The Mysterious Space Between Metaphor and Reality, January 2016

Spoiler alert – This blog discusses the plot of Baddies: The Musical, and gives away the ending!

Over the Christmas period I saw the show ‘Baddies: The Musical’, staged at the Unicorn Theatre in London. The plot involves five baddies from classic children’s literature who have been mysteriously taken from their stories and sent to jail, as it turns out by Peter Pan and Cinderella who want to remodel them for a generation that wants everyone in stories to be nice and not only endings, but beginnings and middles, to be happy. The baddies – Captain Hook, Rumpelstiltskin, the ugly sisters and the big, bad wolf – resist this, arguing that you can’t have goodies without baddies and that stories that are nice all the way through are boring. The drama is heightened by the presence of the Snuffalo, a baddie’s baddie that has been given a makeover by Peter and Cinders to make it the Fluffalo, but as a result has become even worse behind the scenes, so much so that the goodies are proposing to give it Rumpelstiltskin to satisfy its craving for flesh.

The play can be seen and enjoyed as a piece of nonsense theatre that is not meant to relate to the real world. But it can also be seen as an extended metaphor, which is something like, the political correctness & health-and-safety-gone-mad brigade are trying to eliminate risk and adventure, which actually impoverishes children’s lives rather than enhances them. In addition, in the way it was staged by the Unicorn, with the big, bad wolf being dressed as a biker, Captain Hook a charlatan lawyer, the ugly sisters as chavs and Rumpelstiltskin as a punk, an additional element of the metaphor is that the middle-class desire to make things ‘nice’ hides a pernicious attempt to make everyone fit a particular concept of nice that denigrates people who are different from the mainstream and imposes the role of ‘baddie’ on them.

It is an ingenious premise for a show and the production has been well received by audiences and critics alike. Nevertheless, the metaphor doesn’t work in a number of crucial places. The baddies are not just bad in the stories, they are bad in real life. When the wolf joins them in prison, they bully him and victimise Rumpelstiltskin, and when questioned answer that it is important to be true to themselves. But I don’t think we would accept that premise, that it is better to bully if you are a bully because it is important to be yourself. I also don’t think that we would accept that bikers, chavs, lawyers and punks are necessarily bullies in real life even if they are given that role by the media and popular culture.

The baddies do redeem themselves by coming together to fight Peter Pan and Cinderella, who are much worse than bullies, they are attempted murderers. It is possible to argue that those who attempt to homogenise society are responsible for, or at least intend grievous harm, to minorities (as for example the ‘Make America Great Again rhetoric of Donald Trump and Sarah Palin could be seen to). But those people aren’t the same as the PC or health-and-safety-gone-mad brigade. Trump and Palin oppose gun control, which definitely flies in the face of health and safety, and are explicitly anti-PC and implicitly intolerant of other ways of life and non-mainstream culture and people.

So the question is whether this makes the metaphor a bad one? The allied question is whether it undermines how well the metaphor works as an artistic device. Judging by the reaction to the show, the answer would be no to the second question, though it could be that most of the show’s audience don’t examine the metaphor closely and therefore it would undermine the show as an aesthetic experience if they thought about it more carefully.

There is another point of view, however, which is that the fact the metaphor doesn’t fit completely actually enhances it as a artistic device. The space between the metaphor and reality may allow the story to be experienced without feeling that it is overloaded with meaning, yet the meaning is still being intimated to the audience. The negative aspects of PC-ness and health and safety, which can suffocate spontaneity and boundary-pushing, and of homogenisation, which can disguise a tendency to denigrate non-mainstream people and experience, are understood but not hammered home. Like the importance of non-uniformity in visual art or music not having too mechanical a beat, it may be the fact that the metaphor doesn’t entirely work that allows the show to retain its fairytale quality, which is exactly why it works at on an artistic level.

As a writer, the message may be that you shouldn’t try too hard to ‘correct’ a plot to make everything fit a certain idea, but allow it some freedom to follow character even if it sometimes goes against the main theme of the story.

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