Alfred Uhry was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1936. A graduate of Brown Univesity in Rhode Island, he married in the 1950s, and is the father of four daughters. Before writing Driving Miss Daisy in 1987, Uhry was best known as a librettist, or script writer, for musical plays, especially musicals adapted from other works. He wrote the stage versions of East of Eden, a novel by John Steinbeck, and The Robber Bridegroom, a novel by Eudora Welty.
Driving Miss Daisy won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1988. Based on the real-life relationship between Uhry's grandmother and her chauffeur, the play was made into a movie in 1989. Uhry wrote the screenplay, which won the Oscar for best adaptation from another medium. Uhry is also the author of the screenplays for the movies Mystic Pizza and Rich in Love.
In addition to his work in theater, Uhry has also been a teacher, serving on the faculty of New York University’s School of the Arts.
Most of the play is set in Atlanta, Georgia, with some action occuring on the road in Alabama. The specific locations range from Miss Daisy's house, to Boolie's office, to Hoke's house, to the interior of Miss Daisy's car en route to various destinations.
The deep-South setting is important. The ethnic tensions that have often been associated with this region affect the social attitudes of the Jewish Werthan family. Boolie, for example, is so eager to fit in with his Christian colleagues that he decorates his house for Christmas, something his mother finds contemptible. Boolie also refuses to attend a dinner in honor of Martin Luther King because he is fearful of being stereotyped as a Jewish liberal. Daisy, on the other hand, insists on her Jewishness in spite of the overwhelmingly Christian identity of the Southern community around her.
Most obviously affected by the social and racial milieu of the South are the personal relationships between the white Werthans and Hoke, the black chauffeur. For example, Hoke asks Boolie whether he and his mother are Jewish, declaring that though people are always saying Jews are "stingy and they cheap," he insists that they "don' say none of that 'roun' me." Hoke, in other words, doesn't share the Gentile prejudice against Jews. Miss Daisy, on the other hand, is inclined to make unflattering generalizations about blacks. At one point she is convinced that Hoke has pilfered a can of salmon from her cupboard, and she asserts that having black employees is "like having little children in the house. They want something, they just take it. Not a smidgin of manners. No conscience."
It is also important to remember that a significant chapter of the history of race relations in the United States was written in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King served as associate pastor of the Ebeneezer Baptist church.
The scenes of the action are suggested on stage by visually simple means rather than through complicated realistic settings. The playwright calls for the action to "shift frequently and . . . fluidly," with different locations such as Miss Daisy's house and Boolie's office being simultaneously present on stage, each evoked by a few carefully- chosen scenic details. Thus, the car in which Hoke drives Miss Daisy is represented by a pair of chairs or stools rather than by an actual automobile, while the house and office are indicated by two or three pieces of furniture.
The action takes place during a twenty-five year period, from 1948 to 1973. This time-period has both thematic and structural importance for the play.
There are only three characters in Driving Miss Daisy.
The first to speak on stage is MISS DAISY WERTHAN, a retired school teacher who is seventy- two years old at the beginning of the play, ninety-seven at the end. As the play opens, she is confronting the fact that she is too old to drive a car safely. From now on she must rely on a chauffeur for her transportation.
The next character we meet is BOOLIE WERTHAN, Daisy's forty-year old son. He is a successful businessman, concerned for his mother's safety. It is Boolie who insists that Miss Daisy employ a driver. At the play's end, Boolie is sixty-five. Daisy and Boolie are white, Jewish, and upper-middle-class
The third character is HOKE COLEBURN, the driver Boolie hires for his mother. Hoke is sixty when the play starts, eighty-five when it ends. He is black and a member of the working class.
TIME AND THEME.
THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. The thematic importance lies in the impact on the characters of historical events during this quarter century. The years from 1948 to 1973 include the most important developments in the civil rights movement.
Here is a brief chronology of those events:
TIME AND DRAMATIC STRUCTURE.
The long period of time represented in the play means that the action is highly discontinuous. Although the events are in chronological order, there are many successive scenes in the play that are separated by several months, or even years. For instance, a scene between Hoke and Boolie changes to one between Hoke and Daisy, with the stage directions indicating that she "is up in her eighties now and walks more carefully." This means that approximately five years have elapsed in a single transition.
