Someone is on our side –
Someone else is not.
While we’re seeing our side, maybe we forgot…
They are not alone
No one is alone
I thought long and hard about which theater production I wanted to write about on Mother’s Day. I wanted to explore a work with motherhood and the relationship between mothers and their children as a main theme; I’m afraid to say I came up rather short on material. But one show that I considered again and again was Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods. A sort of collection of fractured fairy tales, Into the Woods features several mothers as characters. We are introduced to Jack, the boy who sold a cow for magic beans, and his mother, Little Red Riding Hood and her absent mother, but extremely lively grandmother, Rapunzel’s adoptive mother, the Witch; Cinderella has dealings with two mother figures, her step-mother, who has two daughters of her own, and the ghost of her dearly departed mother, who helps her go to the ball. Finally, of course, there is the Baker’s Wife, who desperately wants and gets a child during the course of the show.
Into the Woods is about stories, fairy tales and folktales most especially; tales which have been traditionally passed from mother to child. Sitting on your mother’s lap was more than likely the first place you heard the story of Jack and his beanstalk, of Red Riding Hood and the sinister wolf, of Cinderella and her handsome prince. Mother’s tell these stories to entertain, to soothe, and to teach; but Sondheim cautions us all to consider just what exactly we are teaching our children by telling them these stories. How are we telling them and why are we telling them? To us, they may just be stories, but to children they are lessons, blueprints for living, for being, a glass through which to see the world as it is, or so they think. In the song “Children Will Listen”, the Witch and the rest of the cast address the audience directly to remind them that children, our future, our most precious wishes come true, listen when we least expect them to, and we should be mindful about what they are really hearing.
The collection of mothers in Into the Woods represent a varied spectrum of archetypes and characters to learn from. Jack’s mother is firm, but caring, having to raise a young boy all on her own. Red Riding Hood’s mother is nothing but an absent authority figure, who gives instructions but sends a small child out into the wild world to figure out for herself what they mean. The Witch, Rapunzel’s surrogate mother, loves the child with a passion that is, in the end, confining and terribly destructive to them both.
In the end, there is no manual on how to be a mother or a father. Bringing a child into the world is a dangerous, if exciting adventure, just like the woods themselves. Things do not always go to plan, mistakes are made, but children will always grow up; it’s up to mothers and fathers to decide what kind of person that child will grow up to be, no matter how brief their stay in their lives. By the end of the play many of the mother figures are gone and the children are left to figure things out for themselves, to find their way in an imperfect world with perhaps imperfect teachings to guide them. But mothers exist to remind us that no one is alone, and even when they are gone, we honor them in the decisions we make day by day.
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