Finding Little Bethel

cover image for Finding Little Bethel

Paul Green sits on chair
Born and raised in Buies Creek and a graduate of Buies Creek Academy in 1914, Paul Elliot Green became a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, best known for his award-winning 1927 dramatic play, In Abraham’s Bosom. Photo courtesy of the Paul Green Foundation

Paul Green grew up in the South.

Born Paul Eliot Greene (he would later drop the “E”), he was born and raised on a farm in Buies Creek on March 17, 1894. When he was 10, he developed osteomyelitis in his right arm and underwent a serious operation in a hospital in Baltimore to fix it. The surgery helped Green become a heck of a baseball player — he learned to throw with his left arm as his right arm healed, and he would later go on to pitch ambidextrously for various semi-pro teams in Benson and Lillington to earn extra money as a teen.

His mother, Betty Byrd, collapsed and died of a cerebral hemorrhage in their home when Green was 13. He was closer to her than his father — her love of music and her desire to educate her children influenced Green more than his father, whose life was the farm. Green coped with his

mother’s death by reading as many books as he could and saving money for a college education. In addition to pitching, Green worked on farms (begrudgingly) and even helped out the local schools as a teacher.

In 1912, at the age of 18, Green was a student at Buies Creek Academy, where he would flourish as a debater, president of the Philologian Society and eventually historian of his senior class. He played baseball, ran track and was a member of a team of prospective lawyers called The Counsel (Green chose this over the Prospective Farmers club, again distancing himself from his father’s line of work).

“He is a young man of great ability,” read Green’s bio in his senior class photo in the 1914 Pine Burr yearbook. “Books are his passion and work his recreation. Difficulty has been no barrier to his success, for he has overcome many. In his chosen vocation in life as a lawyer, we wish him every success.”

His chosen motto for his photo: “Be true to thyself, and you will be true to everything.”

In 1916, Green got an acceptance letter to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His writing was so advanced, he taught freshman English there as
a 22-year-old freshman. But his education was put on hold the following year when World War I called him to volunteer for the Army and serve in Paris. Uncertain he’d make it back home, he published a thin volume of poems,Trifles of Thought by PEG, before he left for the war.

In the Army, Green rose rapidly through the ranks — from private to second lieutenant with the Chief of Engineers in Paris. For a year in Belgium and France, he experienced heavy combat in the trenches — an experience that had a lasting effect on him (and one he rarely spoke about).

“Volumes could not hold all I’ve learned in these last two months,” Green wrote to his sister Erma from Paris in March 1919. “I’ve walked at least a thousand miles and ridden many more. Today I stand where kings lost their

heads; tomorrow where saints were massacred. One hour I see the most marvelous creations of art; the next I see the most abject misery on earth crawling along the streets.”

Upon his return, he was back in Chapel Hill studying playwriting under legendary UNC professor Frederick Koch, founder and director of the Carolina Playmakers. One of his classmates would become arguably North Carolina’s most famous author, Thomas Wolfe. Another was a young redhead named Elizabeth Lay — the two met while painting scenery in an art class in 1920. They married in Beaufort two years later and would go on to have four children — Paul Jr., Janet, Betsy and Byrd.

After graduation and a short stint studying at Cornell University in New York, Green taught philosophy, creative writing and English at UNC and got serious about his own writing. Over the next dozen years, he rocketed to fame.

Paul Green’s 1941 collaboration with author Richard Wright to adapt Wright’s novel “Native Son” for the stage was controversial. Photo courtesy of the Paul Green Foundation

It began with one-act plays on his experiences growing up in Harnett County. His plays featured both white and black protagonists — progressive writing for his day.

“[His plays] were full of regional dialect, the folk beliefs and wild superstitious terror of the uneducated, and full of their love of songs and dreams and rich phrases,” his daughter Janet wrote in 1981 in a short biography on her father. “These plays like The No ‘Count Boy, White Dresses and Hymn to the Rising Sun are marvelously skillful depictions of rural conflicts dealing with the powerful feelings like racial hatred, passion, fear of ostracism or ruin and greed.”

In 1927, Green wrote In Abraham’s Bosom, a drama about a black man with a white father who tries to start a school to educate black children and earn an honest living in the South. He gets the school, but racism and his own demons drive him to murder, and his life is forever ruined. The play made it to Broadway and had a six-month, 200-performance run from December 1926 to June 1927.

In Abraham’s Bosom also earned Green the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; the judges writing, “The play does not sentimentalize on the tragic situation of the Negro. It
is scrupulously fair to the white race. But it brings us face to face with one of the most serious of the social problems of this country, and forces us to view this problem in the light of tragic pity.”

“The Father of Outdoor Theater” earned this honorary title with Lost Colony in 1937. Based on accounts of Sir Walter Raleigh’s settlement on Roanoke Island, Green coined the term “symphonic drama” with the play. Still performed annually in the Outer Banks, Lost Colony is the nation’s second-longest running historical outdoor drama, behind The Ramona Pageant in California. More than 4 million visitors to the Outer Banks have seen Green’s play since its first production 80 years ago.

In all, Green authored more than 40 dramatic productions, produced about a dozen film scripts for Hollywood, wrote numerous short stories and songbooks, published two novels and released hundreds upon hundreds of letters he’d written to friends and family over the years. He lived until 1981, and he wrote until his final days.

“In his own long, incredibly active life, Paul Green saw Americans becoming richer, more decadent, more self- indulgent, more violent, destroying more land, water, air and people,” Janet Green wrote shortly after her father’s death. “He never stopped talking against those infamies, and writing those letters to politicians that most of us can’t be bothered to write, making phone calls, lobbying in legislatures, going to dull meetings, giving money to causes, following the news carefully, reading and thinking.”