Driving Miss Daisy
ALFRED UHRY 1987
Alfred Uhry had already been writing for musical theater for twenty-five years when his first nonmusical play Driving Miss Daisy became a surprise smash hit. Originally slated to run for five weeks at a small theater in New York City, demand for tickets was so high that it moved to a larger theater where it ran for about three years. Uhry also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. In his preface to the published play, Uhry commented on the experience.
When I wrote this play I never dreamed I would be writing an introduction to it because I never thought it would get this far.... When I wonder how all this happened... I can come up with only one answer. I wrote what I knew to be the truth and people have recognized it as such.
Indeed, the numerous critics who lauded the play displayed remarkable similarity in their comments. They liked the play’s sincerity, dignity, and honesty. Dealing with issues that plague all people—white or African American, northern or southern—the appeal of Driving Miss Daisy is universal.
Driving Miss Daisy went on to become an equally successful movie, winning best picture, best actress, and best screenplay adaptation for Uhry. Uhry’s surprise success has also given him the freedom to continue pursuing his writing. In plays and musicals since Driving Miss Daisy, Uhry has continued to explore issues of concern to southern Jews, but his work is essentially about basic humanity.
Alfred Uhry was born around 1936 to an upper-middle-class German-Jewish family. He grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, where his father was a furniture designer. He left the South in 1958 to attend Brown University in Rhode Island, and he graduated with a degree in English. Uhry next moved to New York to begin his career in show business. He began collaborating with the composer Robert Waldman. Their play The Robber Bridegroom(1975) was their most successful, earning Uhry a Tony nomination and a Drama Desk nomination. It is a musical based on the southern writer Eudora Welty’s novella. Uhry wrote the book and the lyrics. The play was a surprise hit Off-Broadway and moved to Broadway for the 1976-77 season.
He continued to work on other musicals, many of which closed on opening night or soon thereafter, or never even opened. To earn a living, he also wrote lyrics for television shows and commercials and also taught English and drama at a New York high school. In 1984, Uhry was struggling to get a workshop production of a musical about Al Capone off the ground and thinking about leaving theater. Suddenly, the idea came to him to write a play instead.
The characters in Driving Miss Daisy(1987) are based on people that Uhry knew growing up, including his grandmother and her African-American chauffeur. The play, Uhry’s first, was an instant success, quickly moving from the 74-seat Studio Theatre to another larger Off-Broadway theater and winning for Uhry another Drama Desk nomination. The play ran for three years. It was produced in regional theaters, by a national touring company, and in London, England. In 1988, it won a Pulitzer Prize.
It was also made into a movie. Uhry wrote the adaptation, for which he won an Academy Award. He had prior screenplay experience, having helped finish the script for the 1988 film Mystic Pizza. The film, Driving Miss Daisy, also won the 1990 Academy Award for best picture.
After his surprise hit, Uhry was approached by the Olympic Games Cultural Olympiad to produce a play for the 1996 Olympic Games that would be held in Atlanta. The play he wrote, The Ghost of Ballyhoo, won him another Tony Award the following year. In 1998, he wrote the book for the musical Parade, which played at Lincoln Center in New York.
The play spans a period of twenty-five years in an unbroken series of segments. At the beginning of the play, Daisy Werthan, a seventy-two-year-old, southern Jewish widow, has just crashed her brand-new car while backing it out of the garage. After the accident, her son Boolie insists that she is not capable of driving. Over her protests, he hires a driver—Hoke Coleburn, an uneducated African American who is sixty. At first, Daisy wants nothing to do with Hoke. She is afraid of giving herself the airs of a rich person, even though Boolie is paying Hoke’s salary. She strongly values her independence, so she also resents having someone around her house.
For the first week or so of Hoke’s employment, Daisy refuses to let him drive her anywhere. He spends his time sitting in the kitchen. One day, however, he points out that a lady such as herself should not be taking the bus. He also points out that he is taking her son’s money for doing nothing. Daisy responds by reminding Hoke that she does not come from a wealthy background, but she relents and allows him to drive her to the grocery store. She insists on maintaining control, however, telling him where to turn and how fast to drive. On another outing, she gets upset when he parks in front of the temple to pick her up, afraid that people will thinking she is giving herself airs.
One morning Boolie comes over after Daisy calls him up, extremely upset. She has discovered that Hoke is stealing from her—a can of salmon. She wants Boolie to fire Hoke right away. Her words also show her prejudice against African Americans. Boolie, at last, gives up. When Hoke arrives, Boolie calls him aside for a talk. First, however, Hoke wants to give something to Daisy—a can of salmon to replace the one he ate the day before. Daisy, trying to regain her dignity, says goodbye to Boolie.
Hoke continues to drive for Daisy. She also teaches him to read and write. When she gets a new car, he buys her old one from the dealer.
When Daisy is in her eighties, she makes a trip by car to Alabama for a family birthday party. She is upset that Boolie will not accompany her, but he and his wife are going to New York and already have theater tickets. On the trip, Daisy learns that this is Hoke’s first time leaving Georgia. Suddenly, Daisy realizes that Hoke has taken a wrong turn. She gets
frantic and wishes aloud that she had taken the train instead. The day is very long. It is after nightfall that they near Mobile. Hoke wants to stop to urinate, but Daisy forbids him from doing so as they are already late. At first Hoke obeys her, but then he pulls over to the side of the road. Daisy exclaims at his impertinence, but Hoke does not back down.
Hoke is exceedingly loyal to Daisy, but not so loyal that he does not use another job offer as leverage to get a pay raise. He tells Boolie how much he enjoys being fought over. One winter morning, there is an ice storm. The power has gone out and the roads are frozen over. On the telephone, Boolie tells Daisy he will be over as soon as the roads are clear. Right away, however, Hoke comes in. He has experience driving on icy roads from his days as a deliveryman. When Boolie calls back, Daisy tells him not to worry about coming over because Hoke is with her.
In the next segment, Daisy is on her way to temple, but there is a bad traffic jam. Hoke tells her that the temple has been bombed. Daisy is shocked and distressed. She says the temple is Reformed and can’t understand why it was bombed. Hoke tells his Page 61 | Top of Articleown story of seeing his friend’s father hanging from a tree, when he was just a boy. Daisy doesn’t see why Hoke tells the story—it has nothing to do with the temple—and she doesn’t even believe that Hoke got the truth. She refuses to see Hoke’s linkage of prejudice against Jews and African Americans. Though she is quite upset by what has happened, she tries to deny it.
Another ten years or so has passed. Daisy and Boolie get into an argument about a Jewish organization’s banquet for Martin Luther King, Jr. Daisy assumes Boolie will go with her, but he doesn’t want to. He says it will hurt his business. Daisy plans on going, nonetheless. Hoke drives her to the dinner. At the last minute, she offhandedly invites Hoke to the dinner, but he refuses because she didn’t ask him beforehand, like she would anyone else.
