YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

April 12, 2012

The Donkey Serenade and Buffett’s Rule

 Illustrated: Joe’s parents sing “A Fellow Needs a Girl” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro (1947).

For The Donkey Serenade, see this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyHNlfT6B9E&feature=related.

With apologies to Rudolf Friml and the lyricist who named this delightful 1936 song to a mule (mules being the infertile progeny of horse and donkey!), my blog will try to pull together what may seem utterly disparate themes: the pseudo-scientific Buffett Rule (cooked up by POTUS), the related notion of “the fair share” (another Obama Revival of an old refrain), Melville’s Whale Song, and the fairy tales of Oscar Hammerstein II, the State as love object, Tales of the South Pacific and its spin-offs, Oscar Hammerstein’s mom, and Romance as the glue that holds society and psyche together. Can this odd chorus line have legs? Maybe it will be too non-linear for some readers.

But first, a nod to the “Whale Song” with which Melville ended the Extracts to Moby-Dick: “Oh, the rare old Whale, mid storm and gale/ In his ocean home will be/ A giant in might, where might is right,/ And King of the boundless sea.” In the first (London) edition, these are the last (ironic, surely) word in the text, whereas in the American edition, numerous changes were made: Melville added an Epilogue allowing Ishmael the narrator to survive, and the Extracts were moved almost to the front of the novel. This makes a huge difference, for the notion that “might is right” encompasses the greatest debate in world history. That is, Leviathan (or the State, not a good thing in Melville’s view—see his chapter  “The Whiteness of the Whale” and the several quotes from Hobbes in the Extracts) defines what is and what is not moral or just, what is a right and what is a duty, universalist ethics be damned.

So if the President, bereft of rational reasons to drastically increase taxation upon “the rich” trots out “the fair share” meme, are we not entitled to look back on the phrase’s emotional resonances? I asked my Facebook friends to riff on what they thought “fair share” means, and the responses varied, but several mentioned parental apportionment of toys to siblings. It is my view that when people hear the phrase “fair share” they respond as a child might, resentful of the attention given either to older or younger siblings, and wanting the parents to “level the playing field” through “sharing” or “redistribution.” Of course Marxists ostensibly live by the rule “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” but that was so abstract as to justify the allocation of resources by whatever bureaucrat was in charge of the command economy du jour. Catholicism after Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum partly echoed this view in order to stave off a repetition of Jacobin-style red revolution.

[From the King James Bible, 1 Corinthians,13:11] “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (The next line warns, I suppose, that we shall not see clearly, either the world or ourselves, until we meet Christ face to face in heaven. These are not my views, but the proposition is one with which Melville struggled all during his writing career, for instance in the opposition of Ishmael and Ahab. Paul’s is a warning against empiricism/materialism/vanity, while Ishmael’s survival strikes a blow for piety and submission to the King of the Sea. As for the Promethean and antiracist/abolitionist Ahab, he was out for the truth, and hurled his defiance at Kings and Churches who would block his vision.)

Assimilated and Christianized as Oscar Hammerstein’s family undoubtedly was, young Oscar held tight to his favorite things, especially to the lost beautiful gentile mother (of Scottish and English descent), who not only died during his adolescence, but put him out to live with other relatives when her second child was born, for her health was fragile.

Although postwar theater critics made much of Oscar Hammerstein’s preternatural sympathy for “the common man” including “people whose eyes are oddly made,” (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4cqTBA6L44*) his collaborations with Richard Rodgers have nothing to with the hard-bitten naturalism and realism of nineteenth century authors and painters, let alone the rough, modernist songs of Brecht and Weill (and somewhat carried forth by the ever disillusioned Stephen Sondheim). Rather, Hammerstein was a fabulist, whose ever-praised “integration” of words and music or stage dialogue with musical numbers was not about adult love at all, but rather about the lost paradise of his mother’s touch and attention. Such favorites of his and his biographers tell the story: “What’s The Use of Wond’rin’” (Carousel) and “A Fellow Needs a Girl” (Allegro). The object of the male’s fantasy life is the “girl” who mirrors back his idealized self, while “all the rest is talk”. As for the paradisaical Bali Ha’i, that is the wet dream of the sexually repressed James Michener, whose famed Pulitzer Prize winning “tales” drastically distorted the real lives of characters he met as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, and who were further reshaped in the greatest musical ever, R & H’s South Pacific (1949).

Betta St. John and Tabbert

To wind up this blog, the major theme of the modern musical theater is Romance (including the return of the lost object: the beautiful mother who has spread her attention too broadly), and is now realized in the formerly forbidden theme of miscegenation, which can apply to class as well as race.  By appealing to the audience’s longing for an impossible unity (of the fragments of self, of classes and “races” and genders and sexual preference), popular culture makes “healing” and “unity” not a distant paradise, but a possibility in the here and now, should we elect another Democratic (progressive) President, one who attains family harmony through a yearly potlatch on April 15. And who enforces this fantastic cohesion of self and society? Who else but Leviathan and the Rule of [reformed] Buffett? Such are the skills of the new, new Promethean. (For more on Lieutenant Cable and unity, see http://clarespark.com/2012/04/24/the-subtle-racism-of-edna-ferber-and-oscar-hammerstein-ii/.

*In the original Tales of the South Pacific, the Princetonian and Philadelphian Lt. Cable can’t bring himself to marry the Tonkinese Liat, ever, but in the R& H musical, that renunciation of his class and “race” takes place, to the consternation of those who called it a communistic play. Of course, in all versions of South Pacific, Cable is killed off, but the solidarity of humanity, along with its ethos of self-sacrifice for the good of “the People” is reaffirmed.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.

Block, Jeffrey. Richard Rodgers. New Haven and London, 2003.

Ewen, David. Richard Rodgers. N.Y. 1957.

Fordin, Hugh. Getting to Know Him. N.Y. 1977.

May, Stephen J. Michener’s South Pacific. Gainesville Fla. 2011.

Michener, James. Tales of the South Pacific. N.Y. 1947.

Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: a Life. N.Y.  1998.

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2 Comments »

  1. [...] Cable’s shirtless torso. For more on the politics of Oscar Hammerstein and South Pacific see http://clarespark.com/2012/04/12/the-donkey-serenade-and-buffetts-rule/. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Leave a [...]

    Pingback by “South Pacific” and liberal guilt « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — April 13, 2012 @ 4:23 am | Reply


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