Director's Notes

by Kristine McIntyre, stage director for Bluebeard's Castle

Bluebeard is a dangerous story. You probably didn’t read it in your childhood fairytale collection, because it was usually edited out. Too dangerous to tell women about the perils of marriage—especially to richer, older, more powerful men with secrets. And it certainly calls into question the notion of “happily ever after” which is the fairytale stock and trade. Fairytale scholar Maria Tatar calls Bluebeard a “plucky wife story” and it comes from a folk tradition of heroines for whom curiosity is not a failing, à la Eve or Pandora, but rather a life-saving strategy. The plucky wife almost always survives. 

Perrault may have been the first to write it down, but the story is much, much older. There are hundreds of variants, and each generation has reinterpreted the story in art, literature, and film. Some reinterpretations have not been kind to the wife, focusing more on her disobedience at opening the forbidden chamber than on the husband’s murderous past. Some versions turn Bluebeard into more marriageable material—think Jane Eyre or Rebecca—once he’s been purified by fire.  

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bluebeard emerges as a kind of collector or artist, an aesthete. This coincides with the rise of the Symboliste and Décadent art movements, which rejected realism in favor of myth and dreams as source material for art heavily inspired by women and filled with existential crises. The period is also know for very intense artist/muse relationships and a series of male artists who derived their energy and vitality from their female models and lovers. And running through it all is a heavy vein of late-19th century misogyny with the femme fatale as an artistic trope. One has only to look at Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Judith to see how a historically virtuous Biblical heroine became corrupted and sexualized in this period. The plucky wife rarely had a name in the fairytale version. Balázs called his Judith and entombed her in the castle. 

And yet the tale resists. Female storytellers like Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood and Jane Campion have retaken the narrative and given us a whole variety of plucky wives with new survival strategies. In some, happily ever after even seems possible. But whose happiness? Ah, that is the question. 

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