Faerie Tale Theatre 2.02: “The Nightingale”

In many ways, this is one of Faerie Tale Theatre‘s most no-frills episodes. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t have bits of comedy and some beautiful costume and set design, because it certainly does, but it mostly sticks to the original story, without the asides, embellishments, and slightly anachronistic humor of other episodes. Here, the humor is mostly quite gentle and subtle, at times gently mocking court politics and the behavior of sycophants to the throne but never the culture. There’s also a clever little bit when members of the court pass by a frog with a crown on his head, a nifty nod to the earlier episode, The Tale of the Frog Prince.

For those who don’t know, The Nightingale is the lovely tale of an emperor who learns that the world’s greatest beauty and joy often comes not from garish gold but from more unassuming packages. In short: an emperor learns of a small, gray nightingale capable of creating the most beautiful music, and asks that she be brought to him. The nightingale sings for him, and he is absolutely enchanted by her song. She, however, is unpredictable and can’t be controlled, and looks commonplace on the outside.

Then, one day, he is gifted with a beautiful, golden, clockwork nightingale that also produces a beautiful song, however it can only play the one over and over, and needs to be wound up on a regular basis. Everyone at court fawns over the new bird because it is so much more physically beautiful than the original bird and isn’t constantly surprising them with new songs, and due to their reactions, appealing to his love of wealth and power, he agrees to banish the nightingale, despite his better judgment. (Here, there is a wee bit of unintended irony that the “real” nightingale–a possibly animatronic puppet–looks just as stiff and nearly as un-life-like as the clockwork one.)

One day, however, the clockwork bird finally breaks from being used one too many times, and the Emperor falls deathly ill, personified as an actual figure of death stalking the emperor’s bed. In the end, the original bird agrees to come back, and sings for the Emperor. Her song is so beautiful that it practically takes Death’s breath away, and it agrees to leave the Emperor, whose health instantly improves, and from then on, he values inner, natural beauty over all of the riches in the world.

Faerie Tale Theatre doesn’t stray far from the original tale, other than:

(a) expanding the role of the servant girl who first introduces the emperor to the bird. Here, we learn that she has loved the emperor for a long time, and unlike others at court, it isn’t for her own aggrandizement or in order to rise in the ranks. She is the only one to grieve for the emperor when he’s dying, and even goes to fetch the nightingale in an attempt to save him. The episode wisely uses her as a parallel to the nightingale throughout, another example of beauty and wisdom in a humble package. And just as the nightingale consents to continue to be a companion to the emperor, so does this servant girl consent to be his wife. Barbara Hershey plays the role, and she’s wonderful, although I do admit, having most recently seen her as the evil, manipulative Cora on Once Upon a Time, it is a bit jarring to see her all sweet and innocent here. “What is your nefarious plan?!” I kept thinking.

(b) the addition of a prime minister character played by Edward James Olmos (Captain Adama!!), who has his sights set on the throne. Not a huge role, but an example of one of the vipers at court who care only for status and wealth and stand diametrically opposed to the goodness of the kitchen maid and the nightingale.

Oh, and I can’t not mention the Music Master, played by Bud Cort, because, well, it’s one of the most absolutely bizarre things I’ve ever seen, and certainly the most over-the-top aspect of the episode. You remember David Bowie’s character, Jareth the Goblin King from Labyrinth? Well, as you can see in this super-cut, he’s basically Jareth the Goblin King from Labyrinth:

Dance, Magic Dance!

Previous: Rapunzel

Next: Sleeping Beauty

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Author: Robert Berg

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