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The Original Nutcracker Story: Tchaikovsky's Ballet vs. Hoffman's Tale

A ballerina on pointe in black and white.

After years of cancelled or postponed in-person cultural events due to Covid-19, I recently had the delight to attend a performance of The Nutcracker put on by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. It couldn’t have happened at a better time as December’s virtual literary salon was on E. T. A. Hoffman’s short story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (1816). Hoffman’s story is rumoured to be the first written account of the story and I was curious how, a writer known for his tales of the supernatural and the macabre, would align with my warm and fuzzy memories of Tchaikovsky’s ballet.

Interestingly, some of the early reviews of the ballet were that it strayed too far from Hoffman’s original tale, leaving audiences confused and dissatisfied.

While both the short story and the ballet begin on Christmas eve and involve a battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, there are many ways in which Tchaikovsky altered Hoffman’s story. Here are a few observations on how the source text differs from the ballet (spoilers ahead).

A copy of E.TA. Hoffman's Nutcracker and Mouse King lays next to a pair of ballet slippers.

1. The young protagonist. In the book, the young protagonist is seven-year-old Marie who is gifted a doll named Fräulein Clärchen (the German version of Clara). This is quite different from the Clara character we get in the ballet who seems older, perhaps around 12, and is older than her brother Fritz (he is the elder sibling in the story). While a ballerina as young as seven may not be practical, forcing directors to make realistic changes to Clara’s age, Tchaikovsky did intend for many children to be in the cast of The Nutcracker.

2. The eerie factor. Hoffman’s story is much darker than the glimpses we see in the ballet. In the short story, the Mouse King has seven heads and blackmails Marie, wreaking havoc in the house. We also get a delightful but scary origin story of how the Nutcracker came to be. This story-within-a-story includes a princess who is cursed and loses her beauty: “The tiny body with its teensy hands and feet could barely carry the shapeless head. The ugliness of the face was increased by a white cotton beard around the mouth and chin” (Hoffman 37). Don’t let this make you believe the story isn’t festive! Hoffman’s balance of real/unreal, light/dark is beautifully done.

3. The second act. In the second half of the ballet, we see a series of solos and pas de deux that highlight different geographic areas. Usually it is Spain, "Arabia", China, and Russia. In Hoffman’s story, we are treated to delightful descriptions of a Candyland-like vision with locations like Rock Candy Meadow, Bonbonville, and Gingerbreadhome on Honey River. While the second half of the ballet is ruled over by the Sugar Plum Fairy, the rest of the literary food references are lost in dance-translation. In fact, I think this is an area the ballet could be improved upon by relying more on Hoffman’s descriptions. Some of the ‘multicultural’ dances come off as stereotypes to a modern-day audience.

4. Was it All a Dream? At the conclusion of the ballet, which takes place over the course of a single night, Clara wakes safe in her bed on Christmas morning having dreamt her adventure with the Nutcracker. In contrast, the king of the uncanny, Hoffman leaves us much more unsure of Marie’s adventures. It is explained to us readers that her night with the Nutcracker has stuck with her, although she has been discouraged from talking about it as if it is real. Until one day, as a young woman, she expresses her love for the Nutcracker saying, “If you were truly alive, I wouldn’t treat you like Princess Pirlipat, scorning you because, for my sake, you stopped being a handsome young man!” (Hoffman 59). Of course, the Nutcracker is really Godfather Drosselmeier’s nephew who has been trapped this entire time—proving Drosselmeier’s tale, and Marie’s experiences, true. Ever grateful to Marie, the two end the story as king and queen in the Marzipan Castle.

At just over 60 pages, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is a short and festive read that many don’t know was the inspiration behind one of the most well-known ballets. The fascinating backstory drafted by Hoffman, combined with the glitter and grace of the ballet, I believe both deserve a place as part of our holiday traditions!

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