Struwwelpeter – book and stage musical

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Der Struwwelpeter (1845) (or Shockheaded Peter) is a German children’s book by Heinrich Hoffmann. It comprises ten illustrated and rhymed stories, mostly about children. Each has a clear moral that demonstrates the disastrous consequences of misbehavior in an exaggerated way. The title of the first story provides the title of the whole book.

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Hoffmann was primarily known as a psychiatrist and spent much of his career attempting to revamp the German asylums, trying harder than many of his predecessors to understand the troubles of the patients held within and working to reintegrate them into society. Having written poetry and satirical work for his own pleasure, he was convinced by friends to get some of his work published, the title in question being the snappily named Lustige Geschichten und drollige Bilder mit 15 schön kolorierten Tafeln für Kinder von 3–6 Jahren (Funny Stories and Whimsical Pictures with 15 Beautifully Coloured Panels for Children Aged 3 to 6) eventually titled ‘Der Struwwelpeter (or Shockheaded Peter) by its third printing in 1858, an illustrated collection of fiendish stories he had created for a Christmas present for his son one year. Though the success of the book convinced Hoffmann to continue writing books, only this work remained popular, even in Germany, a turn of events largely attributed to his scathing skepticism.

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Each of the short stories within the tome offer the soon-to-be traumatised child the opportunity to glimpse various scenarios in which the consequences of making the wrong choice can lead to horrific results. The stories are as follows:

  1. “Struwwelpeter” describes a boy who does not groom himself properly and is consequently unpopular.

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In “Die Geschichte vom bösen Friederich” (The Story of Bad Frederick), a violent boy kicks kittens down stairs, pulls wings off flies, kills birds and then starts on humans and his pet dog. Eventually he is bitten by the dog, who goes on to eat the boy’s sausage while he is bedridden.

In “Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug” (The Dreadful Story of the Matches), a girl plays with matches, despite repeated warnings. Inevitably, it all goes horribly wrong and the girl sets herself on fire and begins to burn in surprisingly graphic detail, until all that remains are her ashes.

“Die Geschichte von den schwarzen Buben” (The Story of the Black Boys), Saint Nicholas catches three boys teasing a dark-skinned boy. To teach them a lesson, he dips the three boys in black ink to make them even darker-skinned than the boy they teased. A surprisingly forward-thinking tale, though the taunting of the boy as ‘inky black’, scarcely seems worse than the story’s description of him as a ‘woolly-headed Black-a-moor’.

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“Die Geschichte von dem wilden Jäger” (The Story of the Wild Huntsman) is the only story not primarily focused on children. In it, a hare steals a hunter’s musket and eye-glasses and begins to hunt the hunter. In the ensuing chaos, the hare’s child is burned by scalding coffee and the hunter falls down a well, presumably to his death.

Perhaps the most famous tale, “Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher” (The Story of the Thumb-Sucker), a mother warns her son not to suck his thumbs. However, when she goes out of the house he resumes his thumb sucking, until a roving tailor appears and cuts off his thumbs with giant scissors.

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“Die Geschichte vom Suppen-Kaspar” (The Story of the Soup-Kaspar, re-named Augustus in some English language versions) begins as Kaspar, a healthy, strong boy, proclaims that he will no longer eat his soup. Over the next five days he wastes away and dies, a harsh tale about broth consumption.

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In “Die Geschichte vom Zappel-Philipp” (The Story of the Fidgety Philip), a boy who won’t sit still at dinner accidentally knocks all of the food onto the floor, to his parents’ great displeasure.

“Die Geschichte von Hans Guck-in-die-Luft” (The Story of Johnny Head-in-Air) concerns a boy who habitually fails to watch where he’s walking. One day he walks into a river; he is soon rescued, but his writing-book drifts away.

“Die Geschichte vom fliegenden Robert” (The Story of the Flying Robert), a boy goes outside during a storm. The wind catches his umbrella and sends him to places unknown, and presumably to his doom. ‘Bob was never seen again’, intones the final line.

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Hoffman’s book forms the basis of a 1998 stage musical called Shockheaded Peter is a 1998 musical, created by Julian Bleach, Anthony Cairns, Julian Crouch, Graeme Gilmour, Tamzin Griffin, Jo Pocock, Phelim McDermott, Michael Morris and TheTiger Lillies (Martyn Jacques, Adrian Huge and Adrian Stout) the production combines elements of pantomime and puppetry with musical versions of the poems with the songs generally following the text but with a somewhat darker tone. Whereas the children in the poems only sometimes die, in the musical they all do. Commissioned by the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds and the Lyric Hammersmith in West London, the show debuted in 1998 in Leeds before moving to London and subsequently to world tours.

Daz Lawrence

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3 Comments on “Struwwelpeter – book and stage musical”

  1. don’t suck your thumb, don’t play with matches, and you don’t get a choice of filet-o-fish or burgur, you eat what I give you or you will RIP. if parents would try to be the child’s best friend when the are living in their home, the world would be a better place. great children’s book to teach one to obey your parents, noting there are consequences or unintended consequences for one’s behavior. if can’t listen, you re going to feel it was my mom’s saying was, listen. grew up with this book as a child and not knowing german, the images told the story to me as a child, and love it as an adult.

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