Friday, December 23, 2011

The Nutcracker & A Christmas Carol

Two holiday stories have become quintessential for Christmastime: Dickens's 1843 A Christmas Carol (full title: A Christmas Carol, in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, as before the internet, verbose titles were not limited to theses) and the ballet The Nutcracker.

Part of A Christmas Carol's endurance must be its predictable-but-satisfying compact structure. We meet Scrooge and immediately recognize him as an archetypal old grouch; Marley shows up to considerately lay out the plot; we get sad ghost, happy ghost, and really sad ghost; and then reconciliation and a happy ending involving a child. That can easily be fleshed out into a full-length feature film, whisked through in an elementary school pageant, or adapted into a TV series' holiday episode with its own characters replacing Dickens's cast (oh, so, so many TV episodes). I reread A Christmas Carol a few years ago, and it's fun, light read. Plus, if you are super immature like I am, you can giggle at stuffy and unintentionally suggestive Victorian language like this: "He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle".

Can you blame him for his lack of restraint earlier, though? What a slutty ghost.

Full text of A Christmas Carol, via ibiblio.

The origins of The Nutcracker are a bit more nebulous. In 1816, E.T.A. Hoffman wrote the holy-crap-wtf-is-this short story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." In 1844, novelist Alexandre Dumas revised it in a more child-friendly manner. Finally, in 1892, Marius Pepita and Lev Ivanov choreographed a much more straightforward and sane ballet of Hoffman's story, set to Tchaikovsky. In 1944, San Francisco Ballet was the first company to perform the ballet in America. And, somehow, the ballet about how a girl is given an anthropomorphic wooden nutcracker by her flamboyant uncle, and then there's a battle with mice, and then that nutcracker becomes a handsome prince, and then the girl gets to travel all over, became a holiday tradition. Even families who would never think to attend any other ballet have probably attended The Nutcracker at least once. And it's pretty perfect for Christmas: a child has festive, magical dreams as she waits for Christmas morning. Furthermore, like A Christmas Carol, this story too has a set formula that offers fill-in-the-blanks adaptability: a girl, a prince, and lots of opportunities for gorgeous costumes and set changes. It can be as long or short as need be, and can even be performed by dogs! And that's why we have nutcracker dolls everywhere in December.

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