As Daisy gets older, she begins to lose her reason. One day Hoke must call Boolie because Daisy is having a delusion. She thinks she is a schoolteacher and she is upset because she can’t find her students’ papers. Before Boolie’s arrival, she has a moment of clarity, and she tells Hoke that he is her best friend.
In the play’s final segment, Daisy is ninetyseven and Hoke is eighty-five. Hoke no longer drives; instead, he relies on his granddaughter to get around. Boolie is about to sell Daisy’s house—she has been living in a nursing home for two years. Hoke and Boolie go to visit her on Thanksgiving. She doesn’t say much to either of them, but when Boolie starts talking she asks him to leave, reminding him that Hoke came to see her. She tries to pick up her fork and eat her pie. Hoke takes the plate and the fork from her and feeds her a small bite of pie.
Hoke is sixty years old when the play begins. He is an unemployed, uneducated African American. He has worked as a driver and delivery man previously. He is pleased when Boolie hires him, both for the job and because he likes to work for Jews. He is extremely patient with Daisy and tolerant of her barely disguised prejudices. He also is not afraid to speak up to her, always, however, in a quiet, respectful manner. When his dignity is at stake, he speaks up for his rights. His integrity
teaches Daisy how to be a more humane person. Hoke also develops as a result of their friendship, for instance, Daisy teaches him to read. Perhaps most importantly, the financial security Hoke obtains over the twenty-five years brings him greater self-confidence and self-respect.
Daisy is a seventy-two-year-old widow living alone when the play opens. She is independent and stubborn, but her son Boolie insists on hiring a driver for her after she crashes her car while backing out of the garage. Daisy deeply resents Hoke and the implication that she is no longer able to control her own life. However, Hoke’s mild manner eventually wins her over, and she finally allows him to drive her to the market. He serves as her driver for the next twenty-five years. Through her friendship with Hoke, Daisy loses some of her deep-rooted prejudice against African Americans and even comes to consider herself a supporter of civil rights. Although she becomes unable to care for herself as she gets older, eventually moving to a nursing home, she never loses her determination or her sense of self. Some of the characteristics that identified her at the beginning of the play, such as her bossiness or her sense of humor, are with her as strongly at the end of the play.
Boolie is Daisy’s son. He is forty years old when the play begins. He has taken over his father’s printing company, and, over the course of the play, he develops into one of the city’s leading business figures. As the years pass, he becomes more conscious Page 62 | Top of Articleof how he will be perceived by society, and, consequently, does not want to attend the United Jewish Appeal banquet for Martin Luther King, Jr. Boolie takes good care of his mother, but he sometimes neglects her feelings. When her opinion disagrees with his, he generally overrides her without thinking about what she really wants or why she wants it. However, he humors his mother’s stubbornness rather than try to understand it.
Although Boolie’s wife Florine is never seen by the audience, she is still a lively character. She is Jewish but socializes with the Christian community and surrounds herself with Christian trappings, such as Christmas decorations. She has high social aspirations and is a member of many organizations. She values social status and symbols more than she does family, and primarily because of this, Daisy thinks she is shallow and foolish.
Race and Prejudice
Race and prejudice are important themes in the play. Prejudice is demonstrated against both African Americans and Jews. Several brief statements remind readers of the situation for African Americans in the South. Hoke tells Boolie that he has had a hard time finding a job, for “[T]hey hirin’ young if they hirin’ colored.” Years later, Hoke refers to the fact that African Americans cannot use white facilities. Prejudice against Jews is demonstrated through the bombing of the temple and Boolie’s reference to businessmen who dislike and stereotype Jews. He recognizes their belief that “as long as you got to deal with Jews, the really smart ones come from New York.” Hoke also specifically mentions the way many Southerners feel toward Jews: “People always talkin‘ ’bout they stingy and they cheap, but doan’ say none of that roun’ me.”
Daisy, herself a Jew, feels prejudice against African Americans, though she denies it. When the play opens, Daisy refers to African Americans as “them,” which does not escape Boolie’s notice. After she is convinced that Hoke is stealing from her, she becomes more aggressive in her accusations. “They all take things, you know,” she tells Boolie. Later in the same scene, she even says, “They are like having little children in the house. They want something so they just take it. Not a smidgin of manners. No conscience.” She also mimics the speech of uneducated African Americans like Hoke: “‘Nome,’ he’ll say.” Daisy’s accusations, which indict all African Americans, backfire when Hoke brings her a new can of salmon. She can no longer hold his actions against an entire race. Throughout the course of the play, however, Daisy begins to lose her prejudices. She even argues with Boolie about their presence at a banquet honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
Despite this change, she still does not see the prejudiced world around her clearly, and does not understand that some white Southerners dislike Jews as much as they dislike African Americans. When the temple is bombed, she is certain it must be a mistake—“I’m sure they meant to bomb one of the conservative synagogues or the orthodox one. The temple is reform”—or that Hoke misheard the police officer. Hoke, however, understands better than Daisy. “It doan’ matter to them people,” he says.“A Jew is a Jew to them folks. Jes’ like light or dark we all the same nigger.” Daisy refuses to believe this, for even though she makes great strides in combating her prejudice, she still feels superior to Hoke, for many reasons: she is wealthier, she is his employer, and she is white. Because of this innate feeling, she does not invite Hoke to attend the King banquet with her until virtually the last minute. Hoke pridefully refuses, knowing that it is only because she takes him for granted that she did not speak with him about it sooner.
The relationship between Daisy and Hoke is at the heart of this play. When Daisy first meets Hoke, she dislikes him, both because he is African American and because she resents his presence in her home. Over the years, she comes to grow fond of Hoke, though her gruff speech would not indicate this. Both Hoke and Daisy, however, understand the feelings that they share. On the day of the ice storm, Hoke drives to her home despite the slick roads. He wants to be there for Daisy, whom he knows will be alone. Although Daisy is “[T]JouchecT” and calls his actions “sweet,” she still reproves him for tracking dirt into her kitchen. Hoke says, “Now Miz Daisy, what you think I am? A mess?” Though Daisy responds in the affirmative, the stage directions note, “This is an old routine between them and not without affection.” It is not until Daisy is much older—and getting occasionally confused—that she puts her feelings into words. “You’re my best friend,” she tells Hoke, and she takes hold of his
hand. It seems likely that she wants to express her feelings for Hoke while she is still able to do so.
