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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: May 25, 2008
Latest Update: May 27, 2008

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Theatre as Performance; Theatre as Play

Frank Rich's article this weekend on South Pacific made me rethink my passion for interactive art and performance. I'm hyperactive, and I love to make things. And I forget that my personality pervades my teaching. I have to keep reminding myself that "some of us just sits and thinks and some of us just sits." (from an old poster we used to have in the research center.)

I was brought up short again this morning by "A Pause before Summer" on p. A18 of the New York Times' editorial section:

"[T]oday would be a good day, once the dew is off the grass, to wander out into the open and lie on your back and watch the clouds float by overhead without even trying to decide what they resemble."

I learned long ago in my teaching that there were students who drank in all that we were doing, but didn't feel the need to participate in the discussion. Susan and I never dreamt how hard it was for some of our students to "just tell us what you learned, what you did with it." Straightforward for one who was on stage at two; but maybe not so easy for those who serve by sitting more quietly by.

Once a kind local lawyer came to judge moot court and just sat there quietly listening to each student with absolutely no comment or change of facial expression. I was the only one on the panel with him, so I kept asking questions, prodding reactions, and encouraging the students to lose themselves in the scene. As I delivered comments at the end, I must have said something about expressiveness and emotion in presenting an argument. That very nice gentleman turned, look me squarely in the eyes, and informed me: "Oh, yes, I am likely to exhibit emotion such as that before the judge in a typical court room. In my whole career I've never behaved like that."

Dear me, I really blew that one. I hadn't had hardly any time to meet with the lawyer before the round. I'd been teaching. And the preparatory materials were all legal. None of them had pointed out the importance of play in learning new roles. College students are scared to death of real lawyers, just as most of those lawyers are scared to death of them in a classroom setting. My students needed to get beyond those fears to discover that they could argue logically even when their knees were shaking, to discover that lawyers and judges are just folks, like us, made formidable mostly by the power and authority of the setting in which they work.

In the early days of moot court our lawyers were part of our teaching team. So were our judges. Only in these very last years, as moot court was slowly changing into community education, did we have lawyers who came from a single round, as this gentleman had. This wasn't law school. This was learning to feel all the passion and fear and misconceptions and compassion that permeate every court session. Every citizen, every student needs that experience in a safe and loving environment. And most won't respond with my level of passion and overacting, certainly not in the real world. But they need to feel what lies beneath it all. I was so aghast at the gentleman's outburst, which must have been very unusual for him, that I don't even remember how I handled it. All I can think now is, I hope I didn't patronize him. I wish I had had the cool to share with him that even the student who may never give a passionate answer may recall years later her multiple feelings to the scene in which she first experienced real lawyers, real judges on stage in a non-threatening public space. He had been practicing so long, he probably never thought back to the courage he had had to summon at the very beginning of those trials.

My work with Moot Court was play for grown-ups. Play means taking on roles to try them out, to see how they fit, without all the risk of real life. But someone took the play out of our schools. Perhaps that's my worst complaint about the No Child Left Behind pseudo-program. There is so much emphasis on learning to a recall and application level, and the tests to measure those levels, that there's no time left for playing with the ideas, the settings, the real people we will play in real life, using all those things we learned. And there's too much competition with an emphasis on doing with all that data what we the teachers did with it, when perhaps the most important thing any of us can learn is how to see the data differently with the unspoiled imagination of one whose creativity has not yet been stifled by "the way we do things."

Because play is my primary teaching tool, I tend to work with interactive and participatory models. Frank Rich's article on South Pacific highlights the role that theatre plays in a less participatory setting: the theatre itself.

Backup of Memorial Day at ‘South Pacific’
By Frank Rich
SOURCE: New York Times
Copyright: Source Copyright.
Included here under Fair Use Doctrine for teaching purposes only and for archival preservation when old papers are dropped from existing websites or when websites and/or their archives cease to exist.

This backup copy is to be used only if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you refer to this material to the original URL: Original URL, consulted: May 25, 2008.

Highlights and commentary by jeanne.

May 25, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist
Memorial Day at ‘South Pacific’

Highlights and commentary by jeanne.

NEW YORK is a ghost town on Memorial Day weekend. But two distinct groups are hanging tight: sailors delighting in the timeless shore-leave rituals of Fleet Week, and theatergoers clutching nearly impossible-to-get tickets for “South Pacific.”

