Michael Winship: You’ve got to be carefully taught

Michael Winship

As citizens of the nation continue through the summer, distracting themselves from difficult truths by howling at the moon and one another, I spent a  recent 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, N.H., a fictitious country town at the turn of the 20th century.

The people 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.

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 barely 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.” 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 — U.S. 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. Lieutenant 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.

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 Laura Schlessinger’s on-air tirade last week, using the basest racial 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.”

Michael Winship is senior writer for Public Affairs Television in New York City.