Unknown Menaces to Civilization #3: The Nutcracker Suite
I am referring, of course, to those people who stage, and those who observe, productions of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite.
Now, it must be said that, throughout my life, I have been a passionate believer in the First Amendment to the Constitution and its cherished principle of "freedom of speech." Yet I would happily support a law which would, for a lengthy period of time, ban all stage, film, and television productions of The Nutcracker Suite, including (perhaps one should say, "especially") free-form adaptations like The Care Bears Nutcracker Suite (1988) and The Nutcracker Scoob (1984). Drastic action is absolutely necessary in order to break the tragic cycle of events that everyone is now locked into.
That is: ballet companies despise The Nutcracker Suite, but they feel that they absolutely must mount a production every year because they believe it is the only way they can draw crowds and reduce the budget deficits that they perpetually operate with.
Parents despise The Nutcracker Suite, but they feel compelled to purchase those expensive tickets in order to accompany their children to a show which they foolishly believe their offspring will enjoy.
Finally, children despise The Nutcracker Suite (at least, those children past the age of diapers who are not automatically thrilled to see a man wearing a mouse mask), but they know that their parents have gone to a lot of trouble, and have spent a lot of money, to let them see it, and so they try to mask their boredom and disappointment as much as possible.
And so the nightmare continues, year after year after year.
Of course, many people may be inclined to cling to their holiday traditions, no matter how atrocious they are—consider how long those vile-tasting fruitcakes lingered on as Christmas gifts even after far better treats became widely available. They might even imagine, in the manner of those Nazi concentration camp prisoners who through time became attached to their surroundings, that they actually like The Nutcracker Suite. So, we must calmly examine this bizarre artifact in order to understand why it needs to be expunged from American culture.
First, times change, and the circumstances of our daily lives change, which can make some antiquated stories seem utterly foreign to contemporary children, and E. T. A. Hoffmann's original story, the forgotten basis for The Nutcracker Suite, certainly falls into that category. It is true that children may ask questions about this ballet's plot only on rare occasions—undoubtedly because they would prefer to forget about it as soon as possible—but if they did bring up what to them would be its baffling aspects, one can readily envision their inability to believe the answers: "Now, let me get this straight. You're saying that, as a special holiday treat, children were once allowed to—crack open and eat nuts? And that, to make this an even more delightful experience, they were given as a Christmas gift a nut-cracking device that was shaped like a little toy soldier?"
Furthermore, the trite fantasy Hoffmann constructed out of these long-abandoned traditions hardly matches the minimal standards of a successful Christmas story. After all, a good Christmas story is not simply supposed to be a story that takes place at Christmas time; it is also supposed to express, celebrate, and promote the true Christmas spirit of benevolence and generosity, warming our hearts and inspiring us to be kinder and more charitable to those around us. Think of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843), concluding with reformed miser Ebenezer Scrooge buying that big goose for the downtrodden Cratchit family. Think of George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), rewarded for his many kindhearted actions on behalf of the citizens of Bedford Falls with a pile of money on his dining room table. Now ponder the story of The Nutcracker Suite and ask: what does beating the crap out of some mice, then spying on some dancing fairies, have to do with the Christmas spirit?
At this point, one might agree that this incomprehensible, pointless musical drama indeed has a few conspicuous flaws, but wonder why it is a matter of importance. All right, every year, certain performers choose to put on a show that they really don't like, and certain people choose to watch a show that they don't really like, but in the broader scheme of things, isn't this a pretty minor problem? Not necessarily. First, consider what the total number of ballet companies in the United States, both major and minor, must be; then, assuming that each and every one of them performs The Nutcracker Suite every year, consider the total amount of money that these companies collectively commit to their productions, and consider the total amount of money that audience members spend on tickets, transportation, and parking. If we are going to be devoting such a large chunk of our national resources to staging and watching a work of art in a time of budgetary crisis, shouldn't it at least be one that people will actually enjoy?
In addition, ponder the sad plight of the fine, time-honored art of the dance, surely the most consistently imperiled of all American art forms. Acting companies and classical orchestras usually manage to eke out a living, and even an opera company may occasionally turn a profit, but I'm certain that every single ballet company in America stays alive solely by means of donations and government subsidies. Why do dance and ballet performances always have to struggle to find paying customers? Might it have something to do with the fact that the vast majority of Americans associate their performances only with a dire, obligatory holiday ordeal that no one dares to publicly label an ordeal? If they had fonder memories of the annual evening they spend watching a ballet, isn't it likely that they would be more inclined to see more productions?
A final effort to defend The Nutcracker Suite might be based on the high quality of Tchaikovsky's music, and you will get no argument from me on that point; it is indeed music worth listening to. However, the historical accident that it was originally composed for a ballet should not mean that we must be forever condemned to listen to it only while distracted by a bunch of people prancing about on stage pretending to be mice. After all, the vast majority of Johann Sebastian Bach's compositions were written to be performed at his church on Sundays, but has anyone ever suggested that we therefore must always conduct church services to accompany every performance of his music? Let us put Tchaikovsky's great classical music exactly where it belongs: in a concert hall, to be sedately appreciated by audiences who can devote their full attention to it.
In sum, it should be clear that this evil must end. The Nutcracker Suite must die.
This does not mean, however, that the tradition of an annual holiday ballet must also come to an end. Rather, if ballet companies were no longer mandated to yet again stage this hoary old chestnut, composers and choreographers would be liberated to create new Christmas ballets—Christmas ballets that people would not have to pretend to enjoy, Christmas ballets that might actually make sense to modern audiences, Christmas ballets that might actually evoke the spirit of Christmas. I am absolutely confident that, if given the opportunity, the best creative minds of America could easily come up with something far, far better than The Nutcracker Suite.
And this is something that is long, long overdue.
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