Well I have actually done it – been away on a holiday that does not involve Great Hucklow, or indeed any Unitarian link at all. I even left behind all my chalice jewellery along with my laptop in an effort to have a complete break. And I did – it was wonderful to just be carefree for a while. One of the high lights of my time in Harrogate – ok so I didn’t get so far away, but I did get away, . . . as I was saying one of the high lights was . . . no, not Betty’s teashop, . . . but going to a pantomime at Harrogate Theatre. It must be years since I last went to see a pantomime and I had forgotten just how much fun it can be. Mum, who came with me and is now in her 90th year, and I joined in with everything including the traditional shouts of “It’s behind you” and “Oh no it isn’t” and “Oh yes it is” and of course the communal singing and generally just having a ball.
I was a bit surprised though at how this particular pantomime worked because the story is not perhaps what we would consider a traditional pantomime story as it had little opportunity for a Dame,( a man dressed as a woman) or a principal boy, (a girl dressed as a boy) both generally considered essential to a traditional panto. This was because the show that mum and I went to was based on the traditional story known as Beauty and the Beast.
The story of Beauty and the Beast is a story about love and has been around for centuries in both written and oral form, because although the theme of the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast is a very old one, the story was not written down in a book until over two hundred years ago in 1740. This is not quite the story we know today – it was very complicated and took up three hundred and sixty-two pages! Many experts trace similarities back to the stories of Cupid and Psyche, Oedipus and Apuleius? The Golden Ass of the second century A.D.
The tale of Beauty and the Beast was first collected in Gian franceso Straparola’s (The Nights of Straparola) 1550-53. The earliest French version is an ancient Basque tale where the father was a king and the beast a serpent. Charles Perrault popularized the fairy tale with his collection (Tales of Mother Goose) in 1697 and the 17th century Pentamerone is also said to include similar tales. As stories swap back and forth, new elements are introduced and exchanged. The story over time becomes much shorter until it becomes the one we recognise today in children’s story books and even in pantomime.
The version Mum and I saw had only one daughter – called Belle – but it introduced another family a rather simple lad and his mother, who was the traditional Dame. This provided the story with the opportunity to introduce some more essential pantomime action with slapstick and magic tricks. And of course there has to be a villain, and in this case the villain was a wicked sorceress who was responsible for the Beast becoming a beast in the first place and in this pantomime the Beast did turn into a handsome prince ready for the final wedding scene which of course is always the finale of any pantomime worth its salt.
Putting the pantomime elements to one side, though this story has many elements that are worth considering; tackling more than one moral issue as well as being a story about love.
In the story is a father who has lost his way and then finds shelter in the castle of a noble beast. He spends a night in comfort, eating good food and sleeping in a comfortable bed; but before he leaves, he steals something from the castle garden, a rose which he had promised to take home for his youngest daughter, Beauty. A rose, you might think, just a rose what is the harm in that but the Beast is furious and threatens to kill him for this breach of hospitality, unless he offers one of his three daughters as a bride. The father could not have realised that in his loveless life the roses in the garden were the only things that the Beast cared for. To the beast his roses were valuable and loved. Of course the father is distraught, but there is nothing he can do and Beauty goes to the Beast’s castle out of love for her father. When she gets there she is treated like a princess, her every wish is granted except of course her freedom. After giving her some time to get used to the strange ways of the castle, the Beast asks Beauty to marry him. She is still frightened by the Beast's appearance and his castle and understandably cannot agree to his request. The Beast is not deterred though as he repeats his request daily. Then Beauty’s father falls dangerously ill and she begs the Beast to let her return home, promising to come back to him. He agrees and Beauty's father recovers under her loving care. The Beast meanwhile is heartbroken without Beauty. It is only when she returns to him that Beauty realises how much she has come to love the Beast, and through her love he becomes the handsome prince of her dreams.