An important theme in the play is growing old. The play spans twenty-five years. By its end, Daisy is ninety-seven, Hoke is eighty-five, and Boolie is sixty-five. The characters all experience changes over the years. Daisy becomes more liberal, while Boolie becomes more conservative. Daisy and Hoke also become good friends. The two share the knowledge of the difficulties of aging. When Daisy grows confused, thinking that she is still a teacher, she says to Hoke, “I’m being trouble. Oh God, I don’t want to be trouble to anybody.” She realizes that her aging is making her more difficult, and she is afraid that she will become a burden. Hoke points out that she at least has the benefit of aging in comfort. “You want something to cry about, I take you to the state home, show you what layin’ out dere in de halls.”
Eventually, Boolie puts Daisy in a nursing home. The stage directions note that “[S]he seems fragile and diminished, but still vital.” Her aging has not made her unwilling to speak her mind. “Go charm the nurses,” she tells Boolie when she wants him to leave. Though she is unable to feed herself very well, she still has her mind.
For his part, Hoke has changed too. He can no longer drive and, instead, must rely on his granddaughter to chauffeur him around. Through Hoke’s inability to drive, the play also demonstrates that as people get older, they lose their independence, in a sense, becoming more like children again. Hoke is unable to visit Daisy often because the bus doesn’t go to the nursing home. Hoke admits that “it hard [to visit Daisy], not drivin’.” At this point in their lives, people like Daisy and Hoke must rely on others for almost everything—even for the maintenance of cherished friendships.
Daisy’s automobiles (of which there are many) are central symbols in the play. For Daisy, driving her own car represents freedom. This freedom is taken away from her when Boolie hires Hoke. For Page 64 | Top of ArticleHoke, Daisy’s cars—the Oldsmobile that he purchases used from the dealer after Boolie gets Daisy a new car—represents a rise in social status. “Keep them ashes off my ’polstry,” he warns Boolie, as the two men drive to the dealership. For Boolie, however, the car is just an object, a large, dangerous object in the hands of his mother, which he places in the hands of a driver he can trust.
Even when Daisy relents and allows Hoke to drive her car—in a sense, take away her freedom—she does her best to continue to assert herself. On their first trip together, Daisy tries to instruct Hoke on the route to take. “I want to go to it [the Piggly Wiggly] the way I always go,” she says, demonstrating her fixation with being in charge of herself. Hoke, however, rejects her orders, refusing to turn as she tells him to, because he knows a better route to the store. This exchange shows each person’s basic nature: Daisy’s stubborn insistence on denying that change can occur, and Hoke’s quiet yet resolute manner of teaching Daisy to accept change.
Daisy’s house also has symbolic meaning. Like the car, it symbolizes her independence. She feels she should be in charge of her house, thus when Boolie hires Hoke, her control of this sphere is undermined. The other characters recognize what the house means to Daisy. Boolie does not sell it until she has been in the nursing home for several years and will never come home. “It feels funny to sell the house while Mama’s still alive,” he says to Hoke, “I know I’m doing the right thing.” He looks to Hoke for affirmation, which he finds, but he also admits that he is not going to tell his mother what he is doing. Hoke also agrees with this decision. Both men know that Daisy will not idly abide the only symbol of her independent adulthood being taken away.
Almost the entire play takes place in Atlanta, Georgia. Daisy has spent her life in the city, though she grew up in a much poorer section of town. She is a part of Atlanta’s Jewish community. She belongs to a temple and takes part in Jewish cultural events. Boolie has also spent his life in Atlanta. He has taken over his father’s printing business, and he becomes a leading figure in the city’s circle of businessmen. Though his wife, Florine, is also Jewish, she socializes within the Christian community because it gives her higher status.
Even though Atlanta is a thriving city, the atmosphere is more that of a small town. The people within Daisy’s social circle are all well acquainted. Even Hoke has a connection to the Werthans prior to working as Daisy’s chauffeur. He used to work for a Jewish judge whom Boolie knows.
Although Daisy leads an insular life, she does get out of the city. Boolie, as well, takes trips to New York. Hoke, however, has never left Georgia before he drives Daisy to attend a funeral in Alabama. Hoke originally comes from a farm near Macon, and his recollection of the lynching of his friend’s father serves as a reminder of the racial violence that regularly took place in the rural South. Although his family also lives in Atlanta, they clearly belong to the generations of African Americans who leave the South, or if staying there, make the choice to do so. His daughter, married to a train porter, has visited northern cities such as New York and Detroit and urges her father to do so. His granddaughter still lives in Atlanta, but she is an educated scientist, teaching at an African-American college.
The play has no specific acts and scenes. Instead, it is divided up into segments, some of which flow one into the other, others that do not. The play also spans twenty-five years, so sometimes large amounts of time pass between segments. This structure frees the action of the play from time or plot constraints. Uhry can create exactly which incidents he believes will be the most evocative. The structure also emphasizes the compactness of the characters’ lives. Though the fluid structure would seem to indicate that little changes over the course of twenty-five years, that is not the play’s reality.
After the end of World War II, American society and economy saw significant changes. During the war, many women, Mexican Americans, and African Americans were employed in defense factories. After the war ended, however, as government measures encouraged employers to hire veterans, many of these people lost their jobs. Congress even abolished the Fair Employment Practices Committee, which had protected African Americans from job discrimination. Overall, however, unemployment remained low, and incomes increased. Even though the economy experienced dramatic inflation, many Americans, who had scrimped during
the war years, were eager to spend their savings. Rising consumerism helped lead to a new era of prosperity.
President Harry S. Truman ran for reelection in 1948. His stand on civil rights became an important issue in the campaign. Two years earlier, in 1946, African-American civil rights groups had urged Truman to act against racism. African Americans faced segregation and discrimination in housing and employment. African Americans in many areas continued to be lynched, a crime that the courts ignored. Also, Southern African Americans were prevented from voting through the use of poll taxes.
In 1948, Truman banned racial discrimination in the military and in federal jobs. In response, Southern Democrats formed their own party, one that called for continued racial segregation. Despite these party divisions, Truman won the presidency.
The Civil Rights Movement
African Americans began taking a more active stance in the 1950s to end discrimination in the United States. During the 1950s, the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of schools and transportation systems. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The first civil right Page 66 | Top of Articlelaw passed since Reconstruction, this act made it a federal crime to prevent any qualified person from voting. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., also emerged as an important civil rights leader. He urged the use of nonviolent resistance to bring about the end of racial discrimination. King was assassinated in 1968.
In the 1960s, civil rights activists continued to challenge racist policies in interstate transportation and voter registration. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, barring discrimination in employment and public accommodations, and giving the Justice Department the power to enforce school desegregation. Congress also passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which put the voter registration process under federal control. Within three years, over half of all eligible African Americans in the South had registered to vote.
Despite these successes, many African Americans grew to question the effectiveness of nonviolent protest. Some felt they should use violence for self-defense, while others did not want to integrate into white society at all. These African Americans adopted the slogan “Black Power,” which became widely used by the late 1960s. They wanted greater economic and political power and even complete separation from white society.
