Brigadoon is a quasi-origin story that is closely associated with the way stories transform the reality of the recent past. Communities, societies, and nations survive by means of having sacrificial victims to create harmony and unity. This represents the unpleasant core of our everyday world, in other words, hiding society’s original sin.
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I. The Force of the Hidden
The village disappears for 100 years. Villagers experience this as if they had gone to sleep and awakened the next day. The circumstance was created by a minister in the 1700s who beseeches God to protect the village from witches who were putting the devil into the villagers’ souls. The price for saving them: the minister cannot return to the village and no one can leave Brigadoon. Apparently, all are happy with the arrangement. But soon a hidden discontent emerges and imperils the idyllic situation.
Enter Tommy (Gene Kelly) and Jeff (Van Johnson). On vacation in the Scottish Highlands, they blunder into the village and notice preparations for a wedding. Tommy falls for Fiona (Cyd Charisse), sister of the bride-to-be, Jean (Virginia Bosler). Glancing at their family Bible, Tommy notices anomalies; in particular, the wedding date is May 24, 1746. Mr. Lundie (Barry Jones), the schoolmaster, explains it to Tommy. When Jeff learns of it, he thinks they are being pranked. Tommy’s dilemma: he’s engaged to a woman in New York City, which is supposed to be some consolation for not being able to stay with Fiona. Tommy’s romance with Fiona, the central focus of the musical, becomes the means to deflect us from dwelling on a disturbing reality about Brigadoon.
This reality went unnoticed the first time I saw the film. In fact, I watched because my wife wanted to see it one evening when featured on TMC (Turner Movie Classics). I didn’t think much about it. Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse sang and danced well. Van Johnson seemed slightly out of step, that is, his character did, like a nonmusical personage in a musical. My bland response was the product of two things: I don’t like musicals very much, and, most importantly, considering the presence of Kelly and Charisse, Brigadoon (1952) didn’t come close to the delights of Singin’ in the Rain (1952). With thousands of other movies, I put Brigadoon behind me, seemingly forever.
A few years later, maybe ten or twelve, my high school where I taught history, sociology, and world cultures, decided to make Brigadoon the school musical. I didn’t know the machinations for getting the rights, that is, the cost of producing it. The school musical each year made money, and I had helped out in three of them backstage: Annie, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Music Man. That was early in my career when I hadn’t learned to say “No” when asked to volunteer time after school and on the weekends. But I still had to “work” the musical in what is called “play duty,” either guarding doors, making sure the kids are quiet as they waited on the side to do their scene, or selling tickets and refreshments. Worse, especially with Brigadoon, I had to watch the first full performance in which the non-player students comprised the audience along with elementary grade students from other schools in the area.
During the scene when the villagers chased Harry Beaton, to prevent his leaving the village (which would make it disappear), the student players ran up and down the aisles chanting “Harry Beaton, Harry Beaton.” Then Harry (Hugh Laing) is found dead, accidentally killed by Jeff. The scene affected me unlike anything I ever felt during a student production. Not for its aesthetic greatness but the very action of hunting down Harry Beaton. For between the time I saw the film and watched the student musical, I had read a series of books that would pertain directly to the chasing down of Harry Beaton. What I had read uncovered a hidden force that wasn’t necessarily the intent of Brigadoon’s writer, Alan J. Lerner.
II. Harry Beaton’s Problem
In literary, popular, and genre arts, a writer directs the audience to feel a certain way about the characters. In murder mysteries, the victims very often get what they deserve – or that’s how we feel upon learning of the victim’s venality or learn about it from other characters (suspects). Our liking or disliking characters is linked to our basic feelings. The writer managing our responses will sense what adherence or violation of norms trigger our feelings. Plays and films have an additional element of having actors who bring a resume of roles that push us in a certain direction.
In Brigadoon, we enter an innocent, protected world whose circumstances we should have no issue with. Virtually no one in the cast should make us feel anything but accepting to their actions. Soon, we feel dramatic strains when Gene Kelly falls in love with Cyd Charisse. How can our hero, Tom, attain fulfillment when we learn that he cannot stay in the village? If we believe Tom should be practical and realistic about his prospects, Jeff is there to represent us, of sorts, and convince Tom of what we believe to be a reasonable course: he can’t stay because he has a life in New York City, not to mention a fiancée. The thing is, we feel comfortable with our response to this drama, despite wanting Tom to chuck the hard, cruel world for apparent bliss. More, we would sanction the village’s existence at any cost, especially when Tom is allowed to stay. Everything works out. Even Jeff understands that Tom should remain in Brigadoon.
