Thursday, January 18, 2007

Better Far Than a Metaphor Can Ever Ever Be

All right, it's still a stretch to say I'm a sentimentalist—the movie-viewing rule in one circle of friends for several years was "It's not as bad as Ammegg thinks it is, and it's not as good as Megan thinks it is"—but there are many works of art I adore that walk the line, works that people whose opinions I respect repudiate on the grounds that they hate sentimentality. One such is The Fantasticks, which Cassie and I debated via Email a couple of months ago. Cassie, whom normally I accuse of sentimentality because she likes The Phantom of the Opera and Rent and the like, said she didn't like many of the songs because they seemed too show-like, that she dislikes the voices on the original cast recording, and that she thought it was too sappy.

The Fantasticks is, I think, my favorite musical ever, and I'm enough of a connisseuse that that's saying a lot.

It's a fable, a parable: two young lovers, Matt and Luisa, next-door neighbors, fall in love in spite of the fact that their fathers, supposedly enemies, have forbidden them to see one another. The fathers are not, in fact, enemies, but friends who hoped their children would fall in love, and they stage an elaborate kidnapping ("rape" is the word used in the lyrics, though the meaning when the song was written was different), hiring a professional, to engineer their "reconciliation." It works at first, but quickly the lovers and friends become frustrated with one another, and Matt leaves to see the world. His experience of the world is painful, as is Luisa's experience with "her bandit," the hired kidnapper, and they return to one another wounded, wiser and prepared for the reality of being together.

I can argue in favor of its presentational style, but that may not sway detractors; that is to say, it is an easy show to do badly—like Our Town, which, however low my overall opinion of Thornton Wilder, is an astounding play when done right—and that some of its songs, when taken out of context, can understandably be considered trite or sentimental. Its silly, let's-put-on-a-parable aesthetics are incredibly delicate, and genuine sentimentalists who choose to do it because they like it will inevitably destroy it. Its gender dynamics, parable or otherwise, are incredibly dated. But nevertheless, it uses its form, uses the idea of making art, to truly explore the idea of love as something you create. Jones and Schmidt acknowledge the literalness of metaphor as no one else in my experience has.

In the beginning of their parable, Matt serenades Luisa with elaborate, foolish metaphors, and then tells her that she is "Love/Better far than a metaphor can ever ever be." Luisa delights in this, echoing, "I am love." Though "You are love" is in itself a metaphor, it's more direct than the convoluted, ridiculously detailed comparisons Matt offers during the verses, which Cassie scorned because of their idiocy. As far as I'm concerned, the idiocy is the point—"If I were in the desert deep in sand/And the sun was burning like a hot pom'granate/Walking through a nightmare/In the heat of a summer day/Until my mind was parchèd/Then you are water/Cool clear water/A refreshing glass of water" has no merit but its silliness, its deliberate sense of being over the top. The two young lovers are lost both in poesy and the idea of a feeling ever more pure. They recognize the need to create these elaborate, silly metaphors, but also consider their love better, truer than this silliness.

By the end of the musical, though, when Luisa and Matt have lived through betrayals and pain to return to one another, and realize that at some level they lived their own experiences to be able to bring them to one another, they detail, to simple music, the poetic images of their experiences ("When the moon was young/When the month was May/When the stage was hung for my holiday/I saw shining lights . . .") and then sing to one another, "They were you, they were you, they were you." This, too, is a metaphor—they haven't rejected metaphor over time. Quite the contrary. They've found that love is not, in fact, better far than a metaphor can ever ever be; rather, it is itself a metaphor, or it is at the least something that requires metaphor to express itself.

That, for me, is both the beauty of The Fantasticks and the beauty of art-making-love and love-making-art, the beauty and necessity of indirections finding directions out. Metaphor is not something to get beyond, a device used only to express something more important than it is itself. The content of a metaphor is not competing with its form, which is what "better far than a metaphor can ever ever be" would imply. They're mutualistic.

Edna Schwartz, the late founder of my erstwhile summer camp, claimed that "art is life and life is art." It's the reciprocity of that metaphor that we lack in so many discussions of whether or why or how art is important, and it's that reciprocity that The Fantasticks, uniquely, finds.


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