racism and south pacific -- 4/7/23

Today's selection -- from Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical by Laurie Winer. In their blockbuster musical South Pacific, Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers tackled the theme of racism, culminating in their now-legendary song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.” It began as Hammerstein and his collaborator Joshua Logan escaped to Hammerstein’s home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, to try and craft a play based on James Michener’s new novel, Tales from the South Pacific:

"On those eventful ten days in Doylestown, Hammerstein and Logan teased out the musical's themes from two love stories in Michener's Tales and filled in holes with characters borrowed from elsewhere in the book. They zeroed in on the revelatory experience of living overseas for two cosset­ted young Americans. From Main Line, Philadelphia, and Otolousa (changed to Little Rock), Arkansas, respectively, Lieutenant Joe Cable and nurse Nel­lie Forbush both fall for islanders -- he for a seventeen-year-old Tonkinese girl, she for a French plantation owner [Emile de Becque]. They are soon forced to see their lovers through the racist eyes of the folks back home. This proves shattering for them both, but especially Cable, culminating in his song ‘You've Got to Be Carefully Taught,’ an impassioned indictment of how racism is passed from parent to child as surely as any gene. Cable's fury -- and the reason the song works as something other than a harangue -- comes from his discov­ery that the poison is in him as well. He cannot bring his love home to Philadelphia nor can he stay forever on Bali Ha'i, the beautiful island that's always disappearing in a mist, rather like the short lifespan of blind love, or a vision of a world without prejudice.

"Reaction to this, Hammerstein's angriest song, was mixed at the time. Some fans wrote to say it was too ‘on the nose,’ ‘too blunt,’ and ‘too much like pure, harsh propaganda.’ Lieutenant Commander Thomas MacWhorter opined that the lyric ‘gives the audience the same let-down feeling as if the show were abruptly halted for a double-barrel three-minute commercial. It's like drinking a scotch-and-soda and suddenly swallowing the ice cube!’ He suggested cutting the song. Hammerstein answered:

Please forgive me for not agreeing with you .... I am most anxious to make the point not only that prejudice exists and is a problem, but that its birth lies in teaching and not in the fallacious belief that there are basic biological, physiological and mental differences between races .... I believe I get the point of your letter very clearly and I realize very well the dangers of overstating the case. But I just feel that the case is not fully stated without this song. I wish it were true that all these things are accepted by the public. You say ‘the theme is wearing thin,’ but in spite of this, I see progress being made only very slowly.

"Some questioned the song's premise; Brooks Atkinson pointed out the reverse theory of civilization, which says that ‘overcoming hate and fear is what we have to be taught. Not the other way around.’ And yet the song was impossible to ignore and to this day serves as a reminder that the country is always redefining itself, its character, and its values, usually in reference to racial animus. There are always people who feel threatened by and who fight the very idea of diversity, while others, like Hammerstein, see it as a cornerstone of our identity.

"When South Pacific played in Atlanta during a 1953 national tour, two state legislators introduced a bill to ban works that ‘had an underlying phi­losophy inspired by Moscow.’ Representative David C. Jones explained that ‘You've Got to Be Carefully Taught’ justified interracial marriage and as such was a threat to the American way of life. Phoned for his reaction, Hammerstein said he did not think the legislators were ‘representing the people of Georgia very well.’

"‘The American way of life’ was exactly what Hammerstein wanted to examine in 1949, at a moment when middle-class white Americans felt secure in their country's economic and military power. South Pacific asked that we reject the myth of our superiority and look within. Its most pointed question is delivered by de Becque, whom the Americans ask to undertake a dangerous scouting mission that ‘might tum the tide of war in this area.’ An officer pleads with de Becque, ‘We are asking you to help us lick the Japs. It's as simple as that. We're against the Japs.’ De Becque answers, ‘I know what you're against. What are you for?’

"‘He waits for an answer,’ writes Hammerstein in the text. ‘They have none.’

"As Jim Lovensheimer points out in his book ‘South Pacific’: Paradise Rewritten, the navy officers in the show frequently use the words ‘Jap’ and ‘Nip’ to describe the enemy, which was common during the war. However, it is virtually impossible to tell whether Hammerstein was acknowledging the irony of the officers' xenophobia in the larger context of South Pacific; in the middle of a war, xenophobia can seem like sanity.

"In 1949, institutionalized racism was a fact of life. In the absence of federal anti-discrimination laws, the map of the United States was a patch­work of inequity. Children recited ‘liberty and justice for all’ at segregated schools in twenty states. Thirty states prohibited mixed marriage, and only eighteen states had made discrimination in public accommodations illegal. Fourteen states permitted or required segregated railroad cars. Fifteen mil­lion African Americans needed to consult state statutes to find out where they were allowed to sit or drink or ride or go to school.

"South Pacific issued a call to root out what was poisonous in the soil of our national identity. The show brilliantly reassures us of our essential de­cency, and only then does it make its statement -- that, unless we are vigilant about the enemy within, our decency as well as our democracy can be lost. And the country loved it; Americans responded ardently when asked to be better than they were. Hammerstein knew how to challenge with one hand and give tribute with the other.

"The result for audiences was an overwhelmingly moving celebration of America's unique possibilities as a beacon of decency. But to achieve that effect, Hammerstein and Logan had to clear out some of the book's messier complexities. One needs a clean surface on which to project such large emotions.

"Reality is more real in Michener because it is more specific. The nurses stationed on the island are not the fun-loving young women of the musical; in fact, they feel a constant physical threat, both from the islanders and the Gls themselves. Attacks on nurses were ‘grim, hushed up affairs.’ Mich­ener writes. ‘With thousands of men for every white woman ... it was to be expected that vague and terrible things would occur.’ Hammerstein sweeps this under the rug. The navy men who sing ‘There Is Nothing Like a Dame’ are in awe of American womanhood; they may be horny, but they are wholesome.

"Hammerstein's de Becque has two small, adorable children; in the novel he has eight daughters with four women of three different ethnicities -- Javanese, Tonkinese, and Polynesian. De Becque keeps all of this from Nel­lie until they are engaged to be married. Michener's Nellie finds herself shocked, and for a surprising reason: ‘Emile de Becque, not satisfied with Javanese and Tonkinese women, had also lived with a Polynesian. A n****r! ... He had n****r children.’

"Hammerstein's Nellie, on the other hand, says nothing of the kind. In an early draft she was permitted one use of the word ‘colored’ to show her small-town racism, but even that was deleted during rehearsal. (Director Bartlett Sher restored the word in his great 2008 production at Lincoln Center.)

"And yet Michener's book, too, is at times simplistic. For instance, his Nellie overcomes her racism after lying in bed and thinking about it for a little while. In the musical the change takes time and is prompted when she finds out that de Becque is off on what may be a suicide mission. Ham­merstein teases out the conflict, almost to the point of melodrama. His de Becque loves Nellie so much he essentially loses the will to live when she rejects him. That's why he volunteers to scout Japanese movement on a nearby island. When Nellie finds out he is gone she realizes how wrong she was. As penance, she installs herself in de Becque's home -- apparently rais­ing his kids with the help of servants -- which is where he finds her upon his return."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Laurie Winer


Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical


Yale University Press


Copyright 2023 by Laure Winer


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