I went to a fab production of Oklahoma! last night. Our local theatre, the Gordon Craig, can put on some brilliant stuff when it is free to (sadly, pop / rock tribute acts pay the bills – and I can hardly complain, having hugely enjoyed Think Floyd here).
Anyway, off we went to Broadway, 1944, and the musical that the pundits say reinvented the genre (I always thought Show Boat did that, but maybe not). There were beautiful songs ('People will think we’re in love' is simply breathtaking), a 15-piece orchestra, great singers and dancers – and crude racism and lynch-mob justice. That’s not a dig at the production, but the text. Ali Hakim is a devious, womanizing, wheeler-dealer, and the only non-white in the story. Jud Fry is a weirdo outsider who gets killed by a man who has already tried to convince him to kill himself, but luckily the local sherriff is there to dispense justice: it was all an accident, so nobody’s to blame. Phew!
Context, of course, is all. The show was written seventy-five years ago. It was at the height of the war, when decent plain-dealing young men from the Midwest were marching off to die horribly (in a deeply noble cause: I’m not mocking the era). Maybe a little moral simplification was in order.
It occurred to me that a rewrite would make the show more acceptable to modern audiences. When he did a version, Trevor Nunn made Ali Hakim just a local conman pretending to be Persian (one interpretation of the role, anyway). Neat. and could Jud not find some sweetheart, OK, not as much of a catch as beautiful heiress Laurie but in her own way suited to him?
I felt really good about that idea. What an improvement! Then I remembered how when studying Eng Lit we poured scorn on Nahum Tate, who seventy-five years after its first production, rewrote Shakespeare’s King Lear to suit the sensibilities of his era. We all laugh at his prissiness now. How dare he? What a dabbler! What a ghastly militant lightweight!
What will people in 75 years time make of what we value now?