As a student of fairy tales, I often feel like their last defender. A world that let Grimm and Once Upon a Time premiere in the same season is a world that wants me tortured and self-righteous, right? Every Joe Schmo with a glitter pen thinks he has a right to fairy tales; he interprets folklore with the sloppy imprecision of a soupspoon, though he wouldn’t dare scald his mouth adapting more ‘complex’ text.
While no source material should hold its adapter prisoner, writers tend to take particular liberty with fairy tales. Imagine a festival instead centered on Virginia Woolf or H.P. Lovecraft. Would the resulting short plays be half as broad, even flippant, in their treatment of such authored texts? We would see varied and abstract representations of Cthulhu, but we wouldn’t find Cthulhu visiting Marina Syrova.
Here’s the kicker, though – that is, the moment when I kick myself: if Joe Schmo is a jerk, so are Jacob and Wilhelm. “Once Upon a Time” isn’t inheritance from generations of oral storytellers. The Grimms honed their distinctive voice over fifty years and no fewer than seven editions of the Children’s and Household Tales. Neither style nor plot was sacred to the Brothers. Their sometimes radical revisions further let 19th century Germany invade the Land of Faerie; the Grimms’ agenda of middle-class morality and the Protestant ethic increasingly colored the tales from edition to edition.
Their tales lend our playwrights talking fish, tricksters, and simultaneously gruesome and Eucharistic representations of food. Amid the magical transformations and genuine horror, the Grimms give us something more: permission. Permission to play with not just their plotlines but their practice. Permission to take advantage, just as they did, of the fairy tale’s mutability. If Rumpelstiltskin rides off on a flying spoon in 1812 but rends himself in two by 1857, Sid Branca can take him to a dive bar in 2013.
The Brothers Grimm are the authorities in a genre that defies authority. They enjoyed the luxury of what Calvino calls folklore’s “infinite variety and infinite repetition.” And the Grimms invite us, Joe Schmo and our more perspicacious adapters alike, to do the same. A fairy tale is as promiscuous and shapeshifting as Play-Doh in a preschool. It’s not meant to stay in the jar.
- Molly FitzMaurice