Summary of Green Grow the Lilacs, the play on which Oklahoma! is based

The musical play Oklahoma! is based on Green Grow the Lilacs, a non-musical play with songs. The songs are used in the play, not to advance the action, but to create the mood of the time, as remembered by the author, Lynn Riggs, of his growing up in Oklahoma.

The story begins with Curly coming to the Williams' farm house singing "Ta whoop ti aye ay, git along, you little dogies!", a cattle driving song, replaced by R&H with "Oh, what a beautiful mornin'". The dialogue that follows is pretty much the same. Later in that scene, on Aunt Eller's demand, Curly sings, "A-ridin' old Paint and a-leadin' old Dan". After Curly describes his rig, and Laurey rejects him, having already promised to go to the party with Jeeter (as Jud was known in Lynn Riggs's play), he sits down at the organ and accompanies himself singing "Green grow the lilacs" (tune).

The next scene takes place in Laurey's bedroom, with Aunt Eller and Laurey, and soon they are joined by Ado Annie, and later by the peddler, who, in this version, is Syrian. Laurey sings "One morning, as I rambled o'er" ("The Miner Boy"). Later Aunt Eller sings "Young, men, they'll go courting" ("Sing down, hidery down").

Scene three is supposed to be simultaneous with scene two, and has Curly and Jeeter in the smoke house, until Curly fires a gun, and then the women come out to see what has happened. Curly sings "Sam Hall".

Scene four is the party, which takes place on the porch of Old Man Peck's house. The scene begins with singing, "The Little Brass Wagon", which (I think) has the tune of "Skip to my Lou".

Scene five takes place in the hayfield of the Williams' house, a month later. Curly and Laurey have just been married, secretly, and are trying to get away, lest the men throw a shivoree. But of course the men are wise to them, and they are caught. But someone notices a haystack is on fire. Jeeter is there, drunk, with a firebrand. The men try to restrain him, putting out the torch. Then Jeeter and Curly struggle. But Jeeter is killed. So the men persuade Curly to go with them and give himself up to the law.

Scene six takes place a month later. Curly escapes from jail just to see Laurey. The men come to take him back, but Aunt Eller persuades them to wait till morning.

There are characters of Ado Annie and a peddler, but they are more fully developed in Oklahoma!  Ike Skidmore is mentioned as the rancher Curly works for; in Oklahoma!, he takes the place of Old Man Peck.  Will Parker is mentioned in the smokehouse scene, and is based on the real Will Rogers, which is how the character is added and developed in Oklahoma!  All of the characters are probably descendants of Confederate soldiers, who moved west after life in the old South became difficult.

Sources:  Riggs, Lynn, Green Grow the Lilacs, A Play; New York: 1930;  Samuel French; and a conversation with Argus Hamilton, who grew up in Oklahoma.


These definitions were included with the text of the play Green Grow the Lilacs, by Lynn Riggs:

Other words

The following was found on an Oklahoma! website:

Brief History of Indian Territory

The territory was, for the most part, included in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. In 1804 Congress added it to the Indiana Territory. In 1805 the land west of the Mississippi was included in the Louisiana Territory, with the present state of Louisiana organized as Orleans Territory. When Louisiana became a state, the Louisiana Territory was renamed the Missouri Territory. In 1819, Arkansas Territory was created, by detaching the land south of 36°30' S latitude from Missouri Territory. In 1836, the eastern part of Arkansas Territory became the state of Arkansas, with the western part reverting to unorganized status. Between 1828 and 1846 the United States began removing Indians from eastern lands and resettling them in Indian territory. It was believed that whites could not live successfully on the great plains, but that Indians could. In particular, the United States signed treaties with the Five Civilized Tribes, viz. the Cherokee, Chickasaw, [Muskogee] Creek, Choctaw, and Seminole, granting their territorial lands, "as long as grass shall grow and rivers run". They were recognized as independent nations under the protection of the United States.

During the Civil War, the Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw, and Seminole leaders signed treaties with the Confederate government, and officially backed the South. The Cherokee tried to remain neutral, but a battle forced them into aligning with the South. Indians of all five tribes fought on both sides of the war, and, in fact, more Cherokees and Creeks fought for the Union.

After the war, the federal government declared the treaties void, because the Five Civilized Tribes had fought for the South. They began giving out parts of their land to other Indians who were being evicted from the plains. From 1865 to around 1880, there were many cattle drives from Texas to railheads in Missouri and Kansas. The Indians were quite willing to have the white cattlemen pass through their land, as long as they didn't settle there. By 1880, land suitable for farms was now becoming scarce, and whites began to covet the fertile land of Indian Territory. The government negotiated with the Indians to buy out their claims, and as most of the Indians had settled in the eastern part of the territory, the western part was opened to white settlement at noon on April 22, 1889. Over 100,000 would-be settlers, called "Boomers", flooded in overnight. Some had sneaked in before the date and became known as "Sooners". Congress passed the organic act for the Territory of Oklahoma in 1890. As more areas were opened to white settlement, these areas were added to Oklahoma in 1893. Maps now showed "twin territories" of Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory. The government continued to negotiate with the Indians in Indian Territory to assign reservation lands to individual Indians and sell the surplus to whites. In 1901 Congress made all Indians in Indian Territory citizens of the United States. At that time there was no organized government for Indian Territory, but Congress had declared the laws of Arkansas applied there.

