Fairy tales are not really for children. Bluebeard beheads his wives; Little Red Riding Hood’s beloved grandma is eaten alive and impersonated by a wolf; Snow White’s stepmother is forced to dance to death wearing red hot iron slippers. To justify their violent imagery we tell ourselves that these stories communicate valuable morals to our children. Bluebeard, Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White are all cautionary tales, warding children off curiosity, disobedience, and envy respectively. But should children be warned off these feelings? Envy of others’ possessions can be a spur to ambition and social reform; disobedience is necessary to confront abuses of power; curiosity is the basis of creative endeavour. Only the authoritarian wants to extinguish these characteristics. And while violence and the threat of violence are the nuts and bolts in the authoritarian toolkit, effective propaganda means you don’t even have to get that toolkit out of the cupboard.
With a seven hundred year record of persuasion in the home, it is unsurprising that fairy tales and other forms of folk legend have also been adopted by political propagandists. Der Stürmer founder Julius Streicher published a children’s book Der Giftpilz (The Poisoned Mushroom) whose titular story uses elements from Hansel and Gretel to promote anti-Semitism, while the opening show tune of Disney’s Aladdin (released in 1992, a year after the Gulf War and two years into the Iraq sanctions regime, estimated to have killed half a million children) describes the Middle East as ‘barbaric’. An eighteen year old serving in Iraq eleven years later may well have sung along as a kid.
So old are fairy tales and so often retold that they possess an aura of timeless innocence, rendering us ignorant of their darker aspects. This irony has been fruitful ground for a range of writers since the 1960s, including Angela Carter and Robert Coover, who have rewritten fairy tales to reveal how they serve, and how they might subvert, power. Martin McDonagh is alive to these counter-currents and in A Very Very Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre he has written a companion piece to The Pillowman, which explores how the stories we tell our children can both empower and engender tremendous cruelty.
Set in Denmark in the 1870s it tells the story of an aging Hans Christian Andersen (Jim Broadbent) who is revealed to be a fraud. He did not write any of his famous children’s stories, which were in fact dreamed up by Marjory (Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles) a one-legged Congolese Pygmy he keeps imprisoned in a three foot by three foot box in his attic. Marjory is a victim of Leopold II’s Congo Free State, who has travelled back in time ten years before the establishment of the brutal colony in order to stop the Belgians from ever conquering her homeland. Over the course of ninety minutes without an interval, McDonagh indulges his appetite for pitch black humour. Marjory and Hans make an entertaining couple: she is always ready with a quick put-down; he bumbles like a lovable uncle. But even as they banter, Hans continues decreasing the size of her box and we find out that he was the one who cut off her foot. The unsettling contrast between the comic dialogue and the violent action is echoed in the wonderfully gothic set design by Anna Fleischle, which sees puppets hanging by their strings half-shadowed among scattered 19th century ephemera, while a computer generated background image of Copenhagen’s rooftops as seen through the attic window is the only view of the outside world that we get during the play, mirroring Marjory’s confinement. Her box swings a few feet above the stage like a pendulum, opaque wood covering one face, transparent plastic the other and we see her stories, her only means of escape, plastered over every inch of space Hans leaves for her. Snowy rooftops and children’s toys ought to be a postcard picture, but here they are deeply uncanny, and with every sweep of the spotlight I flinched, expecting a puppet to jump out from the darkness.
But despite the fantastic set and fizzy dialogue, including an entertaining scene at Charles Dickens’ house, A Very Very Very Dark Matter does not explore its themes as deeply as The Pillowman before it, and suffers from a time travel logic that ties itself in knots. The premise itself, while intriguing is not original. In Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Dream Country a frustrated author Richard Madoc keeps the Muse of epic poetry Calliope locked up in his attic, which relieves his writer’s block and makes him into a highly successful novelist. That was published in 1990 and Strange Horizons have since put together a list of ‘stories we see too often’ which includes the following: ‘creative person meets a muse (either one of the nine classical muses or a more individual muse) and interacts with them, usually by keeping them captive’. While not a direct transposition, the similarity is extremely close and McDonagh’s own twists are not distinctive enough to make A Very Very Very Dark Matter stand out.
The first of these twists is making Marjory Congolese, for which there is no thematic reason. There is no association between Denmark and the Congo Free State that I know of, which would make Marjory’s having written Andersen’s stories an ironic act of subversion against power. The Congo seems to be evoked only as the most heinous example of European imperialism, in order to most obviously contrast her fairy tales with human cruelty. McDonagh perhaps wants to imply that European culture hides the contributions made by marginalised figures, and to give the colonial subject back her voice, yet there is nothing distinctly Congolese about Marjory or her work: no mention is made of the polyphonic Pygmy musical tradition for instance.
This leads me onto the continuity of plot, which felt a little shaky. In order to have Marjory come from the Belgian Congo, McDonagh is required to invoke time travel, since Andersen died ten years before its establishment. At no point is it clear how she travelled back in time, nor how Andersen got a hold of her, and when the flayed men (who are also time travellers, again, who knows how?) come to take their revenge and Marjory escapes with a ridiculous deus ex machina (again how did she know to employ this item as and when it was needed, and if she knew about it all along then why didn’t she use it to escape years earlier?) I was left shaking my head. The climax of the play is a sub-Tarantino explosion of violence which fails to surprise because of the crowbarring necessary to get us there in the first place: when plotting logic is abandoned, anything goes.
The story’s looseness and the Congo’s lack of relevance means the play is an ultimately frivolous treatment of its themes. While The Pillowman weaves its twists into a tight plot that exemplifies fairy tale logic, allowing it to explore the sinister relationship between fairy tales and cruelty without sacrificing McDonagh’s love of darkly comic dialogue, A Very Very Very Dark Matter dips its toes into so many wells that we never get a sense of their depth.
Words by Mathis Clément.
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