“Oklahoma!”: As American as Apple Pie and Broken Treaties

While White Supremacists were staging a Nuremberg-style Nazi torchlight parade down in Dixie last Friday night I joined an almost exclusively white audience on the verdant shores of Otsego Lake just north of Cooperstown, New York at the Glimmerglass Opera House for a staged entertainment about American ethnic cleansing, one so effective in its procedures that all the ethnics had indeed been scrubbed from the story, if not from the cast.  With its feast of winning songs and swirling dances crowned by a jury-tampering frontier-justice happy ending, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is as American as apple pie and broken treaties.

Set in what was then Indian Territory on the cusp of Statehood in the first years of the twentieth century the beloved musical, which has pulled in endless wagonloads of cash across many Broadway revivals and national tours since its 1943 premiere, makes no mention and offers no glimpse of the non-European inhabitants forcibly put there by Uncle Sam: in Oklahoma! the word “Indian” is never spoken nor sung.  It’s as if the unseen and unheard people whose not-so-distant ancestors had been removed from the Southeast (and elsewhere) after 1830, dying in large numbers on the way, never existed at all. There’s a hard-bitten realism to this unreality: The Trail of Tears doesn’t put butts in theater seats on Broadway or in Upstate New York.

This erasure is all the more surprising when one recalls that Rodgers and Hammerstein showed themselves adept at ethnic stereotyping in their later musical of 1949 South Pacific, in which the Polynesian procuress of a mother, Bloody Mary casts her exotic spell on American servicemen in her erotic set-piece “Bali Hai”— a tour-de-force of cunning and cliché.

Vast though the American Heartland of Oklahoma! may be, there is no space in it for anthropological anthems, however heartless.  There are no tom-tom dances nor peace pipe reveries. On the “Beautiful Day” over which most of the musical’s action takes place, late in summer when the “corn is as high as an elephant’s eye” according to cowboy Curly’s hymn to the land that starts the show, no “Braves” or “Squaws” or any colorful Others are to be sighted—excepting, perhaps the furtive, porn addict and hired-hand stalker Jud, who, along with his thwarted desires, probably sports swarthy skin-tones. Needless to say (spoiler alert!), he must be sacrificed at the musical’s conclusion so the red-blooded boys can bed their gals and Statehood can come chugging round the corner of the cornfield in the form of a horseless carriage that, in the Glimmerglass production, supplanted the “Surrey with the Fringe on the Top” conjured by Curly in his famous courting chorale.

Jarrett Ott’s Glimmerglass Curly was the equivalent of an on-stage rustler: he stole the show right from the get-go, his warm, resonant voice, stubbled granite jaw, and appealing stage manner affecting bluster and self-doubt sent him way ahead of the rest of the cast as soon as the overture was over. Ott was the theatrical equivalent of one of those Boomer Sooners who jumped the starting line for the Native American land grab in the Indian Territory back in 1889.  However strong the rest of the show’s cast was—and the other youthful players were indeed well-stocked with ability and potential—its members never could quite catch up to Curly’s long lines and the vast reach of his baritone ranging all the way to the last row the opera house. (The building’s clever architecture echoes that of a rural barn, though one in a lot better nick than the dozens of dilapidated structures in the post-agrarian Empire State.)  Vanessa Becerra’s Laurey was both endearing and peppery: the purity of her youthful soprano drew the naiveté from the simplistic hop-along arpeggios and demure scales of “Many A New Day,” but also spiced the tune’s folksiness and minor inflections with a furtive sexuality.

Each summer season the Glimmerglass Opera festival puts on a classic American musical that abjures the now-customary Broadway practice of miking the performers. The sound of Oklahoma! in Cooperstown therefore is much more like the original experience of the 1940s, and it is a rare pleasure to hear a terrific singer such as Ott display his art without the hindrance of amplification. The prevailing convention of sticking microphones to the actors’ heads mistakes loudness for accessibility, the result being disorientation and distancing rather than closeness to the character. Also unshackled from this burdensome technology was the orchestra, led with boisterous spirit and finely-tuned precision by conductor James Lowe.