Throughout the 1970s, African Americans, as well as other minority groups, continued to fight for equal rights. President Richard Nixon, however, vowed to not ask for any new civil rights legislation. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that busing could be used to integrate schools, he denounced their decision. By the middle of the decade, more African Americans were enrolling in college, holding professional jobs, and serving in public office. African-American political leaders formed strong alliances and effective lobbies.
Women and Society
Although popular culture in the 1950s presented the ideal woman as a full-time suburban homemaker, many women in that decade held jobs outside the home. By the 1960s, the women’s movement was experiencing a widespread revival. Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique vehemently rejected the popular notion that women were content with fulfilling the roles of wife, mother, and homemaker. Friedan charged that many women felt stifled by this domestic life. The National Organization for Women, a women’s rights group, was formed in 1966, and more and more women joined the movement throughout the 1970s.
The National Women’s Political Caucus, founded in 1971, encouraged women to run for political office. Women’s leaders believed that women in public office would contribute to the shaping of public policy in favor of equal rights. In 1972, Congress passed the Education Amendments Act, which outlawed sexual discrimination in higher education. Many all-male schools began to allow women to enroll. The women’s rights movement, however, failed to win passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, a constitutional amendment barring discrimination on the basis of sex. Although Congress passed the ERA in 1972, not enough states ratified the bill, therefore it never became a law.
The Aging Population
Several measures contributed to a changing lifestyle for elderly Americans. President Lyndon B. Johnson initiated the Medicare program in 1965, which offered national health insurance to people over the age of 65. Americans were living longer, so by the 1970s, the aging population contributed to a dramatic rise in U.S. spending on health care—from $74 billion in 1970 to around $884 billion in 1993.
Driving Miss Daisy was the first play that Alfred Uhry wrote and he based it on people he had known growing up in the South, particularly his grandmother and her driver. The play’s original schedule called for it to run for five weeks at Playwrights Horizon, a New York nonprofit theater that seated an audience of seventy-four. When the five-week run was up, the play was extended another five weeks, and when that was up, the play moved to a bigger theater. A year and a half later, the show was still playing in New York, and also around the country. Uhry also won the Pulitzer Prize.
Audiences and critics immediately responded to the play, even when its premise seemed distinctly unpromising. In American Theatre, Don Shewey recalls his experience.
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I remember trudging upstairs... to see a play that sounded distinctly unpromising. It was about—gads!—an elderly white woman and her black chauffeur. On one hand, it sounded politically unsavory: Have we progressed no further than portraying African-Americans onstage as servants. On the other hand, it sounded
theatrically too dreary for words: How could it be anything but a parade of predictable Sunday-school pieties about how we’re all alike under the skin and we should all get along? I personally resisted every inch of the way the feeling I left the theatre with that night: Wow, [this] is a good play!
Critics commented on the play’s appeal, in fact, often using that very word. In the New York Times, Mel Gussow refers to the play’s “homespun appeal” and its “renewed sincerity.” Robert Brustein writes in the New Republic that the play “has both appealing brevity and considerable quality.” He calls viewing the play “an experience of considerable power and sensitivity.” These critics, along with others, responded to the play’s basic humanity and the truths it told. “It is the work of decent people,” writes Brustein, “working against odds to show how humans still manage to reach out to each other in a divided world.” Judy Lee Oliva, in Contemporary Dramatists, says that “Driving Miss Daisy is a play about dignity in which all the characters strive to hold onto their personal integrity.”
The play deftly presents an overview of the changing values and times in the South. Spanning from 1948 to 1972, the play alludes to important themes of the twentieth century, such as racism and prejudice. Its focus on the relationship between two people allows for a more personalized view of historical realities. Oliva notes that the play is “representative of a time in history and tells about that time via this one story.” However, as Gussow points out, “history remains background. The principal story is the personal relationship, the interdependence of the two irrevocably allied Southerners.”
Critics overwhelmingly warmed to the characters, who carried this play smoothly along: the crusty Daisy and the restrained but prideful Hoke. Gussow declares that the play sometimes “seems more like an extended character sketch or family memoir than an actual drama.” Even Florine, the invisible character, emerges, “deftly characterized by the playwright,” writes Brustein, “with simple strokes through Daisy’s attitude toward her.”
Uhry’s subtlety of writing was also appreciated. Oliva calls Uhry “a master of understatement.” Notes Gussow, “The play remains quiet, and it becomes disarming, as it delineates the characters with almost offhand glimpses.” He uses Hoke’s casual declaration “The first time I left Georgia was 25 minutes ago” as an example of this technique. Oliva further believes that Driving Miss Daisy was distinguished from other plays of the decade by “the subtlety with which the playwright Page 68 | Top of Articleempowers his dramaturgy, enabling him to address issues of race and ethnicity and to explore conflicts of old versus young, rich versus poor, Jew versus gentile, while maintaining the emphasis on the very human relationship that develops between Daisy and Hoke.”
Even after its New York run ended, Driving Miss Daisy remained with the American audience. Uhry adapted it into a film that came out in 1989. Like the play, it garnered numerous positive reviews including one from Vincent Canby of the New York Times who declared it to be “the most successful stage-to-screen translation” since Dangerous Liaisons. Driving Miss Daisy went on to win Academy Awards for best actress, best screenplay adaptation, and best film.
Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she compares Daisy and Hoke, discussing fundamental similarities that contribute to their friendship as well as differences that influence their actions.
More than twenty years after Alfred Uhry arrived in New York with dreams of becoming a lyricist, he made a surprise hit with his first original play, Driving Miss Daisy. Uhry had actually made the decision to leave the theater for good when, as he told a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, he suddenly decided to write a play about his grandmother. Lena Guthman Fox was a former schoolteacher who insisted on driving long after she could safely do so, so her family hired Will Coleman, an African-American chauffeur. Uhry believed that exploring their friendship could, at the least, counter misperceptions about racial relations in the South. Driving Miss Daisy took New York’s theater-going crowd by storm and played Off-Broadway for three years.
Daisy Werthan is the play’s title character, but she shares the stage and the audience’s respect with Hoke Coleburn, the illiterate African-American man, twelve years her junior, who nevertheless becomes her “best friend.” The two older people, though of vastly different backgrounds and socioeconomic classes, are able to establish a valuable relationship.
They share crucial similarities, yet their differences allow them the opportunity to learn from each other and enrich their lives.
The play opens with Daisy’s refusal to acknowledge that she is no longer capable of driving safely. “It was the car’s fault,” she declares, speaking of her accident. She longs for her old car. “You should have let me keep my La Salle.... It never would have behaved this way,” she tells Boolie. Daisy wants to be in control of her own life. Don Shewey, writing in American Theatre, points out some of the reasons for Daisy’s stubbornness. “Her physical and social vulnerability, because of her age and because she’s Jewish in an overwhelmingly Christian society, only exacerbates the sharpness with which she hides her fear and fragility.”
