A lesson on responsibility and blame from Into the Woods

This goat does not look happy about being a scapegoat.
This goat does not look happy about being a scapegoat.

Last Friday afternoon, I went to the movies and saw Into the Woods. In college, I had seen a filmed stage production of the play and studied it in a class, so I knew what to expect.

In the play, several fairy tale stories intersect, along with a new story about a baker and his wife who are attempting to lift a witch’s curse that has made them infertile. Cinderella (and her prince), Rapunzel (and her prince), Little Red Ridinghood (and her flesh-lusting wolf), and Jack (of beanstalk fame), and the witch all meet somehow in the woods and their familiar stories unfold in twisted ways. Cinderella flees the prince, for example, because she isn’t certain she desires him. Eventually everything is made right.

Then in the second half of the play, everything goes wrong. The princes are unfaithful (with Sleeping Beauty and Snow White!), the witch has lost her powers, and worst, the giant Jack killed has left behind an angry widow giantess who is intent on revenge. Jack, along with everyone else, suffers the consequences of her wrath.

One of the most striking scenes happens toward the end. The giantess demands Jack’s life; other characters try to protect him, even though the witch wants to offer him up as the sacrifice. Many characters have died. Those left are frightened.

Then they turn on one another.

(Watch the scene on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AK2FVhr9l3A It’s copyright, I believe, so I didn’t post it here.)

It’s your fault.

Over and over, they turn on each other. It’s your fault, Jack. No, it’s your fault, Baker, no, it’s Red’s, no, it’s Cinderella’s. And finally, they turn to the witch. “You’re the one responsible! You’re the one to blame! It’s your fault!”

The witch points out, rightly, that this wouldn’t have happened if these characters hadn’t acted on their desires. The desires by themselves weren’t wrong. The baker wanted a child; Cinderella wanted to go to the festival; Little Red wanted to see flowers off the trusted path; Jack wanted adventure and a way to provide for his mother. But the desires were self-focused and didn’t consider others’ needs, nor did the characters act prudently in how they fulfilled them.

But of course, the witch continues, all they care about is the blame. Someone needs to be blamed! So they’ll do everything they can to avoid taking responsibility and cast the blame onto another person, preferably an outsider, preferably someone no one likes and everyone was already suspicious of. Like the witch.

(The continuation of the scene is here, from a different production: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoHM83nmh6w)

It reminded me of the concept of the scapegoat. We covered this idea, along with Rene Girard’s theories of sacrifice, in one of my English classes. Girard claims that the only way to stop escalating violence among humans is to direct that violence at “the third,” a person who is an outsider. A person of marginal standing has no one who will avenge her death, so that person becomes the scapegoat and the sacrificial victim.

I’ve talked about this before, but humans love to play the blame game. Find someone else to blame for whatever is wrong.

It’s an old, old story. After we read the Genesis account of the first sin, my high school Bible teacher called our attention to Adam and Eve’s response to God’s confrontation. Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the serpent. If the serpent had had anyone or thing to blame, it would’ve done that, too. “They’re playing pass the buck,” Mr. Hammond said. Neither takes responsibility for disobedience to God’s command. Neither Adam nor Eve stand united in the aftermath. They’re divided. And so it has been ever since.

Think of how many times we search for an outsider, someone unlike us, to blame. It could be skin color or gender or ethnicity or religion or theological difference or anything else. All the matters is that in some way, we think that other group of people is different from us. So they’re the ones to blame, they’re the ones who started it, they’re the ones who behaved badly or said the wrong thing or believed the lie. Not us. Not me.

In the process of casting blame, though, we divide and destroy relationships. 

The Into the Woods’ characters are also divided. The witch begins scattering her magic beans, which have caused so much heartache, and the other characters desperately drop to the ground to gather them. Each is on all fours, alone, searching for beans. As a group, they are united in their hatred of the witch, but they are still divided internally. No one wants to take personal responsibility for his or her individual role in creating this corporate mess.

The witch leaves, cursing them with aloneness. This shakes them. Slowly, the four take personal responsibility for what has happened as a result of their self-focused desires. For example, Jack realizes that he shouldn’t have stolen from the giant.

(Wisely, they do not take responsibility for those choices that were not theirs. Sometimes we try to be overresponsible and take the blame for everything that’s wrong when not everything was our doing.)

Only then do they come together and create a plan to kill the giantess. (Which makes her the scapegoat now!) As the baker tells everyone,

“We have to stay here and find our way out of this together.”


 

(I wish I could’ve uploaded the Youtube clips, but neither had a creative commons license, so I didn’t think it would be “fair use” of copyright material.)

Photo Credit: Sgarton, morgueFile.com

 

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5 thoughts on “A lesson on responsibility and blame from Into the Woods

  1. I saw a stage production of Into the Woods years ago. That whole second part is a good way to show that every fairy tale has a tail, one we don’t see but which is there none the less. Which to me is a reminder that everyone has a story beyond what we know about them, and we should exercise grace for them because of that.

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  2. Darn! My friend wanted to see this movie last week and I opted for “Unbroken”….wish now that I saw it…(Not that “Unbroken” wasn’t good…just saying I wish I could have seen it to have been able to make an intelligent response to your post…)

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    1. The movie’s good, though I prefer the play. I saw a screen version of the original Broadway production. The movie leaves out some parts, and unfortunately, those eliminations affect the storylines in substantial ways. But the performances are good in both the movie and the original Broadway play. I like my fairy tales with some subversion of stereotypes. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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