I met Paul Green in Chapel Hill, North Carolina a year before he died. He was 86 at the time and his mind was crisp. This witty, gifted and highly intelligent playwright was a guest of our UNC seminar on Southern Literature in the summer of 1980.
He came to our gathering as the great founder of American outdoor drama, though he had been quite successful in other forms of theater both at home and abroad. In fact, he helped Richard Wright bring his novel Native Son to the stage. He said they did a lot of their work on the play in North Carolina, but some of it sitting in the back of vacant theaters in New York City, envisioning the scenes. He told our group that Richard Wright much preferred working in North Carolina where, as Wright put it, “we have some freedom.”
Of course, I was more interested in Green’s friendship with William Faulkner. He said he met the great Mississippian there in Chapel Hill at a conference for up-and-coming as well as established writers. Green was on the drama faculty at UNC at the time and he was “assigned” to be in charge of Faulkner during the conference. When he went to the hotel to meet him at the arranged time, he said Faulkner came down the stairs into the lobby wearing scuffed-up brogans, very casual clothing and an aviator’s leather cap with goggles. After Green introduced himself, Faulkner said in his high-pitched Mississippi drawl, “Hi, I’m William Faulkner. I am an aviator.” Green said the author wore that cap throughout the conference.
Dos Passos, another great American writer at the conference, complained to Green that Faulkner kept showing up in his room. Apparently, Faulkner often got his room number confused with that of Dos Passos, especially when he was in his cups, which was frequently. Green went up to Dos Passos’ room and, sure enough, protruding from the blanket he found Faulkner’s brogans. When Green shook him, he said, “Get out of my room.”
But, the most interesting thing he told about Faulkner was that he asked Green if he could accompany him to the opening of Green’s new play in New York. Though skeptical, Green allowed him to ride up there with him from Chapel Hill and to sit in the author’s box with him. Green said that during the play, Faulkner took notes and drew an elaborate paradigm on the back of the program. After the show, which was very well-received by the huge audience, with shouts of “Author! Author!” Faulkner showed him his scribbling and said, “Paul, here is the outline of your play. You are never going to amount to anything.”
Even though he had achieved considerable success and is still highly regarded, Green never had the success and acclaim that Faulkner later achieved. And, Green said there in Chapel Hill a year before his death, “I have often thought about that moment in New York when Bill Faulkner told me I would never amount to anything.” He said that with some remorse.