Ovid brings out the beast in Disney

The stage production treats sex and violence with wit and good tunes, and shows the fairy-tale's roots in classical myth
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Walt Disney's Beauty and the Beast, the stage show, opens at the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road tonight. It deserves to be a winner: Disney is, after all, tackling themes of sex and violence with wit and great tunes. But there is tough competition in the field of species cross-over just now.

Not least, there is the revival of interest in Ovid's Metamorphoses - the classical round-up of every myth that ever saw intraspecific transmogrifications. The Economist reminded us last week that nearly 300 years ago John Dryden was the first poet laureate to have a go at translating this 2,000-year- old reworking of ancient stories. Now Ted Hughes, a man in whom nature thrums, has triumphed with his gutsy tribute, Tales from Ovid.

In this company, one remembers that Disney is famous as Bowdler Inc. But its 1992 film of Beauty and the Beast - and the stage show is its clone - was deeply serious. It has a guys and dolls swing to it, but is in an arty tradition too. It is very similar to the movie made by Jean Cocteau in 1945, with its own adherence to Marie Leprince de Beaumont's La Belle et la Bete (1756), which itself popularised a version of the late 17th century. Before that the mists close on the headwaters of the story, though they are surely to be found in classical Greece and Psyche and Cupid, in Ovid's stories about the Minotaur, and Jupiter's bovine disguise (Hughes has "Europa crying out at sea/Astride the bull that had deceived her").

For the theatre, there are some good new songs by Tim Rice, who has rather perversely gone out of his way to insist that this is only entertainment. It is true that overt toughness is usually missing from fairy stories, and even Ovid's myths have a sort of cartoon brusqueness about them. But Hughes brings real blood and passion to the page, and on stage, Disney was bound to make concrete what story-telling might leave elliptical. This year's Theatre Royal, Stratford East production of Beauty and the Beast was a traditional pantomime, but it still carried heavyweight baggage, and the more obviously muscular production at the Young Vic certainly did. All deliver what kids like: magic without nonsense.

While there is no intellectual property right in fairy stories (perhaps part of their charm to Disney), there is plenty of intellectual content. According to Jungian exegesis, fairy stories allow children to explore the worst of their fears and fantasies as well as their wildest dreams.

That, at least, was the theme of Bruno Bettelheim's fine The Uses of Enchantment, published in 1975. It begins with the premise that fairy stories are both extraordinary and commonplace. Their appeal to children could not be constant were it otherwise: they are not firing blanks.

Beauty and the Beast is, after all, about a girl who loves her father to the point that she is prepared to suffer imprisonment at the hands of the Beast on his behalf. She saves her father by transferring her affection to the Beast.

To do this she must embrace the loveliness - presumably the sexuality - of the Beast. She has to grow up. So does the Beast, who has been incarcerated in a loathsome form by a fairy because he had not understood that hidden qualities matter more than loveliness in a woman. Disney's rather human and boyish Beast helps us to see that he is an ordinary man condemned to wearing the ugly bits of his untamed heart and mind on the outside. But his deformity is only rare in being visible.

Even in the Disney production, the Beast inflicts violence on Beauty, and it is a pivotal moment because she flees from him and he is shocked into redeeming himself. More than would have been the case traditionally, the Beast has to exercise anger management: that's his 20th-century problem.

The tale hints at man as voyeur: the Beast looks on at his prisoner Belle, able to see all that is going on in his castle through using a magic mirror as his CCTV. He can see Belle, but tragically he is not tender enough to be able to communicate with her.

He and Belle will be delivering an essay on aesthetics to their young audiences. The philosophical message of the Beast is that only things which are capable of ugliness can be beautiful. The Enlightenment had suggested that objects and ideas which inspired powerful nervous reactions were ugly and brutish, unless they were found in the classics - Ovid and the like - and kept there.

But with Burke's 1757 essay, The Sublime and the Beautiful, we have the precursor of the Romantic movement of the late 18th century, which proclaimed that human and natural wildness constituted the "sublime". Sublimity is allied to grandeur. It may or may not be beautiful, but it is always more more than merely pretty. The Beast may be violent, but he suffers for it and at least he isn't merely mannered.

Herbert Read's account of Beauty and the Beast in a 1962 essay quotes Nietzsche, "Greek art has taught us that there are no truly beautiful surfaces without dreadful depths", but he mourns the excesses that flow from celebrating the fearsome: "Again and again modern artists have disowned the concept of the beautiful." Don't we just know it.

Yet in the Vollard Suite, Picasso created in the Thirties a great and lovely modern work by examining at length all the themes that are to be found in Beauty and the Beast, and many of those of Ovid. Echoing drawings by Goya and especially Rembrandt, he sketched and resketched images of male roughness and worse as it revelled in, was bewildered at, or redeemed by female tenderness and loveliness. It might depict the male artist gazing longingly at the sleeping model before idealising her in a statue; a Minotaur aching to slough off his hairy carapace. Or just a lover gazing at his mistress (a theme taken up by Stanley Spencer among many others).

After seeing Beauty and the Beast, audiences might be advised that further reading should include the Thames and Hudson "World of Art" series, including its volumes Picasso, Romanticism and Art, and Sexuality in Western Art. The Beast would almost certainly have them in the library which Disney has him donating to Belle in his attempts to woo her. He has time before curtain up tonight to nip out and add the new Hughes/Ovid volume.

In fact, if Ovid could time-warp himself into the here and now, he would probably enjoy a seat in the stalls.

'Tales from Ovid' by Ted Hughes (Faber, pounds 7.99).