Some thoughts on Barthelme’s Snow White

The stage adaptation of Donald Barthelme’s 1967 novel will have its world première on Friday, in Houston.

Catastrophic Theatre’s production of  Snow White. Photo by Anthony Rathburn.

Snow White

Written by: Donald Darthelme

Adapted and Directed by: Greg Dean

Company: Catastrophic Theatre

Run Dates: Through May 6, 2017


Absolutely possible to be eagerly impressed with a production and yet utterly unmoved by the play. My reaction to Barthelme’s Snow White.

This was the tweet I posted immediately after seeing Catastrophic Theatre’s many years in the making/labor of love/world premiere adaptation of Donald Barthelme 1967 short story, Snow White. While the reaction’s topline came to me easily, its substance did not. Why wasn’t I enamored with the play itself? This re-imagining of Snow White, tethered to her seven sex-obsessed male keepers, unhappy with her domestic situation and snobbishly waiting for the promised prince has many hallmarks of a narrative I should like.  It’s subversive, dark and disturbed. It throws a beloved trope on its ass and it does so with humor. It upends and exposes less than flattering gender roles and behavioral crutches. Plus it has death and sex, thankfully not at the same time. And it’s a play that holds language and the power of words in the highest, albeit unorthodox regard.

And yet, still, I was left cold. So what gives? Turns out, it wasn’t just me asking the question. After my tweet, I heard from more than a couple curious folks urging me to elaborate. Including some involved with the production. So while I hadn’t planned on writing about the show, I feel compelled to at least say something.

It’s taken me a couple days to really think about how I wanted to express myself on this. A review seemed the wrong method. I could easily go on and on about how Greg Dean (the adapter and director of the show) and his team have done wonders bringing this narratively muddy and non sequitur riddled story to life on stage. Through magnificently deviceful and evocative set design, sound, music, costume, lighting and video projection, we are treated with oodles of gloriously clever post-modern mood and atmosphere. From a shower room orgy scene to a mid-show audience survey to a gorgeous umbrella-accompanied New Orleans-style funeral march to angsty phrases projected on a scrim that sits in front of the show’s ever vaping shadowy narrator, the production is a stunner at every turn.

But I’m here to talk about what didn’t move me rather than what did.

And I think it comes down to this – I just don’t dig Barthelme’s writing. I know, I know….blasphemy!  How dare I decry the acclaimed short story writer that called Houston both his part time home and creative/professional outlet. Shame on me that the man they call genius for his absurd style (and who many refer to as the Beckett of Houston) leaves me so indifferent. Trust me, I’m not thrilled about it either. But I am willing to try to explain.

Where others extract provocative and incendiary from this story, I see overly cute. That the seven men refer to Snow White as a “horsewife” and that she herself refers to her “venereal life” may seem like clever word play to some, but for me it smacks of someone laboring to be witty. While some see the projected titles like THE FAILURE OF SNOW WHITE’S ARSE or THINGS SNOW WHITE IS AFRAID OF as clues plugging in the abundance of narrative holes, I roll my eyes at the pretension. Wordy passages project throughout the show, ghosts of Barthelme’s original text. But while a Freudian passage, for example, in itself may be enlightening, it’s juxtaposition to the story feels like a grad student wildly throwing up his latest intellectual ‘connect the dots’ in an effort to show off how scholarly he’s become. Stop trying so hard, I wanted to shout at the stage.

Apart from the aggravated state these literary antics stirred in me, I also took exception to the humor – meaning that I didn’t find it at all funny. Sure having the seven men split their work time between washing all the buildings in the area and running a highly successful Chinese baby food factory is….different….I didn’t find it laugh worthy. Especially not the “Oriental” fan dance the men do whilst naming off all their products for what seems like an eternity. Not because of the political incorrectness. No doubt there’s that. But because, absurd as it may be, it didn’t strike me as sly enough or in any way veiled to elicit a clever or satisfying meaning. It simply was what it was and what it was for me was a dud.

As for Barthelme’s supporting characters – for sure some curious takes. Paul, the “Prince Charming” character wants neither to be a Prince nor to step gallantly forward and save Snow White from her housekeeping/sex slave prison, so he becomes a monk. Hogo de Bergerac, described as the most loathsome man around (truly not as bad as I wanted him to be) acts (perhaps) as a kind of Magic Mirror to all those he counsels. But neither character, though written to elicit laughs in their broadness tickled me one bit. And neither character, with their metaphoric layers about responsibility and opting out felt all that revelatory. I got it…I was just less than whelmed.

As I was with Snow White herself, complicit in her slavery yet not unhappy enough to leave unless the suitor’s pedigree is up to snuff. Bill, the head of the seven men, doesn’t want her anymore. He’s grown not unfond, but unattracted. Yes this says much about the toll time takes on our fantasies and how even when we don’t want someone we still want to be wanted. But once again it’s all layered in wordy absurdity that frustrates far more than it enchants with dialogue either fading off into nothingness or rambling on to tiresome effect.

In fact, the only character that intrigued me at all was Jane, the wicked witch. I’m not sure for what reason exactly she killed her mother or why we need a gorilla-familiar to interject on her behalf, but watching her dial up random strangers and threaten them with knowing their phone numbers was a deliciously witty creation. Power is in the perception. Her ultimate poisoning attempt on Snow White is expected, but the joy she takes in the emotional journey that gets her to that place is sublime. Accepting malice is her theme and it could easily inform any modern day mean girl/girl power anthem. So why isn’t the rest of the writing as tightly formed with such timeless appeal?

I don’t have the answer for that.

And you may think my answer for why, as a play, Snow White, didn’t float my boat shows limited scope on my behalf. Perhaps you’re right. Or perhaps this is just one of those cup o teas or not kind of narratives.

By way of close, I’ll relate a conversation I had with an arts writer friend of mine who is an enthusiastic fan of both Barthelme’s writing and this production of Snow White. A native Houstonian, she explained that some of her love comes from her days studying mid-20th century American literature in school. After slogging through the staunch realism of Carver and Hemingway, she said, it was such a delight to wiggle your toes in the absurdity of Barthelme’s work. Like a breath of fresh air.

All I can say in response is that I wish I could see this one through her eyes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s