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Friday, June 22, 2012

The Horrors of Raggedy Ann

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: Renowned playwright William Gibson developed a theatrical version of the classic Raggedy Ann and Andy tales for the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts (ESIPA) in 1984, a show the company eventually took to Broadway. As it previewed in Albany in December of that year, a ridiculous controversy erupted. My Metroland opinion piece, reprinted below, was far kinder about it than I would be now. Perhaps you have to be a parent to be truly motivated to slap other parents upside the head.


Ivy Austin as
Raggedy Ann
SIMPLY BECAUSE A PERSON is physically capable of bearing children, that person isn’t accorded a divine right to determine what’s best for a child’s welfare. You and I believed that when we were kids, smarting under yet another seemingly arbitrary ruling by our parents. But have you ever occasioned to thank them for the punishment they inflicted while promising you that someday you’d thank them for it?

During the preview week of ESIPA’s production of Raggedy Ann, a surprising controversy erupted, sparked by a combination of a parent’s hysteria and overzealous TV journalism. This snowballed into the sort of thing which, if allowed to go unchecked, could create an unnecessarily restrictive climate in the arts community. This is particularly terrible when it involves an organization dedicated to arts education, as is ESIPA.

After one of the show’s previews, a woman complained to Patricia Snyder, ESIPA’s producing director, that the musical was unfit for children. The woman then took her complaint to a local television station, which put her on camera the following night to repeat her complaint. Over a shot of the woman, Ellen Allen of Albany, at home with her children, the reporter summd it up for her: “She says there were portrayals of gruesome characters, a mother deserting her child, death and even suicide.”

No response from ESIPA was included in the clip: the reporter was told that a spokeswoman “was busy backstage with the production and could not talk to us.”

Two minutes of TV time packs more authority than a day’s worth of newspapers; rarely is TV challenged and never is TV news. There used to be a time when an informed source was so labeled: “Ed Smith, college professor,” for example. If anyone were to speak on the subject of Raggedy Ann and its effect on children, I would prefer someone acknowledged as an authority in that field; for example, Bruno Bettelhelm, child psychologist.

And address that subject Bettelhelm did, in his book The Uses of Enchantment (Random House, 1975). He argues that through fairy tales, a child is enabled to come to terms with a problem that dogs us all: the workings of the unconscious. “However, the prevalent parental belief is that a child must be diverted from what troubles him most: his formless, nameless anxieties and her chaotic, angry, and even violent fantasies. Many parents believe that only conscious reality or pleasant and wish-fulfilling images should be presented to the child – that he should be exposed only to the sunny side of things. But such one-sided fare nourishes the mind only in a one-sided way, and real life is not all sunny.”

In Raggedy Ann, playwright William Gibson has tackled the most elusive of subjects: death and dying. Literally, the show is a dream; at times it’s a nightmare, and thus frightening. But I suspect that it’s the parents who are frightened the most: only as adults do we begin to fear death and repeatedly witness its reality. A child’s conception of it is different, much simpler, And who said being frightened is such a terrible thing? All of the best stories offer tension: it makes the release more satisfying. The same goes for music and for sex.

What’s really frightening is that this hysteria was taken up by such supposedly responsible people as David Brown, superintendent of Albany schools, and Nancy Sartore, director of instructional services at the Rennselaer-Columbia-Greene County BOCES. Brown canceled the Albany public schools’ reservations for the show. Sartore was quoted as saying that “the themes of alcoholism, suicide and murder were not appropriate for children.” Non-school audiences, however, did not diminish, according to an ESIPA spokesman.

Should either of the two education officials crack the volumes of Grimm or Andersen – which, it is hoped, their children own and which, in fact, the parents should be reading aloud – they’ll be in for some shocks. Horrible happenings abound.

The gut reaction of wishing to protect your kid from adversity is not to be sneered at, but to carry it into a field of literature that achieves a valuable psychological function is damaging. Bettelheim’s argument is a good one, and should be considered before reacting to works like  Raggedy Ann on purely a gut level.

-- Metroland Magazine, Dec. 20, 1984.

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