IN PRAISE OF FAIRY TALES ...
An Appreciation by
Children’s Playwright L.E. McCullough
© L.E. McCullough 2000
ONE OF THE most happy occurrences of childhood the world over is the telling and hearing of fairy tales.
Fairy tales are not mere escapist fantasy; they are one of the chief ways a child learns about the adult world and how to live in it.
And for playwrights and teachers looking to initiate children’s playwriting or drama programs, fairy tales and mythological legends are an immediate source of easily adaptable material that can also incorporate contemporary issues and concerns.
In his landmark volume The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim explored the deep, subconscious terrain of the fairy tale. “Fairy tales direct the child to discover his identity and calling, and they also suggest what experiences are needed to develop his character further.”1
Fairy tales hold out the belief that, despite adversity, a good, happy life is within our grasp — but only if we face and surmount struggles in the outside world and within our own selves. Benevolent powers (fairy godmothers, talking animals, singing swords, magic beans, etc.) will aid us in this search, but we must be bold and resolute; the timid and narrow-minded inevitably fail.
With their elegant, magical simplicity, fairy tales illustrate a child’s inner conflicts while pointing out how these conflicts might be resolved in symbolic terms that correspond to the juvenile worldview.
No one knows who or what people told the first fairy tales, though the elements of the Cinderella story have been found in an Egyptian legend, Rhodopis and Her Gilded Sandals, dating from the thirteenth century before Christ; other well-known tales are rooted in the legends of ancient Greek and Indian mythology. With remarkable resilience and adaptability, stock fairy tale characters and situations have traversed not just the barriers of time but of space and language — the Little Red Riding Hood story is found in Africa as well as northern Europe ... the Frog Prince cycle turns up across Eurasia from India to England ... variants of Hansel and Gretel are known in Europe, Japan, India, Africa, the Pacific Islands and among North American Indians.
As a playwright and teacher I quickly discovered the usefulness of fairy tales in tying together classroom curriculum, from history and social studies to science and language. A play based on the Slovak tale The Twelve Months generates discussion about the evolution of time and calendar measurement. Students dramatizing the Polynesian tale The Fisherman Who Caught the Sun gain added insight into basic astronomy.
Most fairy tales are originally from non-English-speaking peoples; this provides the opportunity for teachers to introduce a few phrases of the native language into the script and decorate the set with architecture, plants and art objects specific to that people and region.
Besides those children enrolled in the onstage cast, others can be included in the production as lighting and sound technicians, prop masters, script coaches and stage managers. Turning fairy tales into simple plays is an excellent vehicle for getting other members of the school and community involved in your project. Maybe there are ethnic dance troupes or accomplished performers of ethnic music in your area; ask them to give a special concert or lecture when you present the play.
There are undoubtedly several knowledgeable scholars at your local historical society, library, art museum, high school and college who can add interesting tidbits about the customs and folklore that provide background for these tales. Try utilizing the talents of local school or youth orchestra members to play incidental music ... get the school art club to paint scrims and backdrops ... see if a senior citizens’ group might volunteer time to sew costumes ... inquire whether any local restaurants might bring samples of ethnic cuisine.
Most of all, playmaking with fairy tales is a lot of fun. Adding more music and dance and visual arts and crafts into the production involves more children and makes your play a genuinely multi-media event. When figuring out how to stage these plays, I suggest you follow the venerable UYI Method — Use Your Imagination. If the play calls for a boat, bring in a wood frame, an old bathtub or have children draw a boat and hang as a scrim behind where the actors perform. However, if you do have the ability to build an entire wooden sailing ship for The Great Flying Ship of Ivan the Impossible or fashion a facsimile of an underground palace for The Lost Spear — go for it!
Age and gender? Obviously, your purpose in putting on the play is to entertain as well as educate; even though one typically thinks of castle guards and king’s soldiers as being male, there is no reason these roles can’t be played in your production by females; likewise for witches, ogres and trolls. After all, the essence of the theatrical experience is to suspend us in time and ask us to believe that anything may be possible. Once again, UYI!
Adult characters, such as grandparents and “old wise men/women” can certainly be played by children costumed or made up to fit the part as closely as possible, or they can actually be played by adults. While your fairy tale plays should be performed chiefly by children, moderate adult involvement will add validation and let children know this isn’t just a “kid project”.
If you want to get very highly choreographed or musically intensive, you will probably find a strategically placed onstage adult or two very helpful in keeping things moving smoothly. Still, never underestimate the capacity for even the youngest children to amaze you with their skill and ingenuity in making a show blossom.
Using fairy tales as a basis for family playmaking or classroom imagination exercises is a great way to enhance one of the richest learning experiences a child can receive. And for adults, these plays offer a chance to recapture the joy and excitement we all felt the first time we heard the thrilling words “once upon a time”.
Who says you can’t be a kid again? Just step on board the magic carpet and follow the big blue genie. . . mind that dragon lurking round the corner!
1 Bruno Bettelheim. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.
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L.E. McCullough, Ph.D. is the author of several books of original children’s plays and short stories including Plays from Fairy Tales and Plays from Mythology. Dr. McCullough formerly served as Administrative Director of the Humanities Theatre Group, an educational theatre outreach program sponsored by American Cabaret Theatre and Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.