Hoke also suffers the same vulnerability, because of his age, but primarily because of his racial background. Unlike Daisy, he admits to this insecurity. When Boolie comments that Hoke has been out of work for a long time, he frankly replies, “Well, Mist’ Werthan, you try bein’ me and looking for work. They hirin’ young if they hirin’ colored, an’ they ain’ even hirin’ much young, seems like.”
Though Daisy is white and Hoke is black, they both have preconceived notions of race. Daisy holds deep-seated prejudices against African Americans, but she does not acknowledge them, for they are simply the fabric of her society. For instance, a missing can of salmon provides all the opportunity she needs to denounce his race: “They want something so they just take it,” she says to her son, Boolie. Over the years, Hoke’s quiet honesty and dignity force Daisy to rethink her ideas.
Hoke also has strong notions about Jews. Unlike Daisy, however, his prejudices are positive. “I’d druther drive for Jews,” he tells Boolie during his interview. “People always talkin’‘bout they stingy and they cheap, but doan’ say none of that roun’ me.” He holds Jews in higher esteem than their Christian counterparts for no truly valid reason—the same way that Daisy’s prejudices have no basis.
Both Daisy and Hoke are formidably stubborn, but they have different ways of showing this trait. Daisy tends toward verbal protestation, as when Boolie tells her that he is going to hire a driver. Though she speaks loudly and vehemently, the play aptly demonstrates Daisy’s habit of eventually succumbing, though she acts like she is not doing so even while it is happening. She also attempts to maintain control of her own life by placing herself
in charge of the unimportant details that comprise her surroundings, including the speed at which Hoke drives. Hoke, in contrast, speaks little but takes firm action. He sums up his strategy for getting his way in the initial job interview: “I hold on no matter what way she run me. When I nothin’ but a little boy down there on the farm above Macon, I use to wrastle hogs to the ground at killin’ time, and ain’ no hog get away from me yet.” The following exchange, which takes place on their first car ride together, typifies each character’s determination:
DAISY:... Where are you going? HOKE: To the grocery store. DAISY: Then why didn’t you turn on Highland Avenue? HOKE: Piggly Wiggly ain’ on Highland Avenue. It on Euclid, down near the—DAISY: I know where it is and I want to go to it the way I always go. On Highland Avenue. HOKE: That three blocks out of the way, Miz Daisy. DAISY: Go back! Go back this minute! HOKE: We in the wrong lane! I cain’ jes’—DAISY: Go back I said! If you don’t, I’ll get out of this car and walk HOKE: We movin’ You cain’ open the do’! DAISY: This is wrong! Where are you taking me? HOKE: The sto’. DAISY: This is wrong. You have to go back to Highland Avenue! HOKE: Mmmm-hmmmm. DAISY: I’ve been driving to Piggly Wiggly since the day they put it up and opened it for business. This isn’t the way! Go back! Go back this minute! HOKE: Yonder the Piggly Wiggly. DAISY: Get ready to turn now. HOKE: Yassum.
The exchange also shows their manner of dealing with each other. Daisy quite vocally makes demands. Hoke, quietly, ignores them and continues on his chosen path. To get her way, Daisy makes threats (“I’ll get out of this car and walk.”) and validates her superior knowledge (“I’ve been driving to the Piggly Wiggly since the day... they opened it for business.”). As her futile protests grow more frantic, Hoke responds by not responding (“Mmmm-hmmmm.”). When Daisy finally accedes that Hoke has gotten his way (“Yonder the Piggly Wiggly.”), she again grasps control of the situation (“Get ready to turn now.”), at which point
Hoke is smart enough to let her salvage her pride (“Yassum.”). This pattern repeats itself over the years, but becomes increasingly shortened. Decades later, Hoke is driving Daisy to a banquet for Martin Luther King, Jr.:
DAISY: You forgot to turn. HOKE: Ain’ this dinner at the Biltmo’? DAISY: You know it is. HOKE: Biltmo’ straight thissaway. DAISY: You know so much. HOKE: Yassum. I do. DAISY: I’ve lived in Atlanta all my life. HOKE: And ain’ run a car in onto twenty years.
Both Hoke and Daisy know that, despite their age or race, they have basic human rights. As Daisy points out to Boolie at the very beginning of the play, “I am seventy-years old as you so gallantly reminded me and I am a widow, but unless they rewrote the Constitution and didn’t tell me, I still have rights. And one of my rights is the right to invite who I want—not who you want—into my house.” Daisy, of course, loses this argument, primarily because it is theoretical and really has little meaning in her daily life. In the grand scheme, Daisy’s rights are not trodden upon to any significant extent.
Hoke has a different experience. Though Daisy does not realize it, she continually questions his human dignity, and the audience can gather, other whites in Southern society do just the same. On the trip to Alabama, Hoke needs to urinate. When Daisy tells him that “there’s no time to stop” and that they will “be in Mobile soon,” Hoke also feels compelled to remind Daisy of his rights—and follow up on his declaration:
HOKE: Yassum. (He drives a minute then stops the car.) Nome. DAISY: I told you to wait! HOKE: Yassum. I hear you. How you think I feel havin’ to ax you when can I make my water like some damn dog? DAISY: Why, Hoke! I’d be ashamed! HOKE: I ain’t no dog and I ain’ no chile and I ain’ jes’ a back of the neck you look at while you goin’ wherever you want to go. I a man nearly seventy-two years old and I know when my bladder full and I getting’ out dis car and goin’ off down de road like I got to do. And I’m takin’ de car key dis time. And that’s de end of it.
Unlike Daisy, Hoke must stick to his resolution because much higher stakes are involved.
Although Hoke makes points such as this, and even though Daisy comes to move away from her prejudice and to accept Hoke as a friend, she still cannot bring herself to treat him as an equal. The Martin Luther King, Jr., banquet best shows Daisy’s struggle. She wants Hoke to accompany her but waits until the last minute to tell him, “Boolie said you wanted to go to this dinner with me tonight.” With pride, Hoke refuses to attend: “next time you ask me someplace, ask me regular.” Only at the end of the play is Daisy able to treat Hoke in a way consistent with her feelings: she takes his hand.
Daisy and Hoke are also drawn together partially because they both reside outside the norm of Southern society. Daisy, not surprisingly, refuses to acknowledge this truth. The temple bombing perfectly illustrates this concept. Daisy can’t believe that her synagogue has been the object of attack. “Well, it’s a mistake. I’m sure they meant to bomb one of the conservative synagogues or the orthodox one. The temple is reform.” Hoke understands the mindset of prejudiced people: “It doan’ matter to them people. A Jew is a Jew to them folks. Jes’ like light or dark, we all the same nigger.” This “otherness” help Daisy and Hoke to form a meaningful, lasting friendship that is mutually beneficial. Daisy strengthens Hoke’s inner world, giving him access to the tools that will bring greater self-respect, such as a steady income, a car, and the ability to read. Hoke strengthens Daisy’s outer world, helping her to become a better person, one who can move beyond her proscribed point of view and embrace concepts, such as civil rights, that will bring positive change to others. At the end of the play, their cohesiveness is demonstrated by this simple act: “(He cuts a small piece of pie with the fork and gently feeds it to her. Then another as the lights fade slowly out.).”
