Wednesday, May 9, 2012

In Memoriam: Maurice Sendak

My first memory of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is of the illustrations. I remember sitting in my hometown library, flipping through the book. The local library was very small but it had a large children’s book section with a huge claw-foot bathtub at its center. The tub was completely covered with shag carpet of every color, making it one of the coziest, quietest places in the world. I’m sure the book had been read to me before, but I don’t remember that. I distinctly remember exploring the book on my own, however, and being fascinated by (and delightfully scared of) the Wild Things and their world. Even today, just thinking about that tub – and that book – makes me feel at peace.

I also remember reading Sendak’s Nutshell Library books with my mom when I was young. We particularly loved Pierre who constantly said “I don’t care!” I’m told I was a very well behaved child, always following the rules (and insisting that others follow them, too). But Max and Pierre were wild and didn’t always follow the rules, which is why I think I loved reading about them so much.  I loved knowing that a kid could get angry or make mistakes and get in trouble, but that their parents would still love them and their dinner would be waiting for them when they got back from the land of the Wild Things.

Working in the programming department at The New Victory, I’ve been very lucky to have met a lot of artists who I admire. But meeting Maurice Sendak, and playing a tiny part in bringing his work to our theater, was a highlight. As part of the 2005-06 New Victory Season, we presented Brundibar, an opera written in 1938 by Czech composer Hans Krasa that had been adapted into a picture book by Maurice Sendak and playwright Tony Kushner in 2003.  For the production, Mr. Kushner had translated the libretto, and the set and costumes were based on Mr. Sendak’s illustrations. It was thrilling to have both artists in our theater and to have Mr. Sendak’s beautiful artwork, larger than life, on our stage.

Brundibar’s story, by librettist Adolf Hoffmeister, is an allegory of hope and triumph over adversity. The story’s main characters are a brother and sister who attempt to get milk for their sick mother. However, the children are thwarted and bullied by Brundibar, the organ grinder, who Sendak aptly drew as a small, Napoleon-esque man with a Hitler mustache. Only by banding together with other children - and a clever cat, dog and bird - do the siblings defeat Brundibar. Good wins out over evil.

I have a feeling that it was Sendak’s firm belief in the power of fantasy that drew him to Brundibar in the first place. The opera was written during World War II and performed by Jewish children at Terezin (or Theresienstadt) – a concentration camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. The Nazis permitted the production in an attempt to demonstrate for representatives of the Red Cross that the Jews were well fed and fairly treated. Immediately after the final performance, Krasa and many of the child performers were taken to Auschwitz, from which they would never return.

The New Victory shares more with Maurice Sendak than just that production. We also share many core beliefs about children, their remarkable intelligence and tremendous resilience. In the words of Sendak himself, “Children are tough, though we tend to think of them as fragile. They have to be tough. Childhood is not easy. We sentimentalize children, but they know what's real and what’s not real. They understand metaphor and symbolism. If children are different from us, they are more spontaneous. Grown-up lives have become overlaid with dross.”

This idea of the child as a hero appears in many of Sendak’s works and is likely the reason I was as enamored with his books as a child as I still am today. Maurice Sendak clearly understood what it was like to be a kid in a world of grown-ups, and he took the feelings of his young readers very seriously. I consider myself truly lucky to have grown up reading his books and to have had his genius and imagination in my life. While I’m incredibly sad that he is gone, I take comfort in knowing that his books will be here for future generations of children to read and love, just as I did so many years ago.

Carrie DuBois is the Assistant Director of Programming at The New Victory Theater. Since 2004, Carrie has helped evaluate and select the diverse international productions that make up the New Victory's seasons. In the past, she has written two plays for kids and collaborated on unusual, environmentally-staged theater in various locations around the city including the Tall Ship Peking, Belvedere Castle, a store front window on 42nd Street and many NYC playgrounds.

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