Gerome Ragni Benedict Nightingale - Essay

Benedict Nightingale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The beleaguered youth of Hair live precarious, vulnerable lives. If it isn't the fuzz, vindictively breaking up a harmless 'suck-in' on the steps of city hall, it's the New York winter, driving them out of the parks and into bare, draughty pads. If it isn't either, it's their own nagging sensibilities. They are touchy, curiously touching people, for all their brashness and exuberance. They take things hard, ludicrously so at times. When one of them rejects the gift of an admittedly hideous yellow shirt from his girl friend, she promptly breaks into a song about social injustice, moral indignity and most of the other human evils. They feel themselves hemmed in by pressures both blunt and insidious—hence the pot and the acid, and invocations of love and the defensive huddling together for warmth.

Innocent, naive perhaps; yet the sum effect isn't self-pitying. The music, if nothing else, sees to that. The song and dance is the best of Hair, and the most of it too. It must be admitted that the brief spats of dialogue in between are rambling and inconsequential, decked out with insipid jokes, and bear all the signs of having been improvised by abstracted beatniks—as, indeed, perhaps they were. In any case, their function is only to give a broad, rather vague picture of the kind of way dropouts are presumed by the authors to feel and live. It is the music that's really expressive: aggressive, abrasive, rhythmic, irresistible…. The choric numbers are, broadly, hymns to abandon and guiltlessness—'black, white, yellow, red, copulate in one bed'—and the general message is unmissable. The solo numbers are more articulate and, many of them, pleasantly unconventional in the technical sense. The authors are prepared to dispense with the concept of verses, even of rhymes. If they feel that a prose paragraph is meaty enough, they set it to music exactly as it stands, according to the sense of the thing….

Hair is a celebration, a sort of sung eucharist in praise of the secular gods….

Musicals are supposed to have visible plots, strongly defined characters, hummable tunes and nice crisp rhymes. Hair has none of that, and succeeds.

Benedict Nightingale, "In Praise of Secular Gods," in New Statesman (© 1968 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 76, No. 1960, October 4, 1968, p. 437.∗