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Maurice Sendak’s Weird and Wonderful Nutcracker

“It is rare and genuine and does justice to the private world of children. One can, after all, count on the instincts of a genius.”

In addition to his beloved children’s books, Maurice Sendak vitalized the popular imagination with his equally innovative contributions to theater. In 1983, four years after he adapted Where the Wild Things Are for the stage, Sendak designed the set for the Pacific Northwestern Ballet’s production of Nutcracker. The iconic two-act ballet had originally premiered on December 18, 1892, with a score by Tchaikovsky and story based on Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 classic The Nutcracker and the Mouse King — but it was neither a critical nor a commercial success. And yet it went on to become one of the most culturally beloved and commercially successful productions of all time, as well as a singular object of secular worship and creative communion at Christmastime.

There has been no staging of the classic more imaginative and creatively daring than Sendak’s collaboration with PNB’s Founding Artistic Directors husband-and-wife duo Kent Stowell and Francia Russell — in large part because Sendak’s vision reclaimed and made even more wonderful Hoffmann’s essential weirdness, which the Dumas translation had cleaned up and tucked away for nearly a century. To Sendak, earlier versions of Nutcracker were invariably “smoothed out, bland, and utterly devoid not only of difficulties but of the weird, dark qualities that make it something of a masterpiece.”

So even though he at first turned down the theatrical project because its “fantastical subject mixed generously with children seemed, paradoxically, too suited” for his sensibility, he was eventually enchanted by it and dreamed up a set design with which audiences fell instantly in love, catapulting the fledgling ballet company into stardom. Sendak’s set emerged as so influential and beloved that it became a classic in its own right — so much so that when he died in 2012, PNB restaged the ballet and dedicated its entire season to the great author and artist.

A few months after the PNB production first premiered, Sendak reversed his usual direction of book-to-theater adaptation and illustrated the special companion volume Nutcracker (public library). Having brought the iconic E.T.A. Hoffmann characters to life on the stage, he now returned to his native medium — the page — which Sendak imbues with his signature gift for crafting a complex and realistic emotional experience within a wholly fantastical world that honors the light and darkness of the human experience in equal measure.

Even though Sendak’s illustrations for the book are beholden to the integrity of the Hoffman story, he is an artist who has built a career of folding his influences into his own wildly original work, beginning with his formative illustrations of William Blake, which remained a creative centerpiece for Sendak up until his final farewell to the world. To the Sendak fan, then, it is at once pleasantly unsurprising and wholly invigorating to spot among his Nutcracker illustrations both fragments of his existing creations and glimpses of his future ones: In one scene, a Wild Thing peeks from behind the turbulent horizon; the depiction of Hoffmann’s Mouse King throughout would return in near-replica a decade later in Sendak’s darkest, most controversial, yet most hopeful children’s book.

In the introduction to the book, Sendak recounts how his initial reservations about the project were resolved:

Most of my doubts and worries were put to rest when Kent and I met for the first time early in 1981 in New York City. I liked him immediately for not wanting me to do the Nutcracker for all the obvious reasons but rather because he wished me to join him in the leap into the unknown. He suggested we abandon the predictable Nutcracker and find a fresh version that did honor to Hoffmann, Tchaikovsky, and ourselves.

Sendak, a tireless champion of children’s ability to handle the dark, considers the chief redeeming quality of this sanitized take on the Hoffmann classic — Tchaikovsky’s defiant, visionary score:

Tchaikovsky … proceeded to compose a score that in overtone and erotic suggestion is happily closer to Hoffmann than Dumas. His music, bristling with implied action, has a subtext alive with wild child cries and belly noises. It is rare and genuine and does justice to the private world of children. One can, after all, count on the instincts of a genius.

Were it not for his lifelong humility, Sendak might well have been talking about himself — for it was his own rare and genuine genius that elevated the Hoffmann classic, and the Tchaikovsky score, to a new dimension of greatness.

Complement Sendak’s Nutcracker with his little-known and lovely vintage posters celebrating books and the joy of reading and his illustrations for Tolstoy.

Illustrations courtesy of Crown Publishing Group / Penguin Random House

Published December 23, 2014




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