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Rhetoretician -- Fiction etc.

One Passage from The Fantasticks

One Passage from The Fantasticks

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Last night I took Hannah to see The Fantasticks at Trinity Rep in Providence, and I realized with a start how much this play, which I've known for 32 years, has influenced me and especially my writing.

I first saw The Fantasticks in high school, and was floored by the way it both embraced and rejected sentimentality, and especially by its reminder of the bitter in the sweet.  (This was at the very start of my five-year delusion that I might become a performer or director.)  Not too long afterwards I bought the script and the cast recording, and spent a long time brooding over them.  (One of the reasons Jerry Orbach's death hit me so hard was that I remembered listening to his young voice singing El Gallo over and over again in my room.)  I saw several other productions in later years.  In 1979 (which, at the time, seemed so long after 1975!) I performed in a college production of it.  My faculty advisor (a Brechtian-socialist theater snob) made some pretty dismissive comments about the show, which got me so riled that I actually wrote a paper, entitled "Light, Sight, Mirrors and The Fantasticks," to demonstrate some of its structural complexity.  I still have the paper around somewhere.

Last night's performance was the first I've seen in over twenty years.  It had some interesting moves -- the director decided that El Gallo and The Mute were like Penn & Teller, and so had them performing magic tricks throughout, and Fred Sullivan, Jr. apparently decided that Huckleby was Ralph Cramden.  To top it off, the set was made to resemble the ruins of the old Rocky Point amusement park, which was especially poignant for the old Rhode Islanders (not me) in the crowd.

Now, what is (to me) the key speech of the play is spoken by El Gallo near the end of Act Two.  When I heard it again last night, I suddenly realized that a lot of what's at the core of the stories I've been writing for the last six months is, in one way or another, encapsulated by this speech.  I clearly remember watching from the audience as Dirk Denison, then only eighteen, spoke the line in 1975; I remember listening to Orbach's performance of it on the LP; I remember watching from across the stage as Jonathan Kalb, then twenty-one, recited it at Wesleyan; and last night, when Joe Wilson, Jr. said it, I realized that I could have inserted it into most of my fics.  I recite it now from memory:

     There is a curious paradox which no one can explain,
     And who understands the secret of the reaping of the grain?
     Who understands why spring is born out of winter's laboring pain,
     And why we all must die a bit before we grow again?
     I do not know the answer; I merely know it's true.
     I hurt them for that reason, and myself a little too.

Strange, strange.

Hannah liked the show, by the way.
  • It's amazing really when you start to see a pattern in your own work and then start to realize where it all came from. It makes me glad in a way that no one in my real life reads my writing!

    An evening at the theater is always fun. I'm glad Hannah liked it, too.
    • Actually I really like it when people from my real life read my writing. I'm so proud of doing something creative...
  • We had The Fantasticks in high school also. I never saw a professional version of it. I didn't know that Jerry Orbach was in it. No ownder it inspired you. It's supposed to be the longest running musical in the world. There was always a version of it playing somewhere near me, but I just never went. How long did it run on broadway?
    • Forty-two years. It opened in 1960 (not long after I was born) and closed in 2002 -- it was an indirect casualty of 9/11 (the theater was pretty close to Ground Zero).

      Jerry Orbach was in the original production, and for several years I never knew anything else he'd done. Then I started seeing his name in scripts and albums and realized what a cornerstone of the American theater he'd become: Scuba Duba; Promises,Promises; Chicago; etc., etc.
      • I hope that Jerry Orbach was appreciated by his peers. He was an "invisible" actor, you always saw the part he was playing, never the actor behind it. Long after you saw him in something, you remembered the character first, then you would think...yeah he was the guy playing...
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