This passage of time in leaps and bounds conveys the feeling that we are watching whole lives unfolding. Individuals--and society-- undergo major changes right before our eyes. This sense of continuous transformation contributes to the dramatic intensity of the play.
INDIVIDUALS. The play focuses on the way Daisy and Hoke change one another. It shows Hoke learning to assert his dignity and self-respect, while Miss Daisy acquires the wisdom to admit her dependence on another human being. The more Miss Daisy acknowledges her need for Hoke, the more Hoke comes to see his own worth, with each eventually accepting the other as an equal.
When Miss Daisy is informed by Booley that she may no longer drive her own car, and that she must accept the services of a chauffeur, she protests bitterly at this limitation of her freedom. "I still have rights," she declares, "and one of my rights is the right to invite who I want--not who you want--into my house." She is thus established as a character of prickly independence, someone who is too proud to admit any need for help.
With great reluctance she accepts Hoke at first as her employee, then as her companion, and finally as her "best friend," discovering in the process that her association with this man from a different cultural and economic background is not an encroachment on her freedom, but a major enrichment of her life. In learning to respect and depend on Hoke, she learns about the need we all have for others in living our lives.
Hoke makes a parallel discovery. Even though Miss Daisy s richer and better educated than he is, there is still much that she needs from him. And in realizing his importance to this woman of higher social status, Hoke comes to value himself more highly, and ultimately to demand the dignity he deserves as a human being.
These discoveries are enacted in a number of crucial scenes, three of which are particularly important. In the first, Hoke and Miss Daisy are visiting the cemetery where her husband is buried. Daisy asks Hoke to place some flowers on the grave of another man named Bauer. When Hoke admits he can't find the other grave because he can't read, Daisy, the former teacher, gives him an on-the-spot lesson in phonetics. From this moment on Hoke begins to study reading, and later in the play he receives a book as a present from Miss Daisy--a book whose title he can read aloud. In the cemetery scene, we see Hoke gain something important from his association with Miss Daisy as he takes a step toward the self-respect that comes from learning a new and crucial skill. It is also a moment when Miss Daisy reaches out to a fellow human being.
In the second of these three scenes, Hoke and Miss Daisy are travelling to a gathering of her family in Mobile, Alabama--a long car-ride from Atlanta. On the way they take a wrong turn, and fall behind schedule. Miss Daisy becomes frantic in her desire to make up as much lost time as possible, but Hoke informs her that he needs to pull off the road in order to relieve himself. Miss Daisy forbids him to stop the car, insisting he drive straight on to Mobile despite his discomfort. At first Hoke seems willing to obey her order. But then he rebels, declaring "I ain, 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 gettin' out dis car . . . . " Hoke stands up for himself, and when he briefly leaves Miss Daisy alone on the side of the dark road, she realizes how lost and helpless she would be without this man whose presence she has taken for granted. In teaching him to read, and thus develop self-respect, Miss Daisy may have also helped him move toward the independence he shows by refusing her unreasonable demands.
The third of these crucial scenes occurs perhaps ten years later, when Miss Daisy is in her nineties. She wakes up one morning in a state of deep mental confusion, imagining she is still a school teacher, and near hysteria because she has failed to prepare her classes. Aware that this disorientation could lead to serious consequences, Hoke confronts Miss Daisy with a stark choice: "You keep dis up, I promise, Mist' Werthan call the doctor on you and just as sho as you born, that doctor gon, have you in de insane asylum. . . . Dat de way you want it to be?" This challenge jars Miss Daisy back to reality, rescuing her from the awful possibility of confinement in the asylum. It is at this moment that she makes the major discovery of the play, telling Hoke, "You're my best friend. . . . Really. You are. You are." No longer is their relationship marred by the inequalities and tensions between a mistress and her servant. Instead, Hoke and Miss Daisy have become something like brother and sister. Also, if we compare this scene to the cemetery scene, we see a reversal in roles: now Hoke is the teacher of Miss Daisy (who only imagines she is a teacher), instructing her in the necessity of moral courage and self-control.
MACROCOSM AND MICROCOSM. Many plays implicitly ask to be seen as models of the world at large. The stage becomes a microcosm--or compact universe--mirroring the social or moral events of the macrocosm--the universe outside the theater. Driving Miss Daisy is such a play.
