We know Bluebeard of old. We grew up with the Perrault fairytale and suffered the nightmares about the headless wives. We discovered Angela Carter and her sex n’ death gothic wildness just as we were exploring our own sexuality. This story took us from children to women. With Bluebeard, it was personal. Reader, we married him.
The Victorians massaged the original folktale into a morality story about the dangers of female curiosity and its punishment. So Bluebeard was about control.
Like good 21st century feminists, we responded to this by murdering Bluebeard with our own tiny female hands. He definitely deserved it. The bastard. And yet… How did we end up in Bluebeard’s castle wearing a wedding dress in the first place?
Our conversations about marriage in the rehearsal room were surprisingly fierce. We covered the theatre or immoral extravagance of elaborate weddings, our hatred or love of attending them and how dearly or lightly we cherished the dream of getting married. Our reactions were all markedly and passionately different. But no one said: I don’t want to get married. We all do.
But, well, it’s complicated. We all have our own versions of what it would be to be a ‘wife’. Who would we be then? This is why the story of Bluebeard is so fascinating to us. It speaks to the fear of abdicating our agency if curiosity is no longer possible after marriage. It uncovers the denial of the part of us that falls in love with the fantasy and projects all our deepest desires onto the other. We create the intoxicating magic of the perfect fit; the lover that will rescue us from the mundane world, and remain unwilling to look behind the mask to the person that lies beneath. Disney has a lot to answer for.
It is this complexity that we wanted to address. Not just the psychopathy of our villain, Bluebeard, and his arch manipulation of his victims, but also that his brides believed that they were safe at last in his arms. Our brides were not credulous morons, but chose Bluebeard as he would manifest their romantic desires and make their dreams come true. Bluebeard represented wish fulfillment for all of our wives.
The denial of our fantasy as our driver has complex consequences. To our friends we deny that we want the fairytale and stay silent in our own relationships as the fantasy falls apart. Shame causes us to edit our experiences and consequently give up our already eroded agency. It is easily done and happens for so many different reasons. It has happened to women I love and admire as the smartest and sanest I know. And the surprise is that we are all capable of doing it. So many of us have persevered with our fantasy long after the projection has started to wane and we find ourselves locked in ever reducing space, compromising ourselves, our voices and our futures till we begin to disappear.
For this is what Bluebeard does. He turns his wives into things. Things to be admired in life and in death; from his repeated weddings to his Hannibal Lecter-like arrangement of their dead bodies in the chamber, they are, by definition, trophy wives. Our wives speak back. Our wives tell you why they loved him. What it was they needed. How it was he killed them.
It’s hard to admit how deep the cultural conditioning runs in us, so the wives do it for us. When we all stand together in our dresses, we remember once again that we are a cabaret ensemble that wants to invite the audience to ‘see’ us; our fallibility, our collusion in our own objectification and our determination to rail against it.
And the fourth wife? Her fate is to break the pattern; to learn from the mistakes of the women before her and write a different ending to the story. In this way we offer hope, that we can overcome control, and can choose a better outcome in our relationships and in our destinies as women who love.