As longtime ambassador to the land of children’s imagination, Maurice Sendak has conjured visions of places where wild things dwell. He has painted a chimeric culinary skyline where a nude little boy made an airplane from pastry dough and nose-dived into a high-rise pitcher of milk.
Considered the leading visionary of children’s literature, Sendak has illustrated more than 50 books in the past 40 years, including Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, two of the dozen or so he has also penned himself. Yet his work flies in the face of what was considered the proper way to address children. “It’s as though because they’re small, we give them little,” Sendak reasons. “Everything is reduced in size even in intellect and emotion. Yet my own instinct has always told me that children are far more complicated than adults. And so, contrary to public opinion–that the work should be simple and reduced for their meager little minds I think you give them the most complicated works of art, so that you nourish those spirits.” Such is the mission of the Night Kitchen, Sendak’s new children’s theatre company.
Slaying dragonsOrder now
With co-founder Arthur Yorinks, the playwright and author, Sendak plans to commission original work and develop new productions of existing works, including plays, ballets and operas. These productions will be performed throughout the country after they are workshopped at their home base, the State University of New York at Purchase.
Conventional wisdom and esteemed propriety are the dragons that artistic director Sendak hopes to slay with a “fierce honesty” in all his Night Kitchen productions. “Where the Wild Things Are was probably the first book in American publishing in which the little boy has a temper tantrum, yells at his mother and she yells back–and in which it’s okay at the end,” says Sendak of his 1964 classic. “Something as simple-minded as that was brand new. Suddenly, here was a book that has to do with a live child who’s totally obnoxious to his mother, who becomes obnoxious too nobody had ever seen that before.”
Yorinks’s books for young readers had much the same effect: many adults were confused and intimidated. They didn’t seem proper for kids. The subject matter seemed too volatile. In Yorinks’s Lewis the Fish, the title character turns into a fish and stays that way. “People think it’s weird and strange, but kids just love it,” says Yorinks. “Kids are much freer with their thoughts and imagination–they’re much more open.”
The musical Really Rosie, written by Sendak and Carole King in 1978, opened in January at SUNY Purchase as the Night Kitchen’s first production. “The children sat enthralled,” Yorinks declares with obvious pleasure. “Really Rosie is not your average, Annie-like musical. It doesn’t talk down to kids. It’s about sibling rivalry, and it gets into what kids’ lives are really about without the sugar-coating that children’s theatre usually has. And that’s compelling for kids.” The play, which ran for a year Off Broadway after its initial incarnation as an animated feature, deals as well with such grown-up issues as death and creativity.
Like puppetry, children’s theatre is given much more respect in Europe, where these genres are not stigmatized. “America is pretty backwards. American critics don’t take children’s theatre seriously at all, and it stems from the fact that we, as a culture, don’t take children that seriously,” Yorinks says, pointing out that the country’s largest group of impoverished people are its children. “We give them crappy movies and horrible hamburgers, and although we always talk a big game about needing to give them the best, we really don’t.” Echoing these thoughts, Sendak adds, “How many times do you have to read in the newspaper of child abuse? Of children not being educated or the arts programs being eradicated from schools? This is our next generation, and we’re taking everything away from them.”
Peter Pan’s original spirit
Yorinks and Sendak have assembled an impressive roster of contributors. The company’s next production, So Sue Me, a silent comedy of mime and movement, was conceived by clown extraordinaire Bill Irwin. Written and directed by Yorinks, it will run in repertory with Really Rosie at Los Angeles’s Wadsworth Theater May 20-23. Other planned projects include collaborations with Philip Glass and Jerome Robbins on a ballet based on In the Night Kitchen; and Tweedledee and Tweedledum, a new opera by David Del Tredici based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Actors Claire Bloom, Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline have also expressed interest in projects.
The 1993-94 premiere season will be completed with a chamber opera called Hey Al, written by Arthur Yorinks and Peter Schickele and, finally, a new dramatic version of Peter Pan. “Over the years, Peter Pan has gotten this Broadway glitzy-gloss,” suggests Yorinks, citing the recent Steven Speilberg film version, Hook. “What Maurice and I would like to do is get back to the original Peter Pan, the Peter Pan that J. M. Barrie wrote, and unearth some of the original sentiment and the original spirit. Frankly, Peter Pan is a very dark story. It’s really about dying, about death.”
Sendak, who has devoted his life’s work to enriching the lives of children, has never had kids of his own. “Artists,” he says, “are selfish people who are obsessed with their own childhoods.” Showing that he is in good company, Sendak recalls that Beatrix Potter, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear and Kate Greenaway–all children’s writers–were childless.