The Handless Maiden is a controversial fairytale. It was collected and reconstructed by the Brothers Grimm, and left out of their later collections. It has a disturbing violence and tragic sense of loss that makes it a hard story to tell politely for those who want a fairytale to be an easy tale about unreal events. It does however continue to be a story of choice for many of my female storytelling students. If taken literally (which I consider a disempowering approach for a tale of great symbolic or inner power) it is hard to tell. But, if understood at a more profound level, engagement in the story provides insight and healing. It confronts the pervasive suffering caused by misogyny and abuse against the feminine in our world today.
The production performed by the Knee High Theater Company was daring and riveting. No one shied away from the depth of potential in the story. The writer, director, choreographer, and artists made choices that illumined the inner secrets of the story’s transformational power. It was a visceral experience of the power of the “wild” feminine, and a genuine expression of the magic of a fairytale. It touched on the actual presence of evil in the world, and provided a template through which to look at our lives in an essential and raw way with grace, fearlessness, and humor.
The director (Emma Rice) explained that she first directed a Hungarian theater piece based on the story in 2002. She found it flowery, at first. She realized later that she had not paid attention. “I began thinking of the story again. I had a dawning awareness that I had indeed missed the heart, soul and very point of this extraordinary tale. Older, more bruised, and more myself, I decided to make this piece again. Only now was I beginning to understand what it is to do a deal with the devil and what it is to endure.”
The title: THE WILD BRIDE. For many of us our association with wild is something out of control and dangerous. However, the playwright understood that what is wild is natural. That to live in direct relationship to the world of spirits, and nature puts us in contact with events of the world realistically. In so many tales the inner union with what is natural is the goal. The story unhinges us from conventions that render women as domestic animals to be owned and used. It also moves us from how we think we should behave to how in essence we respond. And how we need to leave our comfortable world in order to re-balance what has gone out of balance in our lives or society. The transformation that takes place is not only the girl’s survival, but it is a liberation through knowing pain, the reality of consequence of a devil’s deal, and the promise of redemption. This is about disenchantment with abuse and war, and reconnecting with the heart. Throughout we face the girl’s ongoing relationship to inherent goodness and love; and equally ongoing (but not as powerful) presence of shadow or devil’s intention.
The set was a dark leafless tree, winding upwards with ladders for trunk, and a huge mirror at the top. The flower of this tree was insight. On the grey floor, the territory on which the story would unfold, were scattered dried leaves. There was a small stage for a small orchestra upstage right and on either side two small round stages with leafless single branches. When the lights dimmed and brightened we saw what we had not seen before: a rocking chair with the devil draped over its’ arms. His head was tossed to one side. He was the ultimate sleezy conman. He started introduced the story. He spoke directly to us. He signaled the music to begin and conjured forth three women who would be the girl in the story in her phases of innocence, loss of innocence and motherhood.
Knowing the story, I was curious about and dreaded the moment when the girl’s hands would be chopped off. Even though I realized it couldn’t be real the anticipation of fear greater than the moment of fear. A fairytale is the most profound species of transformative story. It rests on suspense, imbalance, fear, loss, and the possibility of love and repair.
There are choices to be made by a storyteller telling a tale to a living audience as a solo performer. And choices that a theater director has to make when bringing to life a fairytale in a theatrical presentation. Making it either too magical (which leaves it too special and smarmy – disconnected from our direct experience) or too literal (which limits the impact of image that has the ability to drive us out of personal assumption into imaginative revelation). The fairytale is personal and universal all at once. It is an inner journey and it refers us to our world’s most root level disturbances. The writing was exquisite. The acting was incredibly good.
The fairytale was regarded for its specific genre of effect, and the actors’ relationship to listener was honored. Not only were we participants often spoken to directly, the director understood the way in which a puppet, or a dance, an archetypal image or a sound could bring us closer to a sense of mystical participation than an explanation. Brilliant choices were made.
No one was a star, so everyone shone. Each performer was a musician, a singer, a dancer, and actors or a storyteller. The father whose lack of attention allowed for the devil’s deal to be made later played the prince who was duped by the devil, still after the girl he felt was his. Subtle meanings of the story were protected. All three women played the girl. A young girl, a wild girl, and a fearless mother each had their dance, their role and were supported by the others. It was seamless in exchange. The play didn’t let us have the comfortable luxury of getting completely lost in the story as if it was real. Hence, we were moved over and over again with surprise and intensity. There were jokes and visual metaphors. We were constantly reminded that it was a story and it was a revelation of truth. The music, blues music played live, was a background of energy and resonant emotion. It made the unfolding play more forcefully engaging. The use of lights, and props, supported the emotional world and changing landscape.
