“In the immediate present, there is no perfection, no
consummation, nothing finished. The strands are all flying, quivering,
intermingling into the web, the waters are shaking the moon…The living
plasm vibrates unspeakably, it inhales the future, it exhales the past…”
D. H. Lawrence. Poetry of the Present (1918)
Now that Hair: The American Tribal Love Rock Musical is playing to capacity audiences on Broadway and has spawned additional companies in Los Angeles, London and elsewhere, it is perhaps time to ask what makes Hair grow? The question is worth considering if for no other reason that the standard cynical answers do not explain either its success or impact. For example, Hair can not be cut short as mere sensationalism; nudity there is but it is selective, functional, and even discrete. It is not the new drama of assault or insult, although the audience is never immune from incursions into its midst. It is not the latest underground thing: the co-authors, George (sic) Ragni and James Rado, are unforgivably not that young and first put together what they accurately call their “non-book” nearly four years ago. In short, the success of Hair is the result of adjustment. It is radical but not violent; eclectic but not chaotic; sexually free wheeling but not perverse. In other words, by bridging Off-Broadway and Broadway, Hair has about it the transparency of something in transition. And if we are in the midst of a generation revolution, then Hair may serve as one of those rare cultural mid-points for staking out an arc that seems to be pointing to new notions of morality, community and life-art styles.
If Hair puts one in touch with the values and strategies of a new generation, it also somewhat encumbers that encounter; for the first thing to say about Hair is that it is difficult to say something about Hair. There is no plot as such. There is hardly any dialogue. The language of the lyrics is that new, somewhat impoverished action-shorthand: be-in; dropout; love-in; up tight; put-down; etc. The characteristic mark of punctuation is hardly ever the terminating period but the open-ended, on-going dash. And yet this does not mean that Hair is without form, drama or variety. It has enormous power and vitality. The stage of the Biltmore throbs and pulsates with the collective vibrancy of a work that is all music, voice and dance -- a total musical. Moreover, because it is so artless and unself-conscience, I had the sense that I was witnessing one of those rare secret tribal dances never before seen by civilized man. There is no trumped-up or affected Mondo Cane, shrewdly assembled for jaded tastes, but an authentic glimpse into a pre-verbal state – perhaps, into the origins of drama itself as chant and dance.
Another yet related dislocation: there is no sense of progression in Hair. The audience, for example, generally is confused about when it officially is to begin watching, when it can take a break for intermission and when it is permitted to leave. Hair does not so much start as appear to be already in motion (slow motion, initially, as an accommodation and orientation); and the only signal that is over occurs when the cast in its one conformist and slightly artificial gesture bows collectively. There is this no sense of time and place. The past does seem to exist as a respectable entity: and the future appears to have been gobbled up into the present. The musical, in other words, exists totally in media res.
The same irreverence towards time carries over to space. The stage of the Biltmore, which incidentally is not designated as a theater for musicals (somehow, that fits, too), has the appearance of a warehouse. Not only are the stage settings already visible before the musical begins (no use of curtain at all), but also the entire innards of the picture box are naked to view: scaffolding, parapets, suspended lights, hanging drops, sandbags, pipe-lined brick walls, musicians jammed into a broken-down truck, etc. At the outset, a performer nonchalantly comes out to limber up, a bit of lubrication normally reserved for off-stage. But hardly anything takes place off-stage in Hair, for in this musical the private parts have gone public. Just as the hidden apparatus of the theater and of the body are open to view, so stage- hands in shirtsleeves make no efforts to be invisible. They push forward props, step on stage to hand performers microphones (for this is undisquisedly and electronically amplified world) and dispense smoke for a psychedelic happening. Significantly, the co-authors are not off-stage either; originally they performed in Hair.
