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Shockheaded Peter and his DIE-dactic Friends

What do Heinrich Hoffmann, Mark Twain, and Julian Bleach all have in common? A little selection of stories called StruwwelpeterHoffmann originally wrote this illustrated set of ten rhymed stories about children in 1845. Like the tales of the Brothers Grimm, those in Struwwelpeter (also Shockheaded or Slovenly Peter) are considered didactic in nature. Indeed, fairy tales or children’s tales (written by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen or their French predecessor Charles Perrault) were constructed to teach. They are dark stories all finished with tidy morals; these morals warned children to stay in line, or else they explained certain cultural standards, so that children will understand that they must adhere to the rules. Heinrich Hoffmann’s stories were no exception. He wrote these stories because as a doctor he was required to make house calls on children. He wanted to give his patients something with which they might distract themselves. Thus, Peter and his comrades were born. Though they do serve as cautionary tales, their chief imperative was to hold the attention of young children. It seems as if their message is not clear cut morality (ie. bad things happen to bad children). The tone of the whole book might be that dark, but the actions and their consequences don’t seem to fit that classic mold. There’s an element of looniness to the stories and their illustrations that cannot be ignored. A boy won’t stop sucking on his thumb, so a roving tailor comes to cut them off with huge scissors? That doesn’t really sound like straightforward action/ consequence morality to me. Perhaps we could consider it parody of a sort?

If we fast forward fifty years, we get to Mark Twain and his adventures in Europe. By this time Struwwelpeter was a widespread phenomenon. Not only was there a copy in every nursery throughout Germany, but there were translations in a number of countries, including but not limited to the United States. Twain, having already written Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, was likewise a widespread phenomenon. Twain decided to create a more “Americanized” translation of the book. The nonsensical darkness of the cautionary tales paired with the subject matter likely appealed to Twain, who was known for his stories about bad boys in problematic social situations (read as Huckleberry Finn). Twain’s work functioned not just as humorous story-telling, but also strong social commentary. His work blamed the societies it lived in as well as the characters that inhabited it. Mockery played a great deal into most of what he did. Often his work looked like one thing, but was actually something else entirely. Huck Finn looked liked a simple story about boyhood, but was actually a criticism of how people deal with race. His Slovenly Peter looked like a harmless translation, but it was actually a continuation of his interest in misbehaving children and the way they see the world. Tom Sawyer exists to break rules. He looks at a social situation and breaks it down, as do the children in Slovenly Peter.

The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches

Finally we arrive at Julian Bleach’s musical, Shockheaded Peter, a production of which I was fortunate enough to see with Boston’s Company One. This dark musical version is not directed at children, but adults (most children would be scared out of their minds watching this particular play). As the tales unfold, it becomes clear that if there is any didactic element to this play, it is directed at adults. The play asks us to examine how we interact with children; how do we stifle their creativity? How often do we say no instead of yes? Are we even aware of the social rules we are upholding when we try to restrict the natural tendencies of a child? This production took the didactic tradition that these stories come out of and turned it around, so that it was the adults in the room, not the children, who were being questioned. One particular way C1s production did this was through their snapshots. At the end of each tale, the characters would freeze on a tableau and the lights would flash, simulating a family portrait of sorts. Though the telling of each story would include a great deal of laughter (both from the audience and the characters themselves), this humor would always cut away for the snapshot and the moment afterward. Everyone was still and everyone was serious. The snapshots didn’t say “look at these awful children.” They said “now, look at who’s left.” Of course, the adults were left. The stories blamed them, not the children. After a couple of the snapshots one or two of the characters would eye the audience as if to say “I saw you laughing. You are not excluded from this critique, you know.”

What I find so interesting about these three versions of Struwwelpeter is that they each deal with the pedagogical in nontraditional ways. Though the musical may have been written to turn the didactic around on adults, the original stories were not purely written to instruct children how to behave. In many ways the original stories were in cahoots with the kids, almost giving these bad kids a certain amount of glamor. For instance, in the story of flying Robert, Robert flies off into the distance at the end. In all three tellings, there is a certain amount of credit given to Robert. His punishment is that he is never seen again, but there is something fantastical about his ability to fly. He does it because he breaks the rules. In this way, Robert is glorified. The emphasis is not necessarily to hold on to those children who want to fly, but rather to let them to see if they can do it. The musical, the original stories and Twain’s translation are alike in that way. They actually revere children. The point of the musical is not simply that parents are at fault. The point of the original stories is not that children are at fault. The point of the entire thing seems to be that parents should let their children spread their wings, but still keep an eye on them so that they do not fly off. These stories in all of their forms are didactic, but they are not condescending. They exist to open up communication, to help define what is (and is not) a healthy relationship between parents and children.

I consulted “Fetching the Jingle Along: Mark Twain’s Slovenly Peter” by Susanna Ashton and Amy Jean Petersen to write this blog post.

You can read Twain’s stories here.


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