The Dark History of The Nutcracker

By Pei-San Brown, Community Education Director

Many of us take for granted the sweet, snowy concoction that we call The Nutcracker ballet. Yet, few know that the ballet actually has a very dark origin.

200 Years Ago

Almost 200 years ago, a German writer named E.T.A. Hoffman published a book called The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Hoffman was an author that liked to write spooky stories that crossed the border between reality and fantasy. In his stories, inanimate objects would come alive and the imagination would run wild. The original tale of The Nutcracker has been described as bizarre and dramatic, very much like the tales from the Brothers Grimm. In fact, Hoffman’s 1816 story was written around the same time as the Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales.

E.T.A Hoffman, Author

E.T.A Hoffman, Author

One of the largest differences between the Hoffman tale and the ballet we see on most stages today is the missing story within a story, or as Hoffman named it, “The Story of the Hard Nut.” In Hoffman’s Nutcracker, Marie (or Clara as she is known in some versions today) wakes up in her bed after the battle with the mice. She is not feeling well. Her Godfather Drosselmeyer tells her the following story about her beloved toy, the nutcracker, to make her feel better.

Maurice Sendak's illustration of The Story of the Hard Nut

Maurice Sendak’s illustration of The Story of the Hard Nut

The tale within a tale centers on Princess Pirlipat and her family and the feud they have with a family of mice that lives in the palace. The mice offend the king and are driven from the palace, but not before they threaten the princess’ life and then actually turn her from a beautiful baby into a gruesome nutcracker. The court wizard, who coincidentally is also named Drosselmeyer, is tasked with curing the princess. In consultation with the court astronomer, Drosselmeyer discovers that the cure is for the princess to eat the sweet kernel of the nut Krakatuk, and that this hard nut would have to be cracked in the presence of the princess by the teeth of a young man who had never shaved nor worn boots. After cracking the nut, the young man would have to hand her the kernel with his eyes closed and take seven steps backwards without stumbling.

Maurice Sendak’s illustration of Princess Pirlipat

Maurice Sendak’s illustration of Princess Pirlipat

For 15 years, the wizard and astronomer traveled the world in search of the nut Krakatuk. They eventually find the nut in Drosselmeyer’s native city of Nuremberg, and in, of all places, his own cousin’s house. It also turns out that the cousin’s own son is the young man who is to crack the nut. Drossselmeyer, the astronomer, and Drosselmeyer’s nephew speed back to the castle, the young man cracks the nut and the princess becomes a beautiful girl again. However, before the nephew can take seven steps back, he stumbles over the Mouse Queen, who has returned to prevent the princess’ transformation back into a human. This time it is the young man who is cursed and becomes a nutcracker. The astronomer predicts that the nutcracker will become a human again when he kills the Mouse King. And that is The Story of The Hard Nut.

Maurice Sendak’s illustration

Maurice Sendak’s illustration

Modern Times

Approximately three decades later after Hoffman penned his Nutcracker, Alexandre Dumas, the author famous for writing The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo wrote The Nutcracker of Nuremberg, a French adaptation of Hoffman’s book, simplifying the storyline and making it much lighter and sweeter. This revised story was the basis for the libretto of the original ballet version of The Nutcracker with choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, and with music by Peter Tchaikovsky. The Dumas adaptation is also most like the children’s tale we see performed Nutcracker ballets of today.

Photo from the original Nutcracker ballet (1892), St. Petersburg, Russia

Photo from the original Nutcracker ballet (1892), St. Petersburg, Russia

Are you ready to see the Stephen Mills’ version? Purchase your tickets today and compare today’s tale of The Nutcracker to it’s dark past!

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Ballet Austin

About Ballet Austin

Ballet Austin is a professional dance company which also offers professional classical ballet training and instruction through the Ballet Austin Academy, which is one of the largest in the U.S. We're committed to providing the highest quality dance instruction to students, and currently the Academy has more than 800 students. Ballet Austin's Butler Center for Dance & Fitness offers classes for all ages and skill levels. And our state-of-the-art Pilates Center is open 7 days a week and gives clients personalized training with one of the top voted instructors in Austin. Dance and fitness workshops are also available, as well as adult workshops and summer kids camps.

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