Some of those sailors served in a war that has now lasted longer than American involvement in World War II but is largely out of sight and mind as civilians panic about gas prices at home. “South Pacific” has its sailors too: this 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical tells of those who served in what we now call “the good war.”

The Lincoln Center revival of this old chestnut is surely the most unexpected cultural sensation the city has experienced in a while. In 2008, when 80-plus percent of Americans believe their country is in a ditch, there wouldn’t seem to be a big market for a show whose heroine, the Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, is a self-described “cockeyed optimist” who sings of being “as corny as Kansas in August.”

Yet last week one man stood outside the theater with a stack of $100 bills offering $1,000 for a $120 ticket. Inside, audiences start to tear up as soon as they hear the overture, even before they meet the men and women stationed in the remote islands of the New Hebrides. Among those who’ve been enraptured by this “South Pacific” the most common refrain is, “I couldn’t stop myself — I was sobbing.”

This would include me, and I have been trying to figure out why ever since I first saw this production in March. It certainly wasn’t nostalgia. I was born two months before the show’s Broadway premiere in April 1949 and had never before seen “South Pacific” on stage. It was mainly a musty parental inheritance from my boomer childhood. My father had served in the Pacific theater for 26 months, and my mother replayed the hit show tunes incessantly on 78s as our new postwar family settled into the suburbs.

Like countless others, I did see Hollywood’s glossy 1958 film version. As the British World War II historian Max Hastings writes in “Retribution,” his unsparing new book about the war’s grisly endgame in the Pacific, “Many of us gained our first, wonderfully romantic notion of the war against Japan by watching the movie of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific.’ ” But the movie of “South Pacific,” a candy-colored idyll dominated by wide-screen tourist vistas, is not the show. Its lush extravagance evokes the 1950s boom more than war.

I'm a decade older than these baby boomers, so I didn't experience South Pacific that way. This is a good example of how sharing such reminiscences offers all of us a more textured, broader understanding of what the war looked and felt like to so many of us who experienced it differently, by living it, by meeting it in a history book. jeanne

In the 1960s, after the movie had come and gone, Vietnam pushed “South Pacific” into a cultural black hole. No one wanted to see a musical about war unless it was “Hair.” Unlike its Rodgers and Hammerstein siblings “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music,” it never received a full Broadway revival.

Today everyone thinks they’ve seen the genuine “South Pacific” only because its songs reside in the collective American unconscious. “Some Enchanted Evening.” “Younger Than Springtime.” “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame.” But few Americans born after V-J Day did see the real thing, which is one reason why audiences are ambushed by the revival. They expect corn, but in a year when war and race are at center stage in the national conversation, this relic turns out to have a great deal to say.

So often it matters that we listen in good faith, open to hearing what is really being said. (Reference: good faith.) jeanne

Though it contains a romance, “South Pacific” is not at all romantic about war. The troops are variously bored, randy, juvenile and conniving. They are not prone to jingoistic posturing. When American officers try to recruit Emile de Becque, a worldly French expatriate, in a dangerous reconnaissance operation, they tell him he must do so because “we’re against the Japs.” De Becque, who is the show’s hero, snaps at them: “I know what you’re against. What are you for?” No one bothers to answer his question. The men have been given a job to do, and they do it.

This paragraph brought to mind the questions that have been asked of Senator Obama. We know you offer change, but how will that change look? How will we know it when we see it? Perhaps such questions are never answered by those who are making the changes happen. Perhaps they can't be. For change is open-ended. Make one change, and consequences follow.

I also like the description of the troops as "variously bored, randy, juvenile and conniving." No groups are monolithic. No groups are consistently alert, sensitive, cordial, studious, or any other descriptive adjective over space and time. I recognized the troops immediately as being just like my college students. Hmmm, well kind of like my preschoolers, too. Play and mischief keep us sane in face of the unthinkable and everyday monotony. jeanne

“South Pacific” isn’t pro-war or antiwar. But it makes you think about the costs. When, after months of often slovenly idling, the troops ship out for the action they’ve been craving, the azure tropical sky darkens to a gunpowder gray. Their likely mission is to storm the beach at Tarawa, where in November 1943 more than 1,000 Americans and 4,600 Japanese would die in less than 76 hours in one of the war’s deadliest battles.

