Once again I'm returning to the stories of the Brothers Grimm this week with the tale of The Bremen Town Musicians. In this tale, a donkey, who has gotten too old to be of use to his master any longer decides he needs to strike out on his own before his master cuts him loose. He decides to head to Bremen where he hopes to be a town musician. Along the way he comes across a a dog, a cat and a rooster all of whom have also outlived their perceived usefulness. The quartet agree to travel together, hoping to all become musicians. Along the way, they stop to spend the night under a tree. But when the rooster spots a house and they all decide they'd prefer to stay there. When they look in the window, they see a group of thieves enjoying a fine feast and decide they'd like to be there. Working together they crash through the window scaring the thieves away. Later that night, one of the thieves returns. Startling the animals, the thief is attacked by each of the animals in turn but never really sees what he has been attacked by. When he returns to the rest of his band, he tells them he has been attacked by a "gruesome witch, and I felt her breath and her long nails in my face [the cat]; and by the door there stands a man who stabbed me in the leg with a knife [the dog]; and in the yard there lies a black specter, who beat me with his wooden club [the donkey]; and above, upon the roof, there sits the justice, who cried, "bring that rogue here!" [the rooster]. Needless to say, the thieves never returned and the animals enjoyed the house so much that they never went on to Bremen.
So many fairy tales are little more than stories but this one clearly has a lesson, one that, with our aging population, is more important that ever. While those around them felt that these animals were too old to be of any use, they decide to head for Bremen, which was known for its freedom. They knew they still had value. And their ability to take care of themselves against the thieves, proves that.
I paired the Brothers Grimm version of this story with Joyelle McSweeney's play The Warm Mouth (from My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me). McSweeney takes the structure of The Bremen Town Musicians and uses it to "take up the problem of shelter, including the body as a king of failed shelter." McSweeney populates her play with characters that reflect their setting in the Michiana area of Indiana that includes the town of Bremen. When I tell you that the figures in this play include road kill, a starving boy, a murdered girl and a shot up dog you'll get a good idea of how much darker this modern fairy tale is than those to which we are accustomed. A word of caution to the squeamish, this tale is very gritty and very raw as you might imagine.