Source: Rena Korb, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Christopher Edwards portrays Driving Miss Daisy as a “sentimental” and “comfortable” play in the following review.
Hay fever (the ailment not the play) prevented me from writing a column last week. Here are a couple of the more interesting productions that opened in the last two weeks.
Comfortable is one word for Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Driving Miss Daisy. Sentimental is another. What has become of this American award? I had just begun to think that if David Mamet could win it (for Glengarry Glenn Ross) then perhaps we could start taking it seriously again. Mamet was an original talent, without any doubt. This piece is an example of cosy American liberalism murmuring reassuring noises to itself. Purring is general, all over Broadway.
It is 1948. Rich, crusty old Atlanta Jewess (Wendy Hiller as Daisy) is persuaded by long-suffering son Boolie (Barry Foster) to employ poor illiterate old black chauffeur Hoke (Clarke Peters). Daisy, in her seventies, is unfit to drive, but wishes to soldier independently on (hurray for indomitable old bats like Daisy). The last thing she wants is an old black in the house (boo, but we know she will learn), least of all one who might disturb her frank idea of the stereotype nigger (‘they all take things’). But the author has a stereotype of his own in store. Enter Hoke, as honest as the day is long (hurray again), quietly dignified (goes without saying, but more cheers), loyal to his old charge and full of homely Deep South insight; oppression breeds wisdom in a black man’s soul, yessir.
It is not the message that deprives the piece of bite so much as its user-friendly serrations; an autumnal glow just will bathe every prejudice in sight. And of course there is the utter predictability of the play’s ending. Twenty-five years on, in 1973, shared racial suffering and common humanity have sealed a geriatric concord. At the end, old Hoke visits older Daisy in the nursing home to feed her Thanksgiving pie.
Both lead actors are excellent. The considerable virtues of the production lie in the playing. Clarke Peter’s Hoke is sparky, outspoken and engagingly ingenuous. Wendy Hiller completely eschews the Jewishness of Daisy, but that which would be unforgivable on Broadway is not much missed in the West End. Her cantankerous hauteur manages to be funny, vilely prejudiced and quaintly heroic—virtu refusing to give any quarter. But experience and old age bring her round. Her style of tight, crusty humour, of inarticulate expressiveness, does its best to cut across sentimentality. This is most notable in the scene where Hoke is driving her
to the synagogue, burnt down by anti-semites. The event prompts Hoke’s own youthful memories of lynched blacks dangling from trees. Daisy’s tears at this point confirm a sense of identity with Hoke that her snobbery has been resisting throughout. Wendy Hiller ages so touchingly, and accurately, too (she is into her nineties by the end)—making faint, fluttering, expressive gestures of protest and despair with her hands. In fact both actors manage to create an air of simple, characterful spontaneity that almost overcomes the formulaic promptings of the text.
Source: Christopher Edwards, “Southern Comfort,” in Spectator, Vol. 260, No. 8345, June 18, 1988, pp. 38-39.
Robert Brustein presents a review in which he expresses that Driving Miss Daisy is an “experience of considerable power and sensitivity.
New American plays, banished from New York’s main stem, are cropping up in out-of-the-way quarters in modest productions. I belatedly popped in on two such works of reputation, both of them set in the Page 72 | Top of ArticleSouth. My seat was warm for only one act of Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias at the Lucille Lortel Theatre—an excruciatingly cute concoction in the Beth Henley manner about a bunch of gabby women in a beauty parlor trading artificial wisecracks (sample: “I’m not crazy—I’ve just been in a bad mood for forty years”). At the John Houseman Theatre, however, Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy, which might sound equally unappealing in bare outline, proved to be an experience of considerable power and sensitivity.
It was also exquisitely acted and directed, one of those rare moments in theater when every aspect of production seems to be controlled by a single unifying imagination, Driving Miss Daisy plays for about 90 minutes without intermission, further documenting my only formula for popularity on the stage these days—that critics and audiences will embrace most warmly those productions that last an intermissionless hour and a half. (Paradoxically, they are only slightly less enthusiastic about those lasting between four and nine hours with breaks for lunch and dinner.) I can’t say why this is so—perhaps it is a consequence of the fast forward buttons on our VCRs. I only know that brevity now seems to have become a more important factor than quality in determining theatrical success.
Driving Miss Daisy has both appealing brevity and considerable quality. It is a first play by Uhry, who has hitherto been associated with musicals (he wrote book and lyrics for The Robber Bridegroom). If his talent holds against the inevitable pressures, we have another gifted playwright in our midst. Uhry comes from a German-Jewish family in Atlanta. His play is apparently autobiographical, a series of vignettes about the relationship between an aging Southern Jewish matriarch (presumably his grandmother) and her only slightly less venerable black chauffeur. Having once again totaled her car, Daisy Werthan is now considered too feeble to drive. Her son, Boolie, employs Hoke Coleburn to transport her back and forth to the supermarket, the synagogue, the cemetery where her husband is buried—invariably over Daisy’s contentious objections. The play concerns the evolving intimacy between these two aged people, the gentle, bemused black man and the cranky Southern Jewess who resists his services—a kind of I’m Not Rappaport without the jokes. The old alliance between Jews and blacks is somewhat strained these days. It was already strained in the South during the period of the play, 1948 to 1973. Although “Miss Daisy” (as Hoke calls her, using the common form of subordinate Negro address) persists in believing that she feels no bigotry toward blacks, she is deeply opposed to Hoke’s presence in her house, and not just because he reminds her of her helplessness. Daisy embodies all the racial prejudices of her class toward the “other” that Hoke represents.
Including an assumption about thieving black people. Daisy complains to her son that she is missing a can of salmon, having found the empty can under the coffee grounds. Hardly a generous spirit, she assumes that Hoke has stolen this 33-cent item and wants him dismissed. Hoke enters, offering her another can of salmon, to admit he helped himself because the pork chops she gave him were “stiff.”
But Hoke, though unfailingly courteous, is not merely a passive image of virtue. It takes him six days to persuade Daisy to let him drive her car (“the same time it took the Lord to make the world”), and when he finally gets her in the Oldsmobile, grumbling and complaining, driving becomes an occasion for a battle of wills. “Hold on, you’re speeding,” she tells him, as he hurtles along at 19 miles per hour; they have a quarrel about the proper route to the supermarket; she complains that he parked the sedan in front of the synagogue (“like I was Queen of Romania”) instead of at the side entrance. A former teacher, Daisy is sensitive about being wealthy (“I don’t want you, I don’t need you, and I don’t like you saying I’m rich”), while Hoke tries to persuade her there’s nothing wrong with having a little money.
