Siouxland Observer

MS.ED

Thursday, December 07, 2017


Nutcracker Attacks Mr. Peanut ®


When midnight comes to a household on Christmas Eve, strange things happen in The Nutcracker.  A young girl, Clara, shrinks in size, household toys come to life and a wooden nutcracker takes up arms against giant mice. This timeless story, and especially its main character, is popular even in modern television commercials.



In this commercial, Mr. Peanut® and the nutcracker, “Richard,” have been in a fight.  The nutcracker attacked Mr. Peanut, a soft-shell peanut, because he is ... well, a nut.  In the video, the nutcracker apologies, but quickly returns to his true nature.

“(It’s) … possibly the creepiest — and highest-profile — manifestation of the character (Planters’ new Mr. Peanut ad campaign), in which ‘Richard Stevens’ crashes the Christmas party with a six-pack of root beer and briefly apologizes for his past boorish behavior (whatever transgression it was — and we can only guess...).”

Adam Tschorn, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, wrote about this trend in “Holiday Trends: Nuts for the Nutcracker.”  But he did not write about the joy of the ballet, first performed in 1892, nor about its musical magic.  He wrote how “creepy” the time-honored story has become by being commercialized, and said it was:

“ ... possibly the creepiest — and highest-profile — manifestation of the of the character (Planters’
 new Mr. Peanut ad campaign), in which ‘Richard Stevens’ crashes the Christmas party with a six-pack of root beer and briefly apologizes for his past boorish behavior (whatever transgression it was — and we can only guess...).” 

First written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816, the original story tells the tale of the battle between a girl’s dolls (Marie, in the original German), and mice coming out to feed at night. The Nutcracker tells the tale of how a favorite nutcracker toy comes to life and leads other dolls into battle against the mice and a monstrous seven-headed Mouse King.  In this telling, the nutcracker toy becomes a hero — and a symbol of the Christmas holiday, even for those who don’t know the story, or anything about the ballet.

To be fair, hijacking this classic for a commercial is also fun, especially given the tongue-in-cheek compulsive nature of the nutcracker’s desire to crack Mr. Peanut's nutshell.

Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (“Nussknacker und Mausekönig”) has long been adapted, of course, and has gone from being a children's story to a classic Christmas ballet.  Bradley E. Maxwell on his website the Nutcrackerballet, said the ballet was first performed at the Mariinsky Theatre of Russia (the first full length Nutcracker in America was performed by the San Francisco Ballet on Christmas Eve in 1944).  But given this kind of history, it is easy to see why the commercialization of  The Nutcracker is seen unfavorably by Tschorn.

To be fair, hijacking this classic for a commercial is also fun, especially given the tongue-in-cheek compulsive nature of the nutcracker’s desire to crack Mr. Peanut's nutshell.  (Calm down Richard, okay?)  But the juxtaposition of hero and villain in such and iconic character also needs to be balanced to gain full understanding of what this all means, and especially to children.

It was Marius Petipa who had the original idea to choreograph the story into a ballet, according to Maxwell (it is based on a revision of Hoffmann's story by Alexander Dumas), and Petipa’s version reflects more of what we have come to love about The Nutcracker.  Petipa, along with Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, turned Dumas’ adaptation into a beloved family Christmas classic.



Hoffmann’s writing can sometimes be bizarre, but Jack Zipes, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics’ translation of Hoffmann’s "Nutcracker and Mouse King," believed Hoffmann's goal was to keep childhood wonder alive until we pass from this life.

“Life without the imagination in Hoffmann’s tales,” Zipes said, “can be traced in the mechanical behavior of those 'deadened' adults who want to regulate the lives of children, or in adults who have been traumatized because they cannot use their imaginations to gain appropriate recognition of their identities.

“Only by introducing disruptive and extraordinary characters like Drosselmeier, so Hoffmann believed, will children have a chance to glimpse the different worlds and alternatives to their lives that have already been chartered and prescribed before they were born.”

Drosselmeyer, Godfather to Clara (seen in the clip above), is a clockmaker and inventor in the original story.  He allows the nutcracker (who becomes a princely escort in Clara’s dream) to take Clara on a journey around the world on Christmas Eve, and like any good Godfather, sees to her safety along the way.

Unfortunately, in a lot of productions, Drosselmeyer becomes an over-the-top weirdo, commanding the snow, and even becoming a black magician.  This can be very frightening, and it is sometimes difficult to see Drosselmeyer as a legitimate part of the story.  Thus, parents should be careful when taking their small children to the ballet.  Drosselmeyer is a clockmaker who loves his niece, and brings her an automaton.  Reading some of the original, or explaining the story beforehand, will help children figure out for themselves what is going on in the ballet.

History and understanding is a great way to help children learn for themselves.  They learn in The Nutcracker, for example, that “Richard” is not a compulsive, brawling schizophrenic in a bar, but a hero.  He fights off evil, then journeys to distant lands to share the spirit of the season.  A much needed message of hope.