The Fantasticks: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

In 2008, six years after the closing of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s Off-Broadway production of The Fantasticks, the beloved musical returned to New York City. Forty-two years, it seems, was not a long enough run after all for this record breaker, and furthermore, no one appeared unhappy with the decision.

When in the early 1960s the musical first came to fruition, the beat generation saw itself in the play’s tension of opposites–the ideology of the young versus the ideology of the over-30s–and the dissonance caused by the current political unrest of that time. The play reached out to the generational needs of the ’60s and continued even beyond. But today in 2012 we are undergoing a different kind of turbulance and much has changed since The Fantasticks was written. So why has this musical endured? Why can’t we get enough of its lines and lyrics? What is our connection? Why are we so in love with this play?

A Familiar Plot

The answer may lie in the underlying archetypal plot of the script. Act I opens in the sweet innocence of moonlight; Act II opens in the harsh reality of day. The boy Matt and the girl Luisa thrive on their illusions in the first act but encounter a painful awakening in the second. El Gallo, “the rooster” and professional abductor hired by Hucklebee, ushers in the light of day, literally but also symbolically. He has come to lead Matt and Luisa on separate journeys in which they will leave their innocence behind and become initiates into the world of experience.

In Moonlight

Matt’s and Luisa’s fathers construct a make believe feud and build a wall between their houses in order to encourage their children to fall in love, relying on the old temptation of the forbidden to do the job. It works, and when the two lovers meet in secret, in moonlight of course, they pledge their love to each other. To create the illusion of settling the feud, Matt’s father Hucklebee engages El Gallo to stage the abduction of Luisa, allowing his son Matt to rescue her heroically and end the ruse. Luisa’s father Bellomy agrees, but a happy ending in moonlight cannot be real.

In Daylight

“Their moon was cardboard,” El Gallo tells us. In the daylight, life takes on a less subtle tone and reality casts a harsh glare. All four sing, “What at night seems oh, so scenic may be cynic much too soon.” Suddenly dissatisfied, the boy and girl part ways to find a solution to their restlessness. Matt ventures off to drink and gamble and find a shining world full of adventure while Luisa longs to be kissed upon the eyes by El Gallo who will take her on a journey to see the world, dancing forever and forever. To do so, she must put up a mask to prevent her from seeing the truth. When Luisa refuses to accept this world as only an illusion, the trickery of smoke and mirrors, El Gallo exacts the usual price for self-deception: she must give up what is most valuable to her, in this case the necklace that belonged to her mother. Sacrifices rendered, Luisa eventually meets Matt, a kind of Prodigal Son, on the road back home, and he, too, admits he has been foolish. The girl and the boy have been deeply hurt but they have also seen the light of wisdom through their losses. They sing, “All my wildest dreams multiplied by two… they were you.” The boy and girl return home from their journey to find their dreams had already been fulfilled from the start. With this new consciousness, it begins to snow, a symbol of new beginnings, new life.

The Allegory of the Cave

If the plot sounds familiar, it should. It was borrowed from the fifth century B.C. allegory of the cave, Book VII of Plato’s Republic. Plato explains it to his student:

Human beings are chained from birth inside a cave illuminated only by a fire burning near the entrance and casting shadows on the back wall, which the prisoners believe to be the only reality they have ever known. Once released, they reluctantly leave the comfort of their illusions. They are led out by a figure who teaches them about the world outside the cave, dragging them up a steep hill so that, having been prepared little by little to adjust their eyes to increasing sources of light, they may finally look directly at the sun.

Life/Death/Rebirth… Again

The allegorical character of El Gallo in the play isn’t human at all but a symbol of the price of our own hamartia, the decisions we have made, not knowing at the time through ignorance or perhaps a lack of consciousness that they were mistakes. As Plato so wisely instructs, making errors in judgment is often the only way we will grow up and face the real world, on whatever level that may be. This life/death/rebirth motif reminds us again and again of the hero’s journey, the cycle of the seasons in which Persephone emerges from Hades in the spring to bring new life to the land, and the healing of wounds in the five stages of romance that gives hope to all of our relationships. The plot isn’t new–some say it is genetically encoded in us–yet we will forever be intrigued and even surprised by its familiarity.

Perhaps we love The Fantasticks because, in our own naively narcissistic way, we recognize ourselves in the characters’ every joy, their every mistake, and in the end their humble gratitude for second chances. Every time we watch the play or even listen to its delightful score, we are reminded of where we have been but also of where we are going. It is not surprising that Homer expressed these very thoughts centuries ago: “Even his griefs are a joy long after to one that remembers all that he wrought and endured.” El Gallo, too, opens and closes the play with the lyrics, ” Deep in December it’s nice to remember… “

The Film

For the less fortunate who have never seen a stage performance of The Fantasticks, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt wrote the screenplay as well, which was released in 1995. Only a slight departure from the play with a more detailed and versatile setting, the film requires less imagination but does include all but one of the same musical numbers and some additional lines, although the poetic quality has not been retained. In the film, El Gallo is the master of a carnival, the darkened tent which parallels Plato’s cave quite well. What the screenwriters do accomplish, to their credit, is a heightened version of the symbolism. For example, when Matt and Luisa sing “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” they are sitting under a tree while high in its branches above them, El Gallo stands, orchestrating everything from sound effects and a choir to the magical fairy dust he sprinkles on the lovers below. The tree is El Gallo’s life, so it is appropriate that, when he must lead Luisa out the allegorical cave in Act II, the lessons he teaches her begin when she climbs up and sits beside him in this very same tree. Because she wants the exciting, slightly dangerous life she thinks he has, she asks him, there in the tree, to take her with him and dance forever and ever.

For Students

Symbolism abounds throughout the film in the tree, the eyelid kiss, the necklace, the two houses and the wall between them, the old Romeo and Juliet film flickering on the wall of the dark carnival tent, the road leading to the carnival and home again, the mask, the end of smoke and mirrors magic, and the dances of life and illusion performed throughout. Students as young as middle school age who watch this film have an opportunity to learn about the allegory of the cave and the myriad of archetypal symbols that pervade the screenplay in a way that no other piece of literature can introduce quite so effectively. Bawdy carnival humor in one short scene, however, should be omitted for its lack of propriety as well as its pointless contribution to the play. Nevertheless, students who view this film will never watch another one again without noticing the secret language of symbolism, and once symbolism communicates to students in film, their understanding of archetypal literature is one step away.

For more information about The Fantasticks, see the following:

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Boston: Back Bay, Little, Brown and Co., 1969.

Jones, Tom and Harvey Schmidt, The Fantasticks. New York: Applause, 1964.

Plato. “The Republic II.” Trans. Benjamin Jowett. The Portable Plato. Ed. Scott Buchanan. New York: Penguin, 1977, 327-28.

O’Connor, Susan. Dance of Language. Bloomington, IN, 2008.

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