Matilda

I don't always have personal coincidences to write about, but two weeks ago while visiting my family in New Jersey, I found myself thinking about why this topic resonates with some people, and not others; why it's exciting and interesting to some, and why it's scary and unpleasant to others. My answer came on a hot night in Times Square.


I had asked my mother to get us tickets to the award-winning Broadway show, Matilda, remembering little about the story but knowing it was very likely appropriate enough for my soon to be eight year old daughter. We had listened to some of the songs on the soundtrack in the days before, and even gotten the book out of the library. Much to my surprise, the book was by Roald Dahl, the wonderful English author of Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryJames and the Giant Peach, and number of other adult stories, many of which I had read, that bordered on fantasy and horror. I hadn't had time to flip through much of the book, but presumed the play would be appropriately entertaining and dramatic, in that harrowing way that English children's literature tends to be. The night of the show came, and we caravanned into Times Square for an early dinner at Cafe Un, Deux, Trois before showtime. The temperature was well over 80 degrees; the air thick with everything from dirt and humidity to loud voices and traffic. The streets were absolutely mobbed with crowds six rows thick, and in the excitement of it all, my daughter kept asking, "What's it about? Is it funny? Is it scary?" 

"I think it's a little of both," I said.

True to the rave reviews and Tony nominations, the show was spectacular; the stage set, the performers, and the music all top notch. In particular, the child actors, notably the seven year old girl who played Matilda, seemed to understand all the complexities of the story: that Matlida was an odd girl whose ignorant parents hated her; that she was a bookworm and an outcast in a terrifying English school with a headmistress from hell; that her despair, which was turned into songs and dances for the stage production, was so large, that she manifested the extraordinary abilities to telepathically receive information and also to move things with her mind. 

Really. Telepathy and psychokinesis. Right there on Broadway.

I had no idea upon going in, and only learned during the pivotal scenes in the play. In one, Matilda discovered her powers when she knocked over a glass of water with her mind because she was so angry. In another, she realized the strange romance story she had invented about an acrobat and an escapologist was in fact the real life story of her dear teacher, Ms. Honey, and her tragic family drama. The play spends little time on these coincidences, but implies clearly the only way Matilda could have moved the glass of water or known such a personal story was through psychokinesis and telepathic intuition, skills no one is surprised to learn she might have. The play turns on these extraordinary skills of hers, as well as her cleverness. Near the end, and the denouement, Matilda uses her mind to pick up a piece of chalk and write on the blackboard condemning messages to the headmistress under the guise of a ghost. She sends the oppressive school marm running forever, and liberates the whole class of children from her torturous approach to education. 

The takeaway: Matilda was a child with extraordinary abilities, but because her environment was so extraordinarily awful, we forgot about the weirdness of her inner world, and rooted for her to overcome her outer world hardships with whatever skills she could muster. The story, and the stage production of it, was a perfect melding of internal character and external circumstances, something most of us don't have the luxury of living in real life.

Throughout I heard my daughter gasp and laugh, shriek and shout. A few times I noticed she had ducked under her sweatshirt to hide her eyes. But by the end of the play she was on her feet with the rest of the theater's uproarious standing ovation. She said nothing about Matilda's telepathic and psychokinetic skills. Maybe they seemed normal to her, or maybe they went over her head. Most likely, the extraordinary plot points were so well woven into the context of the story,  they cast the focus on the twisted and repugnant conditions of dear Matilda's normal life. The audience accepted them as unique and truthful, just like her intelligence and imagination.

In the days after the show, my daughter remembered Matilda's strength and bravery and intelligence, not her ability to move things with her mind. It occurred to me that the story of an odd, abused outcast of a girl could only end a couple of ways. Either she is rescued by a benefactor, like Daddy Warbucks is in Annie, or she is driven to use her undeveloped wisdom to create an exit opportunity for herself, like Matilda does. 

I much prefer the latter in terms of a story for my daughter. It teaches resilience and reliance in powers we don't know we have. If those powers are too strange, too eerie, and too difficult for us to imagine having, then a story like Matilda provides an additional service. It imagines the abilities and their delightful, unexpected outcomes for us.