Wonderland revisited

Article by Adrian Mourby

Who would have thought the adventures of a small, middle-class Victorian girl would still captivate and enchant us nearly 150 years after they were dreamed up by a shy young mathematics tutor at Christ Church, Oxford? And yet here we are again: after countless adaptations for stage and page, a hundred songs and a thousand pictures inspired by Alice’s encounters in Wonderland and beyond the looking-glass, Holland Park will this summer create a newly-minted version in its world premiere of the opera commissioned from Will Todd, a composer whose most recent high-profile work was a commission (The Call of Wisdom) for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee service at St Paul’s last year.

But what is this addiction we feel to Alice? She meets a series of eccentrics in two books – underground in the 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and beyond a mirror in Through the Looking Glass (1871). Her “adventures” are really passive encounters: Alice is forever coming across people who order her about or try to enlist her help or berate or insult her. She drifts or is dragged hither and yon and only rarely takes control. Both adventures end with Alice waking up from a dream; in the second she wonders whether all life isn’t actually a dream, whether she herself is being dreamed by the sleeping Red King…

The movies were quick to pounce on the stories and glory in this world beyond the everyday, something the dream factory has always loved to do. Between 1903 and 1915 there were at least three silent versions, and the first ‘talkie’ was released in 1933. A TV version was made early as 1937 – a time when very few Americans had even seen a TV.

After the Second World War came the first stop-motion Alice in Wonderland (1949), quickly followed by Disney’s cute animated classic of 1951, which replaced Sir John Tenniel’s visual world with something wholly cosy and unthreatening. Zany rather than riven with subversive logic, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland did at least demonstrate one reason why the books appealed to dramatists: Carroll’s episodic narratives are perfect vehicles for one star turn after another.

Disney also confirmed another tendency among Alice adaptations: it stuck to the Wonderland narrative but filched from Through the Looking Glass both Tweedledum and Tweedledee and the Walrus and the Carpenter, two classic comic turns: most adaptations of Alice have been a pick-and-mix of personal favourites.

But we were slow to find deeper meanings in Alice. For over a century the books were looked upon as perfectly harmless, with nothing subversive about them. It wasn’t until 1966 that Jonathan Miller offered us an alternative view when he directed an Alice for the BBC without animal heads or magic, and with camera work that recalled both Lewis Carroll’s own (pre-Tenniel) illustrations and the Victorian photography of Julia Margaret Cameron. Miller’s Alice in Wonderland exploited the absurdity of the adults Alice encounters to lambast Victorian society, Church and Empire, turning the directorial spotlight on the time in which the work was created. He also summed up one of the enduring appeals of the stories when he described Carroll’s books as essays in the “the melancholy catastrophe of reaching adult life”. Following Miller, the past 50 years have seen a plethora of innovative Alices in operas and ballets, comic books and statues.

For every version like the one by Hanna-Barbera – the US animation studio that brought us Alice in Wonderland (or What’s a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?) with a Doris Day lookalike Alice in pink (1966) – there have been animations that that dwelt on darker aspects. In 1981 the Soviet Kiev Animation Studios brought out a cartoon serial Alisa which emphasised the infinite, labyrinthine nature of the world Alice has pertly tumbled into. In 1988 the Czech stop-motion animator Jan Švankmajer went further, combining a real-life Alice with animation in the very dark Nĕco z Alenky (Something from Alice). Here our heroine disappears through a desk drawer into a world where she is persecuted by a very vicious-looking White Rabbit and his team of animated skeletons. We sometimes forget that many Alice episodes with their cruelty, bizarre logic, shape-shifting and moments of vertigo come close to the nightmarish.

Mainstream cinema continued to spawn movies in which each encounter gave a star a colourful cameo. In 1972, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was a traditional musical adaptation that owed much to Tenniel’s drawings and Disney’s pastel palette and which featured Fiona Fullerton as Alice with a regular variety show of thespians putting in a day or two at Pinewood Studios. Prominent among these were Michael Crawford (White Rabbit), Ralph Richardson (Caterpillar), Robert Helpmann (Mad Hatter), Peter Sellers (March Hare), Dennis Price (King of Hearts), Roy Kinnear (Cheshire Cat), Spike Milligan (Gryphon) and Michael Hordern (Mock Turtle). The music by John Barry contained a wistful song, ‘The Me I Never Knew’, that recalled Jonathan Miller’s “melancholy catastrophe”.

An almost identical exercise, albeit with more borrowings from Looking Glass, was carried out in the US in 1985. This Alice in Wonderland starred Red Buttons (White Rabbit), Sammy Davis Jr (Caterpillar), Anthony Newley (Mad Hatter), Roddy McDowall (March Hare), Robert Morley (King of Hearts), Sid Caesar (Gryphon), Ringo Starr (Mock Turtle), and Telly Savalas (Cheshire Cat), as well as mind-boggling cameos from Shelley Winters as the Dodo, Ernest Borgnine as the Lion, Beau Bridges as the Unicorn and Karl Malden as the Walrus.

But Alice should be more than a series of zany star turns. Alice’s adventures can be anything a film-maker wants them to be. Dreamchild (1985), written by Dennis Potter, focused on a now-old Alice Liddell (Coral Browne) recalling her relationship with Lewis Carroll (Ian Holm). Old and plagued by guilt, Alice begins to hallucinate, seeing the characters Carroll created for her as grotesque, decrepit versions of themselves (designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop). She joins a worryingly Mad Hatter and March Hare at a tea-party where they scorn her for being so old and forgetful. Eventually her fantasies spin off into a reconciliation with the Lewis Carroll figure in the presence of the Mock Turtle and Gryphon.

