The Clare Spark Blog

August 22, 2010

“South Pacific” and liberal guilt

The first Lt. Cable: John Kerr and friend in her native habitat

On August 18, 2010, PBS’s “Live From Lincoln Center” broadcast a highly touted revival of the award-winning musical of 1949, South Pacific, with music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein, and book by Joshua Logan, a tale synthesized and reimagined from the short stories of James Michener. For some reviewers, this was the musical that changed Broadway, and such commentary as existed was directed at the performances of its leading actors. The reviewers I read loved it, as well they might, for one could feel edified by its didacticism regarding sexual contact with “the Other” (as scholars now term miscegenation): as a ploy to get audiences on board the anti-racist bandwagon, the change of heart tactic has a long history.  This blog attempts to question the silence about the ideology of the play and/or its revival. Warning: I thought the show’s “book” was awful as realism and if anything, gross and obvious propaganda, though charming as any fairy tale.

There are two love affairs that are intertwined in the play: a young Navy nurse from Arkansas (Nellie Forbush) is romanced by an older man, Emile De Becque, a French planter. They are both white people, though Nellie is appalled to discover that Emile has fathered two mixed-race children by a Polynesian woman,  now deceased. We know nothing about his business, or her class position, only that she has died, and that Emile’s having had sex with a darker-skinned woman is what appalls Nellie (not his “adorable” [half-breed]children, who in this performance looked more black than Polynesian).

In a related plot of almost equal moment is the “tragic” outcome of Navy Lieutenant Joe Cable’s affair with the teen age daughter of “Bloody Mary”–an enterprising local who virtually pimps out her daughter Liat to the classy Lt. Cable, whom we discover, is not only a Princeton grad, but comes from a Main Line Philadelphia family. It is not clear what is tragic: the refusal of Cable to marry Liat after he sleeps with her, or his death on a dangerous mission to locate the Japanese Navy and Air Force, so that the American troops on the island can finally see some action. [Did anything like this ever happen? From what I have read, the war in the Pacific was brutal beyond imagining and always so.]

It is Lt. Cable who sings “You’ve Got To Be Taught” to Nellie, who imagines that her revulsion against sex with the Other is inborn. The lyrics are brief and a favorite with moralistic theater people, and echo every anti-racist “progressive”: “You’ve got to be taught/ To hate and fear/ You’ve got to be taught from  year to year/ It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear/ You’ve got to be carefully taught./ You’ve got to be taught before its too late/ Before you are six, or seven or eight/ To hate all the people your relatives hate/ You’ve got to be carefully taught/ You’ve got to be carefully taught.” The lyric is as taut as a Brecht poem at his most didactic, and in the context of the play, bizarre, given that Nellie does not “hate” either her French planter or his Polynesian wife, but is simply revolted at the thought of their coupling.

Before I go on, note that Cable is upper-class and can’t bring himself to marry Liat. He will be killed in combat, while the [Everywoman] “hick” Nellie will be reunited with Proust-reading Emile at the end, with tears streaming down the audience’s cheeks (one suspects) as amor vincit omnia. This is a nice populist touch, implying perhaps that though Lt. Cable mouths liberal sentiments, when faced with the prospect of either leaving his Philadelphia family forever to remain in the South Seas, or bringing the island girl home to Mamma and Poppa, he fails the moral test, giving instead of himself, his grandfather’s watch, which Bloody Mary, the very picture of outraged honor, flings back at him.

I had not seen the original South Pacific, but did see the first two R and H productions of Oklahoma! and Carousel, which at the time were also praised as landmarks in the Broadway theater. What made the former a landmark was the supposed novelty of making race relations and social criticism the subject of a musical play. Oh how soon the critics forget. Not only were there numerous social commentary/anti-racist musicals in Broadway theater (Showboat, Of Thee I Sing, As Thousands Cheer, Porgy and Bess–to name the ones that come to mind) before the second world war, but when we locate South Pacific in a larger political context, its timing is suggestive.

Besides the obvious optimism of the life-affirming Nellie, the U.S. military had promised a fairer postwar distribution of the goods of this world to its enlisted men if they would fight; plus in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) the rule of law was also averred; moreover, the ignominious collaborationist and generally wimpy French needed rehabilitation, especially in light of the increasing penetration of the French Communist Party after the war; and the U.S. and the Soviet Union were competing for the hearts and minds of the Third World, with Soviet charges of pervasive racism grounded in the real situation of minorities in America. Let us recall that the armed forces were not integrated during that war, and the presence of black sailors dancing and singing with white sailors in the Lincoln Center revival is anachronistic.

Finally, and here is the most adventuresome comment on this analysis of the social message of South Pacific: racism as either a biologically grounded orientation (polygenesis?) or as an evil message that must be constantly reiterated through teaching, to take hold, is problematic. There is an old debate in U.S. history as to whether racism preceded slavery (because it was part of the cultural inheritance of the West), or whether it emerged as a result of subordination and competition in the labor market (Oscar and Mary Handlin’s argument). Moreover, theories of ethnocentrism allege that we feel more kinship with our families of origin and then the tribe or neighborhood than we do with the faraway. I find that latter suggestion intuitively plausible, which is why I favor integrationist strategies, not separatist ones, to combat racism.

Corrections: August 22. My sister Barbara reminds me that the first Lt. Cable was William Tabbert, a splendid singer, who died at an early age from a heart attack. Also, she thinks that Lt. Cable decided to return to Liat instead of returning to his upper-class family. I missed this line (though it can be heard on a video of “You’ve Got to Be Taught,” and I have not compared the original drafts of the musical or film versions. The illustration for this blog  is from the movie version, censored by the Legion of Decency; whereas Michener’s Tales describe a torrid affair, the film stopped at Cable’s shirtless torso. For more on the politics of Oscar Hammerstein and South Pacific see And also The latter is a must-read for those interested in the finer points of miscegenation-fears. Also, I have the lyrics for a song dropped from the original South Pacific, telling us more about Cable’s class fears.


  1. Fabulous!

    Comment by Fran — December 31, 2018 @ 10:10 pm | Reply

  2. A modern example of being carefully taught. Palestinian children’s shows teach children to hate jews.

    Comment by arctific — July 23, 2014 @ 6:06 pm | Reply

  3. How is being “simply revolted” by miscegenation racist? It’s an attitude of love for your ~OWN people!

    Comment by toby — February 11, 2014 @ 10:33 am | Reply

    • Miscegenation phobia is at the heart of racism and ethnocentrism. We are one species, and were we not, we could not reproduce with non-white persons.

      Comment by clarelspark — February 11, 2014 @ 4:09 pm | Reply

  4. William Tabberts son was also named William Tabbert, who attended Livingston High School in Livingston, N.j. He passed away in 1996.

    Comment by JIM NAGY — May 7, 2013 @ 4:09 am | Reply

  5. […] blog follows  Liberals like to think of themselves as anti-racists, and struggle valiantly to distinguish […]

    Pingback by The subtle racism of Edna Ferber and Oscar Hammerstein II | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 15, 2013 @ 11:13 pm | Reply

  6. The song “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” has haunted me for many years. It is great to read your “take” on it and even better to read your sister’s addendum. What a fascinating history of this song.

    Comment by Jan Edward Vogels — August 5, 2012 @ 8:49 pm | Reply

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