The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

A two-act musical play containing twelve scenes in each act, South Pacific is set during World War II on an unnamed Pacific island and the nearby island Bali Ha’i. The curtain opens on Emile de Becque’s plantation home, revealing Ngana, age about eleven, and Jerome, age about eight, his children of European and Asian descent. Emile de Becque is entertaining Nellie Forbush, an attractive Navy nurse much younger than he, at his home for the first time. The children have left the stage before Emile and Nellie enter. She will not learn of the children’s existence for a while and will not learn until later still that they belong to Emile. The lovers met at a dinner at the Officers’ Club and were instantly attracted to each other. Many years earlier, Emile fled France after killing the village bully. Nellie fled her small-town life in Little Rock, Arkansas, by joining the Navy. However, their differences in age and background furnish the central conflict in the play. Their age differences are exacerbated when Nellie finally learns that Emile lived for a long period with a “native” woman, now dead, and fathered two children by her.

The conflict between Nellie and Emile is mirrored by a subplot featuring Marine Lieutenant Joseph Cable, a well-to-do native of Philadelphia and Princeton graduate, and Liat, a Tonkinese girl of perhaps seventeen. Liat’s mother is Bloody Mary, a coarse crone, who earns a nice living selling grass skirts, boar’s teeth, and spurious shrunken heads (oranges painted with shoe polish) to American servicemen. Bloody Mary encourages the young couple...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The collaborative creation of South Pacific illustrates well the differences between drama and prose fiction. The dramatic version of South Pacific was created by several people: Michener wrote the work of fiction, Hammerstein and Logan wrote the book (the text of the play), Richard Rodgers wrote the music, and Hammerstein wrote the lyrics. Logan coproduced and directed the play. In his musical collaborations with Rodgers, Hammerstein typically wrote the words first, although the effort always was to integrate words and music into a single expression. Prior to the 1920’s, the American custom in musical theater had been to borrow the music from outside sources and fit lyrics to the score.

South Pacific skillfully combines comedy with the development of a serious theme, but it is, foremost, a musical play. No musical, despite what other elements it might possess, can succeed if its music is unmemorable. Fortunately, South Pacific contains some of the most memorable songs in the history of musical theater, including “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “Bali Ha’i,” and “Younger than Springtime,” among others. The staging is elaborate, imaginatively using lighting and a transparent curtain to represent twenty-four separate scenes on two different islands. The cast is huge: thirty-five speaking parts and additional singers and dancers.

One bit of stage business has become legendary. In act 1, while Nellie sings “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” the actor playing the part, Mary Martin, actually shampooed her hair onstage in every one of the roughly two thousand Broadway performances.


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Block, Geoffrey Holden. Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from “Show Boat” to Sondheim. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Green, Stanley. Broadway Musicals: Show by Show. 3d ed. Milwaukee, Wis.: Hal Leonard Publishing, 1990.

Green, Stanley, ed. Rodgers and Hammerstein Fact Book: A Record of Their Works Together and with Other Collaborators. New York: Lynn Farnol Group, 1980.

Hischak, Thomas S. Word Crazy: Broadway Lyricists from Cohan to Sondheim. New York: Praeger, 1991.

Logan, Joshua. Josh: My Up and Down, In and Out Life. New York: Delacorte, 1976.

Michener, James A. The World Is My Home: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1992.