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Theatre / Hell-Bent Fer Heaven

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Rufe and Jude (from the 1924 production)

Hell-Bent Fer Heaven is a 1924 play by Hatcher Hughes.

It is set at the home and general store owned by the Hunt family, who live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. The play is set immediately after the end of the Great War, and it opens with the Hunts eagerly greeting their son Sid, who has returned from service in France. Also glad to see Sid home are pretty Jude Lowry and her brother Andy. The Lowrys and the Hunts engaged in a violent feud years ago, but all that is forgotten and they are now friends. In fact, Jude Lowry and Sid Hunt are in love and intend to marry.

The one person who isn't happy to see Sid come home is Rufe Pryor, a local man who works as a clerk in the Hunt store. Rufe has fallen in love with Jude and is intensely jealous of Sid. Rufe has also gotten religion and is pretty intense about it, much to the irritation of his acquaintances. His jealousy and his religious fervor make for an unfortunate combination.

Hell-Bent Fer Heaven won the Pulitzer Prize, which caused a bit of controversy at the time. The jury voting for the Drama award honored a play called The Show-Off by George Kelly. However, the board at Columbia University, which oversees the Pulitzers, gave the prize to Hell-Bent Fer Heaven and Hatcher Hughes—who just happened to be a professor at Columbia.

Clara Blandick, who played Sid's mother Meg in this production, later appeared as Aunt Em in The Wizard of Oz.


  • As the Good Book Says...: Rufe starts to grow more unhinged towards the end of the play as the pressure mounts and his plans for Sid's death are frustrated. At one point he recites most of the sixth chapter of The Book of Revelation (the chapter about the moon turning to blood) verbatim.
  • As You Know: Rufe explains that the Hunts have been "as good to me as my own mammy that died when I 'us little," as a means of explaining to the audience that he was sort of their ward.
  • The Bard on Board: Hughes borrowed liberally from Othello, with Sid being a war hero returning home like Othello, and Rufe being a scheming plotter like Iago, whispering things into people's ears to set them against each other rather than taking action himself. Rufe even parrots Iago's refusal to answer questions when exposed ("From this time forth I never will speak word"), saying "An' you needn't ax me no more questions, fer I ain't a-goin' to answer 'em."
  • Battle Trophy: Sid brought home a Luger that he took from a German he killed. His fellow hillbillies aren't impressed by a semi-automatic pistol, stating that it's only for people who don't think they'll connect with their first shot.
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: The two most religious characters, Meg and Jude, are only too quick to fall for Rufe's endless God talk.
  • Bullet Dancing: Sort of. Andy points a gun at Sid and demands some square dancing, which Sid promptly does, but Andy doesn't actually shoot the gun at his feet.
  • Chekhov's Gun: It is mentioned fairly early in the play that a lot of mountain dwellers hate the newly-built dam, and that Rufe has been using dynamite for fishing. After his plot to have Andy kill Sid is foiled by Andy's bad aim, and Sid says he's going to go to the dam to place a phone call to the Lowrys, Rufe decides to kill him by blowing up the dam.
  • Deus ex Machina: The dam has failed and everyone seems doomed to die in the impending flood—when Sid reveals that he wrangled a boat on his way back from the dam.
  • Dirty Coward: While Sid went off to war, Rufe faked a disability to avoid being called up. In the present day, he is a skulking coward, whispering at people to set them at each others' throats but cowering in fear when his own hide is threatened.
  • Expy: Sid the war hero returning back to Appalachia with a chest full of medals is obviously inspired by the real-life Medal of Honor winner Alvin C. York.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The action takes place over a period of five hours one evening.
  • Feuding Families: Decades back in the back story, the Hunts and Lowrys had a violent feud. Rufe is trying his best to rekindle the feud so that Andy will kill Sid and make Jude available.
  • The Fundamentalist: Rufe is born-again, and it has rendered him extremely unstable. He is convinced that God wants him to have Jude, and he manages to talk himself into believing that God wants him to kill Sid so that he can have Jude.
  • Funetik Aksent: When this show was performed on the stage it would have been simply people talking with Appalachian accents, but when it's read on the page the dialogue is near-incomprehensible. One character says the rain is causing the river to flood by saying "they must ha' been a reg'lar toad-strangler up the river last night. She's a-b'ilin' like a kittle o' fish!"
  • Have a Gay Old Time: The various hillbillies in this play pronounce several odd happenings to be "quair" (queer).
  • It Will Never Catch On: Sid wonders if he'll be able to get some alcohol to drink, and Andy says "Don't let not gittin' it bother you. That's all talk." Prohibition was enacted very soon after the time this play was set.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Rufe is very very good at using the Could Say It, But... tactic to sow discord amongst the Lowrys and Hunts while maintaining plausible deniability. If Andy's shot hadn't missed Sid then everything would have gone according to plan.
  • Regional Riff: When a drunk, gun-wielding Andy demands music, Rufe plays "Turkey in the Straw" on the banjo.
  • A Storm Is Coming: A storm comes through, causing rising waters in the river, as matters come to a head between Sid, Andy, and Rufe.
  • Thicker Than Water: Discussed Trope, as people question whether Jude will side with her fiance or her brother in the feud between families (Rufe is hoping for the brother), and Meg says "you'll find blood's thicker 'n water." Ultimately averted as Jude sides with the man she loves, Sid.
  • Title Drop: Rufe is described as being "hell-bent fer heaven" due to his rather aggressive born-again Christianity and his habit of saying others are going to Hell.
  • You Just Told Me: When Sid's grandpa David is telling an old tale about a preacher who gave a beatdown to an obnoxious sinner in the congregation, Sid uses this tactic to get David to admit that he was the obnoxious sinner.