The imaginative stage direction of Molly Smith made clever use of this freedom by having Curly enter from the back of the auditorium for his opening number, his voice rolling out over the audience’s heads—a field of white hair that evoked so many corn tassels.

Like all the male characters, Curly is mighty horny—a state that was readily identified with by the sex-starved wartime servicemen of 1943 looking for fun in New York’s theatre district and nearby Times Square.  It was not a time of cultural and racial sensitivity. Japanese internment had been underway for a year. With a grim nod to the Indian Removal Act, two smaller detention relocation centers were set up in Oklahoma for Japanese-Americans. The wide sweeps and endearing steps of Richard Rodgers’s melodies only increase the blinding America-for-Americans glare.

Rodgers and Hammerstein were vigilant in their expurgations.  They based their musical on Lynn Rigg’s 1931 play How Green Grow the Lilacs, which includes several lines about the native presence and past, and often refers to the region as Indian Territory, a phrase never uttered in Oklahoma! In the second of the play’s six scenes, Laurey tells her aged Aunt Eller that “a man found thirty-three arrow heads—thirty three—whur they’d been a Indian battle.” Soon after that the girl asks “How big is Indian Territory?” and her aunt’s reply is meant to be comic: “Oh, big.” The implication is that it’s big enough for all settlers.  But Laurey herself is not settled by the response: “It’s a funny place to live, ain’t it?” The girl longs for a more refined home where she can be educated and lose the kind of bogus hick diction the playwright has saddled her with. But she’s also stating the obvious and painful truth: it’s very unfunny to be an invader in someone else’s land.

Riggs’ play was itself full of songs, even, like Oklahoma!, beginning with one about “A bright and sunny morning” sung by the cowpoke hero. One of Riggs’ numbers includes a stanza that lays out the racial dynamic that oppresses Oklahoma! even though it is scrupulously silenced in the Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptation:

They rode till they come to the crest of the hill
Where the Indians shot like hail,
They poured death’s volley on Custer’s men,
And scalped them as they fell.

They turned from the crest of the bloody hills
With an awful gathering gloom,
And those that were left of the faithful band
Rode slowly to their doom.

There was no one left to tell the blue-eyed girl
The words that her lover said,
And the praying mother will never know
That her blue-eyed boy is dead.”
The Aryans not the natives are the tragic victims.

Riggs hailed from Claremore, Oklahoma the town at the center of the musical, and he boasted a trace of Cherokee blood, drawing autobiographically—and opportunistically—on that ancestry at various points in the play. The wedding night of Curly and Laurey is interrupted by the knife duel-to-the-death with Jud. After slaying his counterpart, the bridegroom is confronted by federal marshals who threaten to take him that very night to the nearest judge. The local folk rally round Curly and resist interference in their affairs: “We hain’t furriners. My pappy and mammy was both borned in Indian Territory! Why, I’m jist plumb full of Indian blood myself.” Others in the mob are quick to claim their prairie cred: “Me too! And I c’n prove it!” The New Yorkers Rodgers and Hammerstein couldn’t say the same: their entertainment didn’t have the time for, or interest in race, history, and colonial violence.

In appropriating spurious symbols, from blood to war bonnets, Riggs’ sham nativism takes a page right out of the script of one of the earliest of America’s homegrown plays—the Boston Tea Party. The Rodgers and Hammerstein whitewashing of Oklahoma for the Great White Way amounts to a literally spectacular colonization of Indian Territory.

It’s an ugly, paradoxical patriotism, this robbing of the markers of the displaced and murdered. Not coincidentally, this kind of symbolic violence is visible all over Cooperstown, just as it is all over America. The vintage, manual scoreboard showing the Major League standings near the entrance to the Baseball Hall of Fame has the Atlanta Braves tomahawk. For the Cleveland Indians there’s now a seemingly inoffensive red “C” in place of Chief Wahoo with his big-toothed grin. That egregious mascot appears to have been banished to the dugout (or perhaps pitched into a dugout canoe and shoved off down the Cuyahoga River towards Lake Erie and then, like Chief Joseph before him, to Canada).

