A new production of Hansel and Gretel opened to a full house on Monday night at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and it was met with rapturous applause by the audience, and with almost universal praise from the press the following day. I certainly thought it was a fantastic evening of opera: the production balanced the bitter with the sweet in the blending of magic with the macabre; and the cast and orchestra were on top form too. But what is it that makes such a story endure? Why are people still so intrigued and enamoured by such a grisly tale more than two hundred years since it was first penned (in this guise) by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1812? There’s certainly something in the fabric of this story (and fairy tales in general) that maintains its relevance throughout the decades and centuries; there’s something that has kept it present in our cultural psyche right up to the present day.
Humperdinck had huge success right from the opera’s premiere in Weimer in 1893; but his was not the only re-imagining of the tale. In fact, the Brothers Grimm who were known for collating folk stories of Germanic heritage from the ‘common folk’, also aligned their own version with other cultural backgrounds, with the likes of Le Petit Poucet and the Slavic Baba Yaga stories. These of course go back further than their own tale of 1812, and it is widely agreed that they were all born of the Great Famine in the early 14th century (which spread from Italy right up to Russia), where families were desperate enough to abandon their children in the woods or even resort to cannibalism. Starving children left to die in the deep dark woods and do battle with evil witches may seem entirely make-believe but looking far enough back and you can see how the bare bones of the narrative came from people’s real-life experiences. Perhaps this is why they continue to resonate so keenly today: not only can they act as metaphors for more contemporary societal issues (I saw glimmers of this in the production at Regent’s Park), but they act as a reminder of the hardships our ancestors faced in their own lives too. Maybe Hansel and Gretel is just a good story, macabre and magical enough to tantalise our imaginations and speak of our fears; maybe it’s so much more than that. Like the breadcrumbs left out by the children along the track, perhaps it’s a reminder of where we came from in the first place…
If you are a fan of traditional stories, check out the Kyanite Press’ Winter Digest of Fables and Fairy Tales in which I wrote the guest foreword, On the Importance of Fairy Tales, as well as my own short story contribution, Baba Yaga and the Ailing Child.
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