Thursday, February 9, 2017

Into the Woods

This latest Thanksgiving the family did something a little different at dinner.  Unfortunately, I don’t really recall the details, due to my fading ability to remember anything.  But, it somehow involved our specially designed place cards and required each one of us to read a different fairy tale, and then give a brief summary.  Finally, we were to share our thoughts on how the fairy tale somehow related to whoever was giving the summary (or something like that).  I thought that it turned out to be a more interesting exercise than I expected and was pretty enjoyable all around.  If nothing else, it reminded me of how curious and in some ways profound fairy tales are.

A recent viewing of the Steven Sondheim and James Lapine’s play Into the Woods revived my memory of our Thanksgiving exercise. The play is essentially a fairy tale mash up (one small example:  Jack returns to the Giant’s castle in the sky to retrieve the magic harp because Red Ridinghood doesn’t believe his story), with some new elements thrown in.  I had never seen the play or the 2014 Disney movie, and didn’t know what to expect.  So, I was pleasantly surprised by a terrific play that was both fun and fairly profound at the same time.

The curious thing about Into the Woods, which debuted on Broadway in 1987, was the source for its inspiration.  Of course, it used elements of a number of fairy tales.  But, mostly it is based on a book that tells no story at all:  The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim, a psychological study of fairy tales and their importance to childhood development.  Bettelheim’s book, was published in 1976, and enjoyed a brief period of popularity.  It won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976 and the National Book Award in 1977.

We begin with Bettelheim's premise:  “The child intuitively comprehends that, although these [fairy] stories are unreal, they are not untrue. ...”  Bettelheim makes the case that fairy tales present in story form essential childhood dilemmas – the fear of growing up, desire to live forever, fear that one is alone – in a way that a child can understand.   It assures them that, like fairy tale heroes, they can overcome obstacles.  In Bettelheim’s view, fairy tales guide children through the process of development, teaching them to go out into the world independent of their parents, find themselves, find their partner, and live “happily ever after,” knowing that by “forming a true interpersonal relation” they can live a fulfilled life.  Bettelheim explains, “This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence -- but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.”  As G.K. Chesterton notes, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

The woods play a particular role in these stories. The woods are threatening and perilous.  They represent the transition between childhood and maturity. Like adolescence, they are scary and filled with angst, emerging sexuality, self-discovery and definition, and even death.  As Bettelheim says, the woods are “the place in which inner darkness is confronted and worked through, where uncertainty is resolved about who one is; and where one begins to understand who one wants to be.”   In the woods is where children learn to overcome childhood traumas and to form adult bonds.

And so, as the play begins:    

You go into the woods,
Where nothing's clear,
Where witches, ghosts
And wolves appear.
Into the woods
And through the fear,
You have to take the journey.
Into the woods
And down the dell,
In vain perhaps,
But who can tell?

Into the woods,
Into the woods,
Into the woods,
Then out of the woods—

Throughout the play, the characters learn to overcome their fears, learn about themselves and the world, mature and learn to form bonds with others.

But the journey is never over.  There are still more things to meet and overcome.:

So into the woods you go again,
You have to every now and then.
Into the woods, no telling when,
Be ready for the journey.
Into the woods, but not too fast
Or what you wish, you lose at last.
Into the woods, but mind the past….

The way is dark,
The light is dim,
But now there's you, me, her, and him.
The chances look small,
The choices look grim,
But everything you learn there
Will help when you return there…

Into the woods--you have to grope,
But that's the way you learn to cope.
Into the woods to find there's hope
Of getting through the journey....


James R said...

It is, perhaps, my favorite play. Peter and Lisa got tickets for my birthday to a local production. They knew it was a favorite. I saw the movie, which I liked. The most memorable viewing was the first time I watched the film version of the Broadway show. You can enjoy the amazing show here.

As usual, you do a splendid review. One could spend a life-time discussing all the messages. After seeing the show for the first time I felt like this was the only way one should write a story—start with the exuberant dreams where all things are possible and "you can become whatever you set your mind to" (Act I), and end with the vagaries of life which keep blocking your way until you realize that your goals must include others.

Big Myk said...

Wow, I had no notion of your enthusiasm about the play. I sort of assumed that members of the family were generally unfamiliar with it. We saw a production that began off-Broadway and is now on a national tour. Hershey was one of its stops. It definitely was a stripped down version. Not much scenery. There was no orchestra in the pit, but the actors themselves played the instruments onstage. So, that added to the magic of it.

Renée said...

I'm first a bit offended that my Thanksgiving placecards didn't leave a stronger memory, but I guess any thought of is appreciated.

Secondly , I really don't like "Into the Woods" as a show. It's an act too long and there are too many characters (perhaps that's the point). I didn't realize so many of you held it dear to your heart.

However, I am performing the show's best song 'Agony' with a friend for a musical showcase coming up, so I really am becoming whatever I set my mind to

Big Myk said...

I remember the place cards clearly. They were very artistic. I just didn't remember clearly what exactly we did with them afterword.

You don't like "Into the Woods"??? What's the world coming to? First, Trump is elected...and now this. And what's this "too long" nonsense? I was hoping for a third act with a whole new set of problems for the characters.

Well, at lest you're keeping the play alive by singing "Agony." Good luck with the revue!