© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Reflection: When 'No great harm' is a big deal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 19, 2013: Two extraordinary singers worked theatrical magic last week, singing beautiful music simultaneously in shows whose intricate beauties sweep us away, no matter how often we see them. Coincidence and propinquity brought “South Pacific” and “Madama Butterfly” together in the city’s West End. I saw each on successive evenings and found it impossible not to connect the dots in an effort to understand better the importance of these shows and the lessons they teach, lessons begging still, after all these years, to be absorbed and put into quotidien practice.

Nellie Forbush and Cio-Cio San, the central figures of “South Pacific” (at the Muny) and “Madama Butterfly” (at Union Avenue Opera) are iconic, not only in the firmament of significant works of music drama but also in the ever-fragile world of human relations. They represent both the tragedy of racism and, perhaps, the potential of redemption from it.

Laura Michelle Kelly was Nellie, and she sang and hoofed magnificently and claimed as her own the sprawling stage of the Muny. A little more than a mile north on Union Boulevard, the naïve and ultimately tragic Cio-Cio San (Madame Butterfly), sung by Ann Hoyt Wazelle, occupied a far more intimate and delicately appropriate theatrical space, designed by wizard Patrick Huber.

What mattered, however, was not the décor but Wazelle’s filling the Union Avenue Opera’s house - and its audience’s heart - with the dignity and pathos of “Madama Butterfly,” Giacomo Puccini’s most durable and transcendently exquisite opera.

These two shows are deeply and fundamentally concerned with honor, rectitude, tolerance and human decency in a world that resists the establishment of a reasonable peace. The entertainment establishment doesn’t help. In our day, when the raunchiest and most idiotic survival shows claim the attention of the multitudes, “South Pacific” and “Butterfly” soar above the current trashy landscape and respond nobly to qualities we should more often demand of our cultural experiences: less fluff, scandal, foolishness and gimmickry and more seriousness of purpose and the intention of enlightenment.

Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II – those exalted Broadway geniuses – understood how to juggle commercially successful content with strong social consciousness. They deliberately wove a not-so-popular moral message into their tales from the South Pacific, electrifying in high wattage two spotlights to illuminate a disease, namely of racism.

One light shines on their heroine, Nellie, who is from Little Rock. So am I. Our hometown, Nellie’s and mine, and our state, Arkansas, are butts of jokes in “South Pacific,” and these places become a metaphorical greenhouse for racial prejudice in “South Pacific.”

The musical is set in the ‘40s, World War II time. Little Rock, used metaphorically in the show as code for backward and racist, became a horrid, literal, roiling racist reality in 1957, when nine African-American students tried to integrate Central High School, my mother’s alma mater.

I remember it vividly. The scene in front of the school was venomous, terrifying and ugly and out of control enough and serially explosive enough that President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to assure the peace and to integrate Central High School. 

The fictional but entirely believable Nellie Forbush carries the seeds of this and other racist sores in her heart, and their infectiousness almost ruins her life, so prejudiced she is against any person of color -- and not just African Americans. Eventually, little brown children teach her a thing or two, and she is propelled onto a journey toward enlightenment, as were many people of good will in the South. We continue to cheer them for it. Nothing worthwhile is easy.

Sadly, the other focus of Rogers’ and Hammerstein’s morality-lesson spotlight, the gentle and enlightened Lt. Joseph Cable, is killed in action. It is his character that brings into sharp relief the complexity of cultivating racism. He sings to his Polynesian lover, Liat, with sustained irony, of the necessity of being carefully taught, early, “before it’s too late,” that racial boundaries are not to be transgressed.

Over at the Union Avenue Opera (housed in the Union Avenue Christian Church, just north of Delmar divide), Butterfly, the doomed Geisha, is a victim of the concupiscence and cruel amorality of Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, who sails into Nagasaki harbor with the U.S. Navy and claims Butterfly as his fiancée.

A marriage is performed for him and a giddy Cio-Cio San according to Japanese custom, further diminishing the value and the legitimacy of the marriage in Pinkerton’s estimation but most certainly not in the mind and heart of Cio-Cio San. Presently, Pinkerton sails away, leaving the pregnant Butterfly behind. Money becomes a problem. There is a baby, a son, whose name is Trouble. Meanwhile, Pinkerton takes a proper Philadelphia wife with the good solid Anglo-American name of Kate.

Earlier Pinkerton, in Act I, sings of what would become this human and cultural wreckage: “Non c’è gran male” – no great harm, no big deal. The U.S. Consul, the kind Mr. Sharpless, responds that Pinkerton’s is a careless philosophy that ultimately saddens the heart: “È un facile vangelo che fa la vita vaga ma che intristisce il cor.”

Life is easy for Pinkerton financially and morally. And although he dissolves in anguish at the conclusion of the opera -- after taking Trouble from Butterfly to be raised in America by Kate, and after Butterfly’s ritual and bloody suicide -- one may reckon this is the hypocrisy endemic to the sociopath, dedicated to preserving a self-image that is transparently, arrogantly false rather than remorseful.

On Monday and Tuesday of this week, days when the lose-lose decision in the Trayvon Martin case was still churning in the minds and bellies of any citizen concerned with due process under the law, I sat in the jury waiting room in the Civil Courts Building downtown.

On Monday, I walked down to the Old Courthouse and looked at an exhibit dedicated to another case surrounded by controversy: the case of the slaves Dred and Harriet Scott and the evident injustice of their court-sanctioned bondage. I was confronted once again with the reality that human beings were bought and sold like farm equipment or household appliances in our city. Slave auctions were conducted on the steps of the Courthouse, and apparently continued until 1864.

I walked back to the Civil Courts building and thought back to my segregated Southern childhood. I recalled the mob of banshees and hooligans congregated on Park Avenue in front of Central High School to scream and to taunt nine high school kids – teenagers – in the vain hope of protecting their shabby world from the sentence of integration. That unhappy world was never much more than a confederation of dunces, and therefore more dangerous to a civilized enemy. Finally, this grim free association returned me to Forest Park and to “South Pacific” and to North Union Boulevard and “Madama Butterfly.”

I considered “Non c’è gran male”-- “No Great Harm.” This was no genius moment, but I realized “No Great Harm” is not unique to Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton but also to so many of us. It is owned by those of us who look away as injustices are perpetrated both at home in North St. Louis and in East St. Louis and far, far away, where, apparently without end, the blistering of Middle Eastern landscapes continues.

Then, and finally, back to “South Pacific.” I mourned the character of poor, dead, Lt. Cable, a Princeton graduate, a soldier of humanity, lost in the “South Pacific” exuberance, who, unheralded, goes off to fight and to die. How much better all of us would be, I thought, were we to listen and to stop resisting the warning of Lt. Cable’s sad, sad song.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.