Charm of the devil
True fairy tales have such resonance because they have distilled into emblematic form the power of all the emotional conflicts of the family circle. One of these, dramatised in "Beauty and the Beast", occurs when a daughter detaches herself from her father's love and allies herself with another man.
Of course that is not all there is to "Beauty and the Beast", but it is the core of it. Beauty's father reluctantly hands her over to the Beast; Beauty, originally frightened and repulsed, grows fond of the Beast who, despite his rough ways, treats her gently; when she agrees to marry him, the Beast turns out to be a handsome man, freed from a spell by her purifying love.
Like most fairly tales, "Beauty and the Beast" is essentially a drama of transformation. Beauty is transformed as truly as the Beast, for she starts the story as Daddy's girl, and through her mastery of the Beast's erotic threat she ends it as her own woman.
Though "Beauty and the Beast" has deep roots in oral folklore, the story as we know it depends on essentially literary sources from the mid-18th century. At that period, the success of Perrault had made fairy tales France's most fashionable literary form. Mme Gabrielle Susanne Barbot de Gallon de Villeneuve turned the old folktale into a novel-length narrative, and in 1756 Mme Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont shortened and sharpened this into "Beauty and the Beast" as we know it today. An English translation, apparently by Mme de Beaumont herself, appeared in The Young Misses Magazine in 1761, and since then the tale has been among the best-known and best-loved of all fairy stories.
Mme de Beaumont's tale is so powerfully told that it quickly imposed itself on the folk culture in which it had its roots. Many orally collected variants of "Beauty and the Beast" reveal trace elements from Mme de Beaumont's narrative. It has infiltrated our culture at many levels, filmed by both Cocteau and Disney, squabbled over by Jungians and Freudians, and darkened for adults by writers such as Angela Carter.
As a folktale, "Beauty and the Beast" is a variant of the widespread tale type know as the "The Search for the Lost Husband". There are 14 distinct forms of this complex tale type, of which "Beauty and the Beast" is but one.
Another, also familiar from a literary source, is the tale of Cupid and Psyche from The Golden Ass of Apuleius. The story of a girl married against her will to a monster or animal, whom she redeems to human form by her courage and steadfastness, has had enduring appeal over many centuries. Cynics may say that this is simply the story of every marriage.
English-language versions include one of my favourite English folktales, "The Small-Tooth Dog", collected in Norton, Derbyshire, by Sidney Oldall Addy in the 1890s. In this, a merchant travelling the world is attacked by thieves, but saved by a large dog. The merchant asks the dog what he will accept as a reward: a fish that can speak 12 languages? A goose that lays golden eggs? A magic mirror in which you can see what anybody is thinking? The dog refuses them all, and demands the merchant's daughter. The daughter is duly delivered to the dog's house, but is homesick. She cajoles the dog into letting her visit her father, by entreating him with the name "Sweet-as-a honeycomb". But when she is in reach of home, she lets her real feelings show, reviling him as "A great, foul, small-tooth dog". By the end, the girl, like Beauty, takes pity on the beast. When she calls him "Sweeter-than-a-honeycomb" and really means it, "He suddenly stood up on his hind legs, and with his fore legs he pulled off his dog's head and tossed it high in the air. His hairy coat dropped off, and there stood the handsomest young man in the world, with the finest and smallest teeth you ever saw."
In a version such as this, both the realism and the symbolism of Mme de Beaumont's tale have dropped away, leaving only the essential structure of the story. As with all fairy tales, that structure is made of images, strung together like beads on a necklace. The dance from image to image is as compelling and fraught as a dream.
The beast may take many forms, from the unseen Cupid to a rusty old stove. But it is arguable that Mme de Villeneuve, in forsaking the specificness of folk tradition in which the monster might be a pig, or a snake, a bull, or a frog, struck a deeper note in the creation of her Beast - neither animal nor human, both something strange and other out of your worst nightmare. When the merchant in de Villeneuve's story begs the Beast for mercy, and calls him "my Lord", the Beast angrily replies, "Hold your tongue, you prating fool. I don't care for your flattery, nor for the titles you bestow on me. I'm not 'my Lord'. I am the Beast, and you won't escape the death you deserve."
The dual nature of the Beast is one of the crucial elements of "Beauty and the Beast". He saves the merchant, then bullies him; demands Beauty, and then treats her with kindness and respect. The Beast's rough masculinity is a constant threat to Beauty's virginal innocence. Yet it is Beauty who is strong, and the Beast who is weak.
The undercurrents of sexuality in "Beauty and the Beast" are very powerful - even more so in de Villeneuve's version, where Beauty actually goes to bed with the Beast, and wakes to find him transformed into the man of her dreams in the morning.
Director Laurence Boswell has, unusually, gone right back to de Villeneuve for his imaginative and energetic staging of the story at the Young Vic. He sees the story, he told me, as "a young girl's rite of passage". What's more, "the core of it, emotionally and psychologically, is the relationship between the father and the daughter."
At the start of the tale, Beauty and her family are living a comfortable, ordinary life. This cosy world is threatened when the father's business collapses, and he must leave them to try to rescue his fortunes. The older sisters, unheeding, ask to be brought back presents that money can buy, but Beauty intuitively asks for something different: a single rose. (In an English gypsy version, she asks for "a penny-worth of sorrow and love".) This seemingly simple request catapults the family from the mundane world into the magical one. It takes us to the palace of the Beast, a wonderland of the subconscious in which Beauty must, in Laurence Boswell's words, "journey from virginity to womanhood". When the magic is reversed, and Beast becomes man, the journey is finished.
Boswell describes his production as "a fairy-tale thriller", and certainly his beast is a creature as threatening and as pitiful as a Picasso minotaur. When I asked him what he most wanted children to take away from the theatre, he replied, "that Beauty is a very brave girl - she is brave in trusting her intuition". This is the essential, irreducible core of his drama.
But there is also something less defined, which some of his audience will pick up and some will not. De Villeneuve's story includes a good witch who guides Beauty's intuition through a series of dreams. In Laurence Boswell's production, this witch is played by the same actress who earlier appears as Beauty's mother, who dies when Beauty is five. This doubling of parts is forced by the nature of the production, in which eight actors must share all the roles, but there is a deep fairy-tale rightness to it.
In many fairy tales - "Cinderella" is the obvious example - the heroine's deceased mother returns to aid her. Laurence Boswell's play is to my knowledge the first to bring out this powerful underlying theme in "Beauty and the Beast", balancing the father who wants to keep his daughter a child against the mother who wants to enable her to become a woman.
"Beauty and the Beast" has been staged many times since the production of "Beauty and the Beast or, the Magic Rose" at the Royal Coburg Theatre in 1819. A version based on the Disney film is coming to the West End stage next year. This year, the Theatre Royal Stratford East is staging it as a "real" pantomime in a new version written by David Cregan and Brian Protheroe. The publicity describes it enticingly as "a steaming, storming corker stuffed with wicked one-liners, feisty fairies, a handsome prince,a daring heroine and two of the unsightliest money-grabbing, good-for-nothing broads who've ever trod the boards."
Each new staging of a fairy tale, like each new oral telling, reveals a new way of understanding the story. The best can show us, in the fairy tale's secret language of images, a new way of understanding ourselves.
The Young Vic, London, until February 1. Tickets: 0171 928 6363. Laurence Boswell's script is published by Nick Hern Books (Pounds 6.99) Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, from December 2 to January 25.
Tickets: 0181 534 0310.
The versions by Mme de Villeneuve and Mme de Beaumont are both in Jack Zipes Beauties, Beasts and Enchantments (Penguin Pounds 9.99).