Langston Hughes: Integrating Performance and Literature

Literature and performing arts are generally considered to be completely separate entities. Yes, sometimes plays are read as literature, the most prominent example being Shakespeare, but rarely do we analyze music, movies, or theater performances in the same way that we analyze a novel. The jazz movement in music and literature was one of the first cultural movements to be uniquely American. As one of the leaders of this movement, one of Langston Hughes’s greatest contributions to the broader concept of American literature was his original use of musical instruments and musical interludes to enhance the meaning of his poetry.

A notable example of this from Hughes’s collection of work is seen in his dramatic readings of “Too Blue,” which were usually aided by the assistance of a percussionist and a pianist. Since then, “Too Blue” has evolved and has actually become an actual music piece by itself, but performances like these certainly contributed to the poem/song being held in such a high literary and musical status today. The poem essentially centers on a narrator who is contemplating committing suicide. The most poignant part of this piece where the musicians come to play is when Hughes asks the question “shall I take a gun and put myself away?” At this moment, the pianist plays some notes staccato, giving the impression that the narrator is having a conversation with someone, thus turning what would ordinarily be a monologue into a dialogue with the musical instruments. Few other poets rival Hughes’s originality in this regard, and it is this assimilation of literature with performance that has paved the way towards the currently popular trend of slam poetry and dramatic readings.

Hughes also liked to represent dramatic personas when doing these public recitations. In “Bad Man,” he transforms himself into the character of an abusive husband using techniques like tone, vibrato and dramatic pauses. The language of the poem by itself is incredibly influential in conveying this character, but the addition of his unique reading style when the poem is read aloud allows the message and persona to become much more prominent.

Performing arts, though holding an equal level of cultural significance and respect, do not have the same academic reverence to them as literature. Langston Hughes’s poetry, however, challenges these barriers. His unique integrations of spoken word, written language and music were some of the most groundbreaking transformations witnessed in American poetry, and especially within the Jazz era. Despite being frequently labeled as a poet whose sole contribution was his cry for racial equality, Hughes’s literary significance transcends this, and he is worthy of our recognition as one of the greatest American poets.

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