As we have seen, the lives of these characters take place in a community deeply affected by the civil rights movement. That movement, of course, has an impact on those individual lives. Ultimately, the change in the relationship between Miss Daisy and Hoke parallels the changes between whites and blacks in the country as a whole during the period of the play.
As the play begins, Miss Daisy's opinions of black people are condescending at best. She refers to them as children, lacking manners and conscience. Although she stoutly denies she is "prejudiced," we can see that she is deceiving herself about her real attitudes.
These attitudes emerge more clearly in two scenes in particular, the first involving the bombing of Miss Daisy's temple; the second a banquet for Martin Luther King.
In the first, Hoke draws a parallel between the bombing and the lynching of a black man he remembers from his childhood. Miss Daisy hotly denies any such connection, saying, "Ridiculous! The Temple has nothing to do with that!" Clearly, she does not want to acknowledge any resemblance between the way her neighbors regard her and her fellow Jews and they way they regard Hoke and the black people of the community. To accept the parallel would be to accept a kind of equality or identity between herself and Hoke.
In the second scene, Miss Daisy, who supports King and who declares that it is "wonderful the way things are changing," nonetheless behaves disrespectfully toward Hoke by offering him a spare ticket to the banquet at the last possible minute. Somewhat indignantly, Hoke refuses the ticket, telling Miss Daisy, "next time you ask me someplace, ask me regular," and adding under his breath, "Things changin', but they ain't change all dat much."
By the end of the play, however, Miss Daisy has come to accept Hoke as her best friend. Thus, although the racial tensions in the macrocosm--the larger universe outside Hoke and Miss Daisy's world--will continue beyond 1973, at least two people will have managed to follow through on the changes initiated by the civil rights movement, ending their relationship in a state of human connection that goes beyond the barriers of race.
THEATER AND FILM.
Driving Miss Daisy was made into a motion picture in 1989. The film features Jessica Tandy as Miss Daisy, Morgan Freeman as Hoke, and Dan Ackroyd as Boolie.
We can gain some appreciation of the major differences between the dramatic media of theater and film by comparing the play as we experience it on stage with the way we encounter it on the screen.
General Considerations. Most of us are accustomed to watching drama on film. Theater is a different medium offering experiences and rewards distinct from those provided by the movies.
The main difference between film and theater is like the difference between looking at someone's photograph and actually being with that person in the flesh: the former offers a two-dimensional representation, the latter a three-dimensional presence.
In the theater, audience and actors share the same space and time. In films, the actors are in fact elsewhere as we watch them on the screen, and the filmed events were all enacted in the past. And unlike actions on stage—which happen in a continuous chronological unfolding—the narrative on screen may have been stitched together from scenes shot at different times. For example, in many movies, the first scene shown on film may have been the last actually shot.
In theater, the audience helps to shape the performance. A responsive audience will transfer its energy to the stage: wild laughter makes comedies seem funnier, awestruck silence makes serious plays feel even more momentous. Actors in a theater know the audience is there, perceive its responses, and subtly adjust their performances accordingly. Performer and audience act as a kind of duet. In a movie, nothing the audience does can affect the recorded performances on the screen.
Movies tend to be denotative, creating imaginary worlds through detailed, realistic pictures. Theater is more connotative, its frankly artificial sets, costumes, and even acting styles operating through suggestion rather than literal resemblance. Often what pleases us in theater is the way the obviously make-believe elements on stage--such as the stools used to indicate a car in Driving Miss Daisy-are skillfully manipulated by actors, right before our eyes, to create a sense of truthful, but not literal, imitation. Through the use of imagination, the performer in the theater suggests the essence of an experience or an object without presenting an exact picture of it. The actor's imagination is thus the most important creative element in the medium of theater.
Movies achieve their artistic effects by their organization of complex and extremely dense visual and auditory experience. The director moves the camera, edits the images, and integrates the sound so as to reveal the ideas and themes contained in this realistically detailed data. The director's imagination is the most important creative force in movie-making.
This Adaptation. Theater, Movies, and Space. In the theater, the actors use imagination to suggest places off stage that we never see. In movies, on the other hand, the screen tends to show us what is only suggested in theater.
