October 2019 - Rector's Ramblings

Warning: this article may contain ‘SPOILERS’ …

This summer’s big showpiece musical at the Chichester Festival Theatre has been Oklahoma! -
a revival of the show which was first produced on New York’s Broadway in 1943 and which
proved unimaginably popular in a five-year run that broke all records. The musical had been
turned into a film in 1955, and had known various revivals over the years on the stage, including
at our own Chichester venue back in 2009. It’s ambitious, though, to put on such an
enterprise, and it has a very different feel from the more commercial offerings of the last four
decades that dominate the London Theatres.

Some will have loved this present production; and others been more critical. My own
evaluation is neither here nor there, but I did find it a bit old-fashioned for my immediate liking.
However, with an unexpected serendipity, BBC showed the 1955 film in the course of the
Chichester production, which filled out my appreciation of the story, cemented the
memorability of the songs, and generally helped to make the work take a more lasting place in
my affections. Still, no more than a modest appreciation from me: but I hope readers of this
column may have gained some real pleasure from it, whether or not they knew the earlier
versions.

What the musical has done for me, quite unexpectedly, has been to have me thinking of the
whole context which surrounds a story set in 1906 frontiers-land. It is a small element of the
romantic narrative itself, but the story is set in a land that is not yet a part of the Union: not yet
‘a State’; but there is a celebratory theme that this is indeed going to happen shortly.
Wikipedia tells me that Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory, were together merged to form
the 46 th State of the Union in 1907. And so the story is of a land coming of age, and with lots of
potential ahead of it. That is the hope. Love stories, such as this, take place in all settings; but
this context of newness has a rather nice resonance as Curly and Laurie make up their minds
about a new future in each other’s arms. The hopes of the extended community are
parallelled by the hopes of the young couple. It’s a bit deeper than, simply, ‘boy meets girl’.

A further historical theme emerges in the delightful song ‘the farmer and the cowman should be
friends’: which is a call to fellowship between two different communities in this newly
integrated land, whose lifestyles and priorities are rather different, but for whom the most
promising future will be one in which they can share in the blessings of the land.
I guess farmers are the settled ones. Maybe less adventurous. Rooted to the land that they
farm. Those who have built their farmsteads, marked off their fields and invested their capital
in the long-term fruitfulness of their endeavour. In contrast, the cowmen are the chancers, the
‘lads’, the roamers, the restless ones; who like nothing more than to ride the land, delivering
cattle to market, travelling with the winds and the rains on their back, and, so often, sleeping at
night beneath the stars. These more nomadic types haven’t bought into the dream of
permanence and stability, and so there’s a real poignancy to it when Curly (the male lead) gives
up the tools of his cowboy trade, horse and saddle and gun, to embrace a more sedentary life
for the sake and company of the woman he loves. Maybe, he has chucked in the dream.

Maybe he has grown old and soft? Or maybe he has grown up, in a more complimentary way?
.. Actually, it’s all a bit confusing since it seems that whole families are of one stock or the
other, farmer or cowman, so it’s not a simple matter of the free-spirited young against the
cautious older folk.

What the context might stir up in us is our being part of a wider whole, alongside our own little
narratives; that we are accountable to a bigger story; that any aspirations we have do deserve a
communitarian aspect, too; and that we don’t consider ourselves immune and apart from the
interests of a wider group with whom we reside. There are lots of issues such as planning
decisions; anti-social behaviour; despoilation of the environment; as well as the subtler
invitation that all of us might freshly think of ourselves as part of a community, and feel our
way into what that is going to mean for us and others.

And then there is the priority of peace between clans; gracious reception and integration of the
incomer; an end to fractious rivalry; and mutual respect, wherever difference rears its head.
All these issues burn brightly for a burgeoning new State, and at a time of evident change.

However, they need not go away in the middle-age of our existence, as politics, nationhood and
and community spirit continue to matter greatly in the realm of living graciously.
May yer corn grow as high ‘as a elephant’s eye’, and your stetson shield you from the sun; but
may yer awl revel, too, as one folk in a great ol’ barn dance (without the fisticuffs!)
Late summer’s blessings,

Andrew Doye, Rector


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