When the throes of campaign season are upon us, I’m often reminded of a musical I tend to strongly dislike. It’s called Oklahoma!, and it’s about the struggle over the source of two men’s affections, Laurey Williams. It’s considered a classic, written by the famous musical dynamic duo of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and I dislike it because I can’t stand the protagonist, Curley McLain. He’s the all-American meathead asshole. He’s boisterous, self-aggrandizing, outspoken and selfish, evident by a scene where he tries to remove his competition for Laurey by trying to convince the other party (Jud Fry) to hang himself.
But everybody loves Curly. Every person in town (except Jud) sings Curly’s praises, and yet, as an audience, we don’t see Curly do much beyond puffing his own chest. Jud, on the other hand, is cast as the roadblock to everything Curly wants and the main antagonist. Jud’s crime? He’s a loner weirdo who lives on the outskirts, and nobody likes him. This breeds obsession in Jud to protect what’s his, and it drives him to act erratically and ultimately violently when the woman of his dreams switches sides and joins team McLain.
Oklahoma! is a simple story we’ve seen played out over and over again. The “good guy” overcomes the “bad guy” and saves the girl. Everybody in town cheers, not really bothered that it took someone’s death to resolve the plot. And since it’s a musical, people break into well-choreographed bouts of plot-driven dancing.
When I first saw Oklahoma!, I didn’t necessarily like what I watched, but there was something about it that embedded it deep within my brain. It was the Jud character. In the production I saw, Jud was a tall, tubby oaf. He looked like a walking egg, and he dressed in what appeared to be burlap sacks. These were our cues to join the townspeople in hating him, and these were the reasons we had to suspend our judgment when Curly took the coward’s road in trying to convince Jud to hang himself, thereby securing an indirect route to freeing up Laurey as a partner at the local dance. It was a heavy-handed tactic for such a petty end result, but Jud was the burlap sack-wearing oaf, so…
Nobody thought Curly bad or wrong or evil for his promotion of suicide. None of townsfolk rethought their support for everyone’s favorite cowboy. It was a strange experience for me, and sitting in the audience, I couldn’t help but balk at some of my fellow attendees who were cheering for Curly. And near the end, when Jud turns violent, the exultations of joy emitting from my fellow attendees reached a crescendo.
“See?!” they cried. “Jud IS the bad guy!”
Though strange as this experience was for me, it’s not entirely out of the ordinary. In fact, it’s a very human thing to do and is something we do all of the time.
Think about it. More often than not, we create our own enemies. When we consolidate into exclusionary groups, when we chastise people for differing politic opinions or lifestyles or interests, we’re pushing Juds to the far reaches of society. We’re fueling the fire, piecing together ticking time-bombs who will own venture deeper and deeper into that black abyss we claim to stand firmly against.
I see it often around election season on Facebook. I see it in the comment sections of topical news stories. I see it in public when people are waiting in line to see a movie. People gang up on each other, some choosing to even to go so far as to publicly shame the person they were having a heated argument with. Though we might feel “right” because our values are reinforced by our friends, family or that one Salon.com article that agrees with us, doing these things aren’t exactly helping us. Even if we’re reacting to a fight we didn’t start.
At the end of the day, these battles are dividing us. They’re pitting us against ourselves, pocketing us into exclusionary groups that can be easily marketed to. Who wins when the town has been gerrymandered into cliques too busy with ousting one another over bullshit Facebook trends? Unscrupulous, silver-tongued opportunists with something to sell. Self-indulgent Curlys not beholden to any one group or way of life.
If someone in town brought a bottle of whiskey to Jud’s shack with the offer of simply hanging out, Oklahoma! might not have ended the way it did. The musical certainly didn’t need to end violently. It was only a date to a dance, after all.
As a species, I often feel that we’re getting better at being human, that we’re evolving. I’m an optimist like that, and I hope that one day I’ll see an adaptation of Oklahoma! that doesn’t end with one person trying to knife the other, that the townspeople learn their lesson and discover a way to break bread with that loner weirdo on the outskirts of town.
I won’t hold my breath for Curly realizing he’s an asshole, though. I won’t hold my breath for finally liking Oklahoma!, either.