My two oldest children and I ventured up to NYC today to see a Broadway play. We played the TKTS lottery and came up with The Fantasticks. Technically, we did not see a Broadway play, because although the Jerry Orbach theater is located steps from the actual street Broadway on 50th, it is an off-Broadway production due to the small size of the house (among other factors). This is a show I have a long history with. I saw it twice at the Sullivan Street Playhouse and was in a production in college. I was a little worried about seeing the show. Back in the 80s, the show felt dated. How could it still hold up? But hold up it did, primarily because of the efforts of Samantha Bruce, who gave the Luisa character a depth I hadn't really seen before. She played the 16 year old with a charming mix of naivete and burgeoning sexuality that was both comedic and believable. My parents weren't much older when they married around the time the play was written so it's not totally unrealistic for a 16 year old to marry. It's an incredibly difficult job and she was extremely successful at it. Pierce Cravens (normally the mute) made for a pleasing romantic lead as an understudy fill-in and was a very believable 20. Jeremiah James (maybe you saw him in Oklahoma as Curly or heard him as part of the theater singing group Teatro) was a knowing El Gallo: attractive, worldly, and just a bit dangerous. The rest of the small cast was filled with accomplished Broadway veterans. The show seemed fresh and alive in a way no 50-year old show has a right to be. My kids loved it and I found new layers of meaning that I couldn't appreciate in my teens. (Luisa's keepsake, her mother's necklace, is a symbol for her virginity and she gives it willingly to El Gallo? Ohhhhhhhhhhh.) Although the first act is the stronger in terms of music and action and laughs, the moral is in the second act: that the romances that Matt and Luisa fed themselves on are lies, that there is no teacher like experience, that it can be good, and maybe even necessary to fight pirates and swim naked in mountain streams, but one doesn't build a life doing those things, that romance is child's play but love and living are very serious and grown up businesses and if they are somewhat boring they are ultimately rewarding.
Of course, the show has been updated somewhat. The book and lyrics have been altered (by the original team) to minimize the use of the word rape. In the original, El Gallo arranges the abduction (or rape in the classical sense of the word) of Luisa with the help of Henry and Mortimer. He does so because the Fathers of Matt and Luisa have staged a feud to make the two fall in love and now must create a happy ending wherein Matt will rescue Luisa from El Gallo and his accomplices. This was controversial enough in 1986 that my college production got booed the first time El Gallo mentioned the word. The changes were mostly minor and barely noticesable. Most often, the term raid was substituted for rape. But this is why the character of Luisa is so difficult to play. She has to be someone who is secretly thrilled with the idea of being abducted and even charmed by El Gallo himself, but ultimately someone in charge of her own sexuality. When she gives El Gallo her mother's necklace, she does so willingly. And although she regrets it, it's a necessary step in her own education. I suppose when people talk about rape culture, they are, in part, talking about the trope that filled Luisa's mind: being swept off her feet by a knowing, handsome, exotic stranger skilled in love and conquest. Hell, almost everybody. male or female, has had that fantasy at some time or another. Mrs. Robinson, El Gallo, it's all the same. When people talk about rape culture, my mind goes to cultural artifacts that glorify abduction and shows like The Fantasticks that appear, at least on the surface, to condone such abductions. There is a reading that suggests Luisa wants to be raped. I think that's the wrong reading. I think The Fantasticks is actually a critique of that reading. But doing the kind of cultural work to get to the point where most people can critique the abduction fantasy even if they have it from time to time is hard. To get to the point where we note the difference between fantasy and reality and where the line is, that's a lot of work right there. Maybe a generations worth of work. Maybe more.
This past weekend, for the second time, a former student contacted me because she was a victim of an attempted sexual assault and her college was failing her. First some background. The first student who contacted me, Michaela Cross, ended up telling her story rather publicly. You can find it here on CNN where over one million people read her account of being sexually harassed in India. It touched off a firestorm both here in the US and in India. But sometimes lost in the discussion was the fact that Michaela's target wasn't India. It was the University of Chicago that refused to take her complaints seriously and didn't make appropriate treatment options available upon her return. Like Michaela, the student that contacted me wasn't raped. She got away. But she hasn't slept through the night since October. And her school's psych services department doesn't want to hear it. She feels like she has no place to turn. She doesn't want to be a "victim" and she doesn't want to leave her school. But she wants to feel safe again. I did what I could, made the standard suggestions of finding the women's survivors group on campus, figuring out who had the local knowledge to navigate the bureaucracy to get the right signature on the right form to see the right doctor. But it shouldn't be that hard. It shouldn't be that hard at all. And that's something that's got to change. That should be easy to change. Why doesn't it change?
Updated to fix grammar errors.