Difficult for the film’s viewers to comprehend is that not everyone is happy with the setup. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would object to or disapprove of the way the village is run. When Brigadoon first decides to leave reality and return for one day every 100 years, we don’t know who opposed it. Maybe no one did. It seems an absolute certain good thing. Or the minister who made the pact with God to protect the village from witches and grant it a form of eternal life didn’t anticipate objections. As for future problems, when they arose, the villagers could work it out because their fate depended on unanimity.
It didn’t take long for an internal problem to grow and fester. In Jean’s marrying Charlie (Jimmy Thompson), an otherwise village-wide happy event, there emerged a singular issue beyond fixing with words, compromise, or reason. Harry Beaton also loves Jean and is distraught over her marriage. In time, in normal time, in non-Brigadoon time, Harry might have been assuaged by his family, the elders, and friends. Except they have no time. Harry sees no future living in the village, especially after he makes a final play for Jean by kissing her during a prenuptial dance. No future. Just public humiliation. Compressed into a very short time. He might as well leave. Who cares what happens to Brigadoon? He leaves and the Utopian bliss is very short-lived. This is a neat problem for a despairing rejected love to feel. Harry is hell-bent on destroying the village because his desire has been blunted. How awful and brutal to be rejected. He blames the village (society) and cares no more about its future.
While we might remotely sympathize with Harry’s situation, there’s little we can hang on to. As a life experience, we figure he must get over being rejected, deal with it, because it happens to everyone. He loses all appeal when he thrusts himself on Jean during the sword dance. What Harry does next borders on appalling. He can’t get his way and decides to destroy the village and others’ happiness by leaving the village. We are pulled into the villagers’ panic. All other dramas, like Tom and Fiona’s relationship, shift to the background. This single episode envelops what comes before and after. Only when Harry is stopped do we return to the ostensible purpose of the proceedings. That is, our desire to share the protected, innocent existence of Brigadoon is reinvigorated. Nothing, not even the circumstances of the village’s privileged existence, is problematic. Along with Tom, we will soon get what we so strongly desire.
Harry’s fate disappears like the village, in a fog, a fog of memory, hidden by the wonderful feeling that the village can go on forever. Accelerating his disappearance – the bad feelings emanating from his stunted desires – there’s a grand funeral ceremony that nearly sanctifies or heightens his character for the villagers. For a while, his family may have a sour taste in their minds, but it’s unknown how memory operates during the 100-year disappearances. Will his death seem like only yesterday? Or will, being yesterday, it seem like 100 years ago?
What absolutely will not be remembered is the hideously convenient nature of Harry’s death. None of the villagers have to take the blame. Jeff killed him. He won’t be in the village for any recrimination from Harry’s family. Even Tom, the newest member, is innocent. Not that Jeff will forget. Despite shooting Harry by accident, he feels guilt, not a good tiding given his strong alcohol intake. Jeff enters the film as a cynical heavy drinker, immune to having a lasting relationship. When we contrast our feelings for the two Americans, our affection steers toward Tom. We may like Jeff or his type. In reality, we may be more like Jeff than Tom. This, in itself, pushes us from Jeff, not the same way we are pushed away from Harry, but the process is similar. We can accept Jeff accidentally shooting Harry because it seems quite fitting.1 Thus further hiding Harry’s unfortunate death. From all sides, we are protected from even beginning to think that ritual murder is the foundation of Brigadoon village’s eternal happiness and pleasantries.
III. What Price to Live Forever
I’m not going to write “if my interpretation is correct” to probe the reason or necessity for Harry Beaton’s death. The interpretation merely continues a destination. However, we, you and I, may not recognize it when we arrive. Reason and necessity may not be discerned, that is, will still remain hidden or simply unaccountable.2 We will be looking for (or look at) the foundation of the village’s magical situation. A rationale is presented by Mr. Lundie to Tom and Jeff, who aren’t disposed to look critically at the situation. Jeff, the cynic, is ready to believe Lundie. Tom, in love’s throes, has an interest in becoming a believer in the village’s mission.
