June 17, 2008

Enchanted Evenings -- and Days, and Lives, in Hell

(As I have worked on this, I realized I had much more to say on these subjects than I had first thought. As a result, I'm breaking my discussion of the revival of South Pacific, and the issues raised by the show itself and by much of the commentary about it, into at least two parts. If you have not read it, I recommend an earlier post to you, "Searching for Order, Meaning and Miracles, as the World Cracks Apart"; in many ways, and as will become clearer in the next installment, that previous post is a critical part of this extended essay.

For those interested, here is a detailed synopsis of South Pacific. At the conclusion of the synopsis, you will find typical examples of the praise heaped on the show when it first opened, praise which has similarly been bestowed on the revival by most reviewers.)

A scene that occurs in the middle of Act II of South Pacific constitutes the strongest evidence for the claim that the Rodgers and Hammerstein work pushed the boundaries of popular musical theater outward, and endeavored to be "serious." Those who claim the most for this work, which would include almost all those who have reviewed the current revival at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York, go considerably further: they claim that South Pacific forced those who saw the show when it was first produced in 1949 to confront deeply painful realities, primarily those related to racism in the United States, realities Americans would prefer to avoid altogether. Many of these same commentators, like Frank Rich, go on to say that the show still has crucially relevant lessons for us today.

In the second act scene between Emile de Becque and Lt. Joe Cable, the two men bitterly contemplate how racism has destroyed their most deeply desired dreams. Both of their love affairs have ended. De Becque's ended when Nellie Forbush, the young American military nurse, discovered the truth of de Becque's past that he first hid from her: that after he fled France and settled in the South Pacific islands where the action takes place, he lived with a native Polynesian woman with whom he had two children. The Polynesian woman subsequently died. The shock to Nellie renders her close to speechless and almost incoherent. She can barely make herself grasp that this handsome, charming man, who obviously loves her and whom she thought she had loved, had slept with a "colored" woman. Earlier in the same Act II scene, Nellie tells de Becque that she can't provide a "reason" for how she feels; it's just something she was "born" with. (This is the claim refuted in Cable's song, "You've Got to be Carefully Taught.") Nellie has asked for a transfer to another island to get away from de Becque, and she tells de Becque that she cannot possibly accept his marriage proposal.

Cable's affair with a beautiful young Polynesian woman, Liat, has ended by his own choice. He realizes that their marriage is similarly impossible, and that their lives back in America would be intolerable. The interracial couple would be shunned by all his friends and family, and no one would want to know them -- no one who is white, that is, which is what we're talking about here. But as Cable speaks with de Becque, Cable changes his mind. This happens in musical theater time, which means the transformation occurs in only a minute or two. Cable realizes that everything he wants, everything that he thinks will make him happy, is right there. He defiantly announces that, should he survive the war, he will never go back "to the United States of America." He uses the full country name, to underscore the strength of his determination, and to make clear his contempt for a country that so heedlessly destroys personal happiness, and does so for the most despicable and indefensible of reasons.

The moment comes dangerously close to subversion of the central tenets of the American myth. Does Lt. Cable hate his country? Could it possibly be the case that Americans aren't so "nice" after all? Everyone in South Pacific is terribly, awfully nice, as I will discuss further. To render Cable's views in contemporary terms, we might say that he comes uncomfortably close to prefiguring the arguments of someone like Jeremiah Wright. Clearly, this will not do. Something must be done about the troublesome Lt. Cable.

And so, Joe Cable is killed. Although Cable has just declared that he would find happiness staying in the islands for the rest of his life, he deliberately throws himself into an immensely dangerous situation. He decides to go on a mission behind Japanese lines, to gather information about the enemy's movements. He is well aware that the mission might be fatal, which might cause us to wonder momentarily how deeply he believes he will find contentment with Liat. But as he tells de Becque, when Cable would get in "a jam" at home, he'd find temporary escape by going "hunting." So that's what he decides to do now: he'll hunt Japs. Caught in the despair that has enveloped both of them, de Becque, whose familiarity with the islands will be a great asset, decides to go with him. This is the same mission de Becque had earlier refused, when he still thought he and Nellie would find happiness together. (Is de Becque at all concerned that if he's killed, his two children will be orphaned? The issue is never raised, by de Becque or anyone else.)

During their conversation, de Becque expresses views that are as dangerous as Cable's. De Becque was forced to leave France because he had killed a man. The man was a vicious bully, and no one was the least sorry that de Becque had killed him. Still, de Becque left to make a life for himself elsewhere. In the Act II scene, de Becque rages against the "mean, little world" populated by bullies and "mean, little men" that has pursued him even to the islands where he sought refuge. It becomes clear that he refused the mission the Americans had earlier asked him to go on because he has no use for any of the men or the countries that are causing such destruction in the world. And now, he has seen his last chance for romantic fulfillment wrecked by the vicious racism that Nellie was "born" with or that she so thoughtlessly absorbed. In his despair (and apparently forgetting all about his children), he joins Cable on the mission.

