Siouxland Observer


Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Peanut-Party Mystery

When midnight comes to a household on Christmas Eve, strange things happen in the nutcracker ballet.  A young girl, Clara, shrinks in size, the household toys come to life, and a wooden nutcracker takes up arms against giant mice. The 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 had attacked Mr. Peanut, a soft-shelled peanut, because he was...well, a nut.  In the commercial the nutcracker apologies, but quickly returns to his evil ways, and it is easy to see why Mr. Peanut is icy. The nutcracker has fallen on hard times.

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 the musical magic.  He wrote about how “creepy” the time-honored story has become in commercialization.

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 leads the dolls into battle against giant mice and a monstrous seven-headed Mouse King. In this telling, the Nutcracker is a hero — a symbol of the holiday, even for those who do not know the entire story.

Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” (“Nussknacker und Mausekönig”) has changed, of course, from a storybook 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 this history it is not difficult to see why the commercialization of "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" is seen unfavorably.

Tschorn said:

“(It was) … 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....).”

Simply, the commercialization is confusing; but, to be fair, also kind of fun, especially given the tongue-in-cheek compulsive nutcracker behavior.  (Calm down Richard, okay?)  But the juxtaposition of hero and villain in such and iconic character 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, a well-known French author), and Petipa’s version reflects more of what we have come to love as the Nutcracker Ballet.  Petipa, along with Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, turned Dumas’ adaptation into the beloved Nutcracker.

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, to take Clara on a journey of the world.

In another performance, by The Royal Ballet, Drosselmeyer commands the snow, and only then introduces his Goddaughter, and her escort, to the winter wonderland and the world beyond.

Things have changed, for sure, but never the Christmas season of giving and love, nor the joy of being open to the wonder and beauty of the world.  A far better experience than physical confrontation at strange parties.