The costs of war. Complex and sometimes not easily apparent, many not to show themselves for years. jeanne

This is a more fatalistic World War II than some we’ve seen lately. When America was sleepwalking on the eve of 9/11, the good war was repositioned as an uplifting brand. Nostalgia kicked in. Perhaps we wanted to glom onto an earlier America’s noble mission because we, unlike “the greatest generation,” had none of our own. The real “South Pacific” returns us to the war as its contemporaries saw it, when the wounds were too raw to be healed by sentiment.

We really have turned World War II into a "good war," haven't we? I remember asking my parents why the story of a robbery was on the front page of the Times Picayune a few days after the war had ended. Since the war started when I was in the first grade, all the papers I'd ever read filled the front page with war news. How could a robbery be given that status? Ever since, wars have been cold, police actions, different because of terrorism. They've never filled the front page to the exclusion of all else day after day after day again. Does that make it a good war? Or does it make us callous and less willing to hear the real costs in good faith?

In World War II I didn't know anyone who hadn't a real connection to the war. The only time I've felt that again was in the aftermath of 9/11. The Iraq liberation has obliterated the front pages of the Afghanistan action in my memory. But since the toppling of Hussin's statue, that sense of intense connection doesn't figure in my papers. Does that make World War II a better war, a good war? There was war profiteering in World War II as well as in every other war. So that can't be what makes it a good war. What transforms a war into "good?" jeanne

That reflects the show’s provenance. It was hot off the press: a nearly instantaneous adaptation of “Tales of the South Pacific,” the 1947 novel in which the previously unknown James A. Michener set down his own wartime experiences in the Pacific.

Many theatergoers who saw “South Pacific” in 1949 had sons and brothers who had not returned home. Just 10 days after it opened at the Majestic Theater on 44th Street, The New York Times carried a small story datelined Honolulu. A ship had arrived there bearing “the bodies of 120 American war dead,” the remains of men missing in action since 1943. “Thus ended the last general search for the men who fell in the South Pacific war,” the article said.

Watching “South Pacific” now, we’re forced to contemplate Iraq, which we’re otherwise pretty skilled at avoiding. Most of us don’t have family over there. Most of us long ago decided the war was a mistake and tuned out. Most of us have stopped listening to the president who ginned it up. This month, in case you missed it, he told an interviewer that he had made the ultimate sacrifice of giving up golf for the war’s duration because “I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf.”

“South Pacific” reminds us that those whose memory we honor tomorrow — including those who served in Vietnam — are always at the mercy of the leaders who send them into battle. It increases our admiration for the selflessness of Americans fighting in Iraq. They, unlike their counterparts in World War II, do their duty despite answering to a commander in chief who has been both reckless and narcissistic. You can’t watch “South Pacific” without meditating on their sacrifices for this blunderer, whose wife last year claimed that “no one suffers more” over Iraq than she and her husband do.

People make mistakes. Our leaders are people. I share Frank Rich's disdain for the superficial expressions of grief and sensitivity of the present administration. Not everyone does. This article is presented in an effort to help clarify the issues of accountability for a leader who persists in a war that has many complex costs. Pacifists reject all war. But there are times when bullies and bad guys overwhelm the good guys. Does that give us a "necessary" war, a "just" war, a "good" war? These are profound questions beyond our individual responses to the present administration. Think this through for yourself. We do not ask that you accept our personal conclusions. Only through the good faith efforts of every one of us to draw our own conclusions about war, the responsibility and accountability of those who wage war, the accountability of war's participants and their leaders, and the costs, in lives interrupted and lost can we achieve a communal understanding of war and its consequences.

Today people are starving for there is not enough food to send them. With the war in Iraq the global consciousness of fuel has moved to center stage. Agriculture has shifted from almost sole concern with feeding us to making fuel to further enable economic growth. If people starve, are their leaders accountable? (Myanmar) If people starve, are leaders of other nations that can no longer send food accountable? These are not easy questions with clear cut answers. If South Pacific can make us ask these questions of ourselves, the theatre has well demonstrated it's place in our world. jeanne

The show’s racial conflicts are also startlingly alive. Nellie Forbush, far from her hometown of Little Rock, recoils from de Becque when she learns that he fathered two children by a Polynesian woman. In the original script, Nellie denigrates de Becque’s late wife as “colored.” (Michener gave Nellie a more incendiary word in his book.) “Colored” was cut in rehearsals then but has been restored now, and it lands like a brick in the theater. It’s not only upsetting in itself. It’s upsetting because Nellie isn’t some cracker stereotype — she’s lovable (especially as embodied by the actress Kelli O’Hara). But how can we love a racist? And how can she not love Emile’s young mixed-race children?

