Following the Breadcrumb Trail: Hansel and Gretel in History

DEC 1, 2012

By Leslie Gehring

Who can resist a house made of sugar? The story of Hansel and Gretel is hundreds of years old, but audiences are still drawn to the folktale like hungry children to a gingerbread dwelling. This holiday season, the American Repertory Theater brings Hansel and Gretel to life in a new adaptation directed by Allegra Libonati (The Snow Queen), featuring the A.R.T. Institute Class of 2013.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm first published Hansel and Gretel in 1812, but the history of the tale goes back much further. It shares many similarities with an Italian fable by Giambattista Basile called “Nennillo and Nennella.” This seventeenth-century story was likely brought to Germany by the French, who adapted many Italian tales and brought these stories with them when Napoleon invaded Germany.

Soon after the Brothers Grimm published the tale, adaptations and retellings in a variety of media began cropping up. One of the earliest and best-known adaptations was created just a few decades after the original publication. In the 1890s, composer Engelbert Humperdinck (not to be confused with the pop singer) and his sister, Adelheid Wette, adapted the tale into an opera. Adelheid wanted to stage the story as a Christmas play for her children, so she asked her brother to write music for one of the scenes. Once he began composing, he was inspired to continue beyond a single scene and create a full-length opera from the story. He asked his sister to write the libretto. Hänsel und Gretel premiered in Weimar, Germany, in 1893, under the direction of Richard Strauss. It remains Humperdinck’s best-known work and continues to be performed to this day, most recently in a dark and visually arresting production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York staged by Richard Jones. Humperdinck’s is one of many adaptations for the stage. Some stick closely to the well-known versions of the story, such as Thomas M. Hayes’s 1936 “miniature version” of Humperdinck’s opera, adapted to suit children’s voices. Others, such as Alan Ayckbourn’s 1990 This Is Where We Came In mash-up Hansel and Gretel with a host of other stories to satirize fairy tale conventions. A recent Halloween-themed production by the Scottish theater company Catherine Wheels transformed a theater into a haunted house, in which young audience members followed Hansel and Gretel through forest paths and a spooky gingerbread cabin.

In addition to stage versions, the story has been adapted into several movies. As far back as the turn of the twentieth-century, short animated films, made-for-TV movies, and full-length feature films have brought Hansel and Gretel to life for audiences around the world. A particularly well-known adaptation, the 1954 Looney Tunes cartoon, “Bewitched Bunny,” opens with Bugs reading the Grimm tale, when he notices Hansel and Gretel entering Witch Hazel’s house. He decides to rescue them, only to end up on the menu for dinner. With a bit of craftiness and a well-placed emergency potion, he manages to make it out in one piece.

The story of two lost children, a candy house, and an evil witch has attracted the attention of audiences for hundreds of years…and with good reason. The classic tale is filled with adventure, surprises and family love. Though numerous adaptations have come and gone, we still have a sweet tooth for Hansel and Gretel.

Leslie Gehring is a first-year Dramaturgy student at the A.R.T. / Moscow Art Theater School Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.

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