As citizens of the nation continue through the summer, distracting themselves from difficult truths by howling at the moon and one another, I spent this past weekend in Manhattan seeing revivals of two classic period pieces of American theater. Magnificent productions of “Our Town” and “South Pacific” are about to close after long successful runs.
Escapist and quaint? Not at all. These shows are as imaginative, poignant and pertinent today as they were the very first time their curtains came up, each a reminder of aspects of our national character, some grand and others we still struggle to put behind us.
“Our Town” is Thornton Wilder’s famous 1938 meditation on life and death, told via the comings and goings of everyday people in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, a fictitious country town at the turn of the 20th century. Its message: that we are too often, too busy with our day-to-day existence to pay heed to the wonder of it all. And when we are dead, we are dead. But not quite.
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“We all know that something is eternal,” the play’s omniscient Stage Manager tells us. “And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars … everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
The human beings of Grover’s Corners are proudly American, parochial but commonsensical, loyal, educated and devout. They read the paper and go to choir practice. Their children study Cicero and the Louisiana Purchase.
The only ethnic influence is indicated by a couple of references to the twins delivered by Doc Gibbs over in “Polish Town” – “Across the tracks … You know, foreign people that come here to work in the mill, couple of Canuck families, and the Catholic Church.” So much for immigration reform.
But some of these townsfolk yearn for broader horizons. “It seems to me,” Doc Gibbs’ wife says, “that once in your life, before you die, you ought to see a country where they don’t talk in English and don’t even want to.” A concept still lost on homegrown xenophobes who would seal off our borders and minds, eschew diplomacy with those not Judeo-Christian and hunker down, ever vigilant and paranoid, in Fortress USA.
(Bravo, by the way, to Josh Marshall of the web site Talking Points Memo, who, reporting on the ground zero contretemps, wrote this week, “We’re in a midst of a spasm of nativist panic and raw and raucous appeals to race and religious hatred. What effects this will have on the November election strikes me as not particularly relevant. What’s important is compiling some record of what’s afoot, some catalog for understanding in the future who was responsible and who was so willing to disgrace their country and their principles for cheap advantage.”)
Soon enough, many of the children of Grover’s Corners and other American villages and farms did see for themselves, experiencing Europe for the first time from the gruesome battlefields and trenches of World War I (but including the intellectual and sensual pleasures of Paris). And three decades after that “war to end all wars,” the Second World War found millions of Americans shipping out to all points of the globe, battling enemies on a monumental scope and scale unlike anything in history.
That’s the setting of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” When it was first produced, in 1949, the war was still so fresh in the recent past that many of the cast wore their own, barely retired military uniforms. (You can see the production this week on public television’s “Live from Lincoln Center” series. Check your local listings.)
Because we are at war again, “the play summons a sort of memory of being under threat,” its director Bartlett Sher notes, but perhaps more important, it so vividly depicts American culture – US Navy and Marines – colliding with the mores of another, vastly different society. In “South Pacific,” it’s dark-skinned Polynesia as well as a French expatriate who escaped to the islands after killing a man back home.
Two love stories confront racial prejudice head on. Lt. Joe Cable, Philadelphia lawyer to be, is in love with the Tonkinese girl Liat, but cannot overcome the elitist bigotry with which he has been inculcated. “You’ve got to be carefully taught,” he sings:
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate …
The song was so controversial it was almost cut from “South Pacific” before opening night, and later, according to “The Oxford Companion to the American Musical,” “There were cities in the deep South that would not book the tour of South Pacific because of that number.”
In parallel, nurse Nellie Forbush, the self-described Southern hick from Little Rock, falls for the French planter, Emile de Becque, but recoils, not from learning his murderous past, but when she meets the mixed race children he had with his late Polynesian wife. In the James Michener book of short stories from which the musical’s plot line was adapted, Nellie’s reaction is harsh and coarse; she uses the basest racial epithet to describe the wife and children. “Her entire Arkansas upbringing made it impossible for her to deny the teachings of her youth,” Michener writes. “… If she married him, they would be her stepdaughters. She suffered a revulsion which her lover could never understand.”
At the musical’s end, Nellie surmounts her prejudice, but so little has changed since “South Pacific” premiered more than half a century ago. Look at radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s on-air tirade last week, using that same epithet nearly a dozen times and dismissing an African-American caller’s frustration that her white husband’s friends and family made racist remarks in her presence: “If you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry out of your race.”
Alas, as the Stage Manager says in “Our Town,” “Wherever you come near the human race there’s layers and layers of nonsense.”