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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 307-337

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"You've Got to Be Carefully Taught":
The Politics of Race in Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific

Andrea Most


IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= In the second act of South Pacific, Lieutenant Joe Cable sings "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," a song about racial prejudice. Rodgers and Hammerstein were counseled repeatedly in tryouts to remove the song, which was considered by many to be too controversial, too preachy, or simply inappropriate in a musical. They resisted the pressure, James Michener (author of the book on which the play was based) later recalled: "The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in." 1 During a touring production of the show in Atlanta in 1953, the song again raised hackles, this time offending some Georgia legislators who introduced a bill to outlaw entertainment having, as they stated, "an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow." 2 State Representative David C. Jones claimed that a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life. Hammerstein replied that he was surprised by the idea that "anything kind and humane must necessarily originate in Moscow." 3

One of Rodgers and Hammerstein's most popular musicals, South Pacific has been acclaimed for its sensitive and courageous treatment of the subject of racial prejudice. Preaching tolerance and a universalist humanism, the musical is often celebrated for [End Page 307] representing interracial romance and apparently eradicating (on the musical stage, at least) the differences that separate ethnic and racial groups. 4 Rodgers and Hammerstein's insistence on including a message about racial tolerance in a commercial Broadway play a number of years before the civil rights movement was headline news seems curious. 5 Their earlier works, Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945), showed little evidence of interest in the issue. While the source material for the play, James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, briefly touches on the issue of racial difference, it does not give the topic the central place accorded it in the play. There are no African Americans in the play, but, as the Georgia legislators made clear, American race relations are clearly being addressed nonetheless. Why, then, did Rodgers and Hammerstein choose to focus on racial tolerance?

The question can begin to be explored by revisiting the red-baiting accusations of the Georgia legislators. South Pacific appeared in 1949 at the height of the post-World War II Red Scare. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), under the leadership of Martin Dies, was in high gear, routing out perceived communist subversives. In 1948 alone, the news was full of the Alger Hiss and Gerhard Eisler espionage cases and the conviction of the Hollywood Ten for contempt. 6 In 1949, Nationalist China was "lost" to the communists, and the Soviet Union revealed that it had the atom bomb. Under the Smith Act, the Communist Party (CP) was effectively made illegal in a highly publicized trial of CP leaders in 1949, and anyone who was or [End Page 308] had been even remotely associated with the Party was in danger of being investigated by the FBI and subpoenaed by HUAC.

Liberals who had been supporters of left-wing causes in the 1930s and 1940s needed to find a way to assert their anticommunist credentials without compromising their political position. One solution was to redefine the fight for racial equality as a way to fight communism. In maintaining a class of black laborers who were disaffected, segregated, and underprivileged, they argued, America was setting itself up for potential communist infiltration. By awarding equal rights to all, Americans could protect themselves from revolution from below. 7 American Jews--and, in particular, assimilated New York Jewish artists like Rodgers and Hammerstein--had a personal stake in asserting this connection between anticommunism and civil rights. 8 Jews were commonly associated with the Communist Party and other left-wing...