Hair: Not in Fear, But in Delight
by Walter Kerr
The New York Times - May 19, 1968

Surely all of the people going to Hair - and all of the people seem to be going to Hair - imagine that they're exposing themselves to a very hard sell. They know that amplified guitars will press like thumbs against their eardrums, that backward-somersaulting hippies will keep them company down the aisles, that rigged scaffolding along the high walls that will rock with the throb of rock, that when the last frock-coated freak-out has swung over their heads on a rope the writhing chorus on stage will disentangle itself enough to offer up five or six full-front nudes. They go braced.

And they dissolve in contentment, if not in something close to delight, because they needn't have braced themselves at all. The show isn't a hard sell. It isn't even a sell. And that, I think, is the secret of it's success.

Yes, the din is dynamic, the stomp is perpetual, the put-on is unflagging, the nudes are there. But there is no pressure to make you buy the bag, no fear in the performers. They aren't wooing you, anxiously. Neither are they walloping you, desperately. they are simply beside you, like bears coming into your cabin in Yellowstone Park, soliciting no love, causing no trouble, doing what they do, occupying a lot of space, but effortlessly belonging. They float free - free from your pleasure (take pleasure, if you wish), free of design (or any designs upon you), free from all urgency except the inspiration of the beat.

They are above everything - above their own material, above the flag, above LeRoi Jones - but not in the least superior about it. There is no hostility in them; they discard cheerfully. When a drab little lass, pregnant and peering through eyeglasses over a Mona Lisa smile, looks at the audience and asks "What's going on in all those little Daily News heads?", you don't think she has anything against those little Daily News heads. It's an open question. You could ask her back and not get bit. The smile is just right: infinitely knowing, never presumptuous. There are no scolds here; it would interfere with the flow.

The performers themselves are content to do anything, say anything, be anything, just so long as nothing is demanded. And for the audience this relaxation of demand, of consciousness os position, of the need to behave in any one way is quickly soothing by association. it doesn't even feel it's obligation as an audience: to applaud, to stay, to analyze. Freed of obligation by the uncommitted playfulness, it is freed of inhibitions, too. And so - as a pretty dungaree of a girl sings an enchanting plaint that that refuses to scan or to rhyme, as a colored lass wearing a beard be-loos the Gettysburg Address ("be-loos" is as close as I can get to the sound that washes over it) - the audience snuggles in. It isn't envious. It just feels accepted, which is for everyone a rare sensation.

The show has lost something in innocence since it's production at the Public theater earlier this season. (I am not thinking of the heavily exploited shift from the Public to the pubic; the nudes appear, dimly lighted, only to make us realize that we have seen naked men and women before; it is the same body.) What's happened is that the occasion has subtly grown older, in some cases to the point of seeming dangerously over-30ish. (James Rado, one of the authors, is now doing the hopelessly draft resisting Claude, and he's quite a big boy.). Night-clubbery creeps in from time to time, compromising an original authenticity.  And in paring the "book" to next to nothing, the entertainments new director, Tom O'Horgan, displays very little ear for what is left. he takes one of the best lines (a woman patiently asking her long-haired son "Besides disheveled, what do you want to be?") and chops it up amongst so many actors that it can scarcely be heard, let alone laughed at; he seriously interferes with an impertinent salute to the likes of Margaret Mead by pointlessly insisting that a visiting female sociologist is really a man. Mr. O'Horgan needs a unit director for the jokes.

But he has an eye for shapely shaplessness, for the single wandering figure who will counterbalance a mass gone mad, for the shifting unstable outline that will keep a happy crowd from turning into a calculated chorus. There is a hidden discipline in the spontaneity, a fact you don't quite notice until a bearded chap goes by carrying a placard urging us all to "See Ethel Merman in Hair". On the instant you (a) remember what a disciplined performer Miss merman is, and (b) realize she'd be at home here. Miss Merman has always been hot inside cool, her own woman, like it or lump it and this is how it is, friends. Could she - it seems unthinkable - have been the forerunner of rock, mother of all flower children?

Copyright The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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