This semester, the Athenian Players are performing our first musical, The Fantasticks. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’d never heard of what turned out to be the longest-running off-Broadway musical until the director announced his choice.
The story is a humorous one, about a boy and a girl whose feuding fathers have forbidden them to see or speak to each other. It turns out, though, that the fathers are actually best friends and have made this proclamation with the idea that it would be the best way to get their kids together. They hire a “villain” to make a show of attempting to kidnap the girl so that the boy can save the day and they can live happily ever after. The villain knows that this sort of thing doesn’t work and that the kids are too young and inexperienced to understand love, and does things his own way.
The play is not without its issues, though. A recent production in Wyoming had audience members walk out due to offensive topics. I have to say I disagree with some of their logic. One issue was casual use of the word “rape”. I do understand that it may trigger some people. However, the word is used with an earlier meaning, “to seize,” and due to the connotations, all but three instances of the word were removed from the script. (Two of those reference “the Rape of the Sabine Women” – you can’t really change the title – and one is in a song describing the planned attempted abduction.) Another issue is a Hispanic villain, but if you finish the show, you see that the villain isn’t a villain at all. He plays the role of one to help the boy and the girl develop a solid relationship, rather than the perfect-but-fake relationship the fathers are creating.
Other issues I see as more valid, such as the primary reason given for the walk out. The script calls for a non-native man dressed as a Native American, and he is used as one of the kidnappers. Another stereotype, not mentioned by those who walked out, is that of an Indian fakir that briefly appears. These appearances are certainly culturally insensitive, a fact that is only slightly mitigated by the fact that the play is not set in the real world, but in a fantastical world of its own.
It does bring up a difficult question, though. This play was written in the 1960’s, and so the cultural attitudes that we now recognize as inappropriate weren’t considered such. We could choose to ignore the play, but its historical place in theatre makes that difficult. It’s similar to modern issues with Peter Pan. We recognize now that Tiger Lily and the Native Americans are stereotypical images with little to no bearing on reality, but Peter Pan itself is culturally significant as a well-known piece of children’s literature that is often referenced in other works. Another great example of such controversy is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The question brought up by the University of Wyoming’s new program insert for their production of The Fantasticks is an important one: How do we revisit our history (and avoid taking prohibited liberties with a copyrighted work) while still being aware of cultural misappropriation, stereotyping, and sensibilities?
This question seems especially relevant in the American South, where an ongoing argument about Confederate history asks some of the same questions. How do we acknowledge and remember the past, but still manage to celebrate only the good and condemn the bad?
I have my own opinions on Confederate monuments, I assure you, but I won’t get into that here. I do think, however, that we can’t ignore the past. As for The Fantasticks (and Peter Pan and Huckleberry Finn), my personal feeling (and as a white woman who has only studied post-colonialism, I realise that my personal feeling isn’t necessarily relevant – I base it solely on my feeling about treatment of women in many works and how I prefer it to be addressed) is that we shouldn’t ignore these works, but use them as a way to start a conversation. The University of Wyoming production certainly did that, though I’m sure it didn’t go as they’d hoped.
I can only hope our production serves to stimulate discussion as well, and hopefully with a positive outcome for most people.