The kind of free give-and-take that occurs between authors and performers (and authors as performers), and between the wings and the stage, also occurs between the performers and the audience. It begins right away. One performer leaps onto a parapet that precariously extends over the heads of part of the audience. While it dangerously sways, the cool young man looks us over like a monkey sizing up his erect counterparts at the zoo. The sense of being seen as well as seeing occurs often; more than once brilliant lights are turned on the audience scattering the clarity of our vision into prismatic points. The first part concludes with two policemen suddenly appearing to accuse the audience of watching and obscene show (we have just seen some naked performers) and to threaten everyone with arrest. Throughout the entire musical, the audience is again and again is drawn into the intense orbit of Hair and just as often then left to regain its equilibrium. The effect is that of a series of off-balances which are so timed that the audience can never snuggle safely into the anonymity of darkness or apartness. Just as there are no theatrical secrets, so there is no place to hide. In Hair all is threateningly open, accessible.
Hair does not so much evolve as flow. Its final impact is not one of progression but of saturation. Just as place is converted into time and language into action, so the art of musical story has yielded to the art of musical environment. But although Hair is episodic, it would be a mistake to dub it a review; for there is nothing disparate about Hair. It exists as a continuum or rather a series of continuums between stage apparatus and performance, between what is going on, on stage and what is going on in the audience and ultimately perhaps between art and life. For Hair is sustained by the principle that there are no beginnings or ends to anything that is till alive. There are only broken circles that need to be made whole; and gulfs that need to be bridged. Words evidently cannot be trusted to affect such healings; or at least words that exist apart from or are superior to the kind of collective involvement that dance and music compel. Instead, touch, as the avenue of trust, is the crucial communication; it is amply employed onstage by and for the performers. For audience, the tactile takes the form of incursion; the audience is “handled” by the performers. Hair’s implicit criticism of the art of musicals (perhaps, of art in general) is that the price it pays for being either a criticism or poeticism of life is that it is thereby out of touch with life and its inherent therapy.
Now to be sure, that is a rather easy and lovely idea; it has about it the neat finality of a slogan. And admittedly, Hair is non-analytical. It does not ask, for example, why we are broken off from the circle of community; it deals not in causes but symptoms. There is thus no hidden meaning beneath its therapeutic surface. Nevertheless, one cannot rapidly conclude, as one is almost forced to do with all musicals, that this is mere froth. Hair is more radical than that; its surface is its substance. This outer complexity is not unlike that described by Conrad’s favorite narrator, Marlow, who at the outset of the Heart of Darkness rightly lamented the tendency on the part of many readers to be so anxious to get to the fruit of the nut that they ignored the fascinating configurations of the shell. I would suggest that in Hair the shell is its core; the way it says it is essentially what it says. For ultimately the message or massage of Hair is that the body is the soul.
It is this notion of the body’s soulfulness that constitutes the revolutionary character of Hair and helps to explain why the musical so frustrates intellectual processing, just as the generation it perhaps speaks for so frustrates our understanding. To maintain the body’s holiness is to be committed to the body as the supreme instrument of variety. Indeed, everything about Hair is picaresque. Thus, although there are some thirty different musical numbers, only three are singles. The balance, except for a few parodies on the Ink Spots and the Supremes (commercialized bodies?), are all ensemble pieces. Musically to Hair is eclectic. It plays on the sounds and rhythms associated with New Orleans, Nashville, Detroit, Memphis, Liverpool, Manchester and New Delhi. The international ties are merely the ultimate versions of the national diversity. Multiplicity also characterizes the sexuality. One female lead lives with two men and their first part concludes with a group love-in. Another character, Woof, who has been thrown out of alert YMCA, has a ‘thing” about Mick Jagger and sings a soulful paean to sodomy. In other words, the polymorphous nature of the body supports promiscuity as a new norm. And lest there be any limits, the love chameleons have before them the infinite prospect of racial variety. Thus white girls sing about black boys being so delicious and black girls sing about white boys being so creamy. In Hair, variety is evidently not just the spice but the stuff of the body’s life.
