Several folk tales have many versions, so that the same story may be known in different countries each of which has its own variations on the theme. This is mainly because of the oral quality of folk tales; their original existence in an oral tradition in which they were passed on through different generations and across different countries by oral transmission. People tell them to each other from memory or with their own emphases, causing them to suffer changes. Sometimes too, they are deliberately edited by the tellers for various reasons, or they are adapted to suit particular cultures.
A very good illustration of this was evident recently when the Sunday Stabroek carried a series of different versions of the Cinderella story from different countries. The range of variants in plot, characters and cultures was amazing, but not surprising, given the nature of folk tales and the oral traditions internationally.
Other changes that have more recently developed in such tales are those that may take place when the tales are adopted for the stage. Apart from playwrights using them for particular artistic purposes, dramatists have often performed them on stage, sometimes adapting and turning them into plays. This is a common happening in pantomimes, and it is what happened when British pantomimes were transformed to grow into the Jamaica Pantomime in 1942. An example of an interesting cultural adaptation was some years later when the Jamaica Pantomime Busha Bluebeard was performed. It turned the English story of Bluebeard, a rich peer who was also a demi-ogre given to routinely marrying a series of women and murdering them, into a Jamaican story in a plantation setting of a white planter, a ‘Busha,’ who did the same thing. The Jamaican version of the Bluebeard story is recorded by Walter Jekyll in Jamaica Song and Story.
The story of Cinderella has also been adapted for the stage, and various Cinderellas exist as plays. Cinderella is the heroine of the archetypal rags to riches story, of a beautiful girl with admirable qualities ill treated by a wicked stepmother, but who ends up marrying a prince, elevated to being a princess and living happily ever after. The name ‘Cinderella’ actually derives from ‘cinders’ because she was always covered in ashes from being forced to work by the kitchen fire or hearth. The name has even found itself in the English language as a ‘person of unrecognized merit or beauty’; thus Guyana’s Essequibo is called the ‘Cinderella county.’
One of these play versions of the famous story was recently performed in Guyana, produced by Neaz Subhan’s Dramatic Arts Academy in collaboration with GT&T and directed by Mahadeo Shivraj. Its title was The Cinderella Story subtitled The Fairy Tale in Comedy written by Michele Vacca. A common expectation would have been that it was a drama for children, since stories like these are largely regarded as children’s entertainment. This production was not necessarily specifically for children since nothing in its notes says so, and in fact it purports to speak to universal human principles like ‘faith,’ ‘karma,’ ‘courage’ and good qualities.
Actually, while we have come to know (or regard) fairy tales as children’s literature there is much evidence that they were not created as such. These tales, many of which may date back to the Middle Ages, reflect the people’s (not children’s) general belief in fairies, goblins, witches, and leprechauns, and the cosmic vision of the times. These include a belief by the populace that kings and aristocrats were superior human beings, against the inferiority of serfs, peasants and the working class. That is reflected in the play by the ridiculous behaviour of Cinderella’s stepmother and sisters driven by the prospects of marriage to a prince. That is why in the story, the best thing that could happen to the heroine to make her a human being was her marriage to the prince. That is why when she appeared at the ball, she was so beautiful, radiant and looking so superior that everyone thought she was a princess.
Neither is that world view alien to the Caribbean, where it is reflected in many of the oral traditions, folk tales and general social attitudes. Cinderella needed no adaptation for normal acceptance. Where these fairy tales are concerned as well, many of them are known to have adult content, which might be edited out, glossed over or passed over.
It is not to be assumed, therefore, that The Cinderella Story – The Fairy Tale in Comedy is a drama for children. Shivraj’s version of it only dimly hinted at the characteristics of children’s drama, and mainly these were not emphasized.
It was a fairly sparse narration of the story with the fairy godmother played by Sonia Yarde assuming a narrative role in addition to looking after the interests of the heroine, played by rising actress Kerrimaria Phang. It was also a sparse stage production. A play like this might usually be presented with grandeur. It might be a musical, which this version is not, despite the music composed and performed by Oliver Basdeo. It was not a musical and there was no grand orchestra. The set had a semblance of grandeur but there was a touch of disappointment in the way a flat similitude of the great royal ballroom had been pasted onto the backdrop. It looked lifeless with its lack of dimension and no people in sight, and no guests at the ball, except for the major characters. There was, however, an attempt at the appropriate spectacle in the sufficiently elaborate costuming and the colour scheme in the set.
What was unmistakable was the performance style. It was a comedy version of Cinderella, revised for humour. There was a heavy use of farce, which was often built into the script so that in spite of the gallant efforts of Rushella Edmondson as the stepmother and her two daughters Keisha Narine and Clemencia Godette, the performance passed from being hilarious to become repetitive. The sisters were disagreeable, selfish and always fighting among themselves, and the actresses faithfully followed that, but they were made to do too much of it so that what should have been delight for the audience turned to monotony.
As is the norm in this kind of drama, the romantic leads are not a part of the farce, they are expected to play straight, not comic, for serious audience sympathy. Kerrimaria Phang and Phillip Chris Gopaul did that, although Gopaul lacked dynamism and princely presence. The actor who played the Baron (not named) was appropriately the victim of the stepmother’s affections, while Yarde and Michael Ignatius had little to do.
One positive element in the presentation of The Cinderella Story was that it was a different kind of activity on the Guyanese stage, since there were times when there were complaints about lack of variety. There was a fear that the local stage had no interest in world theatre, which would be a loss to audiences. The production was another of the occasional partnerships with the private sector as GT&T was again in cooperation with dramatists, this time Subhan, Shivraj and the Dramatic Arts Academy, for some local exposure to a foreign play.