This weekend, the tale (almost) as old as time will be exercising its ancient fascination again in London, in a staging described by its creator, Philip Glass, as being virtually 'a new art form no one's ever worked with before'. Like the Disney lyric, Glass's claim is at once exaggerated and fair enough. What the minimalist composer has done is to take Jean Cocteau's film La Belle et la Bete (1946), surgically remove its soundtrack - including Georges Auric's original music - and graft on an operatic score, to be performed live by four singers and a small orchestra while Cocteau's images are projected on to a screen behind them.
There is, to be sure, nothing remotely original about performing live music to movies. Nor is this Glass's first entry into the Coctelian universe: last year, he used the screenplay for Cocteau's Orphee (1949) as the basis for a conventional opera, and next year, he will complete his Cocteau trilogy with a ballet inspired by Les Enfants Terribles (1950). But the idea of having singers give voice to a deliberately silenced film does indeed appear to be novel. 'It's in no way intended to displace other screenings of the film,' Glass insists, 'and there's certainly no attempt to make a permanent synchronisation of my music to the film. I hope it will become clear that this is essentially a theatrical music event, not a cinematic event.'
La Belle et la Bete has been greatly loved, and to some of its more purist fans the prospect of this shotgun wedding between Cocteau and Glass (who says that he has been entranced by the French artist for decades, and cites him as a 'standard of artistic idealism') will seem far more dismaying than the courtship of the radiant Josette Day by the furry Jean Marais. Still, even if Glass's innovations shatter the brittle magic of Cocteau's treatment for some, the story itself has proved robust enough to have survived the crudest of revisions. Cocteau himself took many inspired liberties with the text of the story he used, and which we now regard as classic. It was written down not, as some reference books suggest, by Perrault (though Perrault's Riquet a la Houppe has some key elements of the tale), but by Mme Leprince de Beaumont in her Magasin des enfants for 1756.
The immense popularity of Mme de Beaumont's fable is witnessed by the large number of pantomimes, melodramas and drawings it spawned in the 19th century, as well as by the various literary reworkings, including the text of 1813 entitled 'Beauty and the Beast'. Iona and Peter Opie's study, The Classic Fairy Tales, reprints several striking illustrations of what the authors call 'the most symbolic of all fairy tales after Cinderella, and the most intellectually satisfying'; even Heath Robinson had a go at rendering the Beast, giving him the legs of a ballet dancer and the horned head of a bull.
Mme de Beaumont can also be seen as the unlikely progenitor of such oddities as Walerian Borowczyk's erotic fantasy La Bete, which ends with a lethal act of fellatio, and of the popular American television series starring Ron Perlman as a poetry-spouting subterranean Beast and Linda Hamilton as his investigative reporter Beauty. More or less muffled echoes of her work have sounded in countless horror and Gothic films, from King Kong ('No, it wasn't the airplanes. . . It was Beauty killed the Beast') and the Universal Frankenstein movies to Coppola's Dracula and The Silence of the Lambs.
The most eloquent account of the story's appeal was given by the late Bruno Bettleheim, who actually concludes his analysis of fairy stories, The Uses of Enchantment (1976), with a reading of this 'wonderfully healing' fable. Most adults are vaguely aware of the possiblity that the story is partly concerned with young girls overcoming misgivings about sex; Bettleheim's psychoanalytic analysis goes much more minutely into the structure and incidental symbolism of the tale, from Beauty's undue attachment to her father and the pointedness of the rose he plucks, to the precise identity of the sorceress who has made the Beast ugly. Brief synopsis can't do justice to the humanity and delicacy of Bettleheim's work, which may stand as a refutation of the popular view that post-Freudian criticism is always crassly reductive. However, as Philip Glass says, 'That kind of reading isn't the only kind that's possible.' Bettleheim, too, stressed that the myth contained many other meanings.
Cocteau once remarked that he made La Belle et la Bete because 'it corresponded to my personal mythology'. He did not expand on this comment - Diary of a Film, his published account of shooting La Belle et la Bete, is more a glorious wallow in illness and logistical nightmares than a spiritual confession - and some commentators have suggested that there was nothing in his claim.
Glass disagrees: 'It's clear to me that, like so much of Cocteau's other work, it's an allegory about creativity and the life of the artist. The Beast's castle is the site of creativity, and the gloves, the rose, the key and the mirror he uses are all the symbols of his self-transformation, which has to be completed by love.' One of the virtues of Glass's interpretation is that it helps explain why Cocteau, a gay artist, should have made such a haunting version of (according to Bettleheim) the most potent myth about the path to adult heterosexuality. The Glass and Bettleheim readings are not, however, mutually exclusive; neither do they cancel out G K Chesterton's maxim, perhaps the best and almost certainly the pithiest summary the tale has ever provoked: Chesterton wrote of 'the great lesson of 'Beauty and the Beast', that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.'
Philip Glass's 'La Belle et la Bete' is at the Royal Festival Hall, 1 and 2 July at 8.00pm. Box office: 071-928 8800
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