We are a world of believers. Even during my first viewing, I was passively inclined to go along with Tom’s feelings. Thus, I didn’t feel bad when Harry dies. No one watching the film does. We’re relieved that he’s been stopped. My own personality is akin to Jeff’s, which means I could adopt his attitude. But it is also passive. I’ve no emotional commitment to the scenario. Then. But now, my commitment is to understand what is going on with the village and why. It starts with the special circumstance that allows Brigadoon to go on forever.
Mr. Lundie tells Tom and Jeff about the witches and the minister who beseeches God to protect the village from their evil temptations. It’s a pact with the devil in reverse. But there are conditions. No souls are bargained with. Most importantly, the minister can’t return to the village. To protect the group from evil, it seems to him a relatively small price, a sort of human self-sacrifice. Because no one expects resistance to or frustration with the Brigadoon Bargain, the villagers are lulled into contented complacency. Should a problem arise, reasoning for the common good will suffice.
The price for immortality shouldn’t be overlooked. The exclusion of the minister anticipates problems or situations when the ultimate price must be exacted. This, and the inadequacy of reason when dealing with a person beyond reason. All societies deal with destructive forces that can’t be avoided. Starting with the likes of a Harry Beaton, who resents society for thwarting his desires and happiness, and who can only compensate for this frustration by destroying the society thwarting him. A society or village must use means to protect itself, even when it demands or facilitates the ultimate sacrifice.3
I mentioned how Tom and Jeff go along with the explanation for Brigadoon’s survival forever. Unlike Swift’s Struldbruggs (Eternals) in Book Three of Gulliver’s Travels, the villagers won’t become decrepit but will advance “naturally” in 100-year intervals. This seems as much the work of witchcraft as it is an act of God. Nor does the desire to be protected from evil “forever and ever” seem normal or normally practical. If anything, the circumstance creates a malignancy hidden from the villagers. Perhaps someone inside or outside Brigadoon must take on an unwanted burden. In this case, Jeff kills Harry Beaton and, when he returns to New York, he’s drinking more and unable to live with himself.4
When a village or society determines one way to live (happily), little compensation is made for dissent. Any dissent is unthinkable or, in other words, repressed and hidden. This seems a not unreasonable scenario for the original human groups in prehistory.5 For many reasons and ways, a society’s recognition of these beginnings is blanketed in mist and fog, like the literal mist that hides Brigadoon. A society’s desire for a singular, inflexible model to which all must submit seems a standard for dictatorships and democracies.6 The society coming-to-be in the United States represents a hopefully delusional utopia of universal appeal. When Alan Jay Lerner wrote Brigadoon, the United States seemed to be approaching the fulfillment of its capitalist imperialism at home and abroad. Internal forces mounted a purge against those who perceived America’s ideals and achievements problematic, suspect, unworthy, and unhealthy.
Love it or leave it. Leave it: go to another country, go to jail, be placed on a blacklist. Brigadoon’s problem simplifies this: you don’t like it here, you must die. There’s no time to reason with Harry on the benefits (special purpose) of Brigadoon. This narrow focus and ambiguous solution pervades the minds of those for whom dissenters threaten the “life” and “future” of the community. Who can contend that his death had no benefits? Harry cannot. He has no voice in the matter. Even his family might only go so far to think “what a shame” about our brother or son. Nor does his family have to deal with a formal execution; there’s no reason to be vengeful toward the rest of the village. Not immediately. After hundreds of years (a few days) they may wonder: who was this Jeff? Was Tom his friend? Should we take this up with Tom? Jeff had a manner. A bit cynical toward the village’s privileged circumstance. Tom’s married to Fiona, so we can’t really blame him. But Jeff was his best friend. Can Tom be trusted? Do we want him in the Beaton house
IV. Origin Story
Alan Jay Lerner wrote the story. Ten years after the premier run, a New York City newspaper disclosed that Brigadoon was based on a German story, “Germelshausen,” written in 1860 by Friedrich Gerstocker. Lerner claimed that he didn’t learn of the story, in which a village is under a magic curse, until after he had written the first draft. There’s no reason not to believe him or that he’s deliberately lying, that is, trying to hide the source of his inspiration. But that source, one way or another, was hidden from Lerner and, perhaps, he was hiding the source material/inspiration from himself.7 One thing is certain. The dark ending of “Germelshausen,” in which the hero loses his new love when the village disappears, is now hidden by Lerner’s happy ending. Can we blame him? There’s no musical if Tommy doesn’t join Fiona forever. Nothing sinister, just convenient.