By 1900 whites in Indian Territory outnumbered Indians by 5 to 1. There were two proposals regarding statehood. One proposal was to admit them as separate states. The other was to combine them as a single state. This was debated, both in Congress and the Territories. In 1905 the Indian leaders called a convention to discuss statehood, inviting white settlers to participate. They drew up a constitution and selected the name of Sequoyah, from the name of the great Cherokee chief. But Congress rejected these plans. Instead, it invited representatives of both territories to draw up a constitution for a single state. In 1907 the state of Oklahoma was admitted to the union.

The first oil was discovered in Indian Territory in 1889, and several wells were dug, in the area of Chelsea. By the 1920s Oklahoma was a major oil producer, and Tulsa grew to be a great oil city.

Sources: most material is found in the articles "Indian Territory" (by Harold W. Bradley) and "Oklahoma" (by John W. Morris; critically reviewed by Edwin C. McReynolds) in The World Book Encyclopedia; Chicago: 1964; Field Enterprises Educational Corporation; additional material from the hyperlinks in the article. 


Brief History of Cattle Raising

After the civil war, the longhorn cattle roamed southern Texas, for anyone who could round them up and claim them. The price of beef was much higher in eastern cities than in Texas, so men began rounding up the longhorns and driving them to railheads in Missouri and Kansas. The trails moved west as the frontier of settlement moved westward across Kansas. There were several famous trails, including the Chisholm and Goodnight-Loving. The cattle would graze along the trail and would usually end up fatter at the end of the trail than when they left Texas. When they arrived at the railhead, the dogies were sold and loaded onto railcars. The cowboys were paid, and often blew all or most of their pay in town, before returning home.

The accidental discovery that cattle could winter on the plains of Wyoming, plus the extension of the railroads into Texas around 1880, and the Panic of 1873, when cattlemen held their herds at the railheads and found grass nearby, spelled the end of the long cattle drives. Thus began the area of the open range. Men would "homestead" the land around a stream or lake or spring, and thus gain free use of the surrounding land; their cattle would not wander too far from their only known source of water. It was at this time that the competition between the cowmen and farmers was most intense: the cowmen were trying to preserve the open range, but farmers were finding suitable land for homesteads quite scarce.

The severe winter of 1887-8 killed about 90% of the cattle on the northern plains. Then ranchers began taking title to their land, fencing it, and sank wells powered by windmills. This was the beginning of the modern era of cattle ranching.  By 1900-10, many cattle ranches in Indian Territory or northeast Oklahoma were being broken up, as the ranchers retired and sold out to farmers.  This left many cowboys without a place to work.

Sources: The American Heritage Pictorial Atlas of United States History, by the editors of American Heritage, The Magazine of History, Hilde Heun Kagan, Editor in charge; New York: 1966, American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc.; additional material found in the article "Cowboy" (by Joe B. Frantz) in The World Book Encyclopedia; Chicago: 1964; Field Enterprises Educational Corporation.

Railroads in Oklahoma (not a complete list)

Additional Comments

  1. The action in "Green Grow the Lilacs" takes place in 1900, in the northeast part of Indian Territory. In 1907 Congress admitted them together as the State of Oklahoma. Thus, it seems to me that the setting of the play Oklahoma! is probably closer to 1907, when it was clear that Indian Territory would become part of the State of Oklahoma. (See above, on how Oklahoma became a state.)
  2. Most American musical comedies during the "golden age" (say, 1943-1966), concerned conflict between groups, so it was a standard plot device to find a conflict between groups, and reconciliation between them, often by intermarriage. In Oklahoma! it is between the farmers and the cowmen. (After 1888 the open range came to an end, and the cattlemen began taking title to land and fencing it. But, as the ranchers retired, they often sold out their spreads to farmers.  The ranchers did all right, but their cowboy employees then had to find other work, or move west. See above, on the History of Cattle Raising.) Other examples of group conflicts in American musical theater would be between the whites and the islanders in South Pacific, between street people and aristocrats in My Fair Lady, between Puerto Ricans and others in West Side Story, between the immigrants and the American-born Chinese in Flower Drum Song, between Jews and Russians and between poor and rich in Fiddler on the Roof, or between gamblers and missionaries in Guys and Dolls. The audiences of Broadway in this era were largely Jews, and Italians, of New York City, who were dealing with issues of assimilation into American society at this time.

Updated 09/08/02

Last updated 10/20/2009