I went to the theatre last weekend. It wasn’t easy. Our journey involved ferries, buses, Sky Train, a taxi and lots of shoe leather. We went because a relative of mine had a lead role, and I always encourage my family members, especially in artistic endeavours.
The play was “Into the Woods.” It’s a musical with words and music by Stephen Sondheim. The plot (?) is a mishmash of fairy tales. We had Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Bean Stock, Rapunzel and a cameo appearance of Sleeping Beauty and the Three Little Pigs, and a very odd cow. And, or course, there was a witch — and giants.
By the end of a long first act, Cinderella had gone off with her prince. Rapunzel had escaped the tower. Jack had climbed the beanstalk, found a goose that laid the golden egg and cut down the beanstalk, killing the giant. Little Red Riding Hood had found her grandmother, killed the wolf and now wore his skin as a new cloak. The baker and his wife had fulfilled their quest and and the witch had lost her powers. The story had reached the Happily Ever After point. The music played like a finale and I wondered if there was mistake in the programme. Surely, the play was over.
But wait — there was a second act. These scenes concerned what happened after happily ever after. In Act II we learned that Rapunzel had only escaped one prison to end up in another. Jack and his mother still did not get along even though the goose kept them supplied with funds. The longed for baby cried a lot and his parents argued about who should take care of him. Finally, the Prince turned out to be a faithless husband. When Cinderella called him out, he remarked that he’d “been made charming, not sincere.”
What’s more, the slain giant’s wife now stalked the village, bent on revenge. Several principle characters died. At the beginning of the play the voice-over warned of violence and death in the upcoming production but I wasn’t worried. Fairy tales are usually violent. The innocent suffer, then the villains are killed. It is standard stuff. I was surprised when my relative’s character met an untimely end. 😲
Act II, after the HEA, showed the characters learning life lessons. They grew in self-knowledge, in power and purpose. They faced the consequences of their decisions. They had left the world of childhood behind.
In romance, HEA is the normal ending of a story. It’s what readers expect. It’s what successful writers deliver. But what if we didn’t stop there?
Some authors add an epilogue to confirm the HEA. Some, like Gone With the Wind, destroy the HEA, so not a romance in the modern sense of the genre. Some may start the story after an arranged marriage, so we have the wedding, (happy moment) but we still have to get the characters to fall in love with each other in order to achieve a true “happily ever after.”
The play was thought-provoking both on a moral basis and as an example of story craft. It made me think beyond the HEA that is the standard in our genre.
I still won’t kill off the heroine at the end of the book, but I can push my characters to grow before the HEA. if I demand that they put away childish thinking, that they give up harmful beliefs, that they suffer the consequences of bad decisions, while still seeking romantic love, then the reward of a happy ending will be all the stronger.
Into the Woods was great fun. I laughed a lot. I loved seeing my great-niece on stage. It also made me consider just what constitutes a happy ending and how to make it better.