Dear Carousel, the Oppression of Women Is Not An Amusement Park Ride
by Taylor Fournier
written for the final assignment in her American Musical Theatre course.
Carousel was the second musical written by the popular team of the Golden Age, Rodgers and Hammerstein. The plot of the play is based on the 1909 play Liliom by Ferenc Molnar. Both Rodgers and Hammerstein agreed that Carousel was their favorite project that they had ever worked on together. The musical was constantly modified during out-of-town tryouts, but when it opened on Broadway on April 19, 1945, it was an instant hit with both critics and audiences. Carousel initially ran for 890 performances and duplicated its success in the West End in 1950. In 1956, it was turned into a film starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones.
Rodgers and Hammerstein are one of the most well-known music composing teams of this century. Rodgers wrote all of the music for the songs, while Hammerstein wrote the lyrics. They wrote many incredible hits that continue to receive great reviews. Examples of these shows are The King and I, The Sound of Music, South Pacific, and Oklahoma!, just to name a few. With all of their shows, the team won thirty-four Tony Awards, fifteen Academy Awards, the Pulitzer Prize, and two Grammy Awards. Before their partnership, Rodgers and Hammerstein achieved success independently. Rodgers had collaborated for more than two decades with Lorenz Hart. Among their many Broadway hits were the shows A Connecticut Yankee (1927), Babes in Arms (1937), The Boys from Syracuse (1938), Pal Joey (1940), and By Jupiter (1942), as well as many successful film projects. Hammerstein, a co-writer of the popular Rudolf Friml 1924 operetta Rose-Marie, and Sigmund Romberg operettas The Desert Song (1926) and The New Moon (1928), began a successful collaboration with composer Jerome Kern on Sunny (1925), which was a hit. Their 1927 musical Show Boat is considered to be one of the masterpieces of the American musical theatre. Other Hammerstein/Kern collaborations include Sweet Adeline (1929) and Very Warm for May (1939). By the early 1940s, Hart had sunk deeper into alcoholism and emotional turmoil, and he became unreliable, prompting Rodgers to approach Hammerstein to ask if he would consider working with him, and that’s where it all began with these two. (“Rodgers & Hammerstein.” 2015).
The story begins in Maine 1873 as two young female millworkers visit the town’s carousel after work. One of them, Julie Jordan, meets Billy Bigelow, a handsome carousel worker who doesn’t have the best of reputations. But she falls in love with him anyways, and they get married. After they get married, Billy starts to become frustrated that he cannot find a job. He starts to become abusive in the relationship, but Julie still stays with him. Carrie Pipperidge, Julie’s best friend, is in love with a boy named Enoch Snow, who she is going to marry. Then, Billy meets his friend Jigger, and he talks about the good life of living on a boat, which makes Billy question leaving Julie. When he returns to her, she tells him that she is pregnant. Once Billy realizes this, Jigger suggests he rob the man who owns the mile, in order to make money for his baby. He tries to rob him, but gets caught and will be set to jail, so instead he kills himself. This entire musical is a memory, because Billy is really talking to the angels. After fifteen years, the angel’s allow Billy to go back and see his daughter graduate high school, and also see Julie, who is also sensing that Billy is right there with her, even though she cannot see him. All throughout the show, there are scenes featuring Billy and the Starkeeper, or the man Billy is sent to when he dies. In these scenes, the Starkeeper takes Billy through these memories, and he reflect on them (Carousel, 1945). Although this is a brief summary of the plot, there is much more to the story.
The plot of this story is incredibly interesting, because it could be argued about who the true antagonist is- Billy or Julie. Regardless of this, the facts remain the same- the audience roots for these two lover to stay together. The audience is able to sympathize with them both. But, throughout this plot, there is evidence that the couple’s abusive relationship is romanticized, further enforcing the view of oppression of women in society.
One example of this can be found in this conversation between Julie and her friends:
“Nettie: You know something else, Carrie? Last Monday, he hit her.
Carrie: Did you hit him back?
Julie: Oh, no!
Carrie: Why, I would’ve. I’d leave him.
Julie: You don’t understand, Carrie. You see, he’s unhappy because he ain’t working. That’s why he hit me Monday.
Nettie: Fine reason for hitting you. Beats his wife because he ain’t working”
This quote is interesting, because it begins to offer a more feminist approach to the situation. But then it takes a complete turn, focusing the attention back to Julie. Julie admits to having been hit, but immediately dismisses the topic, and makes excuses on his behalf. Because Julie is the protagonist, and therefore the character the audience roots for, she can be seen as a negative portrayal of how the perfect woman should be. Everyone hopes the best for Julie, but why do they ignore the fact that she is furthering acceptance in patterns of abusive relationships? Although this not an uncommon occurrence in situations of domestic violence, as the plot progresses, Julie never addresses it, therefore allowing the cycle of violence to continue (Herman, 1992). Throughout the rest of the plot, Julie and Billy’s love is romanticized, and still seen as the “happy ending” for each of the characters. But why is it that we dismiss this cycle of violence, and continue to wish for the two to remain together? Why is it that despite that domestic violence that has not been addressed, we still see Billy as a good guy? Another interesting quote to study from this perspective is a conversation that Billy has with the Starkeeper:
“Billy: I… I couldn’t get work. And I… I couldn’t bear to see her… to see her…
Starkeeper: You couldn’t bear to see her cry. Why don’t you come right out and say it. Why are you afraid to use the right word? Why are you ashamed you loved Julie?
