It Just Gets Curiouser & Curiouser

Alice Pleasance Liddell (British, 1852–1934) as photographed by Lewis Carroll in 1858.

An essay on The Manhattan Project’s version of Alice In Wonderland by dramaturg Kris Messer.

When Alice Liddell, daughter of an Oxford professor, was ten, she and two of her sisters set out for a lazy summer picnic via row boat with the 30-year-old Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He was a bachelor mathematician who lived on the grounds of Oxford quite near the Liddell family. As they floated along, the girls asked Dodgson to tell them a story. And what a fabulous story he fashioned! Dodgson described a fantastical world discovered by at the bottom of a rabbit-hole by a young girl unsurprisingly named Alice. The real Alice asked Dodgson to write it out for her; he did, and after showing it to a friend whose children loved it. He was encouraged to find a publisher, and the rest was Wonderland. Dodgson published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with the iconic illustrations of John Tenneil, in 1865 under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll; it has not been out of print since. A tale of adventure, of meanings hidden just below the obvious surface of things, illogically logical situations, overblown characters — The Mad Hatter, The Red Queen, The White Rabbit — and the liberatory possibilities of the nonsensical have drawn artists, authors, and readers down the rabbit hole to Wonderland for over 150 years. Alice in Wonderland is a celebration of nonsense that lampoons learning, politics, and proper comportment. We are still reading and watching and performing Alice’s journey in 2017 because it is a testament to the power of imagination to change the world around us.

The openness of interpretation and the startling blend of logic taken past its breaking point served both now and during the era of Alice’s creation to underscore that the order and meaning we ascribe to social conventions and behaviors are just that — ascribed. While Carroll uses Victorian norms for children’s’ behavior and education for his base, his characters and their language stress the illogical nature of conformity, and they liberate readers from the tyranny of a logical order that, when examined under any light, is simply carefully dressed up nonsense.

Lewis Carroll at desk (photograph uncredited)

Lewis Carroll would most likely argue that the point of nonsense is that it has no point at all. Human beings, however, are meaning seekers and meaning makers above all else. To that end, people have responded to the open nature of Carroll’s work for decades. To see the range of interpretations all one needs do is to look at illustrations of Alice and other iconic characters from Wonderland created over the past century and a half. One will emerge with many questions that only hint at the vastness on the other side of the looking glass. Are Alice’s Adventures merely a simple story of a child’s dreamscape? Are they about Victorian politics and manners? Are they an attack on the repression of the young and the power of education to foster that repression? Is Wonderland about illicit drugs? Was Dodgson interested in Alice in a way that outsteps cultural norms? All of Alice’s adventures and their various interpretations, from the fantastical to the social and political, are powerful reminders that we construct the meanings and norms of the world around us through the dual power of action and imagination. The rules of power are constructed by people, taught to children, and enacted in elaborate systems that seem nonsensical – even tyrannical – when viewed by a wide-eyed onlooker. Carroll affirms that reality is located in our interaction with what surrounds us. If a child has the voice and the tenacity to shape the boundaries of our reality; then perhaps we should consider the wisdom of the young, the unschooled, the outsiders, and the uncanny.

Alice has been read as a critique of colonial power, a political satire, a commentary on the treatment of the mentally ill, and an ode to drug abuse culture. However, one of the most powerful images of Alice that we have explored in making our version is Alice as a feminist model. As Little argues in, “Liberated Alice: Dodgson’s female hero as domestic rebel,” she is, “literally [an] ‘underground’ image of a woman resisting the ‘system’” (Little 204). As a character she is, “active, brave, and impatient; she is highly critical of her surroundings and of the adults she meets” (Lurie 7). One hundred and fifty-two years later, we could all take a page out Alice’s book. Her trajectory is an arc of self-realization; she learns this strange Wonderland can empower her within her own “real,” aboveground world. Like young Alice, we are responsible for making something of the world we confront. As we go on our own adventures, let’s take some of Alice’s bold sense of challenge and creativity with us in an effort to shape a world that permits joy, wonder, imagination, and new possibilities for configuring antiquated systems.

Works Cited:
  • Little, Judith. Liberated Alice: Dodgson’s female hero as domestic rebel. Women’s Studies 3.2 (1976): 195. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.
  • Lurie, Alison. Don’t Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children’s Literature. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990.

Kris Messer (Dramaturg) holds an M.F.A. in playwriting from Brown University and a Ph.D. in Theatre History and Performance Studies from the University of Maryland, College Park. Her interests are in community-based and socially engaged performance and dramaturgy, and she is the resident dramaturg at Cohesion Theatre Company where she has most recently worked on Neverwhere and Henry V. Kris is thrilled to be working on her first show with The Collaborative Theatre.  In addition to dramaturgy,  Kris teaches performance, theatre, and writing in the Department of Humanistic Studies at MICA, and she works with their curricular student performance group Rivals of the West where she was Associate Director of their production of The Pillowman.

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