Most of us are probably more familiar with the Disney version of the fairy tale Snow White than the original, but, perhaps due to it being their very first full-length animated adaptation, the Disney version has more in common with the Grimm’s version than a lot of other Disney movies. The main plot trajectory is essentially the same: Snow White lives with an evil stepmother whose magic mirror eventually informs her that Snow White has surpassed her in beauty, and so she orders a huntsman to kill Snow White in the woods. The huntsman instead lets Snow White go, and she finds refuge in the dwarves’ cottage, becoming their housekeeper while they go off to work in the mountains/mines. When her magic mirror informs the queen that Snow White is still alive, she visits Snow White in disguise. The original version has the queen attempt to murder her three times: first she shows up peddling bodices that she laces Snow White too tightly with, causing her to faint, but the dwarves revive her. Then she brings Snow White a poisoned comb to brush her hair with, but the dwarves again revive her. Her third attempt in the original is her only attempt in the Disney version: the poisoned apple. This time the dwarves are unable to revive her and place her in a glass coffin. In the Disney version, the dwarves catch the queen on her way out of the cottage and she is killed in a confrontation on a cliff. Then the prince comes and revives Snow White with a kiss. In the original, the queen doesn’t die until she chokes on her own rage at Snow White and the prince’s wedding.
Donald Barthelme’s novel version of the story first appeared, in full, in a 1967 issue of The New Yorker, an event which, in the biographical piece “Barthelme’s Triangle” that appears in the new play adaptation’s program, UH professor Robert Cremins deems “a literary Sgt. Pepper,” and which apparently led to many subscription-cancellation requests for the magazine. Barthelme’s retelling, relayed in vignettes of brief scenes, has Snow White living with a version of the dwarves: “she cohabits with the seven men in a mocksome travesty of approved behavior.” Snow White thinks that “[t]he seven of them only add up to the equivalent of about two real men.” These seven are Bill, Kevin, Edward, Hubert, Henry, Clem, and Dan. Instead of working in mines, these seven make their living by washing buildings and making Chinese baby food, the latter of which requires a steadfast tending of the “vats.” They let off steam in their downtime by having sex with Snow White in the shower (and only in the shower). This is the status quo when the action of the story starts with two acute-tension situations: 1) Bill, the seven’s leader, can no longer stand physical human contact, and has started to avoid their regular carnal interludes with Snow White; and 2) Snow White has effectively put an advertisement out for her desire for a prince by hanging her ebony hair out the window, an event that induces great anxiety for the seven. Their anxiety is further exacerbated by other acts on Snow White’s part that indicate her growing discontent with their status quo, like her wanting to hear words she’s never heard before or writing a long poem about “‘the self armoring itself against the gaze of The Other.’” She declares that she’s remained with the seven due to “‘a failure of the imagination.’” Other vignettes introduce us to the princely figure of Paul, “A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY,” who is proud of his princely blood but avoids his princely duties after seeing Snow White’s hair in the window by joining—or rather, trying to avoid joining—a monastery. Other vignettes involve Jane, who’s infatuated with the “loathsome” and “vile” Hogo de Bergerac. Snow White complains she is tired of being “just a horsewife” to the seven, and suffers confusion from the lackluster general response to her hair hanging from the window. The seven ask Hogo over to give them advice about Snow White’s discontent; he advises them to “bear in mind multiplicity, and forget about uniqueness”—that is, enjoy many women instead of focusing on one. The president intermittently interjects that he is worried about Snow White and the seven because “[t]hey are Americans. My Americans.” At the end of Part One, we get fifteen questions (mostly) about the narrative thus far, such as:
2. Does Snow White resemble the Snow White you remember? Yes ( ) No ( )
In Part Two, the seven wonder if they should be doing something else with their lives besides “tending the vats” and “washing the buildings.” They drink and argue about how to solve the problem of Snow White; efforts include trying to attract her attention with a new shower curtain. Paul comes back intermittently from the monastery, joining everyone at a Halloween party, and Jane and Hogo continue to hang out together. Individual members of the seven play out their escalating existential crises.
In Part Three, Snow White declares she’ll have nothing to do with the seven anymore. Hogo sees Snow White through her window and begins a plan to get rid of Paul and woo her. Jilted by Hogo for Snow White, Jane puts together a poisonous concoction for her nemesis, while Paul builds an underground installation designed to spy on Snow White. The seven put their leader Bill on trial for committing “vatricide”—letting the fires beneath the baby food vats go out to pursue a “personal vendetta”: Bill testifies that he threw a six-pack of Miller Highlife through the windscreen of the car of two people who once told him when he was a kid that a black horse would eat him. Hogo declares his love to Snow White, but she turns him down because he does not have royal blood. Jane gives Snow White “a vodka Gibson on the rocks,” which Snow White is suspicious of before Jane talks her into it. She’s just about to take a sip when Paul swoops in, grabs the glass, and drinks it himself. Paul drops dead, and they have a funeral for him before the seven hang Bill for his crime. The End.