We have already noted that the actor is the most important creative figure in the theater. When the actor begins to perform, he or she absorbs all our attention. The space of the stage, and indeed the space of the whole theater including the audience, seems to be focused centripetally on the figure of the actor. Something similar happens in everyday life when a person begins to tell a joke in the office, or a story at the dinner table: that person seems to become the focus of the surrounding space. Through the commanding presence of the actor, the theater tends to keep our attention within the space of the stage itself.
We tend not to wonder about what lies outside this frame, because the actor is always calling our attention to the imaginative performance going on inside it.
In movies, however, the screen seems to be a constantly moving frame, showing us many different angles of vision on a single scene, and many different scenes within a large spatial world. This movement makes us conscious that the screen is framing only a portion of the available visual universe, and arouses our curiosity about what lies outside its boundaries. And movies tend to gratify that curiosity. The eye of the camera seems to move centrifugally through space, always toward another place, a new location.
Thus, in the film version of Driving Miss Daisy we are carried out into a surrounding world that is only suggested in the theater. We see the machines in Boolie's factory, the Christmas decorations on his house, the club where he receives his civic award; we see the other houses on Miss Daisy's block, the Piggly Wiggly where she shops, the roadside in Alabama where she and Hoke eat lunch.
In taking us to these places, the camera also introduces us to the people in them, including people barely mentioned in the play. Thus, while the play has only the three characters, the movie has dozens, including Boolie's wife and his secretary, Miss Daisy's neighbors and friends from the temple, Hoke's daughter, and Idella the cook. The movie also introduces characters and episodes not even hinted at in the play, such as the encounter on the road with the Alabama state troopers.
This process of replacing the centripetal, actor-centered dynamic of the play script with the centrifugal, spatial restlessness of movies is usually called "opening up" the play. Instead of relying on the power of actors to evoke reality through imagination, movies show us literal pictures of the world. This brings us back to where we started in contrasting theater with movies: the presence of the actor is the fundamental experience offered by theater; the viewing of moving images is the basic experience of film.
This contrast can be observed with particular clarity in the difference between the treatment of the road trip to Mobile in the play and the movie. On stage, Hoke and Miss Daisy sit in an imaginary car on an imaginary road. The passage of time and space are suggested by changes in lighting, and by physical adjustments made by the actors. No other characters are involved.
In the film version, we actually see the car, the road, the countryside, the passage from daylight to night, the towns through which Hoke and Daisy pass on their way to Mobile.
Perhaps most notably, the playwright adds a whole new scene to the movie version of the trip. He has two Alabama policemen interrupt a roadside picnic and demand to see Hoke's driver's licence, and Miss Daisy's car registration. As Hoke and Daisy drive off after having their papers examined, the policemen watch the departing car, and scoff at the "sorry sight" of a "nigger" and an "old Jew lady" riding together. Uhry uses the "opening up" process to include another event that adds to our understanding of the racial and ethnic tensions of the time and place.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
A. About the Play.
1. Does the title Driving Miss Daisy have more than a literal meaning? If so, what are some of the non-literal possibilities?
2. Why does Uhry include the scene in which Hoke tells Boolie that another family is trying to hire him as a driver? What is the significance of Hoke's last question in that scene? How does it relate to the overall themes of the play?
3. Why does Miss Daisy keep insisting she is not rich? Why does she keep referring back to the economic hardships of her childhood?
4. Why does Hoke put up with Miss Daisy's rude treatment at the beginning of the play? How does this compare with his behavior in later scenes?
5. Why does Hoke bring up the fact of the Werthan's Jewishness immediately during his interview with Boolie?
6. Why does the playwright show us Hoke feeding Miss Daisy in the last scene of the play?
7. Describe the difference between the ways Hoke and Miss Daisy speak? Consider figures of speech as well as grammar and pronunciation.
B. About the Movie.
1. What information is conveyed visually in the movie that is either suggested or not included in the play? For instance, what do we learn about Boolie's business through visual information in the movie?
2. Why does Uhry introduce the character of Hoke differently in the movie and the play? What is the significance of his first apearance in the film?
3. What does the scene in which Idella dies add to the meaning of the drama?
4. Does meeting Florine, Boolie's wife, tells us anything about him that we couldn't learn from the play? Does showing his house?
5. The process of cutting from image to image in a movie is called editing, or "montage." Are there montage sequences that add significantly to our sense of character or action? What about the sequence following Idella's death?
6. Does the use of sound in the film add any dimensions of meaning not in the play script?