and political inequality, and even as audience members sat in segregated playhouses to watch The Clansman – the imagined threat against white juridical superiority continued to inspire such virulent reactions in a society that so clearly enshrined, valued, and protected whiteness.
I leave you with a tap-dancing KKK chorus, having their moment in Jerry Springer: The Opera. Who knew this piece, and Dixon’s, would continue to be prescient (if in different ways). People who blatantly appealed to this same desire to protect and enshrine whiteness (and misogyny and abled privilege and xenophobia and and and…) now dance their way into the White House (albeit with a very short list of musicians willing to accompany that dance). Ta-Nehisi Coates recently elaborated on this, responding to the claims that the election wasn’t about race, or white supremacy – because some of the same voters who elected Trump also put Obama in the White House. But, as Coates suggests, “pointing to citizens who voted for both Obama and Trump does not disprove racism; it evinces it. To secure the White House, Obama needed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer with a decade of political experience and an incredible gift for speaking to cross sections of the country; Donald Trump needed only money and white bluster.” 22
- I remember a time when I said I was going to try and do a Bad Play Friday once a week. That was hysterical. ↩
- Melvyn Stokes, D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation”: A History of “The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 111. The film was screened for Wilson on February 18, 1915. ↩
- As far as I can gather, Steele MacKaye’s The Fool’s Errand (1881) is the first major stage appearance, but records show the Klan appearing in burlesques and vaudeville acts as early as 1868. ↩
- “‘The Clansman’ Scored Sensational Success,” Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, September 23, 1905. ↩
- See Nina Silber’s The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), for more on romanticizing the South during this period, including an robust tourism industry. ↩
- Thomas Dixon, Jr., The Clansman (unpublished typescript). 1905. D.W. Griffith Papers, NewYork: Museum of Modern Art, act I, 1. Dixon begins re-paginating with every new act, so all citations will include the act number as well. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- The Clansman, an American Drama: From His Two Famous Novels The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman: Presented by the Southern Amusement Company (New York: American News Company, 1905). These images are of the New York cast prior to the opening as part of a promotional pamphlet. You can see the entire pamphlet here. It is also essentially Dixon’s race manifesto, so brace yourself. ↩
- Dixon, Clansman, act II, 22. ↩
- Dixon, Clansman, act III, 30. ↩
- Ibid., act IV, 29. ↩
- “‘The Clansman’ Scored Sensational Success,” Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, September 23, 1905. ↩
- David Mayer, Stagestruck Filmmaker: D.W. Griffith & The American Theatre (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2009), 154. ↩
- “Tom Dixon and His Clansman,” Washington Post, November 9, 1905, 6. ↩
- “Clansman” Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, September 23, 1905. ↩
- Mayer, Stagestruck Filmmaker, 156-157. ↩
- See Anthony Slide, American Racist: The Life and Films of Thomas Dixon (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2004), 62. ↩
- “Tom Dixon Talks of the Clansman,” Atlanta, October 29, 1905, b2. ↩
- “Drama Inspire Negro Lynching,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 30, 1905, 4. ↩
- See Melvyn Stokes’ D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of “The Most Controversial Motion Picture of all Time,” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 51-2. Stokes does not mention the Atlanta ban, but in a later article on The Traitor playing in Atlanta the press agent Herrick told a newspaper that he hoped the “older play will again be presented” in the city since it “has never been allowed to play there since the first season.” See “Theatrical,” Biloxi Daily Herald, December 5, 1908, 5. ↩
- See Sandra Gunning, Race, Rape, and Lynching: The Red Record of American Literature, 1890-1912 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 5. ↩
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, “My President Was Black,” The Atlantic, January/February 2017. ↩