Peter Schjeldahl

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 640

[I dearly wish that I had seen "Hair"] earlier—say, during the lamented 1967 "Summer of Love" that gave birth to it. For, astonishingly enough, the three years of history that have changed me along with everyone else have also left a perceptible patina of age on "Hair," a patina which no amount of newly minted anti-Nixon-and-Agnew jokes can dissipate—inspiring some glum thoughts….

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The unexpected trouble with it is, so to speak, at its roots.

What was surely devastating about "Hair" in its infancy was the raw topicality of its depredations—anti-Vietnam War, anti-racist, anti-"normality"—combined with the earnest sincerity of its affirmations—peace, love, sexual liberty. It was a musical not so much about the then manic mood of radical American youth as a musical of it, a sort of mass theatrical self-portrait which authors Gerome Ragni and James Rado did not so much create as receive and transmit. It was America's first "relevant" musical. Unfortunately, relevance as a style is treacherous; it does not age gracefully, but rather passes from youth to senility without intermission. Watching the vividly real, passionate young folks of "Hair" today, one is repeatedly shocked by the rusty creak of allusions to Be-Ins, by the quaint ritual strewing of daisies, by the sanguine vision of easy interracial harmony, and innumerable other instant relics of an already doddering sensibility.

Actually, I'm overstating this somewhat; the archaisms of "Hair" are less shocks than little twinges, but they add up. One of their most serious effects is to focus attention on such … details as plot, lyrics and dialogue—and that is sometimes not good. For suddenly one feels oneself obliged to empathize with a very freaky hippie commune leader who gets drafted apparently because he balks at burning his draft card, to thrill to expressions of maudlin despair, and to open one's ears to all manner of fake poetry, stale humor and pop philosophy. Clearly none of this stuff should matter in the least; the spirit should be the thing. And it is, mostly. But the day is obviously coming when the producers of "Hair" will be hard put to come up with authentically hip young actors (and everything depends, in this play, on the authenticity of the actors) who can mouth its lines and lyrics without wincing inside.

I don't know for sure but I would guess that the defiant bourgeois-baiting that is so much of "Hair's" substance is rather more defiant in tone, and a little nastier, than it was three years ago. I imagine that at least in this respect the play has made an organic adaptation to the changing times, meaning especially the evolution of longhair style from evangelizing for love to confronting in order to unmask hate. But the tender fabric of "Hair" can stand only so much of this; it is correctly advertised as a love-rock musical, the ardent expression of a moment in America when a general communications lag left room for hope: the hippie could then believe that the manifest benignity of his instincts would eventually disarm the opposition, while the conservative mid-American could fancy that these weird kids were an aberration that would soon pass from the scene. Now everybody knows better, and it seems clear that if the dawning of the Age of Aquarius gives way much more to darkness at noon—in the mood of the nation and therefore in the attitudes of young, engaged actors and playgoers—then "Hair" will simply die of a broken heart.

It is good enough to run forever. Won't it be queer if "Hair" proves to have been too good to survive?

Peter Schjeldahl, "Can 'Hair' Be Taught to Hate?" in The New York Times (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 27, 1970 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theatre Reviews, The New York Times Company, 1971).

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