Bluebeard's Castle, Billy Madison, and Expressionism

We are so dumb. We are really dumb. For real.

As his career at Saturday Night Live was coming to an end, Adam Sandler unleashed upon the world a movie called Billy Madison, the story of a deadbeat rich kid who returns to elementary school as part of a deal with his father to inherit the hotel business through which the family fortune is derived. It’s an absolutely absurd premise performed by absolutely absurd people. If you enjoy Adam Sandler, as I do, you enjoy Billy Madison, as I do.

The movie’s climax serves as a bit of a meta commentary on the movie itself. Billy has dropped out of school after the principal alleges that Billy paid him for passing grades. This was false, naturally, but the principal had been blackmailed by Billy’s rival in the movie, Eric, the sleazy Executive VP of Madison Hotels, who uncovered photos of the principal in his previous career as the Revolting Blob, a wrestler who had unintentionally killed a man in the ring. An agreement is reached for Billy and Eric to engage in an Academic Decathlon, and a glorious montage takes us through events one through nine. The final event is a sort of Jeopardy! / debate mashup in which each man chooses questions for the other to answer based on categories on a board. Eric chooses for Billy the category “Reflection of Society in Literature,” and the question from the moderator asks Billy to discuss how “the Industrial Revolution changed the face of the modern novel.” Exchanging glances with his sugar sweet third grade teacher, Miss Lippy, Billy begin talking about a book they read in her class called The Puppy Who Lost His Way. His answer completed, the crowd silent, Billy shouts “Knibb High Football rules!” and the audience explodes in cheers. The moderator responds to Billy’s answer thusly:

Mr. Madison, what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

I present this without segue:

Everyone on this website is now dumber for having listened to that.

Are we as a society getting dumber? It feels like we are, although who even knows how you would measure such a thing? I just Googled “is society dumber?” and may have found something resembling an answer.

Two articles from the same publication, written by the same person a year apart, containing contradictory information. Perhaps this is the reason it feels like we’re getting dumber. The overwhelming majority of us carry a device capable of accessing nearly the entirety of human knowledge in our pockets and with that comes inundation, especially in a world of social media, 24-hour news cycles, etc. Perhaps more and more of us are simply siloing ourselves so much out of sheer necessity. Is it reasonable for me to keep up with the changing landscape of “is society dumber?” research given all my other responsibilities? I don’t want to go off on a tangent about worker wages and labor laws regarding family leave and I already mentioned Jeff Bezos’s yacht-that-requires-a-yacht, but just know that I’m thinking it.

I think back to the early days of the pandemic when the information we were receiving seemed to be constantly changing, the New York Times reporting on the latest minor and totally not peer-reviewed study out of Country X not really any less damaging than the former President spitballing solutions like injecting sunlight directly into our veins or whatever it was. For all the problems faced by our ancestors who suffered through the Spanish Flu, a calamity that was orders of magnitude worse than COVID, they at least did not have to deal with watching the public response fail repeatedly in real time and be left to try to discern what was truth and what was tantalizing fiction.

A related and perhaps more significant argument to our problem is polarization. There are morons who will share either of the above links on Facebook or Twitter TODAY in spite of the existence of the other article, and the fact that they’re a couple years old at this point. Our increasing inability to abandon the black and white safe zones of our confirmation bias and accept anything in the great wide middle where truth resides contributes to this nagging feeling of societal stupidity, too.

What the hell does any of this have to do with Bluebeard’s Castle?

In 2019, I saw two performances of Bluebeard’s Castle here in New York. One was a semi-staged concert performance at the Philharmonic (paired with Schoenberg’s Erwartung) and the other was a revival of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2015 double bill (paired with Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta). They were both performed well and the orchestras in both cases were, not surprisingly, superb. There was only one problem, and it’s one that afflicts many modern performances.

