Master of Science

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Clara Weds Nutcracker: What's Up With That?

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's ... well, a nut.  In the video, the nutcracker apologies, but quickly returns to his true nature.)

For those who have ever wondered about a soldier leading a little girl around the world in her nightgown though, well, they're peers, at least in the original story....  The German Romantics never tired of praising the virtues of chaos and confusion.1

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 comes to life and leads other 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've never read the story, or seen the ballet.

Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (“Nussknacker und Mausekönig”) has long been adapted, 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.

Marius Petipa had the original idea to choreograph the story into a ballet, according to Maxwell (based on a revision of Hoffmann's story done 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.  As it is written, it morphs into a coming-of-age story that ends with Clara marrying the nutcracker, which is really a boy under an evil spell that made him an ugly nutcracker.

In Hoffmann's original tale, Marie (Clara) marries Drosselmeyer's nephew, who returns to being normal and asks Marie to marry him.  Thus, in the story she becomes “queen of a land where you can see sparkling Christmas Forests everywhere as well as translucent Marzipan Castles — in short, the most splendid and most wondrous things, if you only have the right eyes to see them with.”

For those who have ever wondered about a soldier leading a little girl around the world in her nightgown under the watchful eye of her Godfather ... well, they're peers.  The German Romantics never tried of praising the virtues of chaos and confusion in tales of wonder, according to Maris M. Tatar in her paper on E.T.A. Hoffmann's work, Der Sandmann, which Sigmund Freud also admired and wrote about in his essay on the psychology of the uncanny.

Freud thought highly of Hoffmann, and Freud's The Uncanny, a psychoanalytic essay, focused on Hoffmann's writings that made readers uneasy. The word unheimlich, the German word for uncanny in Freud's, On the Psychology of the Uncanny, means both “familiar” and “unfamiliar,” which translates into English as “uncanny,” said

Hoffmann’s nutcracker is a bizarre tale, and while Marie's marriage is not uncanny per se, it is tinged with an Electra complex, even though Drossemeyer is not Marie's father.  Freud marveled in Hoffmann's work, and a careful reading of the Nutcracker and Mouse King helps explain why.

Zipes said that life without imagination in Hoffmann’s tales can be traced to the mechanical behavior of  'deadened' adults who wanted to regulate the lives of children, or adults, who had been traumatized because they could not use their imagination to gain appropriate recognition of their identities.

“Only by introducing disruptive and extraordinary characters like Drosselmeier, so Hoffmann believed,” Zipes said, “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.”  Thus Drosselmeier is an individual who takes an interest in the child's upbringing and personal development as a mentor.

Drosselmeyer, Godfather to Clara, was a clockmaker and inventor in the original story.  He allowed the nutcracker (who becomes a princely escort in Clara’s dream) to take Clara on a journey around the world, and like any good Godfather, saw to her safety along the way.

Unfortunately, in many productions, Drosselmeyer becomes an over-the-top weirdo, commanding the snow, and even becoming a black magician.  Thus, it is sometimes difficult seeing Drosselmeyer as a legitimate part of the story.  Parents need to be careful when taking small children to this ballet.  Drosselmeyer is a clockmaker who loves his Godchild, without question.  But reading parts of the original story will help children, and parents too, figure out what is going on in the ballet.

No, “Richard” is not a compulsive, brawling schizophrenic in a bar.  Nor is he abusing a small child.  He's a hero, minus the Freudian twists, anyway.  And that is why Adam Tschorn, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, wrote negatively about the ad in “Holiday Trends: Nuts for the Nutcracker.”  It was, he said:

“ … 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...).”

Commercialism.  It's all about sales.  Not terrible in and of itself, but a somewhat different take on chaos and confusion, never truly beneficial: our modern-day tales of wonder.

 1 Tatar, Maria E.  E.T.A. Hoffmann's "Der Sandmann": Reflection and Romantic IronyJstor,vol. 95, no. 3, German issue (Apr., 1980), pp. 585-608. The Johns Hopkins University Press.  


Post a Comment

<< Home