Interspersed throughout the vignettes are pages with blocks of text in all caps, and the one at the very end that offers different interpretations of the narrative presents the men (aka dwarves) as “HEROES”:
THE HEROES DEPART IN SEARCH OF A NEW PRINCIPLE
While some of the vignettes are from Snow White’s point of view, it’s true that in this version of the tale the men emerge as the protagonists—they are the ones, for the most part, telling the story. Some analyses of the novel comment on its nontraditional approach to narrative structure:
Instead of any sort of clear narrative arc, Barthelme gives readers a series of events that occur in the lives of the various characters. Often these events seem irrelevant to the narrative. Yet Barthelme counts on readers to attempt to gestalt a narrative from his (seemingly) random presentation of information.
Twin narratives of increasing existential distress emerge from the gestalt—Snow White’s, and the seven’s. The latter is caused directly by the former, so that these narratives become braided in a way that alternating points of view throughout the vignettes nicely mirrors (so to speak).
The ultimate reason providing the apparent foundation for these twin braided crises is outlined in one of the all-caps passages:
THE VALUE THE MIND SETS ON EROTIC NEEDS INSTANTLY SINKS AS SOON AS SATISFACTION BECOMES READILY AVAILABLE. SOME OBSTACLE IS NECESSARY TO SWELL THE TIDE OF THE LIBIDO TO ITS HEIGHT, AND AT ALL PERIODS OF HISTORY, WHENEVER NATURAL BARRIERS HAVE NOT SUFFICED, MEN HAVE ERECTED CONVENTIONAL ONES.
The existential crises are the characters creating obstacles since the erotic interludes have become the status quo, and thus uninteresting. There are sections interspersed of the individual man-dwarves going through their existential crises. A few sample opening lines of these vignettes are:
Henry was noting his weaknesses on a pad.
Kevin was being “understanding.”
Hubert complains that the electric wastebasket has been overheating.
“I have killed this whole bottle of Chablis wine by myself,” Dan said.
“They can treat me like a rube if they wish,” Clem said holding tightly to the two hundred bottles of Lone Star at the Alamo Chili House.
Edward was blowing his mind, under the boardwalk.
Bill, as the leader whose crisis impels the domino-effect of the other six’s crises, gets more sections, including ones where the other six discuss him. The ultimate manifestation of his crisis (and perhaps all existential crises) is the black horse he fears will devour him.
A new throughline that Barthelme injects into the original fairy-tale narrative is Americanizing it. There are the interspersed presidential commentaries that seem to reinforce American egocentrism, and simultaneously comment on how the novel itself might reinforce egocentrism by focusing on the individual. Bill’s fate would not seem to augur well for pursuing individual vendettas; it is his actions in confronting the source of his existential angst (throwing the beer at the people who told him a black horse would devour him) that lead to his trial and hanging, not because of the pursuit itself, but because that pursuit leads him to neglect his work of tending the vats for their baby-food business. His true crime is prioritizing himself over the work that supposedly serves a larger population (but that really serves capitalist interests). The absurdity of the extremity of his punishment for this crime becomes a commentary on the absurdity of letting our jobs define us.
One of the all-caps passages offers:
THE SECOND GENERATION OF ENGLISH ROMANTICS INHERITED THE PROBLEMS OF THE FIRST, BUT COMPLICATED BY THE EVILS OF INDUSTRIALISM AND POLITICAL REPRESSION.
This could be a potential commentary on generations of writers, bigger textual and social problems requiring the advent of postmodernism. A big part of the novel’s comedic strategy is to comment directly on tropes, as when Paul muses that:
I have loftier ambitions, only I don’t know what they are, exactly. Probably I should go out and effect a liaison with some beauty who needs me, and save her, and ride away with her flung over the pommel of my palfrey, I believe I have that right.
Or when Hogo says:
“Well chaps first I’d like to say a few vile things more or less at random, not only because it is expected of me but also because I enjoy it.”
Or when Jane says:
“Were it not for the fact that I am the sleepie of Hogo de Bergerac, I would be total malice. But I am redeemed by this hopeless love, which places me along the human continuum, still.”