Cable is killed, but de Becque survives. Not only is de Becque not an American, he's French. Who cares about a Frenchman, even one with such views? He's not an American, so there's not too much danger there. Yes, my friends, aside from inconsequential episodes such as the American Revolution which might have taught us a very different lesson but didn't, we have always been at war with France.

When she learns that de Becque has gone on the likely fatal mission, Nellie is transformed. She realizes that love is all that matters, and that she's been "a fool." In a matter of moments (again, musical theater time), she learns to love de Becque's children as if they were her own. As she sits down to eat with the children, de Becque returns. They all sit down together, and Nellie and de Becque desperately join hands. They will be happy, and they -- and America and all of us, through the good graces of Ensign Nellie Forbush -- are redeemed.

Honestly? I mean, honestly?

You might object to the particular slant I have given to this recounting of the central events of South Pacific, but it is fully accurate in terms of what happens in the story. Perhaps you will argue that in 1949, Rodgers and Hammerstein (and Joshua Logan, who co-wrote the book of the musical), exhibited unusual "bravery" in tackling these issues. For the reasons that follow, I absolutely reject that view. South Pacific is another example, in a seemingly endless list of such examples, of how Americans -- particularly "well-meaning" and "well-intentioned" Americans -- delude themselves that they are confronting and solving deadly problems of extraordinary complexity, when all they are doing is avoiding them still another time. But, my, we do feel better about ourselves, and we are such nice people after all. From one perspective, you might consider South Pacific as a precursor of the absolution offered today by Barack Obama:
[T]his is one of the major reasons why Obama is so enthusiastically supported by certain Americans, including many liberals and progressives -- for he protests the grave injustices perpetrated against black Americans, but only in the ways that are deemed "acceptable" by the white establishment.

Obama's view of race relations in America will not provoke shock and indignation on the part of those in positions of authority, or those who wish to be -- for Obama says that black Americans have nothing to be shocked or indignant about themselves any longer. Perhaps black Americans are entitled to be angry about the past, but they shouldn't be too angry. Yes, terrible injustices were committed, but that's all behind us now. Now, we can comfortably move into a "post-racial" future, simply because we say so. The institutionalized racism that still permeates much of American life will vanish, because we will pretend it is no longer there. You should just forget about the generations of black American men who have been imprisoned, the numerous ways in which doors are slammed in the faces of other black Americans, and the lives that are blighted and sometimes ended by the murderous racism that continues to this day.

Never mind any of that. It's time to "move on." If you don't, it's your fault.
The biracial, post-racial, omniracial, all-encompassing, metaphysically omnipotent, above-, below-, all-around-, beyond-racial Obama is offering you salvation, sisters and brothers. It is remarkably mean-spirited and small-minded of you to refuse to partake in our grand, national, communal cleansing. That "endemic white racism" -- upon which the United States was founded and built, and which continues to stunt, mangle, and otherwise destroy and end many lives today, and which Obama denies entirely -- oh, hell, forget about that. We're moving beyond all that. All you have to do is believe. Can't you believe?

If you decline the offer, many terms of condemnation will be hurled at you. You will certainly be accused of being bitter, worse than which is inconceivable. Some of us will respond that bitterness has nothing to do with our resistance: we are, rather, being realistic and looking honestly at the monumental problems and errors that have plagued us in the past and continue to blight our lives today. Yet the salvation peddlers will press on. Don't you have hope?, they demand to know. You must have hope! Nellie Forbush has hope:
I have heard people rant and rave and bellow
That we're done and we might as well be dead,
But I'm only a cockeyed optimist
And I can't get it into my head.

I hear the human race
Is fallin' on its face
And hasn't very far to go,
But ev'ry whippoorwill
Is sellin' me a bill,
And tellin' me it just ain't so.

I could say life is just a bowl of Jello
And appear more intelligent and smart,
But I'm stuck like a dope
With a thing called hope,
And I can't get it out of my heart!
Not this heart...
This is central to the American credo, and to the American myth. I do not object to the spirit of "can-do optimism" in itself. My objection is to an optimism which sets hope far above facts and obliterates unpleasant and inconvenient facts altogether, and that requires us to deny the truth of our condition. I have spoken of my own sense of wonder, and how precious it is to me. But that sense of wonder is not purchased at a prohibitive cost: a self-created and intentionally maintained ignorance and stupidity that denies the immense complexities of, among other things, the racism endemic to America and to American history and culture.

