It's Behind You: 4 Gruesome Omissions From Pantomime Tales
Pantomime has become a staple piece of entertainment for many families around this festive time. For children, it is often their first introduction to the magical world of theatre. It's a medium from which they can witness their beloved stories brought to life with a unique fusion of flamboyancy and eccentricity, a medley of songs and sketches affixed with well-established puns and catchphrases.
It has its roots in ancient Greece (panto, meaning "all", and mimos, meaning "imitator" or "actor) and was implanted into British culture in the 1700s when John Rich combined a storyline from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and a harlequinade. However, by the Victorian era the popularity of the harlequin had faded and audiences found stories such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood a lot more appealing.
Pantomimes often present a tale of good and evil, where hope triumphs over adversity - a perfect, heart-warming conclusion that fits the season of good will, but the original fairy tales are actually quite dark and twisted.
'Rook di goo, rook di goo!
There's blood in the shoe.
The shoe is too tight,
This bride is not right!'
Take the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella, for instance, one woman is so desperate for a husband that she cuts off her toes in order to squeeze into a pair of fancy slippers. *Flashback to Kurt Geiger sale* Okay, I only contemplated it once. Jeez. Moving swiftly on…
We’ve had a look over the history of four well-loved pantomimes stories and took note of their darker, more gruesome sides, ‘cause that’s what everyone wants at Christmas, right?
If the shoe fits?
There are between 350 and 1500 versions of Cinderella. The most commonly known include Giambattista Basile’s, Cenerentola (1634) and Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon (1697). The popularity of the latter was due to his additions of the pumpkin, a fairy-godmother and, of course, the glass slippers. Motifs we all know today.
However, the most dark and gothic take on the tale is by those famous brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and their version, Aschenputtel (1812). A somewhat cautionary tale, it starts with Cinderella’s stepmother proclaiming that she may indeed go to the ball, if she can pick lentils from a scorching fire - saving the good and discarding the bad:
'The good ones go into the pot,
The bad ones go into your crop.'
A metaphor that neatly reflects the moral at the heart of the story; the good will be saved and rewarded, the bad must be punished and destroyed. The story concludes with Cinderella, the virtuous and angelic, marrying her prince charming whilst her two twisted step-sisters are blinded, their eyeballs pecked out by birds in some sort of Hitchcock-esque finale. A fairytale ending that could fit all too easily into a Gilbert and Gubar examination of the female “angel” and the female “monster” in literature.
Sleeping Bea…um… hold up, what?
Disney, I need to have a word with you.
The saccharin animated tale we all know could not be any further from the original, and I have never been so thankful for a new derivative and for artistic licence.
Giambattista Basile's Sole, Luna, e Talia (1634) begins with a prophecy that Sleeping Beauty, or Talia, will be endangered by a splinter of flax and fall into a deep sleep. Some time after this happens, a travelling king finds the sleeping beauty and, transfixed by her beauty, has non-consensual sex with her and impregnates her with twins.
Talia then gives birth (while she is sleeping?!) and is woken when one twin sucks out the splinter in her finger. Then king returns and promises to send for Taila and the kids, conveniently forgetting to mention that he's already married.
Can this horror go on? Yes. The king’s wife is, of course, furious at the news of her husband’s infidelity. In a Great Fairy-Tale Bake-Off, she asks the resident cook to boil Talia’s children and serve them to the king. The cook, thankfully, has a change of heart and cooks lamb instead. Later, the queen decides she would like to burn Talia to death but the king intervenes and orders that his current wife should burn instead. In the end, Sleeping Beauty gets to marry the guy who violated her, and they all live happily ever after with the last line of the story suggesting (translated):
"Lucky people, so ’tis said, are blessed by fortune whilst in bed."
Hungry like the wolf
References to Little Red Riding Hood date back as far as the 14th century. In early versions, the antagonist is not a wolf but a werewolf. This choice may have been influenced by the werewolf trials at this time (yes, there were werewolf trials. For example, see the trial of Peter Stumpp, but be prepared, it’s a dark account).
In Charles Perrault’s version of Little Red Riding Hood, aka Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (1697), there is no intrepid huntsman to save Little Red. Little Red Riding Hood simply calls at her grandmother’s house, strips naked, gets into bed with the wolf and is swallowed whole. No woodcutter comes to cut open the sleeping wolf and rescue the girl and her grandmother.
'Grandmother, what big teeth you have got!'
'All the better to eat you up with.'
And, saying these words, this wicked wolf fell upon Little Red Riding Hood, and ate her all up.
It could be argued that Perrault's story is cautionary tale and not a fairytale. On the surface, it reads similarly to Belloc’s Jim Who Ran Away From His Nurse and Was Eaten by a Lion - obey your parents, never stray from the path and all will be fine. However, Perrault concludes his story with a little rhyming verse suggesting that wolves are not always noticeably wild beasts:
“Children, especially attractive, well-bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say "wolf," but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.”
The sexual undertones are not lost on the reader. Hello? She climbs in to bed naked with a wolf? Perrault’s cautionary conclusion suggests the wolf is akin to sexual predator, enticing young ‘well-bred ladies’ and ultimately luring them into bed.
Pssst… The contemporary French idiom for a girl having lost her virginity is “elle avoit vû le loup”, which translates to “she has seen the wolf”.
It’s Murder on the Dance Floor
The Brothers Grimm published their version of Snow White in 1812, titled Sneewittchenand. It pretty much remains in its original form in modern pantomime, except for the mention of the huntsman that is ordered to kill Snow White and return with her lungs and liver as proof of her death.
Oh and it’s not a kiss that wakes Snow White. After the prince pleads with the dwarves to let him have the glass coffin and Snow White’s remains (Why? Just why?), he trips on some roots and the tremor causes the piece of poisoned apple to dislodge from Snow White's throat.
But what happens to the evil step-mother queen? She has got to have her comeuppance in true Grimm Brother‘s style, and she does. As punishment for her attempted murder, a pair of glowing-hot iron shoes are brought forth with tongs and placed before the Queen. She is then forced to step into these burning shoes and to dance until she drops dead. I bet that really got the party started.
Feel like you need to read something a bit light-hearted after that? Don't worry, check out our recommendations of 10 Hilarious Scottish Books or 25 Books to Get You in the Festive Spirit to return your holiday cheer!