Likewise, the sacrificial element was hidden from me. However, between first watching the musical on TCM and watching the student performances of Brigadoon, I had read the works of Rene Girard, the most relevant being Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.8 He describes with many examples how a society’s myths and rituals disguise the reality of its origins. Brigadoon is a quasi-origin story that is closely associated with the way stories transform the reality of the recent past. Communities, societies, and nations survive by means of having sacrificial victims to create harmony and unity. This represents the unpleasant core of our everyday world, in other words, hiding society’s original sin.
Brigadoon manufactures an original story to provide entertainment for willing audiences. Maybe quasi-original. The only opening to its murky core is Harry Beaton’s death. What obscures the importance of his dying? Why doesn’t it register on any part of our consciousness? Mostly, the movie/play hides the raw manner of his death. In the theater, Jeff accidentally trips and kills Harry, an action hidden from everyone. The film has Jeff shoot him, making it impossible to hide how Harry died. Accidents, in both cases. The convenience of his death – preventing his leaving the village and destroying it – becomes overwhelming for a reader of Rene Girard.
V. A Girardian Coda
Rene Girard explicates three core mechanisms that govern widespread social interactions:
- Mimesis, the process by which individuals copy one another in escalation, leading to conflict
- Scapegoating, a process by which collective guilt is transferred onto victims, then purged
Mimesis initiated the crisis in Brigadoon village when Jean is going to be married. A rival comes forth, Harry Beaton, and forces his attentions on her. Rebuffed, humiliated before the entire village, Harry runs away bent on retaliating against everyone by leaving the village confines.
Harry becomes the object of a desperate search, ending in his death. Though he’s not consciously considered a scapegoat, the villagers find unity and continued purpose (the village survives) through his death. Immediately after, there’s a procession carrying Harry’s body into the square, transforming his egregious contact into a ceremony of honor.
Brigadoon is the least likely candidate for our considering it an enclave of violence. Here we must return to the origin of Brigadoon’s special status. A village elder gives up his life to protect the village from evil entities. Its continuous existence depends on honoring the condition that nobody leave the village. In fact, it doesn’t take long before a crisis brings it to the brink. Harry Beaton’s fate is handled with extreme prejudice but not obviously so, for anyone: writer, villagers, audiences.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film.
- Looking at the memorable quotes from the film on IMDb, a majority come from Jeff. He brings a searing humor that doesn’t quite fit in the Brigadoon scenario of sweetness and innocence. Casting Van Johnson as Jeff is appropriate. Compared to Gene Kelly, he not a match as singer and dancer despite his talent for both. [↩]
- An example of this might be a personal unwillingness to draw conclusions that appear untenable relative to our individual and collective views. In this case, the period Brigadoon appeared on Broadway to the time it was adapted to film, 1947 to 1954. [↩]
- The town in Shirley Jackson’s famous story “The Lottery” has incorporated its necessity to survive, to continue. Usually, the ritual sacrifice replaces human or animal sacrifice. This is what makes her story so chilling. And the fact that we are given the victims’ point of view. Unlike in Brigadoon, why the town in “The Lottery” needs these victims is not clear, except for the fact that they’ve always done this. The victims were once persecutors. [↩]
- His relative redemption becomes the task of getting Tom back to Brigadoon. Then, again, he sacrifices the relationship with his best friend. [↩]
- Rene Girard has described these beginnings or hidden foundations as a lethal combination of violence and the sacred. [↩]
- When I originally typed the word, it was “demoncracies,” which might not be a bad image for our current problems in the United States. [↩]
- But it is curious that Lerner admits to knowing the story after writing the first draft. Is this a weak attempt at disguising that he used the German story? Would anyone have really cared? Apparently, it made Lerner uneasy. [↩]
- Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World, Rene Girard, in collaboration with Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort, Stanford University Press, 1987. [↩]
- Wikipedia. [↩]