Nellie, of course, comes from Little Rock, Arkansas. In the opening scene of South Pacific, she shows de Becque a society column in a hometown newspaper that talks of Nellie's military service. It thus appears that Nellie comes from a family that is somewhat well-connected and probably well-to-do. The final tableau of Nellie, de Becque and those two "colored" children sitting down to eat together promises a happy future, one where questions about the children and their mother will not lead to rocks hurled through windows, social shunning, and even worse. But South Pacific premiered in 1949. The terrible civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s still lay in the future, and much (if not most) of America remained strictly segregated: "legally" in the South, and by stringently enforced social agreement elsewhere. Nellie, de Becque and the children will certainly not find happiness back in Little Rock. Perhaps they remain on the island, and perhaps they are all happy -- for a time. Once the war is over, how long will it be before Nellie begins to wonder about the opportunities she is missing by remaining in the middle of nowhere? How long before she becomes bitter, and begins to hate de Becque, and even the children, because of the life she has given up? Ah, but we're not supposed to wonder about any of that.

And that word, "colored." That was not the word most commonly used in 1949. South Pacific was adapted from James Michener's book, Tales of the South Pacific. Consider:
In 1944, Lieutenant-Commander James Michener was serving as a general go-to guy for the Navy on the tiny South Pacific island of Espiritu Santu when he was confronted with an unusual problem: A sailor had been officially discharged from duty but refused to leave the area and return to his family home in Alabama. It turned out that the young man had fallen in love with a local island girl, and she was bearing his child. The sailor had no problem serving in combat against the Japanese fleet, but the idea of telling his parents in L.A. (Lower Alabama) that he wanted to marry a "nigger" simply terrified him. The enemy on the other side of the world was by no means easy to fight, yet confronting the enemy within was considerably harder

This was the germ of one of the 19 interconnected stories that Michener wove into his Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific, which in turn inspired Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, South Pacific.


South Pacific has always triggered powerful reactions: In 1957, it nearly inspired a race riot at the Westbury Music Fair in Long Island, of all places, when heroine Nellie Forbush announced that she was from Little Rock—a few weeks earlier, President Eisenhower had sent in troops to Little Rock to enforce integration.

In 2005, a concert version was staged at Carnegie Hall starring the Broadway baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell as de Becque. In the audience that night was the singer's father, a World War II veteran who had been one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. At the time, I remember thinking how incredible it was that Mr. Mitchell's father had had to fight a war on two fronts: against the Luftwaffe over Europe, and against deeply entrenched racism at home.
A near race riot in Long Island in 1957? One wonders exactly which race was almost rioting. Not blacks, I suspect. Could whites have almost rioted, because they might have to live in closer quarters with niggers? In America, which, as we all know, is so nice? And Tuskegee, a subject I have dealt with in connection with some conveniently forgotten history, here and here. Never mind any of that: salvation is at hand.

I just came across this review by John Heilpern of the current revival of South Pacific, which stands in welcome, clear-eyed and deservedly harsh contrast to Frank Rich's sniveling, safely mainstream, self-congratulatory stupidity. Consider this as well, from Heilpern's article:
James Michener describes the pivotal scene uncompromisingly: "Emile de Becque had lived with the nigger. He had nigger children. If she married him, they would be her stepdaughters. She suffered a revulsion which her lover could never understand."

Rodgers and Hammerstein fudge the same scene. "It means that I can't marry. Do you understand?" Nellie tells Emile vaguely.

Emile gradually understands:"It is their Polynesian mother then—their mother and I?"

"Yes.... There is no reason. This is emotional. This is something that is born in me. …"

The word "black" is never mentioned, let alone nigger. The oblique, veiled hints were daring enough in their day, perhaps. They're particularly lame now that we're meant to be having a national conversation about race.


Disillusioned Emile goes on to prove his real worth by volunteering to guide Lieutenant Cable's submarine on a suicide mission against the Japs. The heroic young lieutenant is killed in action. Emile is presumed dead (though "there's always a chance"). Meanwhile, overnight, Nellie has seen the error of her racist ways and is looking after Emile's incurably cute singing children.

"Oh my God, don't die until I can tell you! All that matters is you and I being together," Nellie cries out, pining to herself. "That's all! Just together …"

Reprises of "Some Enchanted Evening" and the Seabees' "Honey Bun" follow. ("A hundred and one/ Pounds of fun/ That's my little honey bun!/ Get a load of honey bun tonight!") Finally, Emile is reunited with Nellie and the awful kiddies when he suddenly appears on the terrace like Maria returning to the fold in The Sound of Music. He joins in a reprise of "Dites-Moi." ("Dites-moi / Pourquoi/ La vie est gaie!")

Well, what did you expect! It's a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, in case you forgot.
And what does Frank Rich say about these same issues? He begins with this: "The show's racial conflicts are also startlingly alive."

That is only one of many staggeringly dishonest lies Rich includes in his column, not only about race, but also about war.

(To be continued.)