Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

South Pacific is adapted from Tales of the South Pacific (1947), a collection of stories by James A. Michener. The book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948, as did the play in 1950. South Pacific is a play about wartime, but it is neither a pro-war nor an antiwar play. Its themes are racial and class prejudice and their pernicious effect upon human behavior. World War II sent Americans to remote islands thousands of miles from home, where they were exposed to people and cultures that, under normal circumstances, they would never have encountered in their lives. The conflicts that arise from this literal and figurative dislocation are numerous. Nellie decides that she cannot marry a man who has lived with a woman of another race and fathered children of mixed race, even though she loves him and the children. Nellie also feels unworthy of Emile and his friends because they seem more cultivated than she. For example, she observes that they have read French novelist Marcel Proust while she has read nothing. Cable loves Liat, but he cannot conceive of taking her home to Philadelphia after the war or remaining with her on Bali Ha’i. He is also repelled by the prospect of having Bloody Mary—who has, from the first, played the role of procurer—as his mother-in-law.

Racial prejudice is a recurrent subject in Michener’s writing, especially in his early works. It should be noted that when Michener’s book and Hammerstein and Logan’s...

(The entire section is 445 words.)