The last time the National Ballet of Canada danced Alice, Glen Tetley’s ballet based on the Lewis Carroll books, artistic director Karen Kain received some phone calls from nettled patrons who had taken their kids to the show. There was much less fun and more grownup angst than they’d expected. Wasn’t this supposed to be a ballet for children?
That’s the way it is with Carroll’s story. You never know what you’re going to get when people read it, or make films and ballets of it, or otherwise add to the never-ending stream of variations on a tale first told to three little girls in a rowboat.
What is it about that trip down the rabbit hole that has kept this story fresh? Why do we go on revisiting this Victorian fantasy, and revising our ideas about it and the man who wrote it, nearly 150 years ago?
The National Ballet has changed its take on the story radically since its 2004 performances of the Tetley ballet, which focused on Carroll’s relationship with Alice Liddell as a girl and married woman.
This weekend, the National launches something closer to the tale as Carroll wrote it, in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first seen in Canada at the 2011 Luminato festival.
“I’m very attached to Glen’s ballet, and I still think it holds up beautifully,” says Kain, who danced it many times after its 1986 premiere. “But it’s deeply psychological and dark. I think it’s for adults only. Christopher’s was created for everyone, and is much more broadly entertaining.”
That pretty much defines the two current streams of Wonderland: one bright and entertaining, the other dark and loaded with hidden narratives. The first held sway during Charles Dodgson’s life, as the Oxford mathematician saw world fame come to his books and alter ego. As Will Brooker writes in Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture, the Alice books were taken as “joyous nonsense,” and its author was seen as “a sainted innocent.”
The darkness began to gather in the 1930s, as Alice was taken up by surrealists like Max Ernst, and by Freudians whom James Joyce pilloried (in Finnegans Wake) as “we grisly old Sykos who have done our unsmiling bit on ‘alices, when they were yung and easily freudened.” The freudening of Dodgson was even grimmer, and left him under suspicion of being far too interested in little girls.
“I don’t see the dark intent that people have tried to read into the stories,” says Leslie McGrath, head of the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books at the Toronto Public Library. “It’s more a reflection of modern preoccupations than what was going on in Carroll’s mind.”
McGrath’s view has been doing battle in the academic trenches since 1999, when British playwright Karoline Leach declared in a book-length study that the Freudians had it wrong, and that “much of Dodgson’s current biography was fiction from the beginning.” Whichever side you choose, the debate shows how much room there is for divergent takes on Alice and her maker.
The film treatments alone range from the detailed illustrative realism of W.W. Young’s 1915 version, to Disney’s uber-cute animated musical of 1951, to the juiced-up meta-fantasy of Tim Burton’s 2010 film. A 1981 TV broadcast of the Elizabeth Swados musical shows Meryl Streep method-acting Alice as a hypersensitive modern girl in pink overalls. Jonathan Miller’s 1966 film – shot in black-and-white, like Dodgson’s own photographs – strips off the animal masks to reveal the Victorian types Carroll was satirizing.
“Carroll turned proper people, Oxford dons and governesses, into crazy creatures with bad manners and irrational behaviours,” McGrath says. “Alice is the mature person who asks dignified questions and behaves properly.”
Carroll offered no moral lessons, unlike the Victorian children’s authors he satirized through the Duchess, who strains to find a moral in everything she sees. He wrote parodies of poems that every well-bred child was expected to memorize, and declared a holiday from ordinary reason and logic. His successors in that line include James Joyce and the Marx Brothers, Roald Dahl and Maurice Sendak.
With so much irreverence and transformation in the books, it was perhaps inevitable that the stories and characters would become templates for others’ fantasies. Wonderland has been a playground for political satire for over a century. Versions of Carroll’s characters have popped up in Betty Boop cartoons, Batman comics and Halloween parties, including a bash the Obamas threw at the White House in 2009. There’s some kind of Wonderland ride or attraction at every Disney theme park, from Paris to Tokyo.
The story’s hallucinatory narrative made it a key text for the sixties’ drug culture, and was parsed as such in the 1967 Jefferson Airplane single, White Rabbit. In 2003, Vogue magazine and photographer Annie Leibovitz did a lavish photo feature based on Alice, with designer Tom Ford as the white rabbit, Marc Jacobs as the caterpillar and Jean Paul Gaultier as the Cheshire cat. Avatars of Alice stalk through violent video games and pornographic manga.
Wheeldon’s ballet gives the story some of the structure of The Nutcracker, opening with a scene involving Alice, her mother and a gardener’s boy, whom the mother dismisses for allegedly stealing tarts. After Alice goes down the rabbit hole, her mother becomes the Queen of Hearts, the boy becomes the knave, and Alice spends her time trying to find and save him. The purposeless play of Carroll’s books becomes a quest, with a nascent love interest.
That may not be your vision of Alice, or mine, but that’s not the point. The elements of Wonderland have gone viral through the culture. They play on us as much as we play with them. If you don’t like one version, you can, like the Mad Hatter, move one place along to another – or make up your own.
The National Ballet of Canada’s production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland opens Saturday at the Four Seasons Centre, and runs through Nov. 25.
Just how dodgy was Charles Dodgson?
Unmarried man obsesses over childhood, hangs with little girls, takes suggestive photos of them. Must be a perv, right? Maybe not. Charles Dodgson's idealization of childhood in general and girls in particular was a mainstream Victorian attitude. Dickens was in on it: consider Little Nell and Little Dorrit. Taking pictures of children was also deemed okay, even in poses we might now call risque. Julia Margaret Cameron made similar images, and no one called Paul Peel a pornographer for painting naked boys and girls in After the Bath and The Little Shepherdess. In any case, half of Dodgson's photos were portraits of adults.
True, Dodgson and the Liddell family - whose three girls heard the Alice story first - broke off relations in 1863, but Carroll scholar Karoline Leach contends that's because their mother suggested to Dodgson that his attentions were a sly way of courting the girls' nanny. Leach has the evidence to prove it, and claims that Dodgson had passionate friendships with several women. Beyond that, the case on Lewis Carroll as sexual being remains open, and the charge of emotional paedophilia unproved.