To see the photos that originally accompanied this article
Every so often a show comes along which consolidates some part of the Zeitgeist and whose significance is less in what it is than the time in which it arrives, and in the face of such a show, drama criticism suddenly appears like a gross impertinence because one an no sooner review the present than attempt to evaluate the latitude and longitude of ones native city. Hair is such a show. It is the cohesion of a dozen contemporary trends, the most dominant of which are hip culture, drug-enthusiasms, the Cage concepts of Interdeterminancy and the Marcusian theory of protest.
Like any show whose genius lies in its variety, one cannot draw a bead on any single central point. Hair is about everything that’s going on at the moment. In one sense, it's about Tom O’Horgan’s development as a director and this is probably what interests me most about it.
O’Horgan was for many years the élan vital behind the LaMama Company, the work of which has both exasperated and engrossed me. In Tom Paine, which O’Horgan directed last year, one was continually aware of a directorial ambitiousness that outstripped his material. One was equally aware of the fact that the production was a superior creature to the text. In hair, the LaMama style has been wholly realized. Again one feels that the slender book and nondescript music are only a plasterboard flooring for the elaborate superstructure O’Horgan has built above it, but this time O’Horgan has not compromised with the written; he has vanquished it utterly, and in so doing has discovered his own uniqueness. The show is riddled with O’Horganism: the writhing pantomime, the frantic light-effects; the remorseless playing out of physical sub-texts; the unabashed gimmickry; the bold, anti-illusionist devices; the weird musical instruments, etc, etc, etc. The frazzled fag-end of story line that still exists in Hair is visible only in those split seconds between the explosions that now constitute the structure of the show.
Like the Living theatre’s paradise Now, which Hair strongly resembles, O’Horgan has discarded the representation of states-of-being for the states-of-being themselves. The show is not the recounting of a narrative, but the existential thunder of what happens on the stage (and in the auditorium) of the Shaftsbury theatre. This is what puts Hair into a class if its own. It is a breakthrough in the musical form because it has, quite literally, shattered the standing musical comedy conventions. It’s lyrics, as Leonard Bernstein rightly complains, are like laundry lists, but the diction of the twentieth century is slogans and shibboleths. It is ridiculous of Bernstein to yearn for the well-threaded lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein when all around him the language is in fission. It is fatuous of critics to look for narrative continuity and unity of style when the theatre has become a meeting point for stylistic collusions and aesthetic jumble.
It would be ridiculous to see this show simply as a formalistic advance in the theatre (although no one I have read has quite recognized this aspect of it) for it is a great deal more. It is the most powerful piece of anti-war propaganda yet to come out of America and unlike the Living Theater’s po-faced essays on similar themes, Hair makes it points through comedy and celebration. Without Vietnam and the American repugnance to that war, the show would never have come into being. It is almost entirely nourished by the current generation's hatred of what its “senior citizens” have allowed America to become. One critic said the show was bred out of America's despair – but as I see it, it is an answer to that despair. It is saying that health, sanity and vigor have not been squelched by a government dominated by sick, mad and debilitated people. It is the manifestation of a disgust which started in the phony ‘fifties of Nixon, Eisenhower, and McCarthy and has smoldered underground during the computer takeovers and the enthronement of science and squaredom. It is a jubilant assertion of the American revolutionary genius which twenty years of repressive “democracy” has not been able to snuff out.
It is also, finally, a show with imbecilities and imperfections and much too obviously geared to popular success. Despite its many virtues, one discerns a terrible desperation behind the production; a sense that if it lets up for a moment, its fundamental flimsiness will be revealed. But the let-up never comes, and it is precisely because the invasion of effects never ceases that one becomes too conscious of its strategy. Gradually it becomes tedious in being so continually over-excited. The pop music and mixed media effects, the inevitable paraphernalia of the London freak-out, means more to an uninitiated theatergoing public than it does to those hipsters who have blinked through UFO evenings and the psychedelic jamborees of Alexandra Palace and Middle Earth. (I am a little alarmed when a conventional strobe effect gets a round of applause as if it were a breathtaking coup-de-theatre, and one gradually comes to realize that for many in that West End audience, the “underground” is surfacing for the first time.) The attempts to extend the atmosphere into the nineteenth century monstrosity which is the auditorium can never succeed no matter how much confetti is dumped into the stalls. O’Horgan should rest content with the atmosphere generated in the house from the stage.
The book is clearly undernourished and O’Horgan is right to swamp it with “shtick”, but in those moments when it is supposed to be funny it is lamely droll and if one laughs at all it is out of general appreciation of its open-hearted cast rather than at its comic point. There is a certain hippie mindlessness tucked down deep in the center of the show which the production manages to obliterate most of the time. The structure of the evening is completely arbitrary and after a while one is disappointed by the fact that the moments, instead of reinforcing each other, compete with each other. But this is a minor quibble banished by the vigor of many of the moments themselves. The nudity scene, as is now known, was essentially the tool of the publicists and the promoters. It was curiously timid and in such an otherwise extroverted entertainment, and therefore quite out of keeping. If one is going to show butts, boobs and assorted genitalia in a show like Hair, it must be like everything else in the show, in a blaze of abandon.
A hardworking cast shares a genuinely tribal sense of communion, although I found the principals rather anonymous. I was, however, regularly exhilarated by Rohan McCullough who leaps out of production numbers like one of those Ronson lighters with a geyser-like flame.
Copyright Plays & Players.