Theater 30.2 (2000) 129-143
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The Perverse Delight of Shockheaded Peter
Shockheaded Peter: A Junk Opera by the Tiger Lillies, a three-piece band with a large cult following in London, was inspired by gruesome tales from the most famous German children's book in the world--Der Struwwelpeter (1845), generally called Slovenly Peter in English. Hilariously grotesque though they may seem, the book's verse stories and illustrations, created by a certain Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann, give rise to many disturbing questions: How could they have been intended for children in the nineteenth century? Did some sadist write and illustrate these verse tales? Did the Germans believe in maiming their children to keep them under control? What could have moved the Tiger Lillies, producer Michael Morris of Culture Industry, and directors Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch of Improbable Theatre to adapt this macabre book for the stage? Why have audiences on the junk opera's world tour been so receptive to their ludicrously grim performance? Is this cultural phenomenon just another sign of the sickness of our age? Or does its appeal reflect our desperate, well-intentioned endeavors to manage children in a world unfit for children?
Indeed, the delight in perversity has something paradoxical about it because it actually reflects a deep concern for the welfare of children, and in this regard Hoffmann's book and the company's efforts are historically connected to provocative performance pieces by artists who seek to draw attention to the crazed manner in which adults want to save the young from themselves by destroying their curiosity and adventurous spirits. What may appear to be stereotypical "German" cruelty in Shockheaded Peter is actually a widespread Western pedagogical attitude. What makes the McDermott and Crouch production of Shockheaded Peter different and disturbing is that it heightens Hoffmann's "enlightened" cruelty toward children in such a graphic and sadistic manner that it becomes difficult to laugh at the relentlessly repeated punishments the child puppets are compelled to endure on stage. [End Page 129]
I believe Dr. Hoffmann himself would have been upset by this production, because it carries his dictums to an extreme and exposes what he sought to rationalize. A medical doctor who lived in Frankfurt am Main, Hoffmann had a strong social conscience and was influenced by the revolutionary movements of the 1830s and 1840s. In 1844, he went looking for a suitable children's book as a Christmas present for his three-year-old son, Carl, but the more he looked in the Frankfurt bookshops, the more discouraged he became. The books were too sentimental, didactic, or boring. So he bought a notebook, composed five stories in verse, and sketched pictures in color. When he came to the end of the book, there was an empty page, on which he drew the famous Struwwelpeter and composed his delightful rhyme about the ghastly boy who does not cut his nails or hair and thus is repulsive for all who happen to see him.
See Slovenly Peter!
Here he stands,
With his dirty hair and hands.
See! His nails are never cut;
They are grim'd as black as soot;
No water for many weeks,
Has been near his cheeks;
And the sloven, I declare,
Not once this year has combed his hair!
Anything to me is sweeter
Than to see shock-headed Peter. 1
Hoffmann's friends who happened to read the book encouraged the doctor to have it published before his son--as children are wont to do--ripped it to shreds. The original title was Der Struwwelpeter oder lustige Geschichten und drollige Bilder für Kinder von 3-6 Jahren [Slovenly Peter or amusing tales and droll pictures for children from three to six] by Reimerich Kinderlieb. It contained five tales in rhymed verse. The first edition of fifteen hundred copies was sold out within four weeks. When the second edition was published in 1846, Hoffmann added two more tales and changed his pseudonym to Heinrich Kinderlieb. By the fifth edition in 1850, two more were added, Struwwelpeter's image and ditty...