Despite the many magical elements involved in the story, Beauty and the Beast is probably one of the most realistic of all the famous fairy tales. Unlike Cinderella, who falls in love in a single evening or Sleeping Beauty, who falls in love with a kiss, the two people in Beauty and the Beast actually spend a lot of time getting to know one another before they both realise just how much they love each other. Beauty has to overcome her aversion to the Beast’s appearance and see him for what he is before she can truly admit to loving him.
The three main characters: Beauty, her father and the Beast show gentleness and loving devotion towards each other, and the story very definitely sets out to tell us what ‘true love’ is all about. This is not just romantic love, but also the love and devotion for family and friends. The Beast’s castle or palace, where all of Beauty’s wishes come true as soon as she thinks of them, seems like just the sort of fantasy world any child would love to live in, but the story goes on to show that such a life soon loses its shine, the superficial nature of having everything one wishes for soon makes for a life that becomes empty and boring. And then there is the question of the Beast. Whatever he looks like on the outside, we soon come to realise that the Beast is just as beautiful a person as Beauty herself.
Similar stories which prove the old sayings of ‘beauty is only skin deep’ and ‘you can’t judge a book by looking at its cover’ go back many hundreds of years. And Beauty and the Beast has also inspired modern variation, first pantomimes nearly two hundred years ago, then films of the actual story. I remember being deeply moved as a young child when I watched a black and white film version of the story on television. I cried buckets - it was probaly the first film to reduce me to tears. And today there are other stories of male ‘beasts’ being saved by the selfless love of a beautiful girl, like the story of the film Edward Scissorhands. There are also films where people are loved in spite of their appearance or status such as Shreck, The Gooneys and The Princess Bride.
Beauty and the Beast seems to have everything one could wish from a good story: the main characters capture both interest and sympathy and they are believable as real people. The story reflects the kind of decisions we all have to make in life, even if here they are on a grander scale and, on top of all this, there is wrapped into the story plenty of magic and romance.
One of the magical gifts beauty is given is of course the magic mirror through which she can see those she loves. It is in this mirror that she sees her father, ill; and later it is the same mirror that shows her the dying beast. It is the first clue to the fact that she truly loves the beast. We are not fortunate enough to have a magic mirror so maybe we have to work to see in our lives.
The story and its questions regarding human values run deeper than the simple facts and details of the tale, they remain timeless. The story, whichever version we look at, tells us just as much about love as the biblical reading from Corinthians which is a favourite at weddings and funerals alike. But also the story reminded me of the writings of the Jesuit priest, Anthony De Mello in his book of meditations Call to Love.
Meditation 22 in particular echoes some of the values in the story as it deals with how love quite often depends on how we perceive things. As we heard before “. . . the first act of love is to see this person or this object, this reality as it truly is. And this involves the enormous discipline of dropping your desires, your prejudices, your memories, your projections, your selective way of looking,” For the beast in the story to return to his princely form, Beauty has to recognise what the real nature of the Beast is and not let her natural repulsion of his looks cloud her judgement. And further on in Meditation 22 Anthony De Mello says:
If it is love that you truly desire then set out at once on the task of seeing.
Take it seriously and look at someone you dislike and really see your prejudice. Look at someone you cling to or something you cling to and really see the suffering, the futility, the unfreedom of clinging and look long and lovingly at human faces and human behaviour. Take some time out to gaze in wonder at nature, the flight of a bird, a flower in bloom, the dry leaf crumbling to dust, the flow of a river, the rising of the moon, a silhouette of a mountain against the sky. And as you do this the hard, protective shell around your heart will soften and melt and your heart will come alive in sensitivity and responsiveness. The darkness in your eyes will be dispelled and your vision will become clear and penetrating, and you will know at last what love is.
There is so much in this world for us to love if we could but just see it. We don't have a magic mirror so we have, instead, to make the effort ourselves - to keep in contact with those whom we love and yet who we are separated from. Within our lives there are many elements of pantomime; larger than life characters, things that maybe we would wish are behind us. maybe there are even beastes or wicked sorceresses and worst still we may be harbouring our own beasts within us. May we have the grace to recognise and know it. May we all be blessed with the foresight to recognise the love that exists in our world and know that love truly can change everything.
So may it be.