When Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt created The Fantasticks, it was complete with elaborate scenery, stage sets, and explanations. But it didn’t work well. Jones and Schmidt finally threw the elaborateness away. As Jones says, “Less is more. The theatre works best when it is at its barest” (Tom Jones, Harvey Schmidt: The Fantasticks Celebration [New York: Nelson Doubleday Inc., 1973], 168). The Fantasticks thrives on simplicity; but although it is simple, it still has much to teach us.
One of the foremost themes of The Fantasticks is the timeless lesson of growing up and the journey from innocence to knowledge. In Act One we discover that most of the main characters are deceived in the way they view the world. For example, Luisa believes that she is a “princess” despite her father’s assertions that she is nothing more than a “button-maker’s daughter” (Jones and Schmidt, 15). Matt claims that his lover (Luisa) is “Too vibrant for a name . . . she is a star . . . or the inside of a leaf” (Jones and Schmidt, 8 9). These are nice poetic words, but they are not real. Just like the imaginary castle in which Luisa and Matt find themselves dancing in Act One, their love will also disappear unless they can undergo a test—a journey from unreal innocence to the knowledge of hard reality. It is ironic that our characters welcome this journey. Luisa exclaims, “Please, God, don’t let me be normal. I’d like to be . . . a little worldly wise” (Jones and Schmidt, 6). Even the father, Bellomy, correctly labels them “Fantastic!” in their youth and innocence. At the end of Act One, life is simple and perfect—it is an evening in September. “Try to remember the kind of September when you were a tender and callow fellow. Try to remember when life was so tender, that dreams were kept beside your pillow” (Jones and Schmidt, 3).
Act Two opens in the month of October. We hear Gallo (as narrator) saying, “Their moon was cardboard, fragile. It was very apt to fray" (Jones and Schmidt, 35). Our characters have found that the lovely things they thought they had on an evening in September look different by day. Luisa says, “He looks different in the sunlight” (Jones and Schmidt, 36). Act Two is glaring in symbols of bright, hot sunlight that pulls our lovers apart. Matt exclaims, “I can see everything. All the flaws.” And he correctly states that Luisa is childish and silly. Luisa is equally disenchanted with her lover, “I hate you,” she says. Matt decides to leave. “Beyond that road lies a shining world...Bright lights invite me to come and learn!” (Jones and Schmidt, 43-45). He is off on his journey to obtain knowledge.
It seems to be at this point that we realize that Gallo is ironically the character closest to a devil, and yet, he is the only one who consistently speaks the truth. When Matt decides to leave, we hear Gallo saying, “The world will teach him very quickly the secret he needs to know” (Jones and Schmidt, 47). It is interesting that Gallo performs the same function of a wise narrator in Jones and Schmidt’s play as jesters typically do in Shakespeare’s plays. Gallo is very worldly wise and seems to bring on the tragedy, much as the serpent of old brought the apple to Adam and Eve. It is no lost allusion that Luisa climbs a tree (like the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) to sit with Gallo from where he can see “everything.” In the Bible allusion Eve partakes of the fruit to open her eyes, and Luisa hopes to do the same in Gallo’s presence. Luisa says to him, “You must steal something.” He replies, “I steal whatever is treasured most” (Jones and Schmidt, 55). This not only includes her mother’s rhinestone necklace but her fanciful dreams as well.
At this point in the play Gallo tells us that “October is over. We’re one month older” (Jones and Schmidt, 49). The month of November includes the scenes in which Matt's comrades are torturing him by burning and beating him, and making him sit on nails. This is compounded by the fact that Luisa is watching him and feels no compassion as long as she views him through a theatrical mask. Jones and Schmidt are showing us that life can and does give each one of us a beating at one time or another. In contrast to the words Luisa sings, “Life is [not] a colorful carousel. Reckless and terribly gay” (Jones and Schmidt, 60).
In the final scene of the play, December has arrived. Matt returns home penniless and beaten just as the Biblical story of The Prodigal Son. Matt has learned that “Beyond that road lies despair” (Jones and Schmidt, 63). However, this time Matt has learned compassion as evidenced by his desire to spare Luisa pain. He tries to make Gallo wait for her as Gallo promised he would. “Don’t leave her like that,” Matt pleads with Gallo. But December is upon us and life is at its cruelest. Finally, in December when Luisa and Matt “face” each other, they sing a different song, a song in which we again see the symbol of sight/eyes that we have seen so frequently throughout the play. “Without you near me, I can’t see. You are love. . . . Better far than a metaphor can ever be” (Jones and Schmidt, 66).
Finally, we realize that we too have been deceived. Gallo is not the devil we thought, but rather has functioned as an educator. He explains himself, “Who understands whyÉwe must all die a bit Before we grow again. I hurt them for that reason” (Jones and Schmidt, 64). Both Luisa and Matt have made the journey from innocence to knowledge and have learned much about life—perhaps the most important lesson being how to love truly. In the words of Tom Jones, “The last thing I learned from The Fantasticks was that you have to be in love. Not all the skill in the world, not all the knowledge, not all the daring means anything at all in your writing if you are not passionately in love” (Jones and Schmidt, 168).