The Comparative Drama conference is over, and I’m back home. It was fabulous, but there was one frustration Friday afternoon when I went to a session about musical plays, including a terrific presentation about domestic violence in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.

I fell in love with Carousel early in the 1960s when I started listening to my older sister’s LP Broadway cast albums. There was a magical moment when I first heard “You’re a queer one, Julie Jordan…” (queer meant something quite different in 1945!). I went to the public library and read the play, and it instantly became my favorite Broadway musical. It didn’t matter that I didn’t get to see a performance of Carousel until 30 years later.

Julie is a dreamy, unworldly girl who’s decided she’s never going to marry—but then Billy Bigelow comes along, and there’s that chemistry. It’s one of those mystifying moments when life opens up and we throw away common sense and the careful plans we’ve made.

But as time goes by, Billy Bigelow  – there’s no way to soft-pedal this – starts to hit Julie. The community around her speaks out against him again and again, but she doesn’t listen. 

At Friday’s conference session there was a lot of discussion about “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’”—Julie Jordan’s defense of  Billy Bigelow. It’s a lyrical and beautiful song that – if we’re honest – romanticizes domestic violence. Rodgers and Hammerstein reportedly struggled with that issue in the play, and from our vantage point in 2018, they could certainly have made that disapproval more prominent. Maybe Julie could have sung a song about waking up to what Billy was doing to her.

But that didn’t happen. For whatever reason, Carousel is what it is. Friday’s session quickly got heated. Several women argued that high schools and colleges need to stop mounting productions of Carousel

I disagree—in fact I’m going to see Carousel in New York on May 26, and I’m taking seven people with me. I count the first production I ever saw, back in 1992, as one of the best nights of my life. (I’m in good company: Steven Sondheim—Broadway royalty—says it’s his favorite musical.)

Of course I wanted to jump in and defend Carousel—but I never got the chance. The moderator had his back to us and never saw my hand go up.

Saturday morning after breakfast I rode the elevator upstairs to my room and— amazingly—the presenter was also on her way to her room. She recognized me and said she was sorry I hadn’t had a chance to join the discussion. She even skipped her floor and got off at mine so that we could talk.

Here’s what I had wanted to say. Literature isn’t a rule book, and it doesn’t offer advice or solutions. The meaning of many great works of literature is a simple one: life happens. (And—by the way—it makes no difference whether we approve or not.) A good play or novel or short story or poem doesn’t need closure or a wise message. All it has to do is make a connection with us—and Carousel certainly does that. (I told the presenter that I’d instantly connected with Julie Jordan when I was a teenager. Her response: “We all did.”)

Please, please, don’t tell me I have to fold my arms disapprovingly when I go to see Carousel next month. Do we have to judge everything? 

Julie doesn’t have the last word, and neither do Rodgers and Hammerstein. We do, and that’s enough.



4 thoughts on “Carousel

  1. Darrell Turner

    You have probably opened up a can of worms with this post, Jean. As someone who believes that controversial issues can and should be discussed courteously, I will offer my thoughts.

    I agree that we should view works of art from the perspective of the time in which they were created. However, it might also be appropriate to note that they promoted ideologies that we can and should consider offensive today. “The Birth of a Nation” is still considered a pioneering work of filmmaking, but it is also true that it glorified racism and the Ku Klux Klan. “Triumph of the Will” pioneered other cinematic techniques, but it is also true that it glorified Hitler and Naziism. Can we say both things about such works?

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    What a great comment, Darrell. (I’ll be delighted if I opened a can of worms!)

    “Carousel” is out there, so I think it’s better to talk about it than to suppress it. My own take is that there are an awful lot of women who identified with Julie Jordan the way I did. “Carousel” is a great opportunity to talk about some important issues with women who might be as vulnerable to domestic violence as Julie was.

    I’m also not sure “Carousel” is promoting an ideology the way “Birth of a Nation” and “Triumph of the Will.” There’s a strong anti-hitting message in “Carousel,” with lots of warnings to Julie – who ignores them.

    I think it’s fine for high schools and colleges to keep producing “Carousel,” as long as there are discussions about it. And – how could there not be? Participants at Friday’s session said their students had plenty to say when they had an encounter with “Carousel” or another play with similar attitudes.

    As always – thanks so much for posting, Darrell!

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