Friday, 16 January 2009

What I did on my holidays
Part one: a pantomime

Every family has its Christmas traditions. Ours includes a trip to a pantomime or some such seasonal show.

Actually, it’s quite a recent tradition, almost a fake one really. We took our children, dutifully, to pantomimes when they were young. But, to be honest, they had their doubts. Sometimes they cried. Sometimes they screamed. At least once, one of them had to be carried out, crying and screaming, then soothed in the lobby for the rest of the show. What didn’t they like? The noise, mostly. And the flying in the case of the one who was happiest watching the show from the lobby.

So we gave up on pantomimes when our children were actually quite small. We only went back when the youngest was almost grown up — old enough, at least, to have a glass of wine at the big family dinner afterwards. (Though it’s also true that his sister was so determined to grow up that she started requesting wine with her meal soon after she mastered international direct dialling to her cousins — which itself was not that long after she learned the rudiments of walking and talking.)

Why did we start going to pantomimes again? In part, it was just a way of adding a family event to the seasonal schedule that wasn’t rippled with the emotional complications of food, eating and food preparation. But it was also that I’d seen so many clever, original adult stage shows that I decided there must be similarly inventive pantomimes etc.

So, for the past few years, the youngest child and I have secretly chosen a show, bought tickets and told everyone when they’re going — but not to what. Even the location is only revealed en route. We just tell them they’ll be having an adventure, with dinner afterwards. Wine, too. Beer, if they prefer.

Generally, there are also foreigners involved — family from around the world, generally. This year, there was an Israeli and a Zurich-based Slovak, both young, both female.

The show was Hansel & Gretel, a promenade performance at the Barbican. I figured the foreigners would never have seen a promenade performance before and would be slightly staggered by it. They were. Not, though, as staggered as they were by the show itself.

Somewhere, on a shelf, in another room, there’s a copy of Bettelheim’s The Uses Of Enchantment, a psychoanalyst’s view of fairy tales. I can’t bring myself to open it again. He’s a stunningly boring, repetitive writer, even by psychoanalysts’ standards, and I’ve never really been able to look him or his work in the eye since I read that he hit children — not even his own but those in his care.

I can half-remember and half-guess, though, what Bettelheim would have had to say about Hansel & Gretel. Like so many fairy stories, it’s a stepmother narrative. Why so many? The traditional explanation is that maternal death rates were once far, far higher, so stepmothers, wicked or not, were far, far more common. The other view — Bettelheim’s, I should imagine — is that the stepmother figure is a euphemistic replacement for the real mother. We pour public hate on the stepmother as a way of expressing our private hate for our real mother.

Hate? What about love, then? There’s that, too, of course. Hopefully, for our emotional equilibrium, more of it. But the only people who don’t have mixed feelings about their closest and dearest are those who have no feelings.

But why hate? Isn’t that a bit strong? Well, psychoanalysts are big on the word ‘hate’, particularly if they’re Kleinians. Really, they mean negative feelings — or, at least, the primitive, childish part of ourselves that can only think in the most black of blacks and the most white of whites. Which of us didn’t, at some childish point in our lives, say ‘I hate you’ to a parent or two?

This particular stepmother? Very black, with a touch of purple — and a passion for the Bay City Rollers. She was young, short-skirted, made-up, uninterested in household tasks, visibly (and fakely) big-breasted. Not so much a person as a disco dancing symbol of sexual desire — of the father for the stepmother, and, if you credit the psychoanalytic view, of the real mother for the real father (if only in the child’s imaginings).

It was a tiny cast so the same actress played the witch, too — and screamed with worrying accuracy when stuffed into the oven and death. Bettelheim, I guess, would say the witch is also a kind of secret substitute mother.

It was that kind of show, never frightened to make the latent manifest. I’m not sure, though, that the small people in the audience were that keen on having the latent made manifest for them. I think they had their doubts about walking through a forest of dismembered and mutilated dolls. I also think they were confused, at best, by the scene in which the father and stepmother could be heard offstage making noises which were clearly meant to sound like they were having sex. If the fairy tale stepmother really is a euphemistic substitute for the real mother, then this was clearly what Dr Freud called the primal scene.

By and large, the children didn’t scream or cry or demand to be taken out. They were beyond that, I think, judging by the blankness of their faces. They put me in mind of the shot of the audience in The Producers in which it’s faced with the full horrific truth of Springtime For Hitler — open-mouthed, fish-eyed. Then the audience decides it’s a camp joke — in both senses. So they can laugh.

It’s not a joke, though, is it. The audience was right the first time, when it thought the play was for real. It is a genuine, heartfelt tribute to a Nazi by a Nazi. Taking it as a joke makes it acceptable. It’s what we do. It’s how we fight the horror, swaddle it in humour.

It wasn’t what the children at Hansel & Gretel did, though. They didn’t laugh. They knew it wasn’t a joke. They knew they’d seen something of life’s truths, stuff they’d rather not know.

We certainly did. When it was finally over and had ended as unsatisfactorily as the Hansel & Gretel story always does (how can they forgive their father?), we smiled at each other like survivors of an unexpected natural disaster.

Then we did what you always do under those circumstances. We went to dinner. With wine. And beer.