Saturday night, nearing ten, I pressed my way through the cackling, calling crowd, into the courtyard behind Florence Moore auditorium, narrowly avoiding a wolf, his arms-outstretched, his head tilted back to the large yellow moon. Instead, I walked right into a prince. Apologizing and straightening my shirt, I pushed onward, finally reaching the comforting dark beyond the crush of people. I waved absently to my companions and set off alone. My mind was atwitter. Though I walked into nothing but concrete and asphalt, my thoughts were with the woods.
Stephen Sondheim’s ode to Grimms’ classics debuted in 1986 and opened on Broadway the following year. I’m a product of that same era, and Into the Woods played a pivotal role in my early childhood (together with Gypsy and Les Mis – my other foundational texts – this may explain more than I’d like about my personality). I was always slightly afraid of Into the Woods, in a way that was only matched, in those early years, by Disney’s Dumbo. And yet I watched it again and again – often stopping before the end, postponing the inevitable demise of the Baker’s Wife beneath the galumphing foot of the giant, but always starting again. The words to the title tune are burned on my brain.
Saturday night, as I marched my way back to the parking lot, shawl wrapped tightly about my shoulders, keys cold in my hand, I tried to piece my childhood fright together. What is it about the woods?
Sondheim’s woods are a place of abandon, of freedom and of violation. Social roles and societal rules don’t hold in the woods; the dicta of civilization can’t permeate the trees. At first, the woods are simply about sex – and violent sex at that. Both violence and fornication remain into the second act, but they are joined, in the woods, by forbidden friendships, gender equality, infidelity of all stripes, and, of course, mysterious, sooth-saying men.
The rub, of course, is that the woods is where innocence goes to die. But to simply say that woods = maturation is reductive – a poor simplification of a fairly complex work. The woods aren’t meant as a metaphor for growing up, the final goodbye to innocent childhood. Rather, they call for the end of parental naivety.
The woods are where adults are forced to confront themselves and, more importantly, their illusions of control. The few children in the story – Little Red Riding Hood and Jack of beanstalk fame – change little from curtain to curtain, though one could easily argue they have the most done to them in the course of the play. It’s the adults who bear the brunt of character development and it’s the woods that push them to it. The witch bemoans and then accepts, at last, her lack of power, relinquishing first her magic and then, just before the curtain falls, her now-departed daughter. Cinderella abandons her lush dreams for a happier, and more faithfully mundane, reality. The Baker’s Wife, before she meets her tragic end, stops micro-managing, embraces her desires and her sexuality, and gets down with a (married) member of the royal family. (The fact that the lovely lady dies promptly after said coitus is a whole other can of worms, ripe for somewhat indignant and feminist discussion, but I’ll leave it aside for now.)
The only adult who doesn’t give up control in some capacity is the Baker and that’s, well, because he never had any. Like the children, his life was ruled by outside forces – spells and societal norms – and it is in the woods that he is able to shake off these binds and construct his own happiness. Single (and adoptive) fatherhood, perhaps an eventual tryst with the former princess, perhaps a reconstructed business in the village, maybe even a side-venture – the witch is surely to have left her garden for good. Or maybe, he’ll opt to stay in the woods.