I need to write about this for this issue has bothered me ever since I attended a performance of the Rogers and Hammerstein “Carousel” at Union Ave. Opera at the end of July. I am not going to talk about the production (much). Frankly, I felt there were lots of problems with it but particular production is not really relevant to my concern. The issue is deeply embedded in the “book.”
First preliminary comment: I love the musical. I was in it as a child as one of the bratty “Snow” children. I have very, very happy memories of that show. My dad was in it – in the chorus and he was the police officer in the crucial scene where Billy and Jigger’s plan goes awry. So, I got to do this with my dad and it was really fun. And then there was Longwood Gardens outside of Philadelphia that is a wonderful place. And then there was the incredible carousel itself used most prominently in the opening prologue. And I got to ride on it! And then there is the music. I can hardly get through any production of Carousel without crying during some of the songs – “If I Loved You,” “When You Walk Through A Storm,” “When I Marry Mr. Snow,” “When the Children Are Asleep!” Wonderful songs all of them and the instrumental prologue and ballet sequences are musically brilliant – perhaps among Roger’s best compositions!
Second preliminary comment: I work as a Lutheran Pastor in a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and I have been a Pastor for 30+ years. In my role as pastor I often – far too often - encounter women (and children at times) who have been or who are the subject of domestic abuse. Sometimes this takes the form of verbal or emotional abuse; sometimes neglect and sometimes actual physical abuse. I have seen the effect it has. How it destroys everyone who is involved, but especially the victim. I have absolutely no sympathy for abusers. It is wrong! It is evil! You have no right to abuse your wife or children in any way! Marriage must be based on respect and trust. There can be no respect and trust when there is any kind of abuse. Period! Sometimes an abused wife will ask me: “But what about my vows before God?” The first time he hit you – the first time he verbally abused you, put you down, called you names - HE broke HIS vows and broke the bonds of trust and respect! A woman who is abused needs to get out. And getting out is simply accepting the break that has already occurred through HIS action. And to that end I support any number of shelters and agencies for women who need a safe place.
To the issue at hand – the “book” of Carousel:
Louise Bigelow: But is it possible, Mother, for someone to hit you hard like that - real loud and hard, and it not hurt you at all?
Julie Jordan: It is possible dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all. (See Footnote #1)
Julie is wrong - NO it is not possible! Love never makes abuse ok! Julie spends all of her married life as an abused woman. No matter what his issues, or whether we might want to agree with Carrie and Julie’s other friends that Billy is bad news and that she shouldn’t have married him and she ought to leave him, nevertheless, the heart wants what the heart wants and Julie loves Billy. But he treats her like crap! And by the middle of the first act everyone knows that Billy’s verbal and emotional abuse has turned to physical abuse.
Starcatcher: … So then why did you beat her?
Billy: I didn’t beat her. I hit her once!
Typical excuse. “I only hit her once. It wasn’t hard. She deserved it. She was nagging me!” Billy has lots of excuses. He actually admits at one point that he gets angry because Julie is right! But none of those excuses hold a drop of water. He hit her! He is guilty of physical abuse! And physical abuse is never ok! But I find the act 2 exchange between the 16-year-old troubled Louise and her mother Julie to be the most troubling in the musical. Julie, in this exchange, is passing on her victimhood to her daughter Louise. Julie’s answer sets up her young daughter to continue the cycle of abuse into the next generation and beyond. This is what I find so disturbing about this “book.” (See footnote number #2)
(Footnote #1 – To be fair, Hammerstein essentially lifted this exchange from Molnár’s play “Lilliom” – in the play Louise tells her mother that the man (the dead Lillion, her father she never met) hit her hard and it felt like a kiss. Is that possible? Julie responds that yes it is possible. The play is from 1909.)
(Footnote #2 - By the way, in case you are not familiar with the plot - Louise is the daughter with whom Julie is pregnant at the end of act 1 and to whom Billy has come back from the dead to visit – the visit doesn’t go well, he scares her and he gets angry and hits her! – The role of Louise, by the way, was shared and beautifully performed at UAO by dancer Emma Gassett and actor Caylee McGlasson)
So what is the answer? I am not advocating the shelving of this beautiful musical. Not in the least! I believe that is the wrong thing to do. Do I think that Oscar Hammerstein or Richard Rogers for that matter were somehow glorifying domestic abuse? Actually, I don’t. I think Hammerstein in particular was a very astute and keen observer of culture and frankly the domestic abuse is an essential part of the story, which he takes almost directly from Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnár’s “Lilliom” (Except for the ending). There is simply no way to excise it from the show. But, bear in mind that Rogers and Hammerstein were not afraid to deal with controversial subject matter – for example, racism in “South Pacific,” or cultural imperialism in “King and I.”
A couple years ago I attended a performance of “King and I” at the Lincoln Center Theater. They did not shy away from the issues of cultural imperialism, but rather they addressed these issues in an upfront and proactive manner. This is, I believe at least one solution. When a company chooses to mount the musical “Carousel” I believe they should take it upon themselves to address this issue in the same manner. Don’t ignore it, or treat it like it is, well, unremarkable, just a part of the show. The director or company manager or conductor could write an article for the program addressing the issue. Or the company could raise funds for a local shelter, sponsor discussions at intermission or before the show about the serious epidemic of domestic abuse. Now, I’m don’t mean to single out Union Ave Opera, who generally do great productions, because, frankly, I attended a beautiful production of this “Carousel” at Lyric Opera of Chicago a couple years ago and they didn’t do anything either. In both cases these were missed opportunities to perhaps save someone from the cycle of abuse, and maybe even to save a life.
In closing, great art like opera, theater, musicals address the experience of being human in all its beauty and ugliness. Maybe it is time for companies to be just a little more proactive in confronting some of these serious issues.
If you know someone who is being abused or if you need help:
Crisis Hotline Numbers in Southern Illinois:
St. Clair County – 618-235-0892
Monroe County – 618-939-8114
East St. Louis – 618-875-7970
Randolph County – 618-826-5959