A few yards down mainstreet from the entrance to the Hall of Fame is a blue-and-gold New York historical marker that informs visitors that  “George Croghan, Indian Agent — Land Speculator, lived in a pioneer log house located here 1769-1770.” Back then removals and real estate were the national pastime, and and Croghan was an all-star. The informative sign then closes the deal: “General James Clinton’s Headquarters were located here in 1779.” Dispatched to the New York frontier by George Washington to break the morale of the natives (allied with the British), Clinton burned some forty Iroquois villages. The original inhabitants thus taken care of, America can celebrate its most hallowed sporting rituals on the very ground once dedicated to ethnic cleansing.

On the edge of Cooperstown on the way out of town heading north along the shores of Otsego Lake to Glimmerglass Opera stands the Fenimore Art Museum, where many paintings and heirlooms of the author of the Last of the Mohicans can be pondered. The Coopers acquired large swaths of land after the Revolution in and around the town that still bears their name. Scenes from James Fenimore Cooper’s Native fiction were a favorite topic of American artists. Where Oklahoma! would later suppress the memory of the natives its characters displaced, Cooper had revived them a century before in the red glow of Romanticism. Two large galleries of the museum are devoted to folk art, and include two Cigar Store Indians, the noble savages who neither sing nor smoke.

In the newest section of the museum on a lower level that opens out onto a vast lawn sweeping down to the lake (and past an Iroquois framed house from the 1790s of the type that Clinton burned in large numbers in advance of the Coopers arrival in the area) is the Thaw collection of Native American Art.  The holdings include garments and objects made in the Indian Territory. The first to be encountered is a cradle from around 1880 presented to expectant mothers. Though this work of perfect beauty was made out of hide, glass beads, wood, German silver tacks, wool and cotton by an unknown individual woman, it is ascribed simply to the tribe—Kiowa.

The museum curators have marked these items with a boldfaced “O” in reference to the production of Oklahoma! being staged a few miles north.  The explanatory panel of text projects a message of diversity and hope, not of round-ups, starvation, and death. The same sentiment is also presented in the Glimmerglass opera program book: “Oklahoma was diverse — frontiers always are. African Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans lived in Oklahoma at the beginning of the 20th century. They shared a territory, but lived in separate communities. Our production celebrates this diversity, but also reflects modern America, where people from all backgrounds and races live and work together:  and the cast reflects this, too.”

Thus there are Asian- and African- and European-Americans in the Glimmerglass ensemble, and Aunt Eller is played by the excellent African-American actor and singer, Judith Skinner. But this vibrant ethnic tapestry cannot silence the ghosts of Oklahoma! At least from the time of African-American soprano Leontyne Price’s black Aida at Milan’s La Scala in 1960—and before her Marian Anderson—opera audiences have been accustomed to looking past skin color on stage. Now even Verdi’s Otello can be done without offense-giving blackface.

At Glimmerglass on the Saturday night after Oklahoma! the agile and expressive countertenor voice of John Holiday, Jr. captivated another sold-out audience in Handel’s Xerxes. Holiday’s skin is of the hue of Miles Davis (photographic portraits of whom are also now on exhibit in the Fenimore Museum’s exhibition of Herman Leonard’s brilliant images of jazz musicians), and far darker that that of the Persian king he played.

This selective seeing and hearing might help explain why operas and musicals can often insulate themselves from changes in the political weather. Indeed, the continual reprises in Oklahoma! of “Beautiful Morning” and that fetching “Surrey” are an instructive form of built-in nostalgia, recollections not just of the musical itself but of a past that never existed. The whiteness of Oklahoma! yearns not just to forget genocidal crimes but rather to wish them away entirely through its own myth-making song.

Glimmerglass is not so very far from Charlottesville, ethically or geographically. Ignored in the battle over the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue and the racist violence that followed is the fact that before the Civil War the general served as an officer in the U. S. cavalry protecting settlers against the Apache and Comanche in Texas. It is now time to harness that surrey with a fringe on the top to the confederate general’s horse, crack the righteous whip and send Oklahoma! and the Virginian galloping towards that boundless, borderless Territory of American Amnesia, the motley gig trailing songs in its wake.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com