Over twenty years ago my wife, Debby, and I received as a gift from my parents a collector plate showing a scene from a Russian fairy tale. I didn’t recognize the story depicted in the beautiful bordered illustration, but I was quite taken by it; and also by the plate’s design, color and unique style.
Perhaps five years after this, I was reading a volume of Russian fairy tales when one story in particular jumped out at me. It seemed vaguely familiar, although I knew I had not read it. At one point in the tale, Prince Ivan was flying on the back of his friend, the wolf, with a lovely princess. I went to the dining room and saw what appeared to be this very scene illustrated on our special plate! I took it down from the wall and finally read the small print on the back. It read: The Firebird. The stories were the same.
I have been very drawn to this story ever since. But it would be more accurate to call it a vast story tradition. For I have discovered that aside from Russian folklore, the themes and images of The Firebird exist in Grimm’s and Andersen fairy tales and, more broadly, as The Phoenix in Greek, Chinese, Egyptian and Arabian mythology. Within all traditions of the tale, details and characters vary greatly from story to story.
In early 2004, when I committed to creating a marionette show of “our plate,” I entered the project knowing I had a vast amount of characters and storylines to choose from for an original production. I have held mainly to the Russian narratives and Grimm’s story of The Golden Bird as a foundation. But perhaps most interesting to me has become the singular character of “The Friend,” who appears in so many versions of the tale. In structuring the play, Friend became as indispensable to me as he is to Prince Ivan, the central character. What I ultimately found in this story through him has been a very special and surprising revelation.