I saw in the Washington Post a few days ago that a local theatre company is staging the rock musical, Hair. It reminded me that going to see it at, I think, the Warner Theatre when it was just being performed around the country after it’s run on Broadway was one of the turning points in my life. It was an afternoon performance, and I went in with no expectation of anything but to be entertained. I don’t think I connected with the overall story line all that much, of the young man torn between avoiding the draft like his friends or responding to the pull from others to go the Vietnam.
But the second act. Oh, that part of the second act, his hallucinatory dream, of a series of small groups appearing on stage and killing the small groups on stage just before them:
Here’s the sequence as set forth in the Wikipedia entry:
”As the visions continue, four Buddhist monks enter. One monk pours a can of gasoline over another monk, who is set afire (reminiscent of the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức) and runs off screaming. Three Catholic nuns strangle the three remaining Buddhist monks.Three astronauts shoot the nuns with ray guns. Three Chinese people stab the astronauts with knives. Three Native Americans kill the Chinese with bows and tomahawks. Three green berets kill the Native Americans with machine guns and then kill each other. A Sergeant and two parents appear holding up a suit on a hanger. The parents talk to the suit as if it is their son and they are very proud of him. The bodies rise and play like children. The play escalates to violence until they are all dead again. They rise again (“Three-Five-Zero-Zero”) and, at the end of the trip sequence, two tribe members sing, over the dead bodies, a melody set to a Shakespeare lyric about the nobility of Man (“What A Piece of Work Is Man”).”
It was made even more powerfully effective by being enacted under stobe lighting. I can still see it, and it still moves me to tears. All I could think was, “All this killing. For what?”
As said, I walked into a theatre expecting not much more than entertainment, but I walked out a totally different person and have been so ever since. The totalality of my immersion in Christian culture all my life has probably shaped me the most, but no single hymn, no sermon, no prayer has ever had the sudden and lasting transforming effect on me as did that afternoon at the Warner.
I wish I could tell you that I went on to become one of those larger than life personalities who helped end the Vietnam War. I didn’t. The practical effects of the change in me didn’t go much beyond things said and things not said in social contexts, in causes and parties and people to whom I gave money, and in people for whom I voted. I didn’t become a pacifist though. I appreciate the necessity sometimes for force, even war. Individuals and groups have every right to defend themselves from aggression by others. World War II was absolutely necessary. And some causes are worth fighting for, like our own Civil War to end slavery.
I’ve wondered as I’ve been composing this Cup just why Hair had the effect on me that it did. Perhaps there was already something going on inside of me in reaction to the Vietnam War and Hair was just the catalyst that brought it to the surface and to life. But catalyst or something more, it was a proof of the power of theatre and of music.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger. St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 01-April-2014.