Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Fairy Gold: The Economics and Erotics of Fairy-Tale Pantomime

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Fairy Gold: The Economics and Erotics of Fairy-Tale Pantomime

Article excerpt

The past twenty years has witnessed an explosion of scholarly and popular interest in the genie of the fairy tale. Since Jack Zipes lamented that no social history of the fairy tale had yet been charted (FaDy Tales 1), a generation of literary scholars and folkiorists have worked to address this gap. Nevertheless, I would suggest that the use and significance of imported oral traditional and literary tales as English-language popular entertainment has remained largely underexplored and that analyses have been limited to the realms of print and film. This has left us with a partial and rather distorted history of the fairytale genie.

Here, I suggest that part of the master narrative of the genres history in England-the notion that the fairy tale was generally scorned in the early nineteenth century (when a tradition of imported French tales dominated the market) and gained a degree of middle-class respectability only by midcentury (with the introduction of alternative aesthetic and ideological frameworks offered by the tale collections of the Grimms and their many followers)-is complicated when theatrical renditions of fairy tales are integrated into that history My focus here is British fairy-tale pantomime, specifically, panto productions inspired by the literary tales of prerevolutionary France.

My interest in these treatments of French tales emerges from my earlier work on the national tale collections that gained tremendous popularity in nineteenth-century England. Inspired by the English publishing success of the Grimms' work, the field-based tale collections imported from such far-flung places as Ireland, Norway, India, Japan, and South Africa participated in the creation of a new rhetoric of cultural and textual authenticity and claimed that authenticity for themselves by pointing to the oral roots of tales and the scientific methods of the tale collectors. Translated and adapted for a mass English readership, these national tale collections inspired criticisms of the literary contes de jées - great favorites of the eighteenth-century English library - on the grounds of their artificiality and inherent theatricality. Nevertheless, these literary fairy tales retained much of their popular appeal.

In the wake of work on national tale collections, I have become increasingly interested in the changing shape and reception of these French fairy tales in England, especially as they were transformed in the nineteenth century into the bawdy, rowdy, slapstick art of the modern Christmas pantomime. Pantomime has recently received some increased critical attention in terms of its history in England as both a popular form of performance and an outlet for subversive social commentary (O'Brien), its place in Victorian children's culture and children's theater (Varty), its relation to the golden age of children's literature and the Victorian "cult of the child" (Gubar), its place in a broader range of Victorian popular performance traditions (T. Davis), its intertextual relation to modernist writing (Martin), and its modern performance conventions (Taylor). Nevertheless, recent scholarship on pantomime has not been brought into sustained dialogue with contemporary fairy-tale studies, and the specific ways in which fairy tales were adapted into pantomime form are rarely considered. Although panto is relatively unknown in North America, in the United Kingdom it has remained a vibrant performance tradition, with several "classic" French tales serving as panto standards. For example, "The Yellow Dwarf and "The White Cat," both adapted from the tales of Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy were extremely popular pantomime storylines in the nineteenth century, and both Charles Perrault's versions of "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," and "Little Red Riding Hood" and such Arabian Nights tales as "Aladdin," "Ali Baba," and "Sindbad" (first introduced to English audiences through the early eighteenth-century translation of Antoine Galland's Mille et Une Nuits, Contes Arabes) remain among the most frequently adapted tales on the contemporary panto stage. …

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