Astonishing moments come to mind. A war. The prince was in a near foolish ballet dancing kilt costume. But when he went to war, leaving his wild bride behind, he became the poster soldier from Scottish World War I posters: wearing helmet and pointing rifle. He was urgent, serious and perched on one of the small stages in the act of watchful battle. Lights flashed on and off. The music was intensified. There was no violence enacted. But, we felt the true horror of war. On the field of leaves were the three women bent backwards. Their pelvises rising up and down — open, facing us — a sad reminder of motherhood, rape, and the violation of the feminine that is war. This was the other kind of wild. The deranged dance of death where we lose our minds and hearts. The territory of violence is where wilderness is obliterated in service of genocide.
The Cut: The father with his ax and a tree stump were center stage. Horrified at what he had to do in order to save his daughter from being thrust into a hell of brimstone and fire and pain, he slammed the ax on to the wood two times. The devil watched as we watched the young girl throw one arm behind her back, then another. What we did not literally see we felt. We were victim, witness, and perpetrator.
After the girl’s hands were cut, the younger actress was replaced by an older more sexual and physical second woman. She moved like a wounded deer falling and standing, trying to use her bandaged stumps to regain balance in the forest.
It was the center of the story that was revealed in this exchange and this beautiful and agonizing dance.
Stunned by the power of the dance, we came to stillness as she entered a garden.
Strings holding green containers with painted light bulbs began to descend from the ceiling becoming the pear trees she hungered for. It was surprising and hilarious.
The audience in the midst of empathy and recovering from the shock of what happened began to laugh. This was ritual theater at its best. We were never allowed to drown in the mire of pity or opinion. We were brought up so we could reenter the story again with fresh mind, capable of feeling into the next phase of the tale.
Just as the young woman had avoided being taken by the devil because of her intrinsic inner purity, the second woman crippled and torn from her home, was the cause of the trees leaning toward her to feed her. The prince arrived. He would be her husband, but the redemption occurred because of her essential goodness and bravery — her inner untarnished self that had already deflected the devil’s plan. The wild girl was the embodiment of connection to the sacred. She and the natural world were related. The silver hands of the fairytale were replaced by metal sword and hoe on her arms. She was goddess of plants and animals, farmer of the heart and earth. An amazing choice again. Throughout there was the lurking presence of the devil on stage somewhere. We never were able to forget his persistence and confidence.
The Queen mother was a huge Victorian painting with holes for real hands and a voice. Again, laughter and appreciation for the make-believe quality of the story that allowed us a bigger experience than our own interpretation or personal outrage. It was all managed with elegance and understanding. A deer, that the mother caused to be killed, was a transparent puppet. The letters intercepted between prince/soldier, devil and mother were pieces of paper pretending to be flung across stage and caught. Music carried the invisible papers with the magic of Kabuki theater. The second woman was sent away to save her life, again into the forest. This time she held a baby on her back. Until, the third woman, older and more sober, took the child, becoming handless, and roamed the forest in a different way. She was devastated and courageous. She was the caretaker of a child. Her movements were painful to watch. They embodied tragedy and dignity. Her voice was harrowingly beautiful and we, the audience/witnesses were somber while in awe.
I could re-conjure images again and again. The constant use of music and the combination of literal and symbolic events and set, kept us enraptured in the story. The actors sometimes turned to speak to audience. They asked questions dropping out of character, to be present. We were not forgotten. We were not witnesses alone. In the end, when the girl’s hands grew back and the prince, after his own long wandering in the wilderness, was reunited with her, we were sighing from the intimacy of their dance. The devil was brought to his knees literally. For a moment he was vanquished, disappeared. Then the audience was invited on stage to dance. It was a wildly joyous celebration. We clapped and cheered. We thought we had come to the conclusion of the story. The lights dimmed and they quickly came on again. There on the same rocking chair was the devil. Back. He had been defeated by the girl – by her love and capacity for faith – but he was waiting for a new story to begin. It reminded me of great tellings where audience, young or old, ask “Was that true?” And I have answered, “Yes. It was true until the story starts again.” It was visceral: the audience left satisfied and changed.
Outside the theater, the actors waited for us. They were selling CDs of music. I couldn’t help but take home the songs. But they were also there speaking with us. I found myself embracing each artist; thanking them for the experience of a genuine event. At a restaurant later, I sat near one of the actors. I asked what he loved most. He said, It was a joy to work with others who loved collaboration and it was an honor to be so involved in a great story.