Oklahoma

We just saw a high school performance of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, and I was surprised at how much darker it was than I remembered.  Aside from the cynical humor of the Ado Annie subplot, the story of the brooding, uncouth Jud is really disturbing.  He’s scorned for hiding away in his lonely smokehouse with his dirty pictures, but it’s really unclear how much of this is his fault; do people really treat him like dirt, because he’s the lowly hired hand, or is he just imagining it?  My husband pointed out that he’s not the only one to enjoy dirty pictures or lust after women–Will shows all the cowboys his special picture tube, and even Aunt Eller joins in–but for some reason everyone except Jud is excused because they’re funny, or they’re just boys being boys.

“Everything’s up to date in Kansas City! / They’ve gone about as fer as they could go…”

And when Ali Hakim offers him new pictures to assuage his loneliness, basically telling him “marriage is boring–stick with your porn”–Jud refuses and sings the hearbreaking song “Lonely Room.”

I set by myself
Like a cobweb on a shelf,
By myself in a lonely room.

…a dream starts a-dancin’ in my head.
And all the things that I wish fer
Turn out like I want them to be,
And I’m better than that smart aleck cowhand
Who thinks he is better’n me!

And the girl I want
Ain’t afraid of my arms
And her own soft arms keep me warm.

He ends by rejecting the temptation of the pornography and resolving to turn his longing into action and get a real woman of his own.  I guess they cut this song out of the movie version, so I had never heard it before.  To my mind, it makes him a lot more sympathetic.

“Goin’ outside, / Git myself a bride…”

Later on, when he tries to kill Curly with the hidden knife in the picture tube, I was struck by the fact that the pornographic pictures are used as a symbol of evil and death.  I usually try to not over-analyze movies and books and see symbolism where there isn’t any, but the more I think about it, the more I’m sure that there is a lot of symbolic undertext in Oklahoma.  During Laurey’s dream sequence, there’s a jarring moment when the theme “Kansas City” unexpectedly shows up, introducing a cynical note into Laurey’s idealistic ideas of romance.  And then!  “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No” begins playing when Laurey suddenly finds herself dancing with Jud.  I think they were trying to show that Laurie has more in common with Ado Annie than she would like to admit.  Annie’s a victim of her own desires and weakness, as well as of the men who take advantage of her, but Laurey coldly takes advantage of Jud, using him as a pawn in her game to get Curly–even though she knows Jud is in love with her.  Because of this she’s partially responsible for everything that happens afterwards, I think.

What’s disappointing is that this theme is introduced but not really followed through.  Laurey continues to be self-absorbed, teasing and humiliating Curley till the very end, and even complaining that Jud’s death is ruining her honeymoon; but she gets her happy ending all the same.  Similarly, Will Parker, even though he’s presented in an unpleasant light with his story of the burlesque in Kansas City, succeeds in demanding Ado Annie’s completely fidelity.  She complains that he is asking for a double standard–fidelity from her, but completely freedom for him–but he never reassures her that his roaming days are over too.  Instead he calms her down by kissing her, which seems to be the moral of the whole show: sex solves everything.  It reminds me of something my mother told me about growing up in the 50’s, when everything was outwardly wholesome and decent, but in reality anything was allowed as long as you maintained the appearance of chastity.  As long as you technically stayed a virgin, you were allowed to “go about as fer as you could could go.”

“You ever had an ‘Oklahoma Hello?'”

I still can’t decide whether Rogers and Hammerstein meant to introduce these themes, but didn’t follow through on them in order to preserve the happy ending, or whether they really didn’t see how degenerate all their wholesome characters were.  It’s still an enjoyable show all around, but I had a much harder time laughing at the jokes this time.

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2 thoughts on “Oklahoma

  1. I grew up watching Oklahoma, and my sister played Laurey in high school. It has always been one of my favorites. I never thought about these themes before, but I think you’re definitely on to something. In fact, I bet you’re right. Re-watching many Rogers and Hammerstein musicals as an adult, I’ve seen a lot of heavy themes that went right over my head as a kid. South Pacific is all about racism and imbeded prejudice, Sound of Music’s issues of loyalty and right and wrong with regards to the government power gone rogue, and of course there’s Carousel and domestic abuse. It makes sense that these themes in Oklahoma are absolutely intentional. Now I’ve got to watch it again. 🙂

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