Oct 17, 2014

Big River: Come Back to the Raft, Huck Honey

The homoerotic import of Huckleberry Finn and Jim the escaped slave rafting down the Mississippi has been well-known for many years.  Even homophobes notice.

 In 1961, Leslie Fiedler wrote "Come Back to the Raft Again, Huck Honey," bemoaning that Huck and Jim, like many men and boys in classic American literature, are afraid to grow up and establish "mature" heterosexual relationships, so they fall in love with men.

When both you and your intended audience are fully aware of the gay subtext, how will you build a stage musical out of Huckleberry Finn that adequately avoids it?

Especially when you know that the actors will be much closer in age than the 14-year old Huck and adult Jim of the novel?

That was the problem that Roger Miller and William Hauptman faced when they wrote Big River, which premiered on Broadway in 1985, at the height of the 1980s homophobic backlash.  In that political climate, no way could they allow the slightest hint of Jim and Huck liking each other!

So they had Huck and Jim explicitly reject the idea that they could have any kind of romantic bond:

I see the friendship in you eyes that you see in mine
But we're worlds apart, worlds apart
Together, but worlds apart

Then they gave Jim s a quest: to go to the North, make some money, and buy his family out of slavery.

And the newly heterosexual Huck gets a girlfriend, Mary Jane Wilkes, who asks him to stay in Arkansas with her:

Did the morning come too early
Was the night not long enough
Does a tear of hesitation
Fall on everything you touch

He decides to move on, not because he isn't interested, but because he made a vow to help Jim escape to the North.

Finally,  they defer the homoeroticism onto the Duke and the King, two gay-vague villains of the old, simpering school.  The "Royal Nonesuch" show, which they advertise to grift the townsfolk,  purports to be a horror of gender indeterminancy:

Well, it ain't no woman and it ain't no man
And it don't wear very many clothes
So says I, if you look her in the eye
You're better off looking up her nose

It's actually the Duke and the King mooning the audience.

Does it work?  Does Big River adequately erase the gay potential?

Not really.  This scene could just as easily be from Romeo and Juliet.

It takes a lot more than that to keep gay subtexts away.

See also: Huck and Jim on the Raft

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