Hair’s definition of the New Morality is the new Multiplicity. Every impulse, like every hair, of the body is holy; until having been tried out, it is not. In the drug-inspired song “Walking in Space”, the body’s varietism finds expression in the spectrum of the rainbow: “I feel my flesh all colors meshed.” If all this were just a sexual smorgasbord or a hedonistic hullabaloo, than it might or might not be diverting, but clearly it would have little central to say. But the fact is that the body’s essential multiplicity is not presented merely as a deflective personal pursuit but serves as a basis for a new kind of collective life. The varied body is the model for the community of the tribe. And it is with the notion of the tribe that perhaps one comes upon the central social and political doctrines of the New Multiplicity.
The notion of a tribal community is not a throwback to the noble savage; this is a generation to solidly anchor with anthropological ballast to be caught up in that old romance. Rather, the tribe is cherished as a psychohistorical nexus. The Indian and the African are regarded as the children of history put upon by and adult Civilization, pretty much as the present generation believes it has been psychologically put upon by the Establishment. (Surely, it is not accidental in this connection that Dr. Spock has moved from pediatrics to protest.) The great crime of Civilization has been its compulsion to eliminate or blur the variety of the races and their equally unique communal forms. Politically, there fore, the new tribal community defines war – all wars – as essentially racism. In Hair one performer sums up the Vietnam conflict as a “deal” whereby black men go off to fight yellow men so that white men can hold onto what they stole from the red men. Moreover, racism, in turn, is the result of purism; a society saddled with monogamy, marriage and genital tyranny is committed to the kind of sexual singularity that is the threshold of racism. To the tribe, in other words, sex is politics. * The body itself is their immanent manifesto. The body is the only true international bond, just as the tribal body is the only authentic family of man. The way to get beneath the skin of the black or yellow or red man is to touch his skin. The way to win is to woo - - to make love not war.
Another characteristic of the tribe is that its organization is non-hierarchical. Just as there are no real stars in Hair, so there are no chiefs of the tribe; or if there are, they are temporary inspirations or rallying points, but always dispensable. Because its structure is horizontal and decentralized rather than vertical and centralized, and because it is a tactile community, the tribe is composed of love-friends. Indeed, one of the central aims of the tribe is to make continuous the experiences of love and friendship which all too often are presented as alternatives. But to do so, the tribe has to rid itself of marriage as the great obstacle to communal flow. Indeed, marriage and racist war (the coupling may be crucial) are singled out in Hair for concentrated assault. Marriage is rejected because it is contrary to the picaresque impulses of the body and because it undermines the community’s search for maximum relationships. Moreover, just as the impact of Hair lies in its collective nature, so the power of the tribe lies in its connective character. Whatever worth an individual has, he has so as an extension of the tribe, for the tribe’s gift is the strength of a communal cosmos.
The tribal body is basically committed to play at its work. In Hair this commitment releases criticisms of life-styles - - adults who are so absorbed with earning a living that they forget living - - and of life work – Dow Chemical, Data Processing, etc. Both the allegiance to play goes deeper. A number of reviewers rightly associated the spontaneity and exuberance of Hair with that of children. But by echoing such observations, I do not mean anything so reassuring as infantile high-jinx or rebellious youth. I mean something a bit more outrageous - - the notion of the tribe as child-adults. Early in the play a group of parents (choral, because all parents say the same?) warn Claude that he had better enjoy himself while he is young because things won’t be that way when he grows up. What a marvelous piece of motivation this is for growing up, unless it is for growing up absurd! (The companion coercion is to threaten the possibility of an economic depression; is this why Dustin Hoffman is confused by what he has graduated into?) But the reason I think Hair is so fresh and mischievous is that the performers have rejected the traditional gap between childhood and adulthood and have not so much grown up as grown bigger. They are basically children in adults’ bodies. In fact, in response to the parental threats, Claude wonders whether the child has to die in order for the adult to be born. Where the child instead could not be allowed to grow organically and fill itself out in a larger frame, whether growing up inevitably has to be accompanied by the “privileges” of doing more but enjoying it less in place of the child’s doing less but enjoying it more. To give bite to such questions there is a scene at the end of Hair which is devastating. Claude is inducted into the army and reappears on stage in uniform and with a crew cut. Suddenly, the wild, variegated costumes of the tribe, their tactile promiscuity, and their unwashed hairiness seem by contrast completely natural, vital and right; for the grown-up Claude appears as a living dead man.