In 1977 Terry Gilliam spun a medieval comedy-drama solely out of Jabberwocky, the seven-verse narrative poem that Alice discovers printed in mirror-writing in Through the Looking-Glass. Michael Palin played the man who slays the Jabberwock, a creature based closely on Tenniel’s illustration.

More recently Tim Burton created (for Disney, again) a wholly new narrative that explained to an older Alice (Mia Wasikowska) that all her childhood adventures were in fact true and that she was needed back in Underland (the correct name for Wonderland) where the Red Queen’s Jabberwock must be slain so that the White Queen can be restored to power. Star turns came from Michael Sheen (White Rabbit), Alan Rickman (Caterpillar), Johnny Depp (Mad Hatter), Paul Whitehouse (March Hare), Helena Bonham-Carter (Red Queen), Anne Hathaway (White Queen) and Stephen Fry (Cheshire Cat). Wasikowska likened the atmosphere to Jan Švankmajer’s Alice: “When we were kids, we wouldn’t really understand it but we couldn’t look away because it was too intriguing. So I had kept that feeling about Alice, a kind of haunting feeling.”

Over the years that haunted quality has come out in many of the illustrated editions that have become works of art in their own right. Arthur Rackham’s Alice in Wonderland (1907), Mervyn Peake’s Wonderland and Looking Glass (1954) and Peter Blake’s Alice Through the Looking Glass (1970) all add something slightly disturbing to the Alice portfolio. Rackham placed his Alice in a pale and washed-out landscape; here trees are lifeless and a six-foot white rabbit is truly intimidating. Mervyn Peake’s black-and-white line drawings bring out the madness in the eyes of the Hatter and a very determined White Rabbit while Peter Blake’s Hatter, White Knight, Humpty and Alice are all captured in silent moments of self-absorption, and Tweedledum in hotpants is completely beside himself with rage.

Musical performances based on Alice’s adventures date back to 1886 in a musical performed at the Prince of Wales Theatre. This Alice in Wonderland had a book by H. Saville Clark and music by Walter Slaughter. In 1932 Eva Le Galienne adapted both stories into a musical performed at New York’s Civic Repertory Theatre with songs by Richard Addinsell and some very Tenniel designs. (50 years later, PBS restaged this for TV production with Kate Burton as Alice opposite her father Richard as the White Knight whose pantomime horse danced beside him as he sang.)

Jefferson Airplane’s iconic 1967 single ‘White Rabbit’ placed Alice at the centre of an acid trip with the Dormouse very much a child of the time: “Remember what the Dormouse said: Feed your head…” In 1992 Paul Schmidt wrote a play Alice to which Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan added songs. The premiere was given in Hamburg and 10 years later Tom Waits released the music as an album, also called Alice. This dramatization drew on both books but also invented scenes between Lewis Carroll, the young Alice Liddell and an adult Alice Liddell to frame the story.

There have been a number of operas and ballets based on Alice too. In 1995 Mexican composer Federico Ibarra premiered his Alicia at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, and in 2011 the Royal Ballet in London performed Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Christopher Wheeldon and Nicholas Wright. As ever, Alice encountered a cast of extraordinary characters including some dancing playing cards, a sinuous caterpillar and a tap-dancing Mad Hatter. The ballet brought out some of the darker undercurrents in the story – a nightmarish kitchen, an eerily disembodied Cheshire Cat and an unhinged tea party – but Wheeldon and Wright also introduced a love narrative for Alice and the Knave of Hearts, who dance a pas de deux at the close of Act 2.

More operas and ballets have followed: Alice in Wonderland (2007) was the first opera by Korean composer Unsuk Chin, who co-wrote an English libretto with the playwright David Henry Hwang. Chin’s glittering, mysterious soundworld captured the unearthly aspects of Alice. In 2011 John Craton’s ballet Through the Looking-Glass premiered in Indiana with a list of dancing characters that included Alice’s Kitten, Humpty Dumpty, the Jabberwock, both Tweedles and many chess pieces.

Will Todd’s new opera Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2013) is the latest to create a new narrative out of Carroll’s two books. The familiar characters are all there – White Rabbit, Caterpillar, Mad Hatter, March Hare, Cheshire Cat and Duchess from Wonderland, and White Knight, Tweedledum and Tweedledee and Humpty Dumpty from Looking Glass, but the authors have created a quest for Alice: our heroine has to rescue all the eccentrics she meets and (sometimes grudgingly) befriends from the mad and dangerous Queen of Hearts. “If that recalls the Burton movie at all,” says Todd, “it’s a complete coincidence! We [Todd and his librettist Maggie Gottlieb] came up with the storyline before we’d seen the film. And the resemblance is only very superficial; ours is way more fun!”

Fun, scary, psychoanalytical, nightmarish, hallucinogenic, jaunty, historical, fantastic, critical: Alice is what we make of her. Every age reinvents her, no doubt in the image of our passing views of childhood, adulthood and the transitions and relationships between them. This Wonderland, with its colours and shapes and illogic and limitless invention and mad characters, is somewhere we can project and focus our own hopes and fears. It is various, mysterious, marvellous, joyous and terrifying – and beyond our wildest imaginings. But then, so is the world. And that’s what it’s all about.

Adrian Mourby is a freelance writer and producer. He has written four novels and broadcasts occasionally on Radio 3. In 2014 will be working as dramaturg at the Vienna State Opera. His very first production as a teenager was a tape and slide dramatization of Alice in Wonderland