Despite a beautiful score, Rogers and Hammerstein's Carousel has had a complicated history. Despite it being well received and revived, the play centers around a character who beats his wife. Worst of all the play's climax centers around the question "how can a slap feel more like a kiss?" While it is obvious that the theme of the play points more "repenting your mistakes" than "beating your wife is ok," the production doesn't condemn the hero (or anti-hero) for his actions. He gets into heaven in the end having learned the errors of his ways.
But at the same time, how is our reading of the play affected by this one line? The rest of the play is full of an American spirit of hopefulness. Our hero is a carnival barker who cleans up his life and settles down with a girl he falls in love with. She and he may not be the perfect match, but how many of us are? Soon, however, money becomes an issue and he realizes that he cannot continue to go on the way he is, especially with a child on the way. It is a coming of age story that can speak to us all. Then there is another mistake. He decides to get his money through a robbery which goes wrong and rather than getting caught commits suicide leaving his wife alone. In the second act he is given a It's a Wonderful Life type second chance to go back to earth and right old wrongs before he is allowed into heaven.
So do we just ascribe the wife-beating theme to be the product of an earlier time? Is this a play that can still be relevant without condemning it out-of-hand? Are there ways to down-play this moment or by shying away from it are we condoning spousal abuse? What are some of your thoughts?
Happy Birthday: (August 15) Robert Bolt (1924-1995)