Saturday, January 30, 2016

Hugh Thompson

Last night's premiere performance of Jonathan Berger's mis-titled "My Lai" -- by the Kronos Quartet at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park -- holds some of the most breathtakingly beautiful music of recent times (though the fractured reimagining of Elgar's elegy owes some power to Oliver Stone's use of the same music in "Plattoon").  As the applause died down, my friend complained that it was inappropriate to construct a work of uncanny beauty around acts of senseless violence -- what's next? an opera about a rape? -- but the person in the adjacent seat explained that a war requiem transmutes senselessness into beauty, as a gift to the wronged.  You honor the dead by wrapping them in beauty and wishing them peace.  Repulsive works that document repulsive deeds do not help either the living or the dead.

"My Lai" features the aging Hugh Thompson reliving the moments before and after his helicopter came upon the massacre in progress and he ordered his gunners to target their weapons on the United States soldiers who were committing war crimes.  Thompson suffered for his decision -- he was the one who talked with Seymour Hirsch, was vilified by both the military and the right-wing establishment -- and is a true American hero.

This was a premiere and not a preview, so is too late for notes, but my only quibble is that naming a piece after a place invites the audience to draw metonymical conclusions that make the protagonist's actions and responses  metaphorically representative (for example, John Dos Passos' America, WCW's Patterson, and even Hugh Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn).  The context of the My Lai massacre -- the foolish idiocy of a numbers-driven approach towards warfare -- MacNamara's appalling mismanagement --situates My Lai very rapidly in a historical context that encapsulates both Hamburger Hill and Rumsfeld's equally incompetent misuse of power.  When a complex event is a reduced to a humanist response to inhumanity, it exonerates the social context of responsibility for the inhumanity.

As a piece, a reach towards universality would have diminished the profound contemplation of Hugh Thompson's heroism.  But since the piece was written to honor Hugh Thompson, his name should have been in the title. A better name for the piece would be "Hugh Thompson remembers the events of March 16th, 1968".


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