They disagree about everything and Hoke spends his days moping in the kitchen, a talkative man deprived of conversation. Only when they drive to visit her husband’s grave does some intimacy spring up between them. Unable to make out the writing on the gravestone, Hoke arouses Daisy’s tutorial instincts by admitting he’s illiterate. Before long she is teaching him to read phonetically, and later gives him a handwriting copy book as a gift.
Daisy denies this is a Christmas present. She disapproves deeply of Jews who observe that holiday, chief among them her daughter-in-law, Floreen, whose idea of heaven on earth, she says, is “socializing with Episcopalians.” Floreen is an invisible character, deftly characterized by the playwright with simple strokes through Daisy’s attitude toward her. Floreen puts reindeer in her trees, a Christmas wreath in every window. (“If I had [her] nose,” snorts Daisy, “I wouldn’t go around saying Merry Page 73 | Top of ArticleChristmas to anyone.”) Despite her nose, Floreen ends up as a Republican National Committeewoman, the type of woman who goes to New York to see My Fair Lady rather than attend the funeral of Daisy’s brother in Mobile.
The trip to Mobile inspires tender and nostalgic memories in Daisy, who recalls tasting salt water on her face at her brother’s wedding. As for Hoke, he admits to having never left Georgia before, and “Alabama ain’t lookin’ like much so far.” Yet even this intimate journey inspires arguments. Hoke has to pass water; Daisy wants him to wait until they reach a Standard Oil gas station. But colored people aren’t allowed to use white rest rooms and Hoke, shouting he will not be treated like a dog, stops the car and disappears into a bush. Her small piping “Hoke?” signifies a belated realization of just how much she needs him.
Going to the synagogue one morning, both of them see a big mess in the road. The temple has been bombed. By whom? “Always the same ones,” says Hoke. Daisy is convinced the hoodlums meant to bomb the conservative synagogue, but as Hoke observes,“A Jew is a Jew—just as in the dark we’re all the same nigger.” This shared suffering moves Hoke to speak of a time when the father of his friend was lynched, his hands tied behind his back and flies all over his body. “Why did you tell me that story?” asks Daisy. “Stop talking to me.”
By the time she’s nearing 90, and extremely feeble, Daisy has developed enough social conscience to help organize a United Jewish Appeal banquet honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Now it is her son, a successful banker with business to conduct with a racist clientele, who is hesitant about public demonstration of Jewish-black friendship. But Daisy persists. “Isn’t it wonderful the way things are changing?” she says to Hoke, who grumbles, “Things ain’t changed that much.” Daisy has waited until the very day of the King memorial to invite him to join her at the banquet—and with quiet pride he refuses.
Growing senile in her 90s, confused and rambling, convinced she’s teaching school again, Daisy realizes, with a start, that Hoke, the black man, is her best friend. And when her son and Hoke come to visit her in the nursing home, it is Hoke she wishes to talk to. “How old are you?” he asks. “I’m doing the best I can.” “Me too,” he responds, “.. . that’s all there is to it.” In the final action of the
play, a sweet, delicate moment, he feeds her two pieces of pie.
This odd love story, though it never underestimates the difficulty of intimacy between the races, could easily grow mawkish. It is a tribute to Uhry’s discreet understatement that the sentiment does not grow into corn—or into The Corn Is Green. It is also a testimony to the gracefully detailed direction of Ron Lagomarsino and the splendid acting performances of Dana Ivey as Daisy Werthan and Morgan Freeman as Hoke Coleburn. (Ray Gill, playing Boolie like a portly young Charles Durning, is also effective in a more sketchy role.) The way Ivey and Freeman each age 25 years in the course of the action has been widely admired, and it should be. This is not a technical stunt, but the achievement of two gifted actors fully inhabiting their roles. Padded and spectacled in her flowered dress and lace collar, Ivey gives Daisy a growing fragility, inwardness, and snappishness that personifies perfectly realized old age, while Freeman’s gray-haired, hatchet-faced, stooped, vaguely cadaverous Hoke is a portrait of a dignified, endearing soul. When he simulates driving the car, sitting on a stool, gently turning the wheel, and raising his eyes as if to watch his passenger in a rearview mirror, he creates a space filled with serenity.
The economy of the acting is matched by that of the production. Thomas Lynch’s setting consists of a scrim, a few sticks of furniture, and two stools that represent the front and back seats of the car. Arden Fingerhut’s lighting enhances the multiple scene changes. And Robert Waldman’ s string trio composition—viola, cello, and banjo—blends atmospheric music with the twangy sounds of the South. Driving Miss Daisy is all of a piece, combining elements of sense and sensibility, not to mention generous portions of pride and prejudice. It is the work of decent people, working against odds to show how humans
still manage to reach out to each other in a divided world.
Source: Robert Brustein, “Elegy for Old Age,” in New Republic, Vol., 197, No. 3793, September 28, 1987, pp. 28-30.
In the following review, John Simon offers an illustration of the main characters in the play Driving Miss Daisy.
There is a kind of play as redolent of the good old days as 5-cent beer and about as likely to make a comeback. What a sweet surprise, then, to find Driving Miss Daisy, a two-and-a-half-character play by Alfred Uhry (author and lyricist of The Robber Bridegroom, which I missed), at the tiny upstairs theater of Playwrights Horizons; it is full of an old-style unpretentiousness, coziness, and—despite genuine emotions—quietude. It concerns Miss Daisy Werthan, a crotchety, parsimonious, monumentally stubborn 72-year-old Atlanta widow, who, while insisting she can still drive, has to bow to the combined wills of her son, Boolie, and all the insurance companies in the land and accept a black chauffeur, Hoke, whom Boolie has hired for her.
Hoke is delighted that the Werthans are Jews, whom, in the past, he has found much easier to work for than Baptists. But he has never met the like of Miss Daisy for taciturn intractability, almost whimsical orneriness. He himself is a proud and determined man, respectful but never servile, possessed of amusingly ingenious ways to drive an iceberg as well as a car. The play covers, in bright but unflashy episodes, twenty-five years in these two lives, with Boolie providing an intermittent, droll or exasperated, obbligato to a duet that progresses from discord to close harmony in small, credible steps.
