Bland and banal and predictable were a few of the words that Maurice Sendak immediately thought of when Kent Stowell of the Pacific Northwest Ballet mentioned the Nutcracker to the celebrated—and sometimes crabby—children’s book author and illustrator, inquiring whether he would be interested in designing the sets and the costumes for a new production. Sendak changed his mind about the project once he had a chance to meet with Stowell and understood that the Seattle-based company’s artistic director and choreographer wanted to “renovate” Tchaikovsky’s ballet that had been performed so faithfully since its debut in 1892. Together they worked to adhere more closely to the original storyline.
For many the Nutcracker begins and ends with the rise and fall of the theater curtain, the Land of Sweets and the Sugar Plum Fairy in between. Tchaikovsky’s ballet has it seems all but obliterated the spirit of the tale from which it springs. Far more complex and not nearly as light, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, which he wrote in 1816, is not for dancing but for reading, not for a child but about a child’s private world. His story within a story echoes the novella’s themes: an infinite longing mixed with fear, the ‘conflicting emotions’ of a child growing up (perfectly suited to Sendak).
Seven-year-old Marie (Tchaikovsky’s Clara) wakes up from a deep sleep and tries to convince her mother that the Christmas Eve antics of Nutcracker and an army of mice led by the Mouse King with seven mouse heads were more than a dream, that she had been caught in a battle between the dolls and mice when she must have fainted and hurt her arm. But her mother says, “Don’t talk such nonsense…What have mice got do with Nutcracker?” A few days later Judge Drosselmeier stops by to see how his goddaughter is feeling; Marie suddenly remembers seeing him that night sinisterly sitting high on top of the clock. She says to him “Oh, Godfather, how ugly you were!” Her mother is mortified by her daughter’s impertinence but Drosselmeier rasps, Doll girl, don’t be frightened/ Bells are ringing loud and long/ To chase the King of Mice away/ Owl comes flying black and gray… and then laughs it off as a silly song. Over the next couple of evenings he tells Marie and her brother “The Story of the Hard Nut,” about a certain Princess Pirlipat and a vengeful Madame Mouserinks, the queen of mice who turns the precious princess into a little nut-cracking horror show. There’s also a character who just happens to be named Drosselmeier and just happens to be the story’s hero who figures out Pirlipat can regain her beauty if she eats the meat of a hard nut that is broken by a young man’s teeth. Drosselmeier finds both the nut and the young man. And as the entire palace is celebrating having their pretty princess back, the young man inadvertently steps on the queen of mice, sealing his fate. He’s now a nutcracker. To “cast off his ugliness” he would need to kill Madame Mouserinks’s seven-headed son and win the princess’s heart in spite of his appalling appearance. Judge Drosselmeier tells his godchildren, “Now you know why people say, that was a hard nut to crack…”
Sendak’s and Stowell’s 1983 reworking of the Nutcracker embraced “The Story of the Hard Nut”; it gave the fairy tale, according to Sendak, “dramatic sense and needed psychological meaning.” While Tchaikovsky’s ballet left out “The Hard Nut,” Sendak’s and Stowell’s decidedly left out the Land of Sweets.
 Quotes within: Maurice Sendak, “Introduction,” E.T.A. Hoffmann, Nutcracker, story translated by Ralph Manheim, first published, 1984; reprint, Gramercy Books, 2003; Excerpt, “The Story of the Hard Nut” on-line here.
Additional source: The Best Tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Dover, 1967; Pacific Northwest Ballet.
(Image: Maurice Sendak, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Nutcracker, 1984, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)