Finally, what Hair has to say about work and society spills over into what it has to say about art (they are all ultimately versions of each other, anyhow). It is not accidental that the co-authors describe their work as a “non-book”, for Hair is not so much a process. It is not so much being replayed as being reborn each time at the Biltmore. It is an on-going event, without the consummation of finality. Hair thus seems to conspire happily in its own transience. Its attitude towards art is the same as towards sex; it can never attain perfection once and for all time, but must constantly be remade. It does not apologize but eulogize its own raw imperfections and finds little point to polish or perfect what finds its fulfillment in the moment and then dies. Only a notion of art which disdains immortality and embraces the made shift could take on with total irreverence the institutions of Civilization and its artistic monuments.
I have sought to take Hair seriously (some may claim too much so) because I take the prospect of revolution seriously, especially one that expresses itself exclusively as feeling and action. And what convinces me that Hair points to a radical future is that it has a strong, urgent and often accurate sense of what is evil. Moreover, the evils enumerated are never vague or bloodless, but are simultaneously personal and communal, psychological and historical; for they are the evils of marriage and war. The common denominator of both- - of all evils- - is separateness, a void on which unfeelingness feeds. Indeed Hair is a virtual catalog of states of separatism, which the musical seeks to expose, and to bridge. There are the artistic gulfs between the author and his art, the star from the group, the dialogue and story from the music and dance, the cast from the audience, the means (state apparatus) from the end (performance). There are sexual separations of one-boy-one girl, of boys from boys and girls from girls, of blacks from whites, of friendship from love. Above all, there are the underlying discontinuities between the child and the adult, between play and work, between the body and the mind.
To be sure, there is much that is nervy, arguable and downright wrong-headed about Hair’s tribal futures. Its politics is rough and nasty and betrays a dictatorial inability to negotiate. What it wants, it demands; what it is against, it curses. By making the private public, the hairy revolutionaries have forsaken bargaining for direct confrontation. Its sexuality may rapidly be leading to a kind of promiscuity and perversity, which ultimately may be as unfeeling, and separative as the Establishment marriage it seeks to reject. Its holiness of the body may give way to an idolatry of the body especially when psychologically damaging drugs become inevitable excitement-extenders. The flower children may become living versions of Fleurs du Mal or embodiments of Baudelaire’s. However, in all justice to the authors I should indicate that they are not aware of some of these excesses. One of the most moving numbers is a lament about those who find it so easy to be hard; especially those who profess to care about evil and social injustice. And the sang that rather pathetically tries to recover from the shock of Claude in an army uniform is entitled, “The Flesh Failures.”
I must confess, however, that I find little comfort in pointing out the limitations of Hair’s manifesto; and why I therefore have kept to the end and to a minimum the reservations raised. For the faults do not set aside the insights, the cerebral analysis does not deny the “blood-knowledge,” the consolation of a long solid past does not preclude that Hair may be the future. Moreover, it should be remembered that this new generation helped to bring to prominence a senator who pressured and incumbent president to retire and to halt the bombing of North Vietnam, they have brought many universities to a halt, that released the race riots of Chicago. The opening song of Hair is “Aquarius,” the next to-last sign of the zodiac before the end. According to Claude, this is to be the time either for greatness or madness. As a work in transition, Hair stakes out the situation. The dilemma of the revolutionaries is that they may mistake their madness for greatness; the dilemma of the Establishment is that they mistake their greatness for madness. And if that happens, then there will be little that is new to the future and little that is memorable to the past.
*The title of Louis Rubinoff’s new book on “man’s capacity for an enjoyment of evil” is The Pornography of Power (Quadrangle, 1969). And Timothy Leary’s latest manifesto is entitled The Politics of Ecstasy.
Copyright Irving H. Buchen and The Journal of Popular Culture.