Friday, 23 December 2016

The 200th Anniversary of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King

A giant Nutcracker outside
the Mayo Cabin in Huntsville, MO
This holiday, much as in previous holiday seasons, many people will attend a performance of Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker. What many might not realise is that The Nutcracker was very loosely based on a much darker novella. Nussknacker und Mausekönig (literally in English, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King) was a novella by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a still influential author of some renown in his time. It was in 1816, exactly 200 years ago, that The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was first published.

The Nutcracker and the Mouse King centred on young Marie Stahlbaum and the nutcracker that her family received for Christmas. As it turns out the Nutcracker has a life all his own, and is locked in conflict with the evil, seven headed Mouse King. Eventually the Nutcracker defeats the Mouse King in battle and whisks Marie off to his own magical kingdom. In many respects The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is a much more frightening and much darker work than Tchaikovsky's ballet. There is a good deal of violence, a bit of gore, and there is no character even resembling a Sugar Plum Fairy in the entire novella.

Of course, it should be little wonder that E. T. A. Hoffmann would write a rather scary novella for children. Mr. Hoffmann worked in the genre we would today call "dark fantasy", and dealt with concepts that today we would consider science fiction as well. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E. T. A. Hoffmann was not the only work in which an inanimate object came to life. His short story "The Sandman" included a clockwork automaton as part of the plot. His short story "Automata" centred on the very subject of automatons. E. T. A. Hoffmann was a bit of a renaissance man. In addition to being an author he was also a composer, a draughtsman, a caricaturist, and a legal scholar. His works were enormously popular in the 19th Century, so that The Nutcracker and the Mouse King would not be his only work to be adapted to other media.  Jacques Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffman was based on E. T. A. Hoffmann's stories "The Sandman", "Councillor Krespel", and "The Lost Reflection". The ballet Coppélia and the piano composition Kreisleriana were also based on the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann.

It was in 1844 that Alexandre Dumas, père published a retelling of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King entitled Histoire d'un casse-noisette, The Story of a Nutcracker. Mr. Dumas's version was largely faithful to Mr. Hoffmann's original, although he softened it a good deal. While the plot of  Alexandre Dumas's The Story of a Nutcracker was virtually the same as The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, he removed most of the darker elements, including the graphic violence.

It would be Alexandre Dumas's The Story of a Nutcracker upon which Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker would be based. That having been said, there would be even greater changes made to E. T. A. Hoffmann's original tale for the ballet. In the ballet Marie was renamed Clara. A long section of the original novella titled "The Tale of the Hard Nut" (essentially the origin story of the Nutcracker) was entirely omitted. What is more, a relatively short, satirical passage in the original novella was expanded to occupy a large part of Act II of the ballet. Indeed, no such character as the Sugar Plum Fairy, who occupies a prominent place in the ballet, appears in The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.

Over the years The Nutcracker and the Mouse King has been adapted a few times. The 1973 Russian animated film The Nutcracker drew upon both Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker and E.T. A. Hoffmann's novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The 1979 Japanese stop motion film Nutcracker Fantasy was very loosely based on both Tchaikovsky's ballet and E. T. A. Hoffmann's original novella. The 1990 animated film The Nutcracker Prince was another very loose adaptation of the ballet and the original novella. In 2009 a rather more faithful adaptation, The Nutcracker in 3D, was released. Unfortunately the film was critically panned and bombed at the box office. In 2010 BBC Radio adapted The Nutcracker and the Mouse King as a radio drama consisting of four 30 minute episodes.

While Tchaikovsky's ballet continues to be popular, there would eventually be a more faithful ballet based upon The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. In 1981  Kent Stowell, then artistic director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet, and author/illustrator Maurice Sendak collaborated on a version of The Nutcracker ballet that drew upon the darkness inherent in the original novella for its inspiration. Every year, from 1983 to 2014, the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Messrs. Stowell and Sendak's Nutcracker ballet. In 1986 the ballet was adapted as the film Nutcracker: The Motion Picture.

Although the average person today probably is not even aware of its existence, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King has had a lasting influence. It was one of the earliest works of dark fantasy, and one with elements of science fiction as well. Through Alexandre Dumas's retelling of the story, it would be the ultimate source for Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker, which continues to be performed every holiday season. An early work of dark fantasy that blends horror with flights of fancy, it really deserves to be better known than it currently is.

1 comment:

Carrie shaw said...

Thank you