Why do we love The Nutcracker so much? What is it that gave this ballet with a frankly rather silly plot, a massive dislocation between the first and second acts, and a baffling jumble of main characters such longevity? With another year’s worth of productions flourishing (including the English National Ballet’s version, which is terrific if you like giant rodent skulls and what ballet fan doesn’t?), I wondered why this ballet in particular has had such a hold over our festive show-going.
The answer might seem obvious: the clue’s in the “festive”, and we do a lot of odd things at this time of year. I’m not, for example, thinking me deeply as to why I have this sudden hankering for stollen or fir trees. We see The Nutcracker at Christmas because we always have. It is the way of our people. Though of course that’s not actually true. It’s not true of my people: we spent the last three Christmasses going to other shows as a break from tableware-based ballet, seeing (amongst other things) a magical version of Wind In The Willows at Covent Garden before ending up last year at Jersey Boys, the jukebox musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Which, as far as I could tell, was the West End telling me to sort my life out, get my priorities straight, and hie me to a Nutcracker. Nor is it true that Anglo-American audiences have always gravitated towards this particular show. It was a relative failure during its early performances in the 1890s, and it was only following productions in the 1950s by Balanchine’s New York City Ballet and the English National Ballet that it gradually became a fixture in the calendar.
Those dates suggest the work’s connection with Christmas might be due to more than theatre-going habit. By the end of the nineteenth century, when The Nutcracker was first produced, the “Christmas revival” of the mid-century had grown to seem a natural part of British and American culture. Books of “Christmas customs” appeared in the earlier decades of the century, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol appeared in 1844 and Christmas trees were common on both sides of the Atlantic by the 1870s (when Dickens stopped giving public readings from A Christmas Carol, since he had died.) So much of what we tend of think of as “Christmas stuff” originates in this era – to the extent that when the programme for the English National Ballet’s production described their choice of an “Edwardian” setting I realized I had just been mentally reading the first act designs as “Nutcracker/ Christmas/ Victorianish” as if the three were roughly equivalent. For a lot of popular culture, late-Victorian is Christmas – rather as the 1920s and 30s have an association with the iconography of New Year’s Eve.
Added to which, The Nutcracker became popular during the 1950s, an era which gave us another raft of Christmas associations, particularly in the US. Bing Crosby was releasing the records on The Voice of Christmas, Alistair Sim was starring in another film based on A Christmas Carol, whilst Ralph Richardson was getting into the spirit of things by appearing in The Holly and the Ivy and Frank Sinatra was deploying a saturation strategy by releasing both a record and a film called White Christmas. The post-war American family Christmas somehow became shorthand for a certain vision of society, values and nationhood, rather as the Victorian family Christmas had done. Whether you like or loathe the image of a 1950s US Christmas, I bet you have stronger feelings about it than a 1810s British version, or a 1960s French equivalent. Unless you were actually there at either, of course. So part of The Nutcracker’s power, particularly at this time of year, might be due to its connection to two very powerful periods in our cultural imagination.
The other reason I think we’ve seen so many versions of this ballet over the years, and why it continues to be adapted and reproduced, also starts with its first production in 1892. The early 1890s were an extraordinary time for the theatre all over Europe. In France, the Theâtre Libre was experimenting with putting “real life” on stage with its Naturalist productions, in England the Independent Theatre Society was scandalising London by staging Ibsen’s Ghosts, which the theatre critic Clement Scott denounced as an open sewer of a play. These “little theatres” and “free theatres” were creating the fringe model which still operates in theatre today, where small groups (hopefully) work as the laboratories of new styles and ideas which will (supposedly) come to influence the mainstream. Much of what happened then set the agenda for the next century, as a swirl of “isms” were whirling in the maelstrom that we designate as “modernism” – symbolism, expressionism, naturalism, and even the occasional dash of feminism. Tchaikovsky wasn’t exactly embraced by the modernists, who tended to write him off as prettified, insipid and twee (charges that were also raised in the first reviews of The Nutcracker) and a ballet full of hummable tunes, dancing toys and a Sugar plum Fairy hardly seems the show to endear him to them. But on reflection, especially in later and “darker” productions, it’s surprising just how many elements in The Nutcracker have affinities with modernist theatre.
The transition from one world to the other is an old tradition in Victorian pantomimes, whose “transformation scenes” were famous and featured on their playbills. But the sense of reality distorting around the characters, that disorienting sense that it’s not clear where the mind stops and the world begins, is a classic modernist trope. From one angle the Nutcracker and his army of toy soldiers are a kitschy storybook device, but they can be uncanny creatures, somehow inanimate and lively at the same time. In the 1890s, just as The Nutcracker was being put together, the Belgian symbolist Maeterlinck was experimenting with “puppet plays”, aspiring to present on stage “some being with all the appearance of life though not actually living”. Edward Braun has described Maeterlinck’s vision that “the actor, if only he will surrender his precious personality…can virtually become a puppet, but he will be compensated with the puppet’s disturbing power”. Watching the Nephew and the Nutcracker as they swapped places in the ENB’s production, and we saw the same uniform sometimes surmounted by the smiling gallant face and sometimes by the crude painted mask, Braun’s words seemed to fit exactly.
The fact that whole sequences take place in a dream also pushes the ballet oddly close to the modernists’ habits. Fantasy and dreams held a special place in the ideals of the Symbolists in particular, who were fond of insisting that the real world was only worth depicting insofar as it allowed access to misty realms beyond. These ideas clearly made their way onto the stage with greater or lesser degrees of success: on the upside, one review of a dance in the Independent Theatre Society’s version of The Duchess of Malfi praised the effect of figures “seen through the transparent drapery of silken gauze of the finest texture” as if “indistinct images seen in the troubled dream”. On the other hand, the critic Jules Lemaitre lost patience with Aurélien Lugné-Poe dreamily intoning the lines in every single role as if he were half asleep, and started calling him “the somnambulist clergyman”. Either way, dreams and the landscape of the mind were distinctly avant-garde concerns for theatre in the 1890s.
So The Nutcracker is a bit of a paradox: a piece of trite “diverting” confection which also contains the kernel of ideas which theatre would be worrying away at for much of the next century. An unsuccessful Russian ballet which came to seem as much part of authentic British Christmastime as German trees or that song about Duke Wenceslaus of Bohemia. Something about this preposterous, lopsided show keeps us enthralled, and I’m already looking forward to another crop of Nutcrackers next year. Inevitably this piece is based on my own responses in the theatre, which are always subjective, variable and influenced by the unhealthy amount of time I’ve spent over the last few years thinking about the 1890s! I’d love to hear other people’s ideas about what gives this show such longevity, or whether The Nutcracker is worth restaging so many times.