Racism at Mid-Century

C.J. Eldred (Lt. Cable) and Manna Nichols (Liat) in ‘South Pacific’. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

C.J. Eldred (Lt. Cable) and Manna Nichols (Liat) in ‘South Pacific’. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Producing a musical is a summer tradition at the Guthrie, a leading nonprofit theatre in Minneapolis. South Pacific, which just happens to be my favorite musical, was this summer’s offering and I had the pleasure of catching four performances last weekend. It wasn’t happenstance that I was in Minneapolis. My grandson, C.J. Eldred, was performing the role of Lieutenant Cable. Now back in Seattle, I am having a heck of a time getting those addictive Richard Rodgers melodies out of my head.

South Pacific is a cornerstone of the American musical theatre canon. It was composed in the late 1940s by Rodgers, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan (who also directed). The work premiered in 1949 on Broadway and was an immediate hit, running for 1,925 performances. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950 and garnered ten Tony awards. The original cast album was the bestselling record of the 1940s.

I have seen several productions of South Pacific, including the acclaimed 2008 Lincoln Center revival directed by Bart Sher. This production in Minneapolis, directed by Joseph Haj, the Guthrie’s new Artistic Director, is as good as any I have seen. Everyone involved deserves a big pat on the back.

The plot of the musical was based on James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 book Tales of the South Pacific, for which Michener drew on his own experiences as a U.S. Army lieutenant in the Pacific. I knew the musical dealt with racial prejudice but until I saw this production I did not appreciate how firmly Hammerstein had put fear of the other at the heart of his creation. The Pacific theater in World War Two is the play’s setting but war is not what this play is about.

I’m not sure if this particular production gave greater emphasis to racial prejudice or rather, as I suspect, my race-relations attenna has been sensitized by the racial tension and killings in the U.S. this year, and by how one presidential candidate has made race a campaign issue with his fear of “outsiders” and the disproportionate support he receives from disaffected white men.

Contrast America’s current isolationist strain with an opinion Michener offered in his autobiography about why Tales of the South Pacific was successful: “[It was published] at a time when Americans were beginning to look outward at the entire world rather than inward at themselves.” Michener attributed America’s broadened post-war perspective to their having encountered during wartime peoples and cultures previously unexperienced by them. How far we have not come in half a century-plus.

The theme of racial intolerance finds dramatic expression in two romances: between Nellie Forbush, a nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas and Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner; and Lt. Cable, a Wasp from Philadelphia and Liat, a local Tonkinese woman. Cable declares that he cannot marry Liat because of his prejudices. Later, after Nellie has rejected Emile because he had two dark-skinned children with a Polynesian woman, Cable sings of prejudice in the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” He is singing to himself as much as to Nellie.

The musical’s creators were pressured to drop that song. After a pre-Broadway performance in New Haven which Michener attended, agitated audience members told him, “Your show will fail if you keep that song about racial prejudice. It’s ugly, it’s untimely and it’s not what patrons want to hear when they go to a musical. Please beg Rodgers and Hammerstein to take it out.” When Michener relayed this suggestion, Hammerstein replied, “That’s what the play is about.” The song stayed.

The musical stirred up trouble in the 1950s in the South. After a performance in Atlanta, some Georgia legislators issued a vehement protest against that song, and introduced legislation to outlaw entertainment having “an underlying philosophy inspired my Moscow.” A Georgia state representative said, “A song urging justification of interracial marriage is very offensive. Intermarriage produces half-breeds, and half-breeds are not conducive to the higher type of society. In the South we have pure bloodlines, and we intend to keep it that way.” It is remarkable that an American politician would utter such remarks a few years after we helped defeat Nazi Germany and stop the Holocaust.

Not that Hammerstein was impervious to commercial concerns. In the official script for South Pacific Nellie admits to a brokenhearted Emile that she is prejudiced: “I can’t help it. It isn’t as if I could give you a good reason. This is emotional. This is something that is born in me.” Emile shouts back, “It is not. I do not believe that it is born in you.” At which point Cable sings the controversial song about prejudice being taught, not born. (Psychology research has since established that xenophobia is one of many unconscious biases that we have, and that also can be overcome.) The Guthrie’s resident dramaturg Jo Holcomb found while doing research for this production that there were additional lines Hammerstein wrote for that charged scene. After Emile says, “I do not believe prejudice is born in you”, Hammerstein wrote the following lines:

Nellie: Bred in me, then – taught to me since I learned to walk. I can’t help it! There it is! . . . I can’t help it!
Emile: What are you doing out here, Nellie?
Nellie: (off her balance) What?
Emile: You and all the others who feel as you? Why are you killing and being killed by people you seem to agree with?
(Nellie looks at him horrified and terrified by his tone.)
Emile: Why don’t you go home? Go home! Go home and tell one another that all men are created free and equal. Make up a song about it – and sing yourselves to sleep!

Hammerstein cut those lines and to this day the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization won’t permit them to be used. Holcomb told me that the producers were nervous those words would seem unpatriotic at the time, noting that “this was also the time when we were plummeting into McCarthyism, so fear of sounding unpatriotic was rampant.”

As I was reminded last week, South Pacific continues to be a tremendous American artistic achievement – moving and romantic, full of unforgettable songs – with insights into our attitudes and behavior that resonate today every bit as much as they did in 1949.

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