Brothers Grimm, Delaplaine Fine Arts Center, Fable, Fairy Tale, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Mary Zimmerman, Mount Saint Mary's University, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Secret in the Wings, The Tortoise and the Hare
Hey everyone! Ciao da Firenze! I’ve been out of the country studying and seeing the sights for about a month now, and I feel incredibly blessed to be able to study in a different country. I miss my colleagues, I miss you guys, I miss the Mount. But my new friends and I have a lot of experiences worth sharing, and a variety of stories that don’t involve gelato or landmarks. But there are more pressing matters first! The Mount has their major play coming up this month, and it is just as interesting as last semester’s production Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind. And, from all appearances and interviews, this play will be just as great a success, if not more.
The play to be showcased might sound a bit unfamiliar, it’s one that was only officially published in 2014. But it’s a concept that I am sure many of us, myself included, will find incredibly entertaining to witness.
It’s called The Secret in the Wings by Mary Zimmerman, the playwright and director currently teaching performance studies at Northwestern University. She is an esteemed director, having won a Tony Award for Best Direction in her time directing Ovid’s Metamorphoses (2002). You may see advertisements for the Mount’s show in the paper this month, but I felt that if you didn’t receive context or an introduction to this play that you might miss it. It’s definitely worth your time! Let me explain why.
When I was growing up, my parents introduced me to fables and other childhood stories like Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Hansel and Gretel, the Tortoise and the Hare. These are stories which are timeless, and have a worthy lesson at the end. Most tales which begin with “Once upon a time” and end by asking “What’s the moral to the story?” are often grouped into children’s literature.
But have you also noticed that a good number of classic fairy tales, while always sharing a happy ending, also share some dark moments in their respective plots? Hansel and Gretel, for instance, has the children locked up and about to be eaten by an evil witch. Or Little Red Riding Hood, while having been reinterpreted considerably in the 1950s and 60s in the wake of the influence of Freudian psychoanalysis and feminist critical theory, still involves death from a wolf. There can be some dark moments in these stories, even in the most revered and widely read fairy tales.
Mary Zimmerman noticed this as she was growing up. In an interview with Nicole Galland, Zimmerman noted that, “The stories had happy endings, but really brutal journeys. It was a world of absent or downright vindictive parents. Children fled their homes, were on their own, accomplished tasks that were painful or impossible – with the help of animals or otherworldly creatures. All of that was very powerful to me as a child, and still is.” As you can probably gather, Zimmerman decided to create a stageplay which touched upon the fact that there are dark moments in childhood fables.
She also made one more observation about fairy tales that is not only relevant to The Secret in the Wings but is just interesting on its own. When was the last time you have seen someone laughing at a fairy tale? Can you name a fairy tale which is just plain funny? Zimmerman noticed this too. In general, we tend to more easily remember events that are exciting or funny. In this play, Zimmerman is able to combine elements of fairy tales and add a sense of wit to the entire production.
So what is The Secret in the Wings? There is one central plot thread: a child’s parents hire a babysitter described as “frightening”, and the babysitter reads to the child from a book. As the babysitter reads, the characters from the fairy tales become alive. There are two distinguishing features about this play which have been alluded to, but are worth repeating: the darkest parts of a select number of fairy tales are concealed and avoided, while maintaining a witty sense of humor through it all.
The darker moments of the fables can be avoided and adjusted because Zimmerman did not want to create one long play with one tale ending, then another beginning. She says, “All of these tales are very, very short. If I were to do them in a row one after the other, I think the rhythm of the evening would be wrong and sort of wearying. It felt better to start one story, go half-way in, then enter another and go half-way in before starting to dig our way out. It is as though we are going deeper and deeper into the dark forest.”
But this dark forest, as an analogy for the story, is not intimidating or repulsive as a result of its tone. Instead, changing the fable before reaching the most depressing parts of the story gives a different feel to the event. It’s a clever reimagining of the typical fairy tales typically told to children, in a way that feels fresh and entertaining in its unpredictability.
The story is an eclectic combination of six fairy tales, centered on Zimmerman’s own take on the classical tale of the Beauty and the Beast. If you choose to attend this play, it would be beneficial to have a background on the Brothers Grimm, whose works were heavily used by Zimmerman in this play.
The Brothers Grimm are perhaps the greatest known names in the study of folklore since the early 1800s. They are most widely known today as the scholars and publishers of many major folk tales in Germany between 1812 and 1864. Many of the stories, the ones which begin with “Once upon a time” that we know and love were collected and published by the Brothers Grimm: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, and my personal favorite Rumpelstiltskin.
A fun fact about their collection of fairy tales is that at the time of the publication of the first edition, in 1812, it was heavily criticized by the scholars and the general public. And you can probably guess the reason! How were these stories intended for children? Believe it or not, many of the major elements of our favorite fairy tales were edited over the years by the Brothers to make them more appealing to a mass audience. One such example comes from Snow White, where the two brothers eventually turned the wicked mother into a wicked stepmother.
Wilhelm Grimm took sole responsibility of editing the folk tales after 1815, and made some minor adjustments to give the collection of stories a greater sense of cohesion. He polished the vocabulary, added dialogue, included psychological elements, and improved the plots. Their major changes to the stories were their inclusion of Roman and Greek mythology, biblical stories, and other different spiritual motifs.
Knowing the influence of these two individuals, I hope, will help provide some context into the nature of the play that the Mount will be putting on near the end of this month. Dr. Blaugher, in discussing this play with me, commented that all of us like to hear a story, and fairy tales and fables have played a tremendous role in this respect. I think this is something to ponder, and I couldn’t be more excited that the Fine Arts Department decided to choose this play for their spring production. I only wish I could be there to attend!
In looking into Mary Zimmerman’s past works and interviews to understand her artistic influences and stances, she spoke about the process of creating for the theater, and I found it to be absolutely beautiful, beautiful enough that words speak for themselves. On the process she says, “I used to think of the process of making a play like this in grandiose, architectural terms. I’d say, proudly, ‘Look, we took a flat line, and tugged it up into the outline of a city. We built this thing.’ But over time, this metaphor has changed. I think of this way of working as an act of archeology. There is something buried in the sand, and it is our job to uncover it.” This sentiment mirrors the famous quote by Michelangelo, who said there is a statue inside every block of marble and it’s the artist’s job to discover it. I promise to talk more about Michelangelo in a future edition!
If you’re interested in attending this engrossing play created by an esteemed director, and put on with faith and care by the Fine Arts Department, the show will run Thursday, March 31 – Sunday, April 3. The shows on Thursday through Saturday will begin at 8:00 PM, and the curtains rise on Sunday at 2:00 PM. Ticket prices will run at $8, a great deal and a fun way to participate with the local community!
There are many more art events happening in the next few months that I promise to tell you all about in more detail when the time comes. Until next time, arrividerci!