"Don't Put It Down!"
A Teachers Session with Hair
by Jonathan Swift, Chairman, Department of English, Adlai E. Stevenson High School, Livonia, Michigan
English Journal - May 1971

"...hymns of intoxication as Dmitri Karamazov sang.  The ordinary citizen laughs at these songs, offended by them;  the saint and seer hears them and weeps." - Herman Hess

"What a big put-on!" is the cynical reaction many of us have on first being exposed to Hair.  A closer look, however, might cause a wary reevaluation, for Hair's very dynamism could be part of our "hang-up."  Unlike most plays in the theatrical tradition, every Hair production is a characteristically unique one - whether in New York, Toronto, London, England, or Sydney, Australia - and as author Gerome Ragni says, "We're always adding new things to the show."  The musical's ever-changing body at the same time hypnotizes us and deludes us.  We must be wary of trying to read too much, of trying to find symbols in every word, in every bar of music: interpretation of the arts can be a treacherous game to play.  Sometimes even the authors do not know the full import of their creation, and any given production of this particular play has two authors and several different contributors.

Is there a "message" in Hair?  Are there any main ideas that the creators are trying to get across? Indeed yes, must be the answer.  According to the authors and the producer Tom O'Horgan (sic), this is an attempt at a "be-in" instead of an "act-in".  It is the use of the whole theater: it is an attempt to put more emphasis on the emotional, the sensuous element in life.

For the student of the American Musical Theater, however, there is more to be found.

First, this play represents a fascinating stage in the development of theatrical production.  Next, more than any other musical in history, it is representative of the language and the psychology of the young people of its time.  Third, it is a caustic comment on the hypocrisies of a current society.  And last, Hair is a sociological and artistic portrayal of that segment of society which many of us heed too rarely.

To understand the significance of Hair's theatricality, we should go back toward the beginnings of theater in Greece some 2500 years ago when participation was slowly taken out of the hands of the people and given solely to their representatives - the actors - paralleling closely the role of priests in religious services; and, in the religious service, the action of the play, as the centuries went by, became confined to an area in front of but clearly separated from the audience or congregation.  Now, in our time, just as the Church in a spirit of modern liberalism has attempted fuller participation of her people, so too has the theater.  There have been experiments (some of which have since been widely adopted) in theater-in-the-round, arena stage, open stage, Moscow's Realist Theatre, direct staging, improvisational theater, and others involving greater and greater audience involvement.  Yet this is the first time a musical of world magnitude has been presented using the audience.  The play opens with the actors coming from the audience, it progresses with much of the action taking place out in the theater, and it ends with the audience joining the actors on the stage.

Hair has become a cause celebre by virtue of its choice of language style.  Fundamentally, however, if we are to admit that any artistic characterization in order to be true must accurately portray the language of the character speaking, then we should have no difficulty in accepting the language of these young actors - unless, of course, we delude ourselves into believing that the generation of the 60's and 70's does not talk "like that".  Much of the language, as in reality, is a trial adoption used by young people;  sometimes it is simply for shock value.  Woof's introductory song on sexual taboo word shocks us - but at the same time poses a valid question: "Father, why do these words sound so nasty?"  Implicit in this are the questions: "Why is society afraid to TALK about what is being DONE?", and, "Can words themselves constitute taboos?"  Toward the end of the play we find that Claude and Berger's nonsensical weather dialog on the use of the  taboo variations of "f***" points out the ludicrousness of the immense significance we attach to these words.

Yet not only linguistic hypocrisy is attacked in hair, so also is hypocrisy in war...while extolling peace; scientific progress...while increasing pollution;  love...without charity;  democracy...with no clear understanding of personal freedom;  escape...without satisfaction;  and living...without meaning.  This last is certainly the most anguishing problem facing us in an age when loneliness, emptiness, and fear for our very existence engulf us with the most painful emotions flesh can be heir to.

From the beginning of the play when Claude asks (Timothy Leary to) "Answer my weary query..." to the end when the whole chorus answers that "life is around you and in you" and "Let the sun shine in", the play revolves around the life quest of the non-hero expressed in "Where do I go?"

hair does not herald things to come: it is the musical of the here and now.  It is a musical statement of our own predicament - like it or not!

In this age of anxiety, change, confusion, lack of direction, dissatisfaction with the apparent hypocrisy of the establishment violence, and rebellion are all strangely but optimistically linked with an overflowing talk about love, an interest in the mystical, a universal brotherhood of man, and a strong feeling (with the non-hero of Hair) that "I believe in Gawd, and I believe that Gawd, believes in Claude, that's me!"  Hair has thus joined the ranks of those artistic catalysts which have shaken up the entrenched beliefs and customs of a society that was speedily becoming apathetic.

It is not surprising, then, that Hair should happen, anymore than what has happened to our society in this century is surprising.  In literature, Kafka fascinatingly heralded the change when he created characters who lost their identity because of their apathy, their passivity.  (Recent television treats the same kind of loss of identity in Patrick McGoohan's tales of "The Prisoner".)  Nietzsche, in philosophy, warned us that the individual was being swallowed up by the masses.  And, finally, in economics, Karl Marx predicted it when he claimed that modern man was becoming dehumanized.  Small wonder, then, that this discussion should finally appear in a dramatic and musical form.

The play is no longer new, however, and we must now look at it with an historical eye four years after its opening, asking what change, if any, it has wrought.

Hair could not have happened without the long past of the American musical theater, nor could it have happened without the thousand and one developments in all kinds of music over the recent centuries.  It is the end-product and yet withal the synthesis of a dramatic history which is truly American, truly tribal-love, and truly rock.

1. Why is Hair called a non-plot?
2. Why is Claude termed a non-hero?
3. Why does Claude want to be invisible?  Why does he want to perform miracles?
4. What is unusual about the set for Hair?  Why is this so, do you think?
5. Is the accompaniment spontaneous or strictly by the score, or both?
6. Do you feel the choreography is planned carefully?  How does it differ from any other musical you have seen?
7. Do you think the cast believe what they are doing?  Are THEY believable?  Why do you think so?
8. Why does Berger form a cross over Claude's body at the end of the play?  Is Claude dead?
9. It has been said that "Hair has some freaky elements for the straights and something straight for the freaks."  What are these elements and what effects do you think they have on the people concerned?
10. "Kids, be free, no guilt, be whoever you are, do whatever you want, just as long as you don't hurt anyone."  Do you think that this quotation from the plat really expresses the theme? If so, how?

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