Reviving James Michener: The Relevance of South Pacific

Reviving James Michener: The Relevance of South Pacific

Fifty-nine years after its Broadway debut, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s South Pacific is once again drawing applause. At this year’s Tony Award ceremony, it topped all musicals, winning seven awards. But the most serious praise for New York City’s Lincoln Center revival stems from the way it deals with race.

The praise is well deserved for a play that in 1949 was far ahead of its time, but critics have failed to give sufficient credit to the person most responsible for the intelligence behind South Pacific—James Michener, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 Tales of the South Pacific provided Rodgers and Hammerstein with their story.

In Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, as in the play, the most compelling story centers on the romance between Nellie Forbush, a young nurse from Arkansas, and Emile De Becque, a self-exiled Frenchman living on the South Pacific island now occupied by American troops battling the Japanese. Nellie and the middle-aged Emile are people of very different backgrounds, but the biggest obstacle to their relationship is Nellie’s revulsion over the fact that Emile has fathered biracial children.

In the play, Nellie’s prejudices, as well as those of Marine Lieutenant Joe Cable, a Princeton graduate from a proper Philadelphia family who falls in love with Liat, the daughter of “Bloody Mary,” a Tonkinese woman, are dealt with in the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” Through a combination of irony and satire, the song insists that prejudice is a cultural phenomenon. “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late . . . . To hate all the people your relatives hate,” the song points out in its concluding stanza. Joe fails to meet the challenge posed by the song before he is killed in battle. Nellie takes the opposite course, and the show ends on an optimistic note, with her and Emile deciding to marry.

At a time when the Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education outlawing the doctrine of “separate but equal” in the nation’s public schools was still five years away, the happy ending of South Pacific was far from conventional. When it opened on April 7, 1949, Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball just two years before, and Harry Truman’s executive order integrating the armed services was not even a year old.

But what makes Michener’s approach to racial prejudice so relevant for today is that he was much more willing than Rodgers and Hammerstein were in their music to acknowledge racism’s depth and resistance to ideological solutions. In Michener’s Tales, the American and European whites who bear the burden of ending racism are highly flawed avatars of change who never fully articulate the transformations they must go through if they are to shed their old ways of thinking.

Joe Cable, whom Michener portrays as a brave soldier, struggles all too briefly with his ...