The stage curtains part as the melodic cowboy song, “Oh! What A Beautiful Morning” captures the moment, and the audience is magically taken back to 1900 to a place in Oklahoma, a farm near Claremore.
The playwright, Lynn Riggs, included 11 of the cowboy and folk songs he had remembered from his youth in the play. The dances are a vibrant combination of ballet and folk. Lynn had written characters that added humor, so on the surface, it seemed light and delightful. Then he cleverly inserts underlying conflicts: good and evil, love and hate, the farmers needing to protect their crops with fences and the cowboys wanting free range for their cattle. This new land known as Indian Territory becomes Oklahoma. The people then realize they can do great in the new state if they can put aside their differences and work together.
Lynn Riggs wrote the play, “Green Grow the Lilacs” that was adapted by the famous Broadway team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein into the delightful musical “Oklahoma!” The colorful tale of life in Indian Territory is written with authentic Oklahoma dialect. The humor throughout the play often masks the dark issues that arise.
Rollie Lynn Riggs was acquainted with the dark issues of life at a very early age. He was born August 31, 1899, the third child of William Grant Riggs and his one-eighth Cherokee wife, Rose Ella. Lynn’s mother died when he was two years old, and his father remarried six months later. The new wife fit the description of the evil stepmother, and Lynn received the brunt of her cruel punishment and was often confined to an outbuilding. He was aided by his sister, Mattie, as she sometimes had to slip food under the door to him. The outbuilding or bunkhouse in the musical “Oklahoma!” was inhabited by the evil Jud Fry, symbolic of the dark and evil place he remembered when he was punished.
Because of his difficult life with his stepmother, Lynn often stayed with his Aunt Mary Brice. The personality of “Aunt Eller” was patterned after this aunt he so admired and loved and the name was derived from his mother Rose Ella.
The dialect with its wonderful spirit and rhythm is early Claremore. Riggs was a literary genius at recording the expressions of plain Oklahoma people. Many of the characters in the play were family members and acquaintances from the area. “Jud Fry” was a man named Jeeter that had pulled a knife on a family member. His name was changed to Jud in the play. A neighbor of the Riggs became “Old Man Peck.” Two daughters of Mary Brice were also represented: Laura became “Laurey” and Willie became “Ado Annie,” however the name “Ado” was derived from Lynn’s half-aunt Hannah Ada Riggs.
Riggs seldom returned to Claremore and in some of his plays, he referred to a town called Blackmore, reflecting his childhood bitterness. He did not return even for the funeral of his father. In his earlier plays, the father was the prototype of a stern, unsympathetic figure.
At last Lynn was able to put to rest the dark issues of his life and the unhappy memories of Claremore and out of his soul came “Green Grow the Lilacs.” His play dramatized a life and people like none other in literature.
“Green Grow the Lilacs” became “Oklahoma!” in 1943. It was then that Lynn became financially able to purchase a two-story house surrounded by lilacs on Shelter Island in New York. When critics, envisioning a log cabin, asked if the two-story white house in the play was accurate, Riggs replied, “It ought to be. I was born there.”
Lynn Riggs died in New York City, June 30, 1954 of stomach cancer. His sister, Mattie, was again at his side to give him comfort. His body was shipped back to Claremore for the funeral service. Oklahoma governor, Johnston Murray, sent an Oklahoma flag to drape the coffin, the first time Oklahoma’s flag had been used for this purpose. He is buried in Claremore’s Woodlawn Cemetery.
Claremore has renamed Route “66” through the city “Lynn Riggs Boulevard.” When newcomers arrive, they usually ask, “Who is Lynn Riggs?” We are proud to inform them of Oklahoma’s premiere playwright.
Submitted by the Claremore Museum of History, 121 N. Weenonah, open every Saturday from 11a – 3p!