Swine Lake: A night at the ballet with Maurice Sendak
It's rare that two greats come together, but when they do, the results can be magical. For years Maurice Sendak had hoped to collaborate with his dear friend, writer and illustrator James Marshall. He finally got his chance, but, sadly, work didn't begin until after Marshall's death in 1992. Marshall, the author of numerous classics such as the George and Martha books, left behind an unpublished manuscript called Swine Lake. It's a comical story of a wolf who attends the ballet in hopes of devouring its porcine performers but becomes so enchanted that he joins them onstage and receives rave reviews.
Now, years later, Sendak has completed the illustrations, and HarperCollins has released Swine Lake, which very well might be a new classic from two giants of children's literature.
Such a plot was a natural for both men, who often attended the theater together. Sendak has been a stage fan since his childhood, and, in addition to writing and illustrating, has been designing sets and costumes for operas and ballets since 1970. He founded The Night Kitchen, a national theater company, to develop children's productions, and is currently collaborating with choreographer Twyla Tharp on a full-length ballet for children.
"The story was perfect," Sendak says from his Connecticut home. "I've done a big ballet and a small ballet, and I know how to make professionally fun of it. I know where it's silly, and I know where it's wonderful. And all of Jim's ballet scenes were deliriously funny."
Despite the many pluses, Sendak found the project hard to begin. The initial problem was Sendak's sadness over losing his friend. "He is a great man gone," Sendak says. " I don't think there are many in the profession who were Jim Marshall. I so much admired his work and treasured his friendship." But once Sendak felt ready to tackle the work, fright set in. " It scared me, he confesses, because this was not a picture book. Jim had done more story books than picture books, and I'm used to much fewer words and more amplification of images than he was permitting me. So I got worried about how to divvy up the book, and where the dramatic moments were. But I found that when I got to do the dummy, happily, I had been thinking about it more than I thought, which often happens. It began to fall into place." Sendak also credits editor Michael di Capua and designer Cynthia Krupat (the greatest designer living, Sendak says), who had both worked with Marshall, for successful progress on the book.
"I don't think anybody outside the business understands the complexity of collaboration between the editor and the designer and the printer," Sendak explains. "So many people are part of this, and I end up having my name on the book, but they don't."
Sendak's tributes to Marshall are evident throughout, such as a newspaper bearing the title of one of his friend's masterpieces, The Stupids Die. "That's the only thing I truly envy Jim for," Sendak laments. " Deep envy. I think The Stupids Die is the best title ever. I can't forgive him for having that title. I used to tell him that. I bought the original poster for the book, and it hangs in one of my rooms." Sendak adds that he put as much Jim-ianna in the book as possible, as a way of expressing his deep love for him and respect for his work. "I stole things from Jim," he elaborates, "like putting the pigs' eyes close together. I would just faint from laughter every time I saw the way he drew those eyes—you know the way Prince Charles's eyes are almost like a Cyclops. I've always been a vigorous thief, but I've always felt that if you steal, you've got to turn it into you. If you just steal, then you're nothing but a lousy crook."
Indeed, Sendak added many of his own touches, including numerous puns and comic references in his artwork, such as naming the theater the New Hamsterdam and a newspaper headline announcing "Titanic IX Bombs at Box Office." What's more, under Sendak's direction the wolf became part of a new subplot, evolving as a down-on-his-luck character who lives in squalor yet yearns for culture and the theater.
In fact, the wolf took on a distinct personality of his own, that of Sendak's dog, to be precise. While Sendak was working on the book, he adopted a 17-month-old German shepherd who had been abandoned. Several pages into the book, Sendak says, the wolf turns into his dog, taking on his facial expressions and behavior.
Sendak hedges when asked the dog's name, then explains that the animal already had a name when he adopted him; Sendak doesn't like the name, but the dog wouldn't answer to anything else.
In short, his dog is named Max, just like the hero of Where the Wild Things Are.
"To think I'd be so fatuous as to name my dog after that character," Sendak scoffs. Yet both the wolf and Max the literary character are plagued by conflicting yearnings while Max struggles between being a good boy and a wild thing, the wolf vacillates between being an art lover and a pork chomper.
Have the two learned a lesson by the end of each book?
Sendak practically snorts. " I promise you that two days later Max is going to wreck his house all over again," he says. " I never wrote a book where I taught a lesson. And the wolf is going to eat those pigs eventually. He just doesn't do it in this book." Sendak says it's much easier to illustrate books written by others than to illustrate his own because his gestate forever. When asked whether one of his own is in the works, he says, "I am pregnant, but it hasn't kicked yet."
Nonetheless, his pens and paints have been far from neglected. A year or so ago he illustrated a novel by Herman Melville, Pierre, and he's just illustrated a play called Penthesilea by the late great German playwright Heinrich von Kleist. He plans to work on two more children's books, a reissue of Bears, by Ruth Krauss, and an unpublished lullaby found among the papers of Margaret Wise Brown.
Involved with books, theater, ads for Bell Atlantic, and work with animators, Sendak is extraordinarily busy. Luckily for his many fans, he says, "Although I'm getting old, my curiosity is strangely young, and I can't shut it up."
Alice Cary writes from her home in Groton, Massachusetts.