“Fairy tales intimate that a rewarding, good life is within one’s reach despite adversity – but only if one does not shy away from the hazardous struggles without which one can never achieve true identity. These stories promise that if a child dares to engage in this fearsome and taxing search, benevolent powers will come to [their] aid, and [they] will succeed.”
- Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment:
The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales
(Vintage Books Edition, 2010; originally published in 1975), page 25.
Bruno Bettelheim was a flawed genius. The American psychoanalyst was born in Austria in 1903 and died – by his own hand – in 1990. He taught psychology at the University of Chicago from 1944 to 1973. The above quotation comes from his book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, in which he applied Freudian psychology to fairy tales. After his death, he was found to have faked credentials and plagiarized passages in his books. His controversial views on autism are now discredited.
But...and...his theories about the importance of fairy tales in the emotional development of young people are still valid, and he had a major impact on my approach to teaching Drama. In a nutshell, he believed that when children fully enter the life of a fairy tale, they live the story as if they are the heroes, conquering monsters, evil, and – most importantly – their own fears. For Bettelheim, this self-imagining of the child as hero in a fearsome story provided children with vital experiences in the creation of agency, resilience, and morality. Pretty impressive outcomes, yes?
The fairy tales he references, however, are not the saccharine versions that come from the Disney studios. They are, instead, earlier versions where children are not shielded from the violent realities of life. I encourage you to check out the harsher versions of “Hansel and Gretel,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “Cinderella” to see how much the current sanitized versions have diluted their original nastiness and made them less useful as vehicles for a child’s heroic journey.
In teaching Drama, I used Bettelheim’s theories to frame the Grade 8 monologue unit. Each student created a character of her own choosing and then presented a prepared but unscripted monologue based on that character. I censored neither the characters nor their life circumstances. For over a decade, this monologue unit was at the heart of the Grade 8 Drama course. And what amazing characters the students chose! The majority dove deeply into serious behavioural issues, tragic life circumstances, and bravery in the face of adversity. Not only were the monologues compelling theatre, they were also living proof of Bettelheim’s theories: these students were imagining themselves into the nastiness of life – and emerging victorious at the end.
Bettelheim’s theories helped me understand what was happening – and they also helped me explain the process to the parents, some of whom were worried that their daughters were exploring the harshness of human existence. By reassuring the parents that their daughters were, in fact, engaged in age-appropriate behaviour, I not only calmed fears, but I also supported the emotional journeys upon which these students were embarked. If they had been experiencing such challenges in their real lives, the parents would have been right to worry. Instead, the explorations took place in the safety of the Drama Studio, surrounded by emotional support. They were ‘playing’ in the very best sense of that word. And they were living proof of Bettelheim’s theories. Mind you, I never started the Grade 8 course with the monologue unit. It came at the end of the course after I had spent weeks trying to create a level of trust that supported such risk taking.
It was a peak experience in my teaching career. And I blame Bruno Bettelheim for giving me the faith that it was worth doing.
The photos: at this time of year, our neighbourhood is full of colourful – enchanting – Christmas light displays. Many children will look at them with glee and wonder. However, I went searching for something else in the displays: the ominous bits hidden amongst all the gaiety. The bits that invited a child into an imaginary tale of self-discovery.
Some of these photos are pretty creepy. You may not like them. In any case, they’re all part of the heroic journey that Bettelheim encouraged us to undertake.