I vaguely remember when the TV series “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” came out. I never watched it – it sounded like it would be all about either romance or sex, neither of which interested me when I was twenty. I had never even heard of the musical film it was based on.
When auditions for the musical “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” were announced at church last summer, I wondered why in the world our drama director would want to do that musical. When auditions were cancelled a few weeks later, I gave it no more thought. Then a few months ago, I learned that it would be the spring musical at the high school, and that our drama director from church was now director for the high school musical.
In the program, she explains that she has long wanted to produce this show. “It teaches us about the value of hard work, commitment and treating one another with respect.” She had to wait for the right group of students who could do it well, though – and this year she realized she had that group. This year’s senior class is certainly blessed with an abundance of talent in music and dance. (Not all the major parts were played by seniors, but a large number of them were.)
I had little idea what to expect, other than a fight between the brothers and the other suitors. Our older son, who plays one of the suitors, had told me all about that fight scene. (He takes one of the brothers and keeps finding himself on the floor.) The songs didn’t seem too memorable (at least not to me – to my music-loving son it’s another matter). The amount of humor surprised me – including the number of jokes that went over our ten-year-old’s head.
I also had no idea, prior to the performance last night, that the musical was based on a short story, “The Sobbin’ Women” by Stephen Vincent Benet (perhaps best known for his short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster”). From what I have just read, Benet’s story was a parody of the legend of the rape of the Sabine women, and also that the musical was based very loosely on Benet’s story. So now I realize that the reference to the Sabine women was than just an excuse for the brothers to kidnap the girls they wanted to marry.
I’ve visited enough art museums (especially during the year I spent in Europe) that I’m sure I have seen more than one representation of The Rape of the Sabine Women on canvas. I don’t remember spending any time admiring any of them, however. Why, I wondered, would someone want to depict such an ugly subject on canvas?
If I had purchased and read museum guide books (which I never do), I would have found out that the word “rape” in the title of these paintings refers not to sexual violation but to abduction. Like the Benjamites in Judges 21, who seized girls of Shiloh during a festival because no one would give their daughters to the Benjamites (due to events in the previous chapters), the men who were founding Rome were unable to negotiate marriage with the neighboring Sabines and so set about kidnapping women to marry (during a festival they planned for this purpose).
I don’t know how the women captured by the Benjamites felt about the matter (I know that some people see the story as evidence that the God of the Bible sanctioned injustice and oppression). But in the case of the Sabine women, the Roman historian Livy makes it clear that the women were given a free choice whether to marry, and promised civic and property rights and that their sons would be free men (this in an age when a large proportion of the population was slaves).
By the time the Sabines came to retaliate for the abduction of their daughters (probably less out of concern for the women’s well-being than the loss of the bride-price they should have been paid), the women had no interest in leaving their husbands. They intervened in the battle, imploring their husbands and kinsmen not to kill each other. The Sabines then agreed to form one nation with the Romans.
This is pretty much the story of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” set in 1850’s Oregon instead of ancient Rome. The men in search of brides are backwoodsmen who are unwelcome in town, especially as the girls they fall in love with (at a church social, at least in the high school’s version) have very jealous suitors. Kidnapped by the brothers and confined to their cabin by snow blocking the pass back to town, the girls not only become reconciled to their situation but resist “rescue” when it finally comes in the spring.
Incidentally, another author who made use of the story of the Sabine women was Saki (H.H. Munro), in “The Schartz-Metterklume Method” (it’s very short and you can read the whole story online at the link provide. My father often read stories by Saki to my older sister and me, and very likely he read this one to us, though at the time I understood neither the history being referred to, nor appreciated the humor in the story.