Bald Remarks on Hair
by John Weightman
Encounter Magazine - December 1968

When we went to the theater, slightly grubby and hirsute boys and girls dotted around the auditorium and the stage, were making those slowly convulsive movements that young people also seem to go in for at advanced poetry readings.  They gyrate with raised arms and closed eyes, undulate like seaweed, follow the contours of some invisible mystic vortex, as if they were so many sibyls or sorcerers drunk on sacred fumes.  Since this drifting self-absorbtion is common in American underground films, I suppose it represents the state of being "sent"  or "high".  If this is what marijuana does, it is quite pretty to watch, not bleak and grisly like the fumblings of the hard drug addicts I have seen around midnight in Montparnasse.

As we took our seats, a radiantly smiling girl, got up like an unorthodox squaw, handed my companion a slightly passé chrysanthemum.  At first I took her to be part of the audience, because there were so many people around us dressed in lace curtains or remnants of furnishing brocade that the distinction between performer and spectator was difficult to establish.  However, I later decided that she must be a member of the cast welcoming us with love, love, love.  It may not be all we need, but we can always do with a little more, even if it is slightly professional.  Or perhaps she was saluting my companion's hair, which hangs down in an ample shower and almost meets the hem of her rising skirt.  In either event, I was able to settle back happily with a receptive mind.

But to be quite honest, if one was expecting to be startled, Hair comes rather as an anti-climax.  The actual performance did not seem to contain any features that have not already been presented in other avant-garde productions, Marat-Sade was much dottier, U.S. more passionately political, some American underground films more positively erotic, and Arrabal's Le Cinetiere des voitures more gleefully barbaric.  I don't know how long Hair has been running in New York , but I suspect that certain of its peculiarities must have seeped across to Europe (there appears to be a line missing here) maintained an almost constant barrage of good, thumping music, the story-line wobbled uncertainly into motion, as it usually does in musicals and, as usual, was interspersed with weak jokes, stilted bits of dialogue and a sprinkling of sentimental ditties, some quaintly poised between parody and seriousness.  Although moon was never made to rhyme with June XXXX did not rhyme with XXXX as often as one might have expected.  Nevertheless, I have to report that the audience went wild.  They whistled and shouted bravo and, at the end, many of them leaped up onto the stage and disappeared into the dusty pandemonium.  I wondered if they were not responding more to the myth of Hair than to the show itself.  Perhaps we should have stayed to see whether saturnalia really developed in the wings, but this thought did not occur to me until we were on our way home.

In spite of the din, and the flashing lights, the one surprising thing about the performance, in comparison with other avant-garde shows, was its lack of aggressiveness.  The theme, basically, is another protest against the Viet Nam war.  A boy belonging to a drifting herd-like mass of drop-outs receives his call-up papers and, after trying ineffectually to escape his fate, has to submit and is shorn of his anarchistic locks.  But these events are commented on wryly, rather than pugnatiously;  it is as if the pet lamb of the flock has been snatched from the pastoral bliss of the hippie world and rudely clipped by Them, the grown-ups, the incomprehensible people who run society on the strange assumption that it is a serious, going concern.  The flock itself, which keeps scattering and reforming in a manner more animal than human, is a micro-society within society, dressed in oddments, living presumably at substinance level, copulating in heaps and composed of members who are all vaguely interchangeable, although they are still slightly bothered at times about the fact that A may prefer B who prefers C.  What the music seems to suggest is that they are at their happiest when twitching and stamping in chorus.  Each jerks and jangles separately, like a puppet on an invisible string, but they are all held together by the rhythm, which irons out uncertainty and solitude and beats on steadily to a collective climax.  I suppose this is the dance as sublimated group orgasm, which would perhaps explain why the audience got so excited.  The actors gave the impression - whether deliberately or not I cannot say - of performing for themselves rather than for the public, and this too was refreshing.

The term "tribal musical", which is used in the programme, is perfectly justified.  For one thing, the performers are a crowd, not a chorus plus stars.  They are physically nondescript, only one of them -  Oliver Tobias, who does not have the central role -  being conventionally beautiful in the theatrical manner.  None of the women appear to have been chosen for their looks, and the most forceful of them was a pinch-faced little person bulging below with pregnancy padding.  It is curious that "beautiful" people should be presented as lacking in beauty, or should be at pains to disguise such beauty as they have under odds and ends of indifferent clothing.  In the nude scene, which was chastely limited to a fleeting glimpse, I spied a girl with a splendid body, but nothing was made of it beyond outside this one, thirty second vision.  Had she been in a traditional chorus, she would have jigged from left to right and from right to left at intervals, and her naked limbs would have earned their keep by working like pistons.  I am not saying that this would have been better;  I am not arguing in favor of the traditional chorus, which I have always thought rather comic and non-erotic;  I am only trying to define an impression of puritanism at one remove, of deliberate scruffiness, of rejection of romantic prettiness or obvious physical appeal in a show that one expected to be sensual.

It is sensual, collectively rather than individually, if such a distinction can be given a meaning.  And it is this collectiveness without a hierarchy that the elderly spectator senses as foreign.  I found myself looking for the star and watching Tobias, because he was particularly shapely and agile, yet feeling at the same time that he wasn't meant to be more prominent than the rest.  he just happened to be noticeable, in the way that one African dancer, thanks to his superior physique, may stand out to some extent from an anonymous tribal mass.  It would take me some time to get used to this direct democracy on the stage, because it blurs the esthetic effect.  I realize that I like to know, in watching any performance, exactly what the pattern of importance of the actors or dancers is meant to be, and the show is imperfect if some secondary part is much better played than a primary one.  But i imagine that, in the hippie world, such definateness is anathema, and that Hair explicitly set out to reject it.  However, in that case, why did only two or three of them take their clothes off in the nude scene?  And did they stand motionless with genuine poetic intent, or in ironical deference to the Lord Chamberlain's old rule about nudes having to look like statues?  I would have expected the whole cast to throw their garments into the wings and to romp porkily, like Cezanne's Baigneuses.  Standing still for thirty seconds in a dim light was effective enough in its own way, but strangely solemn, as if they were saying: "Here is that sacred object, the naked body.  Look upon it with awe."  whereas the rest of the performance would seem to imply that only squares could have such feelings, the true hippie taking all the manifestations of the flesh in his stride.

In the last resort, the dominant impression was one of bracing vitality and slightly muddled innocence.  The young men said fucking this and fucking that, and made jokes about penises.  From what my grandchildren tell me about their playgroup, I gather that tiny tots now chortle about this sort of thing over their morning cocoa.  Perhaps they always did, and the adult world is just recapturing publicly the Heaven that lies about us in our infancy.  My billy is bigger than yours, plus cocoa, later becomes my billy is bigger than yours, plus pot.  If so, the linguistic and intellectual gain is imperceptible, and indeed there was practically nothing in Hair on the level of articulated implications or convincing lyrics, except the charming song made up of the learned words for sexual perversions, which owed its effect precisely to the fact that it was sung as children sing hymns, mouthing the words with no regard to the meaning.  It seemed to me that the songs hardly counted, and were only put in to provide pauses between the vigorous, mindless, tribal stampings into which each of them eventually merged.  What mattered was the pulse-beat of blind nature, hammering through these young limbs, raising clouds of dust and threatening to bring down the antiquated theatre which no doubt once vibrated in time to those milder intimations of nature, the can-can and the Charleston.

Copyright Encounter, Inc.

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