Out of the Psyche and ‘Into the Woods’

"Into the Woods" still from upcoming motion picture
“Into the Woods” still from upcoming motion picture


Teachable Moments and Life Lessons in This Movie

Into the Woods, debuting Christmas Day, is not just a light family musical based on fairy tales, although many will view it that way. The powerful messages in this magical story line have stayed with me since I first saw it on Broadway in the late 80’s. The film version is adapted from the brilliant book by James Lapine and features a masterful musical score and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

This is my favorite musical, and that is saying a lot from someone with a life-long love affair with musicals – onstage and onscreen. I can probably sing the scores to at least a dozen of them, a legacy from over a decade of attending drama school growing up in Chicago.

The life lessons woven through the story and lyrics are absolutely compelling. To go into the woods is a metaphor for a dangerous, challenging quest where one has no idea of the outcome — or if you will even survive the journey. It characterizes those times when we traverse what St. John of the Cross and the poet Rainier Maria Rilke called the “dark night of the soul” – a trial or period of hardships and deep inner turmoil.

The story begins with recognizable characters, like Cinderella and Jack of the Beanstalk making a wish, yet never considering what consequences fulfilling their wish may bring. Each character learns that they must go into the woods to achieve their heart’s desire, but they will face many personal trials along the way. They will prevail and achieve their wish only by confronting their deepest fears and finding courage and hidden resources.

Whenever we face the scary unknown, we are, in essence going into the woods, yet by taking that first step and digging deep, we begin to discover our self-worth.

The first act concludes with all the story lines coming together as if tied in a neat bow, with everyone getting what they wished for and ready to live “happily ever after” — there is even a song about that! However, the second act reveals what happens after happily ever after? The characters return Into the Woods to resolve consequences they never considered when they so innocently made their wishes. The essence of the axiom, be careful what you wish for…

The noted psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung, said fairy tales, like mythical fables of the battle of good and evil, are universal allegories found in virtually every culture and country. While Disney movies are usually lighter, brighter adaptations, many of the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales are downright dark and pessimistic. Much of their symbolism arises from the subconscious mind, which encompasses the entire gamut of the human mind and spirit,

Fairy tale characters are essentially archetypes, another Jungian concept meaning prototype or model. They are universal patterns of potentiality or symbols of human experience and expression. The Wolf, The Witch and The Giant represent the dark shadows (unconscious underpinnings of the mind) that threaten us; Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood are “damsels in distress” personifying the victim role we all play from time to time. And fairy tales always have heroes, like the Baker, who must take a giant leap of faith in making peace with loss and abandonment. When we take our journey through the woods and come out on the other side, stronger and more mature, we have taken the hero’s journey.

Every time I have seen this show, I am struck at how connected the authors must be to have found such a unique way to convey a higher meaning. My favorite song is No One is Alone with a message that evokes a sense of knowing that we are always protected, no matter how dark the night or how difficult the journey.

As a specialist in helping adults heal from childhood trauma, I have seen first-hand the impact parents’ negative words can have over one’s life. Often, they can even become self-fulfilling prophecies. In the 2013 HBO documentary Six by Sondheim, Stephen spoke of his troubled hot and cold relationship with his mother and how she had often abused him verbally. In a letter she wrote from the hospital, after a heart operation, Sondheim’s mother told him that “the only regret I have in life is giving you birth.”

So perhaps then the lyrics of another profoundly moving song, Children Will Listen, come from his own experience:
Careful the words you say,
Children will listen…
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.

I love the way Carey Purcell described this haunting melody as “a soothing but warning song of the terror of growing up and frightening power of parenthood that will linger long after one leaves the woods.”

There are so many teachable moments in Into the Woods. I urge you to see the movie and look for the meanings underlying the entertainment. I plan to be there Christmas Day for one of the first showings.

See this article by Dr. L J in Huffington Post.

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