Sometimes it's easier to see these issues in others. We can take refuge in the thought that it's not us saying these things, acting like this. And so again, theatre has a role to play in developing our sensitivities. Theatre, performance with real people has more power to break down our walls of denial than film. Perhaps that explains in part trends towards performance art. ActUp (add references) broke through walls of denial with AIDS. Race and gender groups similarly have drawn on performance art. But recall that some of us will get up and perform, others will find other ways to play their role. Performance is great. But so is South Pacific all on its own. jeanne

Michener would work out this story in his own life. In 1949, he moved to Hawaii, where he would eventually make a third, long-lived marriage with a Japanese-American who had been held in an internment camp during the war. “South Pacific” works through this American dilemma for the audience, too. Years before Little Rock’s 1957 racial explosion, Nellie moves beyond her prejudices, propelled by life and love and the circumstances of war. She charts a path that much of America, North and South, would haltingly begin to follow. (In the script, we also hear of racism in Philadelphia’s Main Line.) “South Pacific” opened as President Truman was implementing the desegregation of America’s armed forces — against the backdrop of Ku Klux Klan beatings of black veterans.

Then and now, the show concludes with the most classic of American tableaus: Emile, Nellie and the two kids sitting down to a family meal. It’s hard for us to imagine how this coda must have struck audiences in 1949, when interracial marriage was still illegal in many states (as it would be in 16 until 1967). But nearly 60 years later, this multiracial family portrait has another context. The audiences watching “South Pacific” in this intense election year are being asked daily to take stock of just how far along we are on Nellie’s path and how much further we still have to go.

And so as we watch that family gather at the end of “South Pacific,” both their future and their country’s destiny yet to be written, we weep for the same reason we often do when we experience a catharsis at the theater. We grieve deeply for our losses and our failings, even as we feel an undertow of cockeyed optimism about the possibilities of healing and redemption that may yet lie ahead.

Thank God for the "cockeyed optimism about the possibilities of healing and redemption that may yet lie ahead." jeanne

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Discussion Questions

  1. Is interaction obligatory? What about people who are shy, or who mull things over without jumping into action? Do they also serve?

    Consider carefully the objective in resurrecting community. We want to make it possible for people to have relationships again. Not necessarily intense, intimate relationships, but relationships in which we communicate to one another that we are humans caught in this world together, as Sartre so reminded us in Les Jeux Sont Faits. (Informative link needed here. jeanne.)

    A community must include all who comprise it. Some will be heard, whether that hearing is disruptive or not. Others will wait patiently. Some will wait in anger and frustration. Until there is a time and space where they can comfortably express what they are feeling and what they need. Some will clamor for what they need. Others are self-effacing. Some will insist almost obsessively to create accepted channels for quantifying our needs and the extent to which they can or shall be met. Many of us will remain unaware of these institutional efforst. Some of us will reject the institutional pathways. Some will refuse or misunderstand the pathways. Ari speaks of the people he has met on the traffic islands of L.A. I am equally concerned for many who would rarely if ever broach the traffic islands of L.A. Where and how can we begin to resurrect a public space that can serve us all? Can it be all around us? In many places? Is the answer in learning to see space and its use differently??? jeanne

  2. More comments and questions later. I gotta go do stuff. jeanne


  • Islands of L.A. You might want to compare Ari Kletzky's reminiscences about community conversation brought on by L.A.'s traffic islands. Ari Kletzky's approach at least brought the city actors into his project as active participants. South Pacific doesn't do that. Does that matter? But then, notice that the effect of the performance can leave an impression that serves the resurrection of community even though no specific commitment or response comes from the audience that has experienced the performance. jeanne

  • Highways Performance Space and Gallery Performance and Gallery Group in Santa Monica that has sponsored some of Ari Kletzky's Islands of L.A. Project.

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