Are You Grown Up Enough for 'Carousel'?

Noel Katz

One of the greatest musicals ever written is, these days, under attack for being the opposite of what it is. The attackers mean well, but they misquote the script, disregard other aspects of the story, and misunderstand – perhaps willfully – a key point. So let’s today take a fresh look at Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 masterpiece, Carousel, and answer the charges being made against it.

Of course, spoilers are ahead. If you haven’t seen Carousel… well, what the hell are you waiting for? Go out and see a production, now! This piece will still be here when you get back.

The bum rap is that Carousel somehow condones, excuses or sentimentalizes wife-beating. That would be a really unusual thing for a 1940s musical to do, no? Rodgers and Hammerstein’s other shows compassionately tackle prejudice, immigrant assimilation, class conflicts and the fortitude it takes for a woman to stand up to a king. But there’s this one line the Carousel-deriders seize on: “It is possible, dear – fer someone to hit you – hit you hard – and not hurt at all.” Does this line imply that an abuser's blows aren’t felt by the victim? Only if one ignores who's talking to whom and what has just happened.

15-year-old Louise has just had a very strange conversation with the ghost of her dead father, Billy. Now, she has no way of knowing it’s the ghost of her dead father. However, the script makes it very clear that her mother, Julie, catches a quick glimpse of him before he disappears. Julie’s seen the ghost of her husband who died fifteen years earlier, and she knows it. Both women in this scene have had extraordinary supernatural experiences.

Billy tries to give Louise a star he’s stolen from the sky. She has the sense to reject a gift from a strange older man, and man, that’s one weird gift.  Billy, frustrated, slaps her hand and, miraculously, the slap feels like a kiss to her.

But pause for a moment. Can someone definitively tell me what it feels like to be slapped by a ghost? Is it painful? If anyone reading this has been hit by an apparition, get back to me. Also, consider joining a Victims of Spectral Abuse support group.

Louise runs to her mother, who is now staring into the space where Billy just was, “acting funny.” Naturally, she asks if it’s possible “fer someone to hit you hard like that – real loud and hard – and not hurt you at all?” Pressed for an answer, the awe-struck Julie agrees that it’s possible, because she’s just seen her long-deceased husband and ANYTHING is possible in a world where the dead return.

Another line in this scene has an angel condemning Billy for this slap, with the clear implication the sin could bar him from heaven: “Failure! You struck out blindly again. All you ever do to get out of a difficulty – hit someone you love! Failure!” People who jump to the extremely odd conclusion that Carousel is saying that an abusive husband’s blows can feel like love seem to have forgotten this line.

And the context of the whole show. Billy Bigelow is a complex protagonist, neither purely evil nor wholly good. If you’re not used to realistic, fully nuanced characters in musicals, this mixture can be startling. We’re given reasons to love him, reasons to identify with him, as well as reasons to hate him. He’s sensitive enough to notice blossoms that fall with hardly any wind. He has the relatable flaw of being inarticulate when it comes to expressing emotions (“IF I loved you, words wouldn’t come in an easy way”). Most charmingly, he fantasizes what life will be like when he becomes a father. But, he elicits no sympathy when he confesses “We’d argue. And she’d say this and I’d say that – and she’d be right – so I’d hit her.”

And there’s one other terrible thing he does: He commits pre-mediated armed robbery, fully accepting that the victim may have to be killed. Now, it’s a fool game to compare one sin to another, but when I hear Carousel’s critics focus on Billy’s domestic violence, I wonder why I never hear anyone complain that it is a show in which a thief with a weapon makes it into heaven.

Rodgers and Hammerstein aren’t interested in the easy answers a writer today might provide. (Wife-beating: BAD! Armed robbery: SINFUL!) In Carousel, they’re far more interested in having us take an eyes-wide-open look at the whole person, “whether he’s false or true.” Brave artists go beyond reinforcing beliefs the audience already holds. Instead, remarkably, we root for a contemptible lout to get into heaven. It’s mind-blowing, rather than comfortable because it treats the audience like grown-ups.

In the seventy years since the show's premiere, we’ve become more aware of, and more often speak of, the terrible scourge of spousal abuse. Men hitting women horrifies our generation so much that some are unwilling to accept a story in which such a man gets any sympathy. If you prefer your characters painted in black and white, preaching an easy lesson you already know, well, there’s a lot of children’s theatre you could see. Steer clear of adult fare, like Rodgers and Hammerstein.