Into the Woods: An appreciation

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I understand that of late many mothers (and fathers) have stopped telling their children fairy tales. Often, I learn, this is because they consider fairy tales politically incorrect. In his book, The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim explores some fairy tales to discover why they persist in human memory. His conclusion is that different tales address different issues in the pychological and emotional development of children. Bettelheim emphasizes that, although moral development is also very important to children, that is not the purpose that fairy tales serve. Instead, fairy tales are life lessons that model problem-solving to young children.

So, for example, Bettelheim notes, in fairy tales the mother is often replaced by an evil stepmother.This is because, in most healthy relationships between child and mother, at some point the child begins to test the mother. When the mother starts having to deny some of the child’s requests, the child, in its mind, decides that its mother has been replaced by someone else — an evil person. In other words, the presence of stepmothers is not really a chauvinist plot to eliminate mothers from plotlines.

In 1988, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine interpreted Bettelheim’s book into a musical called Into the Woods. In the first act, the Grimm’s fairy tales Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Red Riding Hood are intermingled into a multi-layered musical tale that is appealing to children of all ages. There is more blood and gore than in the Disney versions, but, as Act I ends, the protagonists get their wishes and settle in to live “happily ever after”.

Act II is when reality intervenes. According to Bettelheim, the purpose of fairy tales is to help children get past certain emotional obstacles in their lives. In subsequent stages, they deal with the realities of their lives. Which is why, in Act II, it turns out that happily ever after does not last very long. Marital infidelity, death of parents and friends and other dangers that can’t be magicked away beset the heroes and heroines of the fairy tales. The lesson of Act II is that, although real life can be scary, it affords each child an opportunity to grow and contribute to society.

Into the Woods has been important to our family since our older daughter, then not-yet three, first heard the songs on CD and realized they were being sung by fairy tale characters. Since then, our family has attended at least one or two performances each year. Every time we attend a performance of Into the Woods or watch the video, we and our children have come away with new insights. Sometimes they have to do with stagecraft and the engineering of a musical, but topics that have come up have included: dealing with disappointment, catastrophe and death, the politics of marriages, the advantages and disadvantages of growing up, the nature of evil, well, I could go on and on.

We have chosen to encourage our children to watch BOTH acts, because we believe it is important for them to both hear the lessons of the tales themselves, and to learn that, in real life, not every adventure ends “happily ever after”. However, we do understand that for many children, it would be best to watch just Act I and to then leave the premises.

Disheartening news about Bruno Bettelheim’s personal conduct has recently come to light. These allegations should not discourage parents, or anyone interested in raising children, from reading The Uses of Enchantment or in taking their children to a live performance of Into the Woods.

There’s a DVD of Into the Woods. It stars Bernadette Peters as the witch. We recently bought the DVD, because we wore the tape out.

And here’s something very cool: Children Will Listen, a recording of a production of Into the Woods that about 200 schoolchildren pulled together in about 6 months and then presented at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. It had been half a year since we’d seen a production of Into the Woods. After watching this DVD, which showed only glimpses of the final production, we wanted to see the show again, immediately.

One Response to “Into the Woods: An appreciation”

  1. […] I am a huge fan of fairy tales and don’t have a problem with bad/creepy things happening in stories if I feel that there’s a purpose behind the bad things happening. (Click here for my defense of fairy tales…) […]