H+G: An Introduction
For the past five winters, I have taught a course at the University of Chicago that consists of readings, screenings, discussion, and analysis of the work of the Brothers Grimm and their collecting and publishing of fairy tales. The course culminates in a performance-work based on a tale collected by the Grimms and rewritten, produced, and performed by my students. The tale we always retell is “Hansel and Gretel.”1
Some of the questions that frequently rear their head during the ten weeks of the course2: Can fairy tales change history or human consciousness? Were the Grimm brothers’ alterations of the tales legitimate? As we rewrite “Hansel and Gretel,” what values, attitudes, images, and concerns are we inserting into our version of the story? And how do we accomplish such an intervention as a collective?
Another question: Why do I choose “Hansel and Gretel”?
0. Because I always teach in the winter, and one of the first lines of H+G is: “A dearth swept across the land,” or something similar.
1. Because the basis of the story comes out of real material lack: a famine and an abandonment of the peasant worker by those supposedly pledged to protect them, just as the parents in the story were “supposed” to protect their children.
2. Because structurally all fairy tales are the same. The hero or heroine is given a problem or put into crisis (forced from home, imprisoned, given a seemingly impossible task, etc.). Next, she or he is confronted with and solves certain puzzles or challenges. And, finally, the story returns to where it began with order restored: the hero/heroine returns home, marries the prince or princess, the kingdom is repaired.
3. Because I am attracted to the idea of hunger in the story. Hunger splits us in two—into a being who longs and a body that longs. It makes us aware that we are in a body yet, strangely in some sense, also outside that body. If one is truly starving there will be no distinction between the two; it will be erased by the crisis of real hunger itself.
In medieval Europe, frequent famine was the norm. But by the early- to mid-nineteenth century, the time of the Grimms, as Europe was struggling to find its form, its national contours, the growth of crops and the management of food stocks were comparatively regularized. Now hunger could be framed as something in the past, as a romance or spectacle, an interloper from a forgotten time. Of course, hunger did not completely disappear from Europe and, at intervals, famine continued to decimate various parts of the continent. Consider, for example, the Great Famine in Ireland (1845–52) and the Highland Potato Famine in Scotland (1846–57).
For certain classes, however, those with which the Grimms socialized, families like the Viehmanns, the Hassenpflugs, the Haxthausens, and the Wilds—the latter which Wilhelm married into—for these folks, the edge of real hunger had been dulled by an evolving industrialized economy and the growth of the educated middle and upper classes. In the Grimm brothers’ version of “Hansel and Gretel,” hunger’s split was reconfigured as a moral adventure between two: a brother and a sister, or children and their parents, or, most ghostly but apparent nonetheless, peasants and their absentee lord.
I think it’s significant that “Hansel and Gretel” revolves around the number two, tensions within two—a kind of split—dividing what was thought to be whole, a family, a duty, a way of life, a truth, into opposing or potentially opposing aspects.
I do not know exactly why I choose “Hansel and Gretel,” rather than one of the other tales in the Grimm brothers’ collection, to work on with my students. Nevertheless, I think that, ultimately, I want to work with them on a problem that belongs to us all, is larger than us all, because by sharing the ownership to engage this challenge, we discover other things we could not have expected beforehand.
Like the split inherent to “Hansel and Gretel,” I structure our work process by division: I divide the tale into the number of students in the class. The 2016 class had eight members, so I divided the tale into eight parts. Each member of the class was responsible for writing a scene based on the scene-prompt received (for example, sc. 5, Hansel and Gretel Trick Witch). For their first drafts, the students are instructed to keep their scenes to a single page; the scenes naturally become longer as they are revised. The staging of the scenes, the finding of their tone and rhythm, opens them up. I ask my students to consider contiguity and continuity—what is the effect on their scene of the one that precedes theirs and the one that follows. This is an important juncture because now the students have to think of their work in relation to each other, as rubbing against each other in time.
There are two kinds of rehearsal: student-directed rehearsals and those that are directed by me. I assign each student a scene to direct; I also assign them several acting roles to perform in the production. It is almost always preferable to be able to rehearse in the space in which the work is to be performed. In addition to constructing a set, the students do all the tasks of creating a staged performance: sound, costume, lighting, props, and stage-managing. Publicity is shared amongst all.
By now a few things should be obvious: I do a lot to structure our collaborative process. However, I am always working to create spaces and opportunities where students can push against that structure and rework it via the choices they make. Students respond to the structure differently. Most blossom and are energized. But there are always those who are silent and suspicious. Everyone, at one time or other during the course, becomes frustrated. By the end, no matter what the response to the process, most students transform and elect to perform. By perform I mean that they choose to become a significant player in the destiny of the performance, no matter what doubts they might have had along the way.
Like hunger, collaboration is about splitting. It’s about the negotiation of various splits. For example, consider the split inherent in the challenge between individuals asked to create a whole while in the shadow of their differences. Will they be able to navigate the exigencies of material, people (themselves primarily), and time to solve the riddles of their project? Will it cost the destruction of the group or any of its participants? This is one of the major fears young artists exhibit in reaction to this process. But I always tell them: The truth is no one accomplishes anything on their own. On the one hand, collaboration requires the effacement of individual egos to the service of the group; on the other hand, if individual drive completely disappears then the group’s well-being suffers. Collaboration requires a precarious balance like fairy tales and nation-states.