Wednesday, 4 December 2013

On Stepmothers

On Stepmothers

stepmotherMost fairy tales are impossible problems with impossible solutions. They have that in common with the kind of theatre work that I’m interested in.
‘There is nothing in the least childlike about fairy tales,’ says Marina Warner, the novelist and mythographer, in her excellent book From the Beast to the Blonde. Fairy tales are about big, scary horrible problems; they reflect the insecurities that haunt the dark graveyards and enchanted forests of a culture’s unconscious.
Families and homes are a major theme in this. The homeless runaway with a wicked stepmother and passive, gullible father is an inversion of the traditional safe home, loving mother and strong, infallible patriarch. Of course they aren’t a reversal of reality, just of idealism: child abuse is real and has been around for longer than fairy tales. Like many scary stories, these tales are partly a way to express things that are otherwise suppressed.
In an article she wrote for the New York Times, Warner pointed out that a lot of the older versions of fairy tales have the natural parents as the bad guys, abandoning, abusing and sometimes even wanting to eat their children. Romantic editors like the Grimm brothers, however, preferred the stepmother – still essentially a subversive role (another excellent study of fairy tales and fantastical stories, Rosemary Jackson’s Fantasy, is subtitled ‘the literature of subversion’) but apparently slightly safer; an external rather than an internal threat to the order of things.
Eliza’s stepmother gives her an impossible problem: she turns Eliza’s brothers into swans. Eliza finds an impossible solution: mutely sewing magical shirts from stinging nettles. Impossible problem plus impossible solution equals fairy tale resolution.
Eliza’s stepmother gives us an impossible problem: how to present an ordinary woman who is also an evil enchantress. We found an impossible solution: give her three heads, four arms and four voices. Impossible problem plus impossible solution equals…

Written for the Eliza and the Wild Swans blog:
Eliza and the Wild Swans is on at the Bikeshed Theatre in Exeter from the 19th of December 2013 to the 11th of January 2014. For more information and to buy tickets visit

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