“Brigadoon,” Exoticism, and Ben Franklin

I hate the musical “Brigadoon.” It’s not because I don’t like musicals. I love musicals. It’s not because I don’t like the music in that particular musical – I like a lot of it. It’s not because I don’t like Scottish things. Actually – it’s because I do like Scottish things – and Brigadoon has absolutely nothing to do with Scottish things.

I will explain. I hate cultural misappropriation. I hate assuming that we have to make something seem exotic in order to get a message across. This isn’t a particularly new phenomenon, but with the internet and the speed of satellite communications, this tendency has taken on a whole new life.

Once upon a time (for example, when many parts of the Bible were being written), it was considered a form of flattery to write something under someone else’s name. This is called pseudepigrahy.  If an entire society understands and accepts this, then no harm, no foul. These days, however, things get circulated all the time under false pretenses. “Read what Andy Rooney said about…” for example – and it’s almost never Andy Rooney who said it (or whomever else has been assigned to the quip, essay, or rant). We think things will sound more intelligent if we say that Ben Franklin said it. But what if it’s completely opposite to Ben Franklin’s way of thinking?

Assigning writings to the wrong person dishonors the person who actually said or wrote it, and misrepresents the person to whom it’s assigned, but it doesn’t reduce a whole culture to a cartoon. Yet we do that, too.

I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard in church or read on the internet, “an ancient Chinese story” or “a wise Cherokee was teaching his grandson” only to be followed by a story that could not possibly be Chinese or Native American, or is so clearly generic that the assignment of a culture is simply gratuitous.

Brigadoon is a story from the former category. This is a German story. Everything about it screams German. It’s the story of a town that’s so terrified of the real world that their pastor prays and the prayer is answered so that the town sleeps and only wakes for one day each century so that the town’s people won’t be influenced by the outside world. But this miracle will be broken if anyone from the town leaves.  This is right out of German pietism – the movement that Menno Simons helped to found (if he sounds familiar, that’s where the Mennonites get their name from) – these are the folks, such as the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Bruderhof who live apart from the rest of the world. What it definitely isn’t is Scottish. The Presbyterian Church is the big church in Scotland, and in Presbyterian theology, there would be no need to be completely removed from the world.

However, Lerner and Lowe, I suppose, thought it would be great to dress people up in kilts and all manner of tartan, and so they decided to set the story in Scotland. Without doing any real research on Scotland or Scottish culture or history. The script starts out in New York in around 1947 and when the two travelers end up in Scotland, the town is stuck in 1747. All the men are supposed to be wearing kilts. Except that at that time in Scotland, the eating of kilts was outlawed by the British. But I guess we can just overlook that, because it looks good on stage.  There is a wedding, and the groom makes a comment about being the founder of a new clan. No. That’s not how it works. Each family is not a clan. A clan is WAY bigger than just one family, which is why not every Scottish surname has it’s own tartan. Many Scottish surnames are septs of a clan (they come under that clan). But hey – if we don’t know what it means we can just guess, right?

Ben Franklin said wise things, but he didn’t say every wise thing. Lao-Tse said wise things, but he didn’t say every wise thing. There are lessons to be learned from all the cultures of the world, but that doesn’t mean that the only lessons worth learning are from cultures that are vastly different from our own.

If Brigadoon had been set in Germany and called, I don’t know, Kleineberg, it would be a good musical. A better musical. If we told stories and said honestly, I heard this story and I don’t know where it came from, they would still be good stories.

Oh – and Ben Franklin and Abe Lincoln never said anything about the internet. That one’s on me.

That’s my mite. It’s all I’ve got.


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