Saturday, June 12, 2010


The other night I was privileged to attend a gala performance of the rock musical "Hair," marking the 500th performance of its current Broadway incarnation. It was an elaborate production in a vast theater, very colorful with almost ear-splitting sound, and with lots of enthusiastic audience participation.

In recent theater history “Hair” ranks as the foundational work of the rock musical, a genre that continues to flourish. A case in point is the rollicking “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” which I saw not long ago at the Public Theater in New York. It says something of the vagaries of my musical taste that I generally prefer rock musicals to the old-fashioned sort along the lines of “Oklahoma” and “South Pacific,” those cherished cherished heirlooms of my generation.

I first saw "Hair" in the early seventies.  Actually, it dates from 1967, just one year before the uprisings in France and at Columbia University, and two years before the Stonewall Rebellion in Greenwich Village.  A celebration of hippiedom, “Hair” brought together a number of themes of the period, ranging from antiwar activity and narcotics to the love ethic and the exaltation of blue jeans. Some hold that rock represents a return to the Romantic Movement, with its preference for intuition and emotion over abstract reason. Possibly. Still, embodying as it did a kind of pansexual outlook, the musical was incredibly prefigurative.

What bliss it was to be alive in those days! Facing disaster in Southeast Asia and revolt in America, the oppressive power structure gradually lost its grip. Operating, as often as not, in secret cabals, our masters had been inflexible in their determination to keep the majority of the country's population--women, blacks, Hispanics, and gays--in a state of servitude. Yet they failed.  Together, we routed the bastards in a swift series of developments that culminated in Nixon's expulsion from the presidency.  We would never go back to simply taking orders from grim honchos in their Brooks Brothers suits.  

Hooray for all that!

Somewhat surprisingly, an old friend and contemporary says that he saw the televised version of “Hair” and was bored. To this reaction I would say two things. First, for proper enjoyment one has to be able to channel, from some particular spot, one’s “inner hippie.” While I wore long hair like everyone else, I was not much of a hippie, at least not outwardly. Still, I cherished an unrealized ambition to make my mark as a beatnik poet. That was the road not chosen, but I can still see the appeal of it.

The other response I would make to my friend's demurral is that you must experience “Hair” live, in the theater. The New York actors repeatedly jumped down from the stage to cavort among the audience, which interactively roared its approval. The event concluded with the audience invited to join in a dance party on stage. No one knows for sure, but these effects may replicate, in some measure, the Dionysian appeal of ancient Greek theater at its beginnings. Certainly the emphasis on the ensemble recalls the role of the Greek chorus. There too music was an integral part.

Now for a metacomment. The late sixties saw the beginning of a massive societal shift throughout the Western world, but particularly focused in America. In a nutshell this was a shift from the dominance of duty to the flowering of expressiveness. The entailed goal of self-actualization is still very much with us.

In those days many of us rallied to the cause of social change. In my case this participation took the form of gay liberation. In our little groups we engaged in intense struggles about the particular form the new society would take--that it must take. Some thought that feminism was the answer; others believed that we must concentrate on overthrowing capitalism. Yet others, like myself, were individualists, skeptical of such posited verities.

In retrospect these internal struggles seem unimportant. Everyone was caught up in a tidal wave of change. and we are all the better for it.

These issues preoccupied Leo Tolstoy, as we read in the reflections concluding “War and Peace”-- which deals of course with the great changes signaled by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. The Russian writer begins his disquisition by alluding darkly to “mysterious forces,” all too often the mechanism of choice for those who favor the determinism of the all-conquering Zeitgeist. Yet Tolstoy does not leave it at that, for he offers a better formulation. “C h a n c e created the situation: g e n i u s utilized it.” He rightly remarks that these two italicized terms are rather abstract. One must particularize them by carefully pondering the nature of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic era, and the massive incursion into Russia. Rejecting the then-prominent great-man theory, Tolstoy comes close to saying that even such portentous figures as Napoleon and Tsar Alexander are mere cyphers, creatures of the all-embracing Process who could easily be replaced by others. But he does not leave it at that, maintaining that one must reckon with with a more complex cast of actors, those who transmit and follow (or not) the orders given. In the end, Tolstoy’s argument turns upon a particular concept of power, which he analyzes in terms of a sort of elitist collectivism. That is to say, power to effect historical change is exercised by those qualified to exercise it--a somewhat circular conclusion. This may amount to version of Mussolini's exclusionary principle that "the indifferent do not make history." But what is the opposite of "indifferent," and how does one achieve that status? Does it come down to "I'd rather be a hammer than a nail"?

Well, enough of that. In my youth I thought that the larger problem had been solved by the critique of historical inevitability advanced by Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin. I now think that the matter is more open to debate.

It seems that judgments of the weighting of causality--general trends vs. individual action--will differ according to the observer.

Let us return to the world of our own experience: the tidal wave of social change of the nineteen-sixties and ‘seventies. My demurring friend, who was a valiant soldier in these struggles, is offended by my inference that we as individuals did not matter as much as we thought we did. Certainly determinism (if it is valid) poses a psychological problem for participants in social movements. If the desired change is inevitable, why bother to put effort into accomplishing it? Instead, one can just sit back, free-loader style, and enjoy the benefit of the changes. Yet this approach seems selfish and unsatisfactory. In the thick of battle one had to believe that “putting one’s queer shoulder to the wheel” (in the words of Allen Ginsberg) really mattered. Only later have second thoughts intruded.

By way of a postscript I should note that my assessment of the drug-laden sixties is not uniformly positive. Some wag has quipped that “anyone who says he remembers the sixties doesn’t.” Mind-altering substances (and one should note that alcohol too was still around) were not so much bad in themselves--though for some they were--but they were dysfunctional in the sense that they distracted the participants from fully engaging the important challenges that confronted us.



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