Friday, September 23, 2016

Theater: Catastrophic Theatre To Stage World Premiere of Donald Barthelme's "Snow White"

We don't know many people who've read the whole of Donald Barthelme's 1967 post-modernist take on Snow White. For those who have it certainly leaves it's mark. Even after having read hundreds (no exaggeration) of short story and novel retellings the fairy tale, or an aspect of it, Snow White has never been quite the same since closing the cover on Barthelme's novel.

It's not your typical retelling, that is certain. Don't expect magical circumstances and wonder here, but it is landmarked for good reason, despite often disturbing the reader. While experimental, it's one of the first inversions written of Snow White, changing people's perspective on the tale in a way that hadn't been done before.

If you're not familiar with the novel, you can get an idea from the back cover of one of the original publishings, (see at right), and if you're curious to learn more about it before delving into the novel yourself, I recommend this short commentary on Barthelme's Snow White and the post-modernist movement HERE. Here's a taste of the short essay:
"...resistant to anything as bourgeois as a narrative structure, Snow White is composed of dozens of brief vignettes designed to force the reader to engage the text as a text. Thus, Snow White becomes not simply a retelling of the classic fairy tale, it also serves as a commentary on the fairy tale and its structuralist elements. "

It turns out Barthelme always imagined his novel as a play. In fact, he wrote a stage adaptation that was never released to the public, and it's this script that is being premiered by Catastrophic Theatre during their 2016-17 season. It's unfortunate that Barthelme, who passed away in 1989, never got to see his vision performed.

Here's the description of the play (which, it should be noted, will have variations from the novel):
Donald Barthelme's Snow White is tired of being "just a horsewife" to Bill, Dan, Edward, Hubert, Henry, Clem and Kevin, who, in her estimation 'only add up to the equivalent of about two real men.' While they tend to their commercial real estate properties and manufacture exotic high-end baby foods, she spends her days reading Mao Tse Tung, drinking vodka with and impatiently waiting for the prince promised to her by history. But her imagination is stirring...
And from MATCH (where you can get a list of performance dates and times), there's some nice background we think is worth including:
Book cover from the OUABlog library
When Barthelme’s novel was published in 1966, critical response was a mixture of enthusiasm, admiration and puzzlement. Writing in Life magazine, Webster Schott called Barthelme "the most perversely gifted writer in the United States. . . . Snow White has everything, including William Burroughs cut ups, words posing as paintings, ribald social commentary, crazy esthetic experiments, and comedy that smashes.” Jack Kroll, in Newsweek, called Barthelme a “splendid writer who knows how to turn spiritual dilemmas into logic, and how to turn that logic into comedy which is the true wised-up story of our time.” Beyond its formal radicalism and experimental language, the book is a funny-sad meditation on the promises and disappointments of love, a topographical map of what one critic called “the cratered landscape of the broken heart.” 
Barthelme adapted his novel for the stage in 1974 and it has only seen the light of day once, in a very small, invite-only reading at The Alley Theatre. It has never been fully produced. Working from Barthelme's original manuscript, notes and revisions, Catastrophic Theatre will present the world premiere of the author's own stage adaptation of Snow White. In conjunction with Brazos Books and Inprint, a public reading of the play will be given at Brazos Books on November 9, 2016.
Barthelme's Snow White will play at the the MATCH in Midtown, Houston (TX), from April 7th to 29th, 2017.


  1. Hey! In an article Of this same blog You said you saw the Snow White story in a different way than most of people. Could u explain? I'm sure your POV is very interesting...

  2. Thank you for asking. I hope one day to do a proper blog post on it, although that would mean it would have to be a slow fairy tale news week - something haven't seen yet...
    To put it exceedingly briefly: I was introduced to Snow White very young and the version I knew included the Grimm detail that she was seven years old - not much older than me at the time. Seeing myself close to her age, I saw her as a survivor (her mother tried to kill her - repeatedly!), brave (fleeing the huntsman alone and making it through a dangerous forest for a whole day), resourceful (she bargained to stay in the dwarfs house), and a hard worker (she earned her keep with the dwarfs, spending most of her days alone) who kept her spirits and hope, alive and strong, despite every reason to give up. She made a home under completely different circumstances than she was used to, and became part of a new family. My impression of the queen crossing "over the seven mountains" was that it was a very long way, and that likely many months, if not years, passed between incidents, under which circumstances Snow might very well be tricked more than once. I also had the strong impression that Snow White had an affinity for animals (she is mourned by them in the later Grim versions) and the dwarfs were more "of the earth" and natural forest folk than regular humans. (If you know animal people, you know they're... more 'wild' than regular folk, often with a touch of an uncanny sense regarding natural things.) To make such connections was unique, a gift. Her lack of deterioration or decay I saw as an indication of this natural connection too - as if she were resisting a death spell, hibernating, waiting for the right time to emerge from dreaming. That iron shoes were ordered for the wicked queen to dance in, (after she'd been invited to the wedding) proved to me (as a child) that the mettle Snow had shown in being resourceful and surviving even at seven, was still alive and strong in her after marrying. She wasn't a woman, or queen, to underestimate and she finally had the elements of success together: skills, strength, smarts and the position to wield power. (It also showed me she was vulnerable to vice, but that's another story...)
    As a five, seven. nine, twelve years old, I wished I had the tenacity, bravery, positivity and stickability that Snow White had, to overcome her (sucky) circumstances. I wanted to survive my own with the same grace and become my own person, creating my own - better - circumstances instead of having them dictated to me. Though these were initially my impressions as a child, they've stayed with me and developed even more.
    I hope that gives you some idea of my perspective and why I'm drawn to it.

    1. I would love to see a post where you expand on this!!!