There is constant commentary on the characters’ defining qualities: Hogo’s vileness, Paul’s princeliness, Jane’s malice. (Jane writes threatening letters to apparently random individuals she’s picked from the phone book.) Snow White’s primary princess-like quality is her desire for a prince. In one vignette, frustrated by the lack of response to her hair, Snow White minutely appraises the quality of her naked body. After a vignette of Paul spying on her through her window as she does this, we get an all-caps passage:
PAUL HAS NEVER BEFORE REALLY SEEN SNOW WHITE AS A WOMAN.
This is itself a commentary on the princess trope; in conjunction with Snow White’s appraisal of her physical form, the commentary expands to encompass the effect of the trope on the princess herself, only able to see herself through others’ eyes. This is also metatextual commentary: Paul can’t see Snow White as a woman because she does not exist as a woman, but only as text on the page.
Metatextual references abound throughout the novel’s text. In the vignette where Bill thinks he’s being followed by a black car that might be a manifestation of his dreaded black horse, he tells himself to turn on the radio and:
Think about the various messages to be found there.
This could be read as applied to text itself: in one line of text there can be various messages, depending both on the interpreter and that text’s content. It can also be read as applied to this text, calling the reader’s attention to the various messages to be found in the text of Snow White (and some of those messages will be about the various messages to be found in text). Other metatextual references include the description of the song the seven sing about their father, who “was not very interesting”:
The words of the hymn notice it. It is explicitly commented upon, in the text.
When Jane is asking her mother for permission to play with Hogo and her mother resists:
“That is the way I have the situation figured out anyhow. That is my reading of it.”
When Jane argues with her mother over the ape her mother sees:
“I think you dismiss these things too easily Jane. I’m sure it means more than that. It’s unusual. It means something.” “No mother. It doesn’t mean more than that. Than I have said it means.” “I’m sure it means more than that Jane.” “No mother it does not mean more than that. Don’t go reading things into things mother. Leave things alone. It means what it means. Content yourself with that mother.” “I’m certain it means more than that.” “No mother.”
When Snow White complains:
“But the main theme that runs through my brain is that what is, is insufficient.”
These references invoke René Magritte’s 1929 painting La trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) (The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe)) and Michel Foucault’s 1968 essay using the painting as a basis to discuss the problems of representation.
Magritte calls our attention to the fact that an image of a pipe is not itself actually a pipe. In art we are inevitably not dealing with things directly, but with representations of those things. Though Barthelme’s novel was published a year before Foucault’s essay, both emerge from (and are representative of) the period’s artistic anxieties. Barthelme anticipates Foucault especially in a vignette where the seven are drinking and debating how to deal with the problem of Snow White (itself a metatextual reference, the problem of Snow White extending to the problem of Snow-White-as-fairy-tale trope). Edward is expounding on the qualities of the horsewife when Dan interrupts, claiming that Edward is making things too complicated with “your screen of difficulty-making pseudo-problems.” Dan points out that what they “apprehend” when they “apprehend” Snow White is the red towel she’s usually wrapped in, and that they
“…can easily dispense with the slippery and untrustworthy and expensive effluvia that is Snow White, and cleave instead to the towel.”
And he starts passing out red towels to the men. Then someone named Chang who’s never been mentioned before is suddenly present, and it seems to be he who cries out:
“I don’t want a ratty old red towel. I want the beautiful snow-white arse itself!”
(Coralee Young as Snow White. Photo by George Hixson for Houston Press)
The towel is the text—or rather, represents the text, while Snow White is—or represents—the thing itself that the text is trying to represent, but that in reality is only a barrier between the reader and the thing itself. The problem of the shortcomings of representation are further referenced in Barthelme’s use of non-words, like “baff” for “bath” and “cess” for “sex.” Snow White questions:
“Paul? Is there a Paul, or have I only projected him in the shape of my longing, boredom, ennui, and pain?”
Here she brings into clarity why this fairy tale makes perfect fodder for postmodern commentary: the idealized version of the prince is like the textual representation of the real thing—falling short of what it’s really supposed to be.