It is to Uhry’s credit that there is no cheating. Miss Daisy, in her prosperity, never forgets her hard, impecunious childhood and struggling schoolteacher days; though she is not exactly a champion at the other virtues (except perhaps at propriety), in the generosity sweepstakes she was left at the starting gate. Her always-offstage maid, Idella, has come to terms with this; Boolie, who pays Hoke out of his pocket (“highway robbery,” Daisy calls his modest salary), plays along with it; it is Hoke who, slowly, good-humoredly, dismantles Daisy’s suspiciousness and isolation, even if he can never quite get her ’ungivingness’ to give.
Still, Daisy teaches Hoke to read and write even as he teaches her about human rights and wrongs, and a prickly (on her part) and wary (on his) affection develops between them, the limits of which she will not overstep even after she, well into her nineties and after many changes in cars and conditions, declares him her best friend. Even more than a delicate miniaturist’s talent, the playwright exhibits tact: He milks neither the sentiment nor the humor of the situation, and also resists, without avoiding the issues of racism and anti-Semitism, giving us a social tract. Neither the bombing of the synagogue to which Hoke has been regularly driving her nor the testimonial dinner for Martin Luther King Jr. that, despite her son’s cautious abstention, she insists on attending can induce Miss Daisy to accept Hoke as her equal in every way.
The dialogue is savory and spirited, and although not a moment of Driving Miss Daisy becomes momentous, not a minute of its 80 is boring. Even the predictable, in Uhry’s hands, manages to be idiosyncratic enough to be palatable, and connoisseurs of filigree pleasures should feel snugly ensconced here. Those pleasures are vastly enhanced by a tastefully trimmed-down production, smartly and unfussily directed by Ron Lagomarsino and designed with elegant economy by Thomas Lynch (scenery), Michael Krass (costumes), and Ken Tabachnick (lights). But the evening’s jewel is the acting. Dana Ivey, in splendid command of the accent, gives a performance exemplarily clean of outline yet rich in detail. I am not wholly sure that (without a chance for elaborate makeup) she really reaches 97 in the end, a feat even more rare on the stage than in life. And Ray Gill infuses the almost incidental role of Boolie with uncommon restraint and suggestiveness.
Primus inter pares, however, is Morgan Freeman. A specialist in tough, violent, often malign Page 75 | Top of Articleparts, he plays Hoke with an easygoing steadfastness both ironic and overwhelmingly humane. His pliability is strength in action, his sarcastic muttering cauterizes as much as it cuts, his wry warmth is as devoid of self-abnegation as of self-righteousness, and his overarching shrewdness is always clearly at the service of decency and good sense. I cannot think of another actor who could get such emotional variety from mere “Yes’m”s, or whose last-ditch self-assertion could be more quietly commanding. A magnificent performance.
Source: John Simon, “Daisy and Miller,” in New York, Vol. 20, No. 18, May 4, 1987, pp. 122, 124.
In this article, Alfred Uhry describes his inspiration for creating the three characters in his play.
There was a real Miss Daisy. She was a friend of my grandmother’s in Atlanta, back in the forties when I was a child. She was a “maiden lady” as we called it then, the last of a big family, and she lived in what I remember as a spooky old Victorian house. There was a Hoke, too. He was the sometime bartender at our German-Jewish country club, and, I believe, he supplemented his income by bartending at private parties around town. And Boolie. . . well, I didn’t really know him, but he was the brother of my dear Aunt Marjorie’s friend Rosalie. They were real people, all right, but I have used only their names in creating the three characters in Driving Miss Daisy. I wanted to use names that seemed particular to the Atlanta I grew up in. The actual characters, though, are made of little bits and pieces of my childhood. Quite a bit of my grandmother, Lena Guthman Fox, and her four older sisters have gone into Miss Daisy herself. And I guess my mother, Alene Fox Uhry, is in there too. Hoke is based on my grandmother’s chauffeur, Will Coleman, but also on Bill and Riley and Marvin and Pete and other black chauffeurs I knew in those days. And Boolie is so many pieces of so many men I know (including me, I suppose) that it would be hard for me to say what exactly comes from what.
I find that there is unusual interest in my offstage character Florine, Boolie’s wife. Many people have said (by mail or in person) that they know Florine, she is their aunt, their cousin, their old friend from home, etc., etc., etc., and who was she really? I will never tell.
When I wrote this play I never dreamed I would be writing an introduction to it because I never
thought it would get this far. The original schedule was a five-week run at Playwrights Horizons, a New York nonprofit theatre, in the spring of 1987, and I made sure various family members from Atlanta would get to town during that period. The theatre seated seventy-four people. Just the right size, I thought, for a little play that could surely have appeal only to me, my family, and a few other southerners. To my amazement, the appeal was much wider. When the five weeks was up, the engagement was extended for another five weeks, and by then the demand for tickets was so great that we had to move to a bigger theatre.
Flash forward a year and a half. Now there are several companies playing and many more productions planned in all parts of the world. I am in the process of writing the screenplay. I have won the Pulitzer Prize. Even as I write these words they seem unbelievable to me. When I wonder how all this happened (which I do a lot!) I can come up with only one answer. I wrote what I knew to be the truth and people have recognized it as such.
And I have been remarkably lucky. My wife, Joanna, has believed in me for thirty years. How can you ever thank somebody for that? And my daughters, Emily, Elizabeth, Kate and Nell, have always been loving and understanding about what I do for a living. Flora Roberts, my agent for twenty-five years, has always been my friend too, as well as a wonderful sounding board. I must also thank Jane Harmon, Robert Waldman, Andre Bishop, Ron Lagomarsino, Dana Ivey, Morgan Freeman, and Ray Gill for caring so much.
This has been one helluva ride!
Source: Alfred Uhry, “Preface,” in Driving Miss Daisy, Theatre Communications Group, 1986, pp. vii-ix.
Brustein, Robert, Review of Driving Miss Daisy in New Republic, Vol. 197, No. 13, September 28, 1987, pp. 28-30.
Canby, Vincent, ‘“Miss Daisy,’ Chamber Piece from the Stage” in New York Times, December 13, 1989, p. C19.
Gussow, Mel, Review of Driving Miss Daisy in New York Times, April 16, 1987, p. C22.
Oliva, Judy Lee, “Alfred Uhry: Overview,” in Contemporary Dramatists,5th ed., edited by K. A. Berney, St. James Press, 1993.
Shewey, Don, “Ballyhoo and Daisy, Too” in American Theatre, Vol. 14, April, 1997, p. 24-27.
Uhry, Alfred, Preface to Driving Miss Daisy, Theatre Communications Group, 1986.
Shewey, Don, “Ballyhoo and Daisy, Too,” in American Theatre, April, 1997, p. 24-27.
This article surrounds a talk between Shewey and Uhry about several of his plays, providing a unique look at Uhry’s perspective of his work.
Sterritt, David, “A Voice for Themes Other Entertainers Have Left Behind,” in Christian Science Monitor, July 29, 1997, p. 15.
This article discusses Uhry’s work in relation to prevailing attitudes toward morality in the United States.