Gerome Ragni

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Jonathan Swift

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545

"What a big put-on!" is the cynical reaction many of us have on first being exposed to Hair. A closer look, however, might cause a wary reevaluation, for Hair's very dynamism could be part of our "hang-up." Unlike most plays in the theatrical tradition, every Hair production is a characteristically unique one…. The musical's ever-changing body at the same time hypnotizes us and deludes us. We must be wary of trying to read too much, of trying to find symbols in every word, in every bar of music: interpretation of the arts can be a treacherous game to play. (p. 626)

Hair has become a cause célèbre by virtue of its choice of language style. Fundamentally, however, if we are to admit that any artistic characterization in order to be true must accurately portray the language of the character speaking, then we should have no difficulty in accepting the language of these young actors—unless, of course, we delude ourselves into believing that the generation of the '60s and '70s does not talk "like that." Much of the language, as in reality, is a trial adoption used by young people; sometimes it is simply for shock value. Woof's introductory song on sexual taboo words shocks us—but at the same time poses a valid question: "Father, why do these words sound so nasty?" Implicit in this are the questions: "Why is society afraid to TALK about what is being DONE?," and, "Can words themselves constitute taboos?" Toward the end of the play, we find that Claude and Berger's nonsensical weather dialog on the use of the taboo variations of "f …" points out the ludicrousness of the immense significance we attach to these words.

Yet not only linguistic hypocrisy is attacked in Hair, so also is hypocrisy in war … while extolling peace; scientific progress … while increasing pollution; love … without charity; democracy … with no clear understanding of personal freedom; escape … without satisfaction; and living … without meaning. This last is certainly the most anguishing problem facing us in an age when loneliness, emptiness, and fear for our very existence engulf us with the most painful emotions flesh can be heir to….

Hair does not herald things to come: it is the musical of the here and now. It is a musical statement of our own predicament—like it or not! (p. 627)

Hair has thus joined the ranks of those artistic catalysts which have shaken up the entrenched beliefs and customs of a society that was speedily becoming apathetic. (pp. 627-28)

The play is no longer new, however, and we must now look at it with an historical eye four years after its opening, asking what change, if any, it has wrought.

Hair could not have happened without the long past of the American musical theater, nor could it have happened without the thousand and one developments in all kinds of music over the recent centuries. It is the end-product and yet withal the synthesis of a dramatic history which is truly American, truly tribal-love, and truly rock. (p. 628)

Jonathan Swift, "Don't Put It Down!: A Teacher's Session with 'Hair'," in English Journal (copyright © 1971 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), Vol. 60, No. 5, May, 1971, pp. 626-28.

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