A stage adaptation of so much textual commentary might seem difficult to pull off, but Barthleme himself tried, writing versions that were never performed in his lifetime. I must say that seeing the adaptation that had its world premiere this past month here in Houston, the late Bathelme’s home turf, brought the text to life that made me appreciate it more. A lot more. A seriously significant degree of more. The bulk of the lines were lifted directly from the novel, with some cut and spliced from different vignettes, and some material added by the play’s director, Greg Dean, who also played the narrator, the incorporation of which was an ingenious device without which it seems the adaptation could not have worked. Hearing Barthelme’s lines infused with the emotion of the actors helped accentuate both the characters’ existential struggles and the narrative’s hilarious absurdity. When reading the novel itself, one encounters the blocky text of the vignettes, the lines of dialog all run together like sausage links or boxcars, and the comedy of what’s being described can leach out (it’s certainly text that rewards rereading). Seeing the actors perform the lines, it seemed the material was written to be performed in the first place. (Despite the fact that Snow White as a textual construct is somewhat negated when the audience can behold her corporeal form, she still exists on the stage as a representation.) A great many of the vignettes read as blocked out scenes, composed primarily of dialog, with a sprinkling of expository stage directions in between. Many of the vignettes provide what is essentially stage directions in the dialog, such as the one where Paul stops Snow White from drinking Jane’s poisoned vodka Gibson:
“It is a good thing I have taken it away from you, Snow White. It is too exciting for you. If you had drunk it, something bad would probably have happened to your stomach. … Lucky that I sensed you about to drink it, and sensed that it was too exciting for you, on my sensing machine in my underground installation, and was able to arrive in time to wrest it from your grasp, just as it was about to touch your lips.”
When you read the text of the book, Paul’s line of dialog follows Snow White’s with no warning; the reader is surprised to learn from his suddenly speaking that he is even present in the scene. When you see it performed, you see Paul creeping up from behind Jane and Snow White, you see him grab the cup just in time, you see much of what he then describes in his dialog, adding another layer of superfluousness to the text, now in the form of spoken words. The reading experience has its own layer of humor in the suddenness of experiencing the character as present, but for me it wasn’t as funny as the layer of humor the play added by including a narrator as a character. This device of having the narrator describe the actions the characters are performing accentuates how the original text describes things in an absurd stating-the-obvious way. The narrator was separated from the audience by a see-through screen on which Barthelme’s original all-caps passages were displayed at the appropriate intervals.
That the characters in the novel describe what they’re doing in a way no one in real life ever would is all a strategy, if you believe postmodern critics, to call attention to the text. A more contemporary example of this strategy is used in the Key and Peele sketch, “School Bully,” in which a bully over-describes his reasons for bullying:
Bully: Why you reading bitch?!
Student: Because I like to read and this is a really good book.
Bully: You’re a really good bitch, bitch.
Student: Why you gotta bother me man?
Bully: Because I’m not doing really well in school. I’m reading at a 3rd grade level. I really don’t wanna get left back so when I see somebody reading for fun it makes me feel that much more stupid and then I get mad!
This sketch, the play, and the novel all highlight the falsity of their medium at the same time they invoke a deep insightful human truth (in the former why bullies bully; in the latter how fairy-tale-like expectations influence our existential dealings in our day-to-day lives). Highlighting the medium’s falsity does not negate the insight, but rather enhances it.
Another aspect the performance of the play brought to life that I hadn’t picked up on from reading the text itself, though I should have, was how frequently the language ascends to the Shakespearean, albeit punctuated with metatextual references and vulgarity (which Shakespeare was certainly not immune to, but his might be less accessible to modern audiences):
If it is still possible to heave a sigh you should heave it. If it is still possible to rip out a groan you should rip it out. If it is still possible to to smite the brow with anguished forefinger then you should let that forefinger fall. And there are expostulations and entreaties that meet the case to be found in old books, look them up. This concatenation of outward and visible signs may I say may detonate an inward invisible subjective correlative, booming in the deeps of the gut like an Alka-Seltzer to produce tranquility.
This particular production seems like it might be among the more difficult plays to memorize lines for.
This adaptation also includes musical numbers, which Barthelme himself made notes to include. The awareness of the play’s artifice is raised through the execution of the baby-food song, in which the men shout out the different flavors they produce (presented as a list in the novel’s text). Daintily flitting about with red fans, the intervals between each man’s oration of a flavor seems unnecessarily long, making one wonder what the point of this performative choice is; the point seems to be to make you question what the point is. Another interesting metatextual liberty the play takes is that the horror film the seven go to watch with Snow White is Jane sicking her ape on her mother and strangling her. The play hews quite close to its source material but for the musical numbers, changing Hogo’s age from 35 to 50, the omission of individual vignettes here and there (particularly ones regarding Paul’s monastic career), and Snow White getting the concluding monologue rather than the men. Copies of the questions that concluded the novel’s Part One were slipped under audience members’ seats so they could fill in their answers as the narrator asked them, enabling the reader to interact with and contribute their own meaning to both texts. The play just wrapped its run in Houston last night; hopefully this gem will make its way to more cities so that others can revisit Barthelme’s groundbreaking accomplishment.
(Courtney Lomelo as Jane. Photo by Anthony Rathbun for Culture Map Houston)