by Brooks Atkinson
from the book The Lively Years 1920-1973

Somewhere in the middle of hair a character describes himself in words that apply to the whole drama: "I'm turny-on-ey. I'm flipey outey, stoney, switchey on-ey, I'm freaky outey, hungey-upey, I'm hung." Then he blandly supervises an act of sexual intercourse between two of the other characters. A note in the stage directions explains: "Berger has fucked Sheila in public.  Or rather raped her in public.  Berger has had his orgasm.  She is fighting him off and reacts to his attack."  This statement is not only frank but confusing because the act of sexual intercourse (simulated) has just been performed by Sheila and Woof.  Don't expect either logic or reason amid the musical bedlam of hair.

It was originally produced by Joseph Papp in the Public Theatre on October 7, 1967 - book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and james Rado, music by galt MacDermot.  It was amusingly muddleheaded and at times touching.  In the emotional context of 1967 the spectacle of a hippie resisting the draft to the war in Vietnam had the sympathy of a great many people.  After the original production completed it's scheduled eight weeks the authors revised the text, and Tom O'Horgan, king of razzle-dazzle, restaged it and reopened it at the Biltmore Theatre on April 29, 1968. It had 1750 performances.

In part the long run was the result of a scandalous episode in the performance.  Some male and female nudes faced the audience and obligingly lingered on stage.  Although the lighting was so dim that the audience could not distinguish the males from the females, nudity broadened the community of theatre lovers remarkably.  Thousands of them had never seen anything so exhilarating in their lives.

But there was another reason for the success of Hair.  It perfectly expressed the hippie rebellion against organized society and it had enormous youthful vitality.  The rock music was so deafening that eventually it impaired the hearing of some of the performers exposed to it eight times a week.  The music also made the lyrics unintelligible.  Nothing could be heard except a loud blare.  Since the lyrics were on the level of grammer-school poetry, nothing was lost by demolishing them with sound.  But they were legitimate.  Elementary and obscene, they were part of a rebellion against polite society that consisted of snappy rejoinders to serious statements.  They were part of the general hubbub of mindless revolution.

In the context of the play there was a sound reason for withdrawal from society.  Claude has been drafted. "Uncle Sambo wants you" one of his friends declares sardonically.  But Claude does not believe in the draft for the Vietnam War.  As one of his pals declares: "The draft is white people sending black people to make war on yellow people to defend the land they stole from red people."  In one of the few rational statements made in the play Claude says:  "I'm a patriot, but I'm a patriot for the whole world."  He opposition to the draft gets lost in the orgy of a freewheeling play.  But in the last act Claude obeys the draft summons, has his hippie's hair cut and meekly goes to war.  Despite all the uproar his rebellion  has not been serious.

Nor is the rebellion of Hair.  In the original production the characters were disarming.  There was an innocence about them that aroused the respect of the audience.  Uptown the characters were less likable.  During the long run they settled down into a kind of arrogant squalor.  One of the characters remarks to another:  "Let's go over to the park, man, and scare some of the tourists."  They are putting on a show.

But the renunciation of the cant and the brutality of the American involvement in Vietnam constituted a legitimate point of view and it was expressed with youthful abandon and energy.  Hair seemed to have less pertinence as the war dragged on to a negotiated end.  But while the war was going on two lines in Hair were completely valid:

It's what's happening, Baby.
It's where it's at, Daddy.

Copyright Estate of Brooks Atkinson.  All rights reserved.

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