Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Life Is a Banquet


Left is right, and the Right gets left, in "Mame"

It's interesting to me that "Mame" is receiving a major revival now, at this time of virulent polarization in our political and social discourse. The gulf between conservative and liberal has never seemed so wide and there appears to be little middle ground. What does this social unrest have to do with a lighthearted Jerry Herman musical, you ask? Well, theatre does not exist in a vacuum, and sometimes a classic like "Mame" finds its way back into our cultural consciousness because the prevailing climate makes its message relevant and powerful.

When Patrick Dennis wrote the novel "Auntie Mame" in 1955, America was in the midst of the Eisenhower administration and a post-World War II cultural homogenization, a conservative reaction to the chaos of the war years which gave rise to the middle class. 1955 arrived on the tail end of the destructive era of McCarthyism and the craven tactics of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had threatened and destroyed the lives of many creative minds who were considered liberal or subversive. It was the year that Rosa Parks took her historic stand on a bus in Alabama, igniting the Civil Rights movement. The Vietnam War was also declared that year, a war that would divide the country as powerfully as World War II had united it. The stage was getting set for social revolution in America, and in waltzed Auntie Mame. Mame represented a 'bohemian' approach to life and was, and is still, perhaps, the poster child for liberalism--inclusive, open minded, and staunchly defiant of all things repressive, bigoted and narrow. Her "live! live! live!" philosophy and outrageous antics seemed to be the tonic America was looking for, because the novel broke sales records on the New York Times bestseller list, selling over two million copies and spawning a hit Broadway play adaptation and film.

Mame was the hero of individuality, free thinking and a view of the world as a welcoming place to be explored and experienced--at a time when conservative America was becoming more and more xenophobic, paranoid; white bourgeois bigots were circling the wagons to protect their way of life. In "Auntie Mame," these folks are represented by characters like Mr. Babcock, little Patrick's trustee and scion of the Knickerbocker Bank, as well as Patrick's potential new in-laws, the crass Upsons, living a 'top drawer' existence behind the gates of their 'exclusive and restricted' community. After raising her nephew to be as free living as she, Mame is faced with a crisis when it looks like her 'little love' has grown up and rejected her teachings, choosing the straight and narrow path for himself. These clashes between conservative and liberal run throughout the story of "Auntie Mame." We are even given a portrait of the American South when Mame joins her fiancee Beau at his Georgia plantation, 'Peckerwood.' These cartoon Southerners seem stuck in a time warp, existing in a world that is gone with the wind, as it were, hopelessly fixated on outmoded traditions and closed minded views--venom masked with sugary smiles-- and a rejection of the eccentric Northerner, Mame. That Mame ultimately beats them at their own game, winning them all over, is only one example of Dennis' theme of the triumph of liberalism.

When the musical adaptation made its appearance it was a decade after the initial success of the "Auntie Mame" franchise, and the revolution that was looming in America had now exploded with social, racial and sexual rights movements such as our country had never seen. The Vietnam War raged on as a new generation--the children of those who had fought in the last World War--took to the streets to protest; marches moved across the South demanding racial equality; and a new counterculture took over with its own music, values, and world view. The Hippie Generation had arrived and it looked in many ways like the bohemian subculture that Auntie Mame had presided over. The time was ripe for her return, battling the forces of conservatism with her plea to "open a new window" and experience life with abandon, rejecting accepted notions of behavior, dress, and ideology. While much of the political content of the source material was softened for the musical (it is a musical after all), the message was still clear-- one of openness, freedom and acceptance. It can be no surprise that the show was a hit in the late 60s, running for four years and over 1500 performances, and winning numerous awards, including three Tonys.

And here she is again! Auntie Mame is sashaying back on to a major American stage in the midst of a polarized and volatile political and social war, where conservative leaders are attempting to roll back all the progress gained since the Eisenhower years in which Mame first came on to the scene. Auntie Mame has, for generations, been a gay icon, inspiring self acceptance, freedom of expression and individuality. How fitting that her message should return at a time when the great strides of the gay rights movement are under attack from well funded evangelical political groups?
Jerry Herman, while a populist mainstream success in the musical theatre, has never shied away from reinforcing this message of inclusion and tolerance, cementing it with his juggernaut, "La Cage Aux Folles," which contains one of the all time gay anthems, "I Am What I Am." Mame also represents an image of a liberated woman, one who commands her own world, thinks her own thoughts and lives by her own rules. This message is fitting as well in a time when the Right is seeking to reverse reproductive freedoms and impose itself on the lifestyles of women who already fought for the right to control their own bodies and destinies. In fact, Mame's ultimate coup de gras in the story involves her bucking of convention by nurturing the very pregnant and unwed Agnes Gooch and establishing a home for unwed mothers right next door to the Upsons. In her own way and for her own time, Mame is a staunch feminist.

We are in a time of great momentum and transformation, and sweeping social change and growing personal freedom always seems to give rise to a powerful resistance from those who would seek to squeeze this land of freedom into a box that resembles the narrow view they have of what America should be, or as Auntie Mame quipped, 'put braces on our brains' and create a country that is as 'exclusive and restricted' as the Upson's country place in fictional Mountebank, Connecticut. Just as Mame belts out "we need a little Christmas now!" I think we all need a little Mame right about now.

No comments:

Post a Comment