E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” is the inspiration for what remains the most performed ballet in the world. That inspiration is second hand, however, for the story told in the Christmastime tradition, The Nutcracker ballet suite, is not technically an adaptation of Hoffmann’s significantly different and darker original.
That original story was first published in the author’s native German as part of multi-author collection titled Children’s Stories (Kinder-Mährchen) in 1816. Two years later Hoffmann republished the story as part of a broad-ranging collection of other works in a volume titled The Serapion Brethren. In Hoffmann’s construction, the familiar elements of the nutcracker and the toy soldiers becomes a story-within-a story which is really focused upon a young girl named Maria trying to convince her parents of the truth about what she saw one night when her anxiety over the state of an exquisite nutcracker which was broken. Her reports of a battle between toy soldiers and mice is viewed as a nightmare fueled by mental delirium and Maria’s father threatens to throw away all her toys unless she seizes giving in to such immature fantasies.
This unapologetically dark vision would later be severely altered and refashioned by noted author Alexandre Dumas. That version transformed the Grimm-like atmosphere of Hoffmann’s fable about the vitality of the imagination as an essential element of human existence into a Disney-esque fairy tale where what the young girl witnesses is allowed to exist as an irrefutably separate reality. The loss of coherence between the reality insisted upon by her parents and the reality she insists upon despite their and protestations essentially replaces the satisfyingly bitter taste of the story with a sickly sweetness. That lack of coherence is also at the core of most criticism of the ballet that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky adapted from the Dumas rewrite of Hoffmann’s original conception.
In the 1980s Maurice Sendak, author of a number of children’s stories with a darkness that much more closely approximates the vision of Hoffmann, was called upon to fashion a new version of the ballet based directly on the original. Sendak’s version adds at least one vital storytelling element conspicuously absent from the Tchaikovsky classic: a plot. Nearly two centuries after it was first conceived, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” was finally presented in ballet form in a way that remained true to the spirit if not the actual letter of the author’s intention.