Siouxland Observer

Master of Science

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Peanut-Party Mystery

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 YouTube video, for example, Mr. Peanut® and the nutcracker, “Richard,” have been in a fight. The nutcracker apparently attacked Mr. Peanut, a soft-shell peanut, because he was ... well, a nut.  In this commercial the nutcracker apologies, but quickly returns to his true nature, and it becomes plain why Mr. Peanut was so icy.

“(It’s) … possibly the … 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 in commercialization, 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 others (dolls) into battle against the mice and a monstrous seven-headed Mouse King. In this telling, the Nutcracker becomes a hero — and a symbol of the Christmas holiday, even for those who do not know the entire story, or even anything about it.

Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (“Nussknacker und Mausekönig”) has changed, of course, from a story into a musical 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.  Given its history, dating back to 1816, it is easy to see why the commercialization of  The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is seen unfavorably by Tschorn.

To be fair though, hijacking this classic is also fun, especially given the tongue-in-cheek compulsive nature of the nutcracker’s desire to crack a nut.  (Calm down Richard, okay?)  But the juxtaposition of hero and villain in such and iconic character also needs balance.

It was Marius Petipa who had the idea to choreograph the story into a ballet, according to Maxwell (it was actually based on a revision 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 classic.

Hoffmann’s original writing is 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) was 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.

But Drosselmeyer commands the snow in some productions, and is frightening in most.  Parents should be careful with their small children.  In Hoffmann's original story, Drosselmeyer was a clockmaker who loved his niece.

Reading some of the original, or explaining it, will let young children see for themselves what is happening in the ballet.  The Christmas holiday season is enriched by this history.  It opens up to children the wonder and beauty of the world.  Not only that, but Richard is really a hero.