Jabberwocky takes an honest look in the mirror and through the looking glass

Photo by Jason Stang

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

     Did gyre and gimble in the wabe…”

So begins Jabberwocky, an Old Trout Puppet Workshop production full of inspired mimsy (playing at the Cultch’s York Theatre until Feb. 17). With skilled puppeteers gimbling about in bug-eyed bunny heads, it’s a spectacle weirder and better than it makes any sense for it to be.

And fair enough, since common sense takes its leave through the looking glass from the start. Nonsensical? Yes, but not without real honesty and a surprising measure of darkness. Jabberwocky tells the story of what it means to chase after meaning, as a boy and as a man. It is a story about masculinity, about the heroic myths we chase after, and the truths we overlook in doing so.

As a baby-hare, a leveret, our hero saw much that confused him, and a few things that frightened him; one scene has him lying in bed, watching a clawing shadow creep ever closer. Running to his parents’ room, the youngster peers through the keyhole as Ma and Pa do what rabbits are famous for doing (a giant keyhole is held up so that the audience can experience this unsettling viewpoint).

At his home, lines from the poem play on the radio, warnings of the frumious Bandersnatch like grainy wartime propaganda. The mother hare irons shirts endlessly, enveloped in an unbroken cloud of steam. The father hare slumps in a chair with a drink, but when faced with a crisis he rises up and draws his sword. He rushes out— so this is what it means to be a man!

The young hare is inspired and later sets forth on a quest to slay the Jabberwock, whatever the beast may be. Lewis Carroll never made it clear. In Through the Looking Glass, Alice finds the curious poem and doesn’t know what to make of it. “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.”

The poem mixes the hero’s quest to vanquish evil with poppycock like “gimbled” and “burbled”. Part of what makes Jabberwocky, the play, so memorable is that is succeeds in doing just the same. It’s a lot of overheated nonsense. But it also seems to fill the head with ideas. “Nonsense,” as the Trouts’ puppeteers observe, “is a variety of nihilism with a sense of humour, which is a strange philosophical disposition for children’s book writing but seems to have been a sort of Victorian obsession.”

Jabberworky switches between a two-dimensional cartoon style and having the puppeteers dress up as human-sized hares. As the puppeteers describe, this style pays homage to “toy theatres” which were popular diversions in Victorian times. Basically, these were do-it-yourself kits with cutout paper puppets and sets that you could use to entertain guests, who presumably enjoyed an occasional evening of amateur puppetry. (The things we used to do before television!)

At times, Jabberwocky feels like the kid’s cartoon Arthur, and at others, like Frank the Rabbit from Donnie Darko has hopped on stage. As we follow our young hare through some challenging times, this switch between the cartoonish and the eerie works perfectly.

The young hare rushes out, armed with a vorpal blade, but he won’t find the Jabberwock waiting for him. All the trials and tribulations of the world aren’t neatly embodied in a beast burbling for a fight. They are everywhere and nowhere— spread over the mundane toil of adult life like a thin, grey film. The Jabberwock, it seems, is just a bunch of childish jabber.

In the same work in which the poem appeared, Carroll wrote, “everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it”. Of course, this line came from the Duchess who, like everyone else in Wonderland, was quite mad. Despite the puppetry, or maybe because of it, Jabberwocky is honest about what it means to deal with disillusionment and about how to find meaning in a world without a single solitary Jubjub bird. For this we have another saying of Carroll’s: “One of the secrets of life is that all that is really worth the doing is what we do for others.”



’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

     Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

     And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

     The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

     The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;

     Long time the manxome foe he sought—

So rested he by the Tumtum tree

     And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,

     The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

     And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through

     The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

     He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

     Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

     He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

     Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

     And the mome raths outgrabe.

Source: The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (1983)