Billy: I ain’t ashamed of anything.
Starkeeper: Then why did you beat her?
Billy: I didn’t beat her. I hit her.
Billy: well, we’d argue. She’d say this, I’d say that… and she’d be right. So I hit her.
Starkeeper: Are you sorry you hit her?
Billy: I ain’t sorry for anything”
In this scene, Billy clearly admits not only to being the batterer in a cause of domestic violence, but also that he has no remorse for doing so (or at least that he will not let anyone else see remorse in him). In addition, he is quoted, “…and she’d be right. So I hit her,” suggesting that it is excusable for a man to hit a woman because she is correct. Whether it was out of anger, frustration, or jealousy, domestic abuse is inexcusable (Herman, 1992). But even knowing that domestic abuse is prevalent in their relationship, it is romanticized and continues to be longed for by both characters, as well as the show’s audiences. The romanticization of Billy and Julie’s love in Carousel directly corresponds to the ignorance of domestic violence and the further oppression of women.
Towards the ending of Act 2, Billy is allowed to visit his daughter in the present day, but she does not know that it is him. At the end of their encounter, Louise speaks her mind and Billy slaps her. As he runs away, Louise calls out to her mother:
“Louise: There was a strange man here, Mother… and he hit me, hard. I heard the sound of it, Mother. But it didn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt at all. It was just as if he’d kissed my hand.
Julie: Go into the house, Louise.
Louise: What’s happened, Mother? Don’t you believe me?
Julie: I believe you.
Louise: Then why don’t you tell me why you’re acting so funny.
Julie: Oh, it’s nothing, darling.
Louise: But is it possible, Mother, for someone to hit you hard like that, real loud and hard, and not hurt you at all?
Julie: It is possible, dear… for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all.”
It is evident from their conversation that the two women are talking about Billy’s physical aggressions, but neither of them seems to feel abused. Actually, they describe Billy’s acts as proofs of love. In families where domestic abuse is prevalent, the likelihood of the abuse being passed down from mother to children is very high (Segal, 2007). However, this familial cycle is completely ignored, and romanticized into a cycle of love. Instead of Julie feeling as though the cycle of abuse has been continued, she somehow has the sense that it was Billy, and Billy was showing that he loved his daughter, just as he loved her mother- through domestic violence. Instead of feeling angry that a man hit her daughter, she feels humbled by the memory of her abusive relationship. This idea seems incredibly far-fetched. But, by romanticizing the love between Julie and Billy, once again the plot has succeeded in ignoring the prevalence and issue of domestic violence in relationships.
Carousel is immensely important in the history of American musical theatre. In the 1950’s, people were not used to seeing taboo themes (such as domestic violence) so bluntly presented in theatre. In reality, women of this time were not used to thinking about this type of violence as something that could be shared outside of the privacy of the domestic sphere, causing victims of such abuse to remain completely isolated and un-helped. Regardless, Carousel lead the way towards a more mature musical genre, something that would be happen just years later with the production of tragic musicals such as West Side Story (Álvarez Caldas, 2012).
The romanticization of Billy and Julie’s love makes the audience completely overlook the social atrocity that is being constantly represented on the stage. However by identifying this, we are able to analyze the societal views of a different time, and furthermore, educate ourselves so that history does not repeat itself. It is important to recognize that although this play is a representation of a different period in history, the themes are still very prevalent today including women’s oppression, domestic violence, and society’s view on women. By analyzing the themes of domestic abuse in Carousel, we can make progressive strides towards fighting the oppression of women.
Álvarez Caldas, Patricia. “What’s the Use of Wondering If He’s Good or Bad?: Carousel and the Presentation of Domestic Violence in Musicals.” N.p., 15 Sept. 2012. Web.
Carousel. Rodgers, Richard. Hammerstein, Oscar. 1945, The Majestic Theatre.
“Domestic Violence Resources – Fact Sheet – Feminist Majority Foundation.”Domestic Violence Resources – Fact Sheet – Feminist Majority Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.
Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery. New York, NY: Basic, 1992. Print.
“Rodgers & Hammerstein.” ::. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.
Segal, Elizabeth A., Karen E. Gerdes, Sue Steiner, and Elizabeth A. Segal.An Introduction to the Profession of Social Work: Becoming a Change Agent. Belmont, CA: Thomson–Brooks/Cole, 2007. Print.