Here’s Zachary Woolfe on a 2011 production:

Bartok’s one-act opera “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.” The work is a moody, stylized fairy tale about the duke and his new wife, Judith, who after gradually opening seven locked doors in her husband’s castle finally reveals the three former wives he has murdered. As the opera ends, she takes her place among them. Are the wives real? Symbols of Bluebeard’s past? Of the violence inherent in every romantic relationship? In true fin-de-siècle spirit it is all kept strictly ambiguous.

Here’s Anthony Tommasini on a 2015 production:

Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” performed here in the original Hungarian, is a disturbing psychological thriller about a woman drawn to the fearsome Bluebeard’s brooding nature and neediness, this despite the rumors that he may have murdered his previous wives. Judith is convinced that her love can bring light to Bluebeard’s dark life. Yet this surreal tale ends chillingly.

Here’s Zachary Woolfe on the 2019 revival of the 2015 production:

There are some scenic parallels, and the final beat of his “Iolanta” staging darkly suggests that King René — who has kept his daughter hidden for years, ostensibly for her own good — is of a piece with Bluebeard, whose desire to control a series of wives takes a homicidal turn.

Here’s David Salazar at Opera Wire:

Rene cuts off his daughter and her ability to have fulfilling experience while Bluebeard murders his wives.

Let’s be crystal God damned clear here: Bluebeard didn’t murder his wives. A simple glance at the score is all it takes to learn this. After the seventh door opens, these are literally the very the first words sung:

BLUEBEARD: Hearts that I have loved and cherished! See my former loves, sweet Judith.
JUDITH: Living, breathing. They live here!

How did the notion of Bluebeard murdering his wives take such hold as to become the default setting of so many productions? It’s so lazy! And worse, it flies in the face of the Expressionist context in which the work was composed, replacing the subjective with a conventional narrative. The main culprit, as best I can tell, is the omission of the spoken prologue. The composer’s son, Peter, says that “[t]he prologue is an essential part of the opera, as it contains the key to understanding the symbolic message. Its original text explains that the legend is but a frame for presenting our lives and their relation to others.”

What I find even more annoying is that even if you wanted to try to turn this into a strictly narrative tale about a predatory man and attempt to maximize the horrors of Bluebeard, murdering the wives isn’t all that effective because it’s thoroughly uninteresting. You know what’s creepier than murdering your wives? LITERALLY KEEPING THEM ALIVE IN A CASTLE WITH THEIR NECKS DROOPING FROM ALL THE JEWELRY YOU PUT ON THEM!

This is the Billy Madison effect. Adam Sandler movies are simple by their nature. We’re not supposed to think. The whole point is that the plots are simple enough that the zany characters can do anything they want to make us laugh within the rudimentary framework of the story. Coming soon to Netflix: Adam Sandler stars Bluebeard, a wealthy baron looking for love one last time. Will his demented castle get in his way again? Jennifer Aniston stars as Judith, nagging wife number four who is determined to clean Bluebeard’s castle once and for all. Skeletons in the Closet, streaming July 10.

That we have taken one of the true masterpieces of the 20th century in any form or genre and dumbed it down in such a fashion is utterly detestable. Are we really so stupid that we cannot process Bluebeard’s Castle as it was intended?

The reason I take this so personally is because Bluebeard’s Castle speaks so strongly to me. My view of Bluebeard is that he essentially loves and worships these women into his and their oblivion. When the seventh door opens, he prostrates himself before the wives and he adorns them with beautiful jewelry, so much jewelry that the women can hardly stand. He’s tried to make it work with different types of women: morning, afternoon, evening, and now midnight, but the problem is with him and he is unable to escape it. Bluebeard, then, is a sympathetic figure in my estimation. Of course he is…because I’m him.

This is exactly what I did in both of my long-term relationships. I loved both of my exes to the point of the mutual destruction of our respective selves. I ceased to exist but for them, and every ounce of myself was devoted to crowning them over and over and over. The reasons for this are complex, a toxic blend of lacking self-worth, sexual repression, rejection, and questionable models from which to draw upon, but the end result was, in essence, Bluebeard’s Castle.

And I never murdered anybody!