Sunday, at a performance of Hair on Broadway, I sat in front of a troop of 13-year-old girl scouts taken by surprise by the full on-stage nudity that closes the first act. Listening to the concerned (yet giggly), troop leaders discussing what they would tell the parents back home, and asking which of the girls had written down this musical as their suggestion (no one owned up), I wondered if it was as age-inappropriate as they thought. Or, more to the point, what about it was the most serious, shocking, saddening–meant for a mature audience.
My play-going partner this weekend was my mother, who’d seen Hair for the first time in the summer of ’68, a time when it’s racy content launched even greater waves. But it’s not just the sex (or the drugs) that makes this musical so subversive. I never managed to submerge myself in the colorful, playful fun of Hair, pulled by its underlying current of the Vietnam War–a war that was still underway when my teenage mother saw this play.
Getting kicked out of high school turns a young man into draft bait. A teenage woman returns from a march on the capital with stories of being tear-gassed by police in riot year. The show’s best performance, in my opinion, was Gavin Creel’s poignant portrayal of Claude, a beautiful youth trying to decide whether to burn his draft card or report for duty. The ending leaves him alone on stage, lying on an American flag, the snow falling down on him.
As the cast returned to stage, inviting up audience members to join a rousing chorus/dance party, I laughed and clapped along, but with a mind still working over the image of Claude’s prone body. None of my peers have to worry about being drafted–although economic needs might pressure less-than-enthusiastic potential recruits. But whether it’s forced or not (we do have a back-door draft, after all), there is war going on, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, where people die.
At the ripe age of 21, I like to consider myself an independent, capable human being. That’s certainly what my cover letter tries to convey during my job search. Nonetheless, up comes the idea of a high school dropout going to war–They’re just kids, I think. Even the idea of someone my age, in their 20s, going to war, this idea of They’re just kids bubbles up again. Trying to have my cake and eat it too?
I don’t think so. What gets me about war is that you’re being asked to kill another human being; 18, 30, or 55, I think when it comes to taking a life everyone is too young, beautiful, and vulnerable. So it’s not solely the danger to soldiers, since, for instance, firefighters put their lives at serious risk facing blazing infernos, but the respect and worry for their safety is a different concern; indeed, many workers suffer hazardous, life-threatening conditions, often unnoticed. It’s the manipulation of a person into someone who can kill on command.
What is more shocking, saddening, subversive–a few naked bodies, or shining a spotlight on sending our children to war? I figure most 13-year-olds these days have seen a naked body somewhere, even if not in person, and that it’s healthy for them to do so. I wouldn’t discourage attending Hair because of its easy dealings with sexuality. And I wouldn’t discourage it because of the narrative about struggling with the decision about and reality of war–but when the play is discussed with those girls later, isn’t that a subject that should be addressed, rather than simply the impact of seeing some pubic hair? War, death, killing–these should be more shocking than the fact of the human body.
I have a privileged life: I don’t know any soldiers personally. Don’t have to worry about what the military will do to my friends. I wondered, walking through the lights of Times Square after the show, at how effortless it is to live with a war going on, people killing, people dying. How I don’t protest on the streets or even online most days. How just because we are free of the draft, bringing the war to our bedside, doesn’t alter the reality that as long as war is happening, people have to fight in it. Hopefully Obama will get us out of Iraq; I wish we didn’t have a war culture that created this situation to be fixed in the first place. Maybe there are other issues where protest and pressure can be of better use, as officials are already trying to figure out how to extricate ourselves from the military problem of our making. But since wars keep cropping up, maybe we should keep up the dialogue, counter jingoism, develop a nation farther to the pacifist side.
In any case, for me, Hair is a tragic play.