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Race, desire and South Pacific

By Peter West - posted Monday, 17 September 2012


Last week I saw Opera Australia's production of South Pacific. Like some of my friends, I've since found myself singing some of the hit songs in the gym or the bathroom. Perhaps not quite as well as Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Kate Ceberano. Underneath this often funny musical, there are some serious issues which reflect the hard racial realities of the 1940s .(The show was written in 1949, based on Michener's book of 1946.)

In the show we see Nurse Nellie Forbush (played here by Lisa McCune). She's from Little Rock, Arkansas - destined to be the epicenter of a huge crisis over segregating children in US schools in the 1950s.

Nellie is attracted to Emile de Becque (Rhodes' character) but is shocked to find he has two mixed-race children by a native woman who died. She wants to run away: a mixed-race marriage is too hard to contemplate. Meantime Lieutenant Joe Cable is attracted to a mainly-Asian girl, Liat. But he, too, worries about how that would work out if he took her home. Cable sings:

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You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

The show reflects some of the racial fear and hostility of the times. US forces were segregated. In the US Navy, only service and supply functions were given to black troops (today we'd call them Afro-American). Southern officers told Australians that the blacks were cannibals and had tails like monkeys. Occasionally a black serviceman would obligingly drop his drawers and demonstrate that this was not so, according to research by Brawley and Dixon in the Pacific Historical Review. There were many whites in central Sydney. But blacks were stationed further out at places like Penrith, at the foot of the Blue Mountains, possibly because US military commanders feared Australian cities' hostility to servicemen of colour.

The Australians would often stare at the newcomers. Blacks with American accents would not have been part of growing up in Australia, unless you went to the movies. Perhaps this gave the unfamiliar troops a more exotic appeal. In letters home, the boys said they were having fun. One wrote the Aussies were "the most hospitable people in the world". Some of the research edited by Garry Wotherspoon presents memories of men, too, who responded eagerly to black Americans.

In Arkansas or New York, Americans grew up with fixed ideas of what was acceptable. They were 'carefully taught' to like someone who looked like their parents. But desire doesn't always recognize racial boundaries and prejudices. Captain Bligh's sailors went crazy for the native women of Tahiti, threw Bligh off the ship and returned to jump back in the native girls' arms. As de Becque says in the musical, other-world notions often don't apply in the South Pacific. Perhaps this idea applies to Australia as well.

We Australians worry that we are racist (whatever that may mean). But most other people see us as reasonably free of racial prejudice. I've often had visiting American friends say so. I worry, though, about living conditions in Redfern and similar areas. And I wouldn't like to examine the racial attitudes of our police.

Race and desire are interwoven. There must be many people who are attracted to someone who isn't like themselves. A straitlaced American or Australian behaves carefully at home. Those neighbours see far too much. The parents are around and there's too many busybodies who'll ring them up and tell tales. But far from home, you come under the spell of some exotic place, be it Bali Ha'i or Phuket, and you see things differently. There's the swing of hips or the curve of a dark muscle. And caution is thrown to the winds, probably under the influence of some exotic concoction gulped down too fast.

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We can always criticize South Pacific. Where are all the native peoples of the island on which it's set? Michener sets his Tales in the Coral Sea area, probably Vanuatu. Where's all the expected singing and dancing, the wild drumming, the diving off high places and fire-twirling I've often seen in various islands ? Why doesn't Cable's love-interest, Liat, even speak? Well, it's a musical of its times, and the late forties and fifties were very strait-laced. The amazing thing is not just that Rodgers and Hammerstein seized on these dangerous racial themes. They made a big success out of exploring them. And good luck to them.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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