- Reality by Enchantment
“They also serve who only stand and wait.”—John Milton, “On His Blindness”
What makes us real? Or, better perhaps, what makes us feel real? These questions (are they the same?) surfaced incongruously as I watched the performance of a pure fantasy. It was a gossamer dramatic production by the Enchantment Theatre of Philadelphia.1 Replete with allusions to Commedia dell’arte, Bunraku puppetry, ancient Greek masks of tragedy and comedy, Isadora Duncan-type modern dance, and mime, this production was based on a 1922 children’s classic, The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams. The story, with its uncanny admixture of the tender and the bizarre, had dismayed me in the past, and I recalled having avoided it when selecting books to read aloud to my children at bedtime, a memory that each of them has subsequently confirmed.
Pondering this in the darkened theater on Rutgers University’s Camden campus, I became slowly conscious of a marvel that was occurring: namely, that exposure to a new work of art founded on a former work was awakening in me an unanticipated fascination with the previous work and enticing me to reconsider what I had hitherto laid aside and shunned.
As the performance swirled me away from the here-and-now into resplendent realms adorned with cascading rainbow-colored fabrics and inhabited by masked dancers, larger than life-sized puppets, and miming characters who neither spoke nor sang but were accompanied by a narrative musical tape, a cluster of questions about what it means to be “real” exploded in my head like kernels of popping corn.
Pinocchio, carved affectionately as a marionette from a talking pine log given with great relief to a craftsman named [End Page 585] Geppetto by his friend Antonio in an imaginary Tuscan village, longs to be a real boy. After misadventures galore, both in Carlo (Lorenzini) Collodi’s original tale of 1883, Le Avventure de Pinocchio, and in Walt Disney’s animated film version of 1940—far better known to Americans—the long-nosed puppet finally succeeds and attains his goal. Similarly, the Velveteen Rabbit, title character of Margery Williams’s book, wants to be real. Williams, born in London but later a resident of the United States, published her The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real to instant acclaim, and, like Pinocchio, the story has become a classic of children’s literature and a widely translated perennial favorite.
In Williams’s story, a stuffed toy rabbit eventually ends up scampering with others of his species in the wild. But the protagonists of these two tales become real for very different reasons, reasons that may shed light on how we think we matter in the world, how we feel we become significant, and what we believe is at stake in the processes of growing up. Both stories feature nonhuman title characters that are treated as stand-ins for children. Both stories were written as and have assumed the status of modern fables.
In The Velveteen Rabbit, when a Boy receives a plush Rabbit for Christmas, this Rabbit is placed in the nursery with his other toys, some of which are mechanical and therefore enjoy making believe that—because they can move—they are real. These fancier, more expensive toys mock the soft stationary Rabbit, and in dismay he turns to the wise old Skin Horse, who tells him that how he is made is of no consequence whatsoever. To become real he must be loved. Then, purely by chance, the Boy’s favorite china dog disappears and cannot be found; as a substitute, the Boy takes the Rabbit to bed with him. In time, this bedtime ritual continues, and the Boy grows fond of the Rabbit. He carries it (I have changed pronouns intentionally) with him everywhere. Its plush coat wears thin and discolors, its whiskers rub off, its spots fade away from all the loving to which it is subjected—the dragging, mauling, and cuddling. But the Boy falls ill and succumbs to scarlet fever. Sending him away to recover at the seashore, the family doctor orders the nursery to be disinfected and all germ-infested objects burned. A...