I have a major problem when it comes to plotting a play - shortage of ideas. Not always, but enough to be a rather obvious drawback, and not a good thing in a writer. However, I have discovered that if you use a story or play that was written long enough ago, or even the life of a real person, the problem can be solved. Which is why I’ve done a modern version of Rashomon, new versions of The Snow Queen and A Christmas Carol for children, an adaptation of Cold Comfort Farm, plus plays about Cinderella, Joseph, the landlady of someone who might be Jack the Ripper, and the executioner of Joan of Arc. I have plans for Matthew Lewis’s sensational The Monk, and Eva Braun, Lizzie Borden and Ed Gein are on the back burner (I do like a touch of the macabre). Of course I’ve written plays which are entirely my own invention, but I really like taking an old theme and re-working it.
I saw Maeterlinck’s Bluebird at Birmingham’s Old Repertory Theatre when I was a girl (Trivia - a woman who was in it, also as a girl, is now, fifty years and two hundred miles later, a good friend. Strange are the ways ... ), and it stayed at the back of my mind until now, when I suddenly thought I’d like to have a go at it. It doesn’t get performed very often nowadays - and on reading, one can see why - but I managed to get hold of two filmed versions to see what others have done with it.
The story is about two children called Tyltyl and Mytyl (everyone seems to be called Tyl something) who go on a quest for the Bluebird of Happiness. They take with them personifications of the Dog, the Cat, Fire, Water, Bread, Milk and Sugar, and are guided by Light. They visit the Land of Memory, the Palace of Night, the Wood, the Palace of Luxury and the Kingdom of the Future, and finally return home empty-handed, having learned life lessons on the way. But guess where the bluebird was all the time.
The first film I watched was directed by George Cukor and starred Elizabeth Taylor, quite a few big names and various Russians. It ran into a great deal of trouble during filming, mainly because one side was Russian and one side was American and neither could understand the other. Not a good start.
If you want a film that’s suitable for children, this would probably fit the bill, but if you’re looking for something magical and metaphysical (which was the original intention - Maeterlinck was a student of Swedenborg), this isn’t it. I do remember enjoying the play a great deal when I saw it, but age brings wisdom and I think now that Maeterlinck may have known his stuff when it came to philosophy - and there is an interesting treatise on the symbolism of The Bluebird by Henry Rose available online - but he wasn’t terribly good at constructing a play. The scenes don’t follow in any coherent order and he has far too many extraneous characters. The whole thing needs tightening up.
Cukor’s film is, frankly, awful and he should be ashamed of himself. All the magic has been wrung out of it, there is no real message and half the characters are redundant (more Maeterlinck’s fault than Cukor’s, to be fair, but it could have been altered). Miss Taylor is woefully badly cast. As the Spirit of Light, you’d expect something a bit ethereal, but Ms Taylor is solidly built. The animal costumes are ludicrous and the sets flat and dull. Half the time it looks like an amateur stage production with a good budget.
However, I found that there was an earlier version made in 1940, directed by Walter Lang and starring Shirley Temple, so when I discovered that a friend had it, I borrowed it. I was amazed. To begin with, Miss Temple is much better than I’d feared. She gives a spirited performance of many moods and carries the film like a true professional. Apart from a small syrupy glitch at the very end, there’s none of the super-sweetness that we have come to associate with her, and at times she is downright nasty.
The film itself is surprisingly good, given what Lang has to work with. It starts in monochrome, then bursts into Technicolor once the journey begins. Unlike Cukor, Lang has resisted the temptation to put animals in animal costumes with visible zips, and relies instead on his actors to portray a dog and a cat. Consequently, they are far more believable. As Olivier famously said to the Method-ising Dustin Hoffman, ‘Dear boy, have you tried acting?’
It’s obvious that some thought has gone into this version, and scenes that in the original are somewhat obscure become clearer. This is greatly helped by the removal of all the household objects, retaining only the Dog and the Cat. In my own version, I have reduced it still further by only having the dog go on the journey while the cat prefers to stay at home. I am a cat-lover and get very tired of these delightful animals constantly being portrayed as the essence of evil, so once you've eliminated that element, there is nothing for the cat to do. My only reservation about Lang’s editing is the omission of the Palace of Night, which is one of my favourite scenes, and I think quite an important one if the children are to learn to conquer fears. There are some lovely vignettes when the various Doors are opened and Terrors are revealed as harmless.
Characters in a play need a journey, during which they will undergo a change, and Lang understands this perfectly. In the original, the children are feeling mildly discontented because they can’t get enough cake, which is hardly a strong premise. Lang has Mytyl as a thoroughly disagreeable and selfish child, who emerges having learned valuable lessons in sharing and caring.
He also uses Light properly, making her luminous by the simple expedient of keeping her in a spotlight. Consequently, when she enters, she brings light with her, as Miss Taylor fails to do. Both films make the mistake of introducing songs, although mercifully, they are few.
The Bluebird is regarded as Miss Temple’s least popular film, but I think, without having seen much of her previous work and relying largely on hearsay, it might be one of her best. The reason others don’t like it seems to be that the role of Mytyl shows her in a bad light - mean, whining, rebellious and thoroughly unpleasant - far removed from her previous sweet girly roles. She was also doing the unforgivable - growing up - which doesn’t seem to have gone down at all well with those who loved her just the way she was.
The thought that occurs to me after all the study is, ‘Given an imaginative director, with all the modern resources (CGI, 3-D, etc) at his/her command, isn’t The Bluebird due for a remake?’