Friday, November 4, 2011

Notes from the Director: All's Well, Fairytales, and Gender

I think, in the midst of the lovely work Clara has done and continues to do, it is time that I chime in about my end of this project. When Clara first had the idea for a pop-up book production, I spent days considering what play would suit the medium—what play would be right for such a fairytale aesthetic.

Eventually, I settled on All’s Well That Ends Well. For me, pop-up books conjure images of story time, of the fairytales I spent my childhood immersed in. My love for these stories has resurfaced in recent years when I discovered the delights of The Decameron and was fortunate enough to stumble across Andrew Lang’s beautifully-illustrated series of books, each named for a different colored fairy.

And I see All’s Well as just such a fairytale—but, somewhat unusually, with a female protagonist. So many fairytales feature a male hero who undergoes a series of trials only to be rewarded with a beautiful princess to marry. In this case, however, the hero is a woman—a woman pursuing a lover herself. And this shift is where some of the trouble seems to begin.

I was in a class this morning where the problem of the All’s Well’s ending came up in a review of a production of the play. The reviewer, Bernice Kliman, described the problem of the play in the form of a question: “what on earth does Helena—a fine woman, as Shakespeare’s text insists—admired by all right-thinking characters, see in that callow youth, Bertram?” Our professor insisted that the real problem was why everyone was so willing to attack Bertram for refusing to marry a woman he didn’t love. And I think this criticism is fair—Bertram does not begin this play as a villain; he cannot help that he does not love Helena. But in fairytales, this never seems to be a problem. The princess is simply never asked—no one cares whether she loves or does not love the hero. So why do we care so much if Bertram does? Why does the play make a problem of this?

And it is this that excites me about All’s Well—the way the questions of gender and marriage coincide without easy solution. The way the play uses and challenges the structures of fairytales. With the beautiful work Clara has done, considering paper in its early modern relationship with gender and modern relationship with digital media, I am excited to begin exploring this play in production.

Images by H. J. Ford

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