Wild AT Heart Sendak is outraged by the stifling state of creative work for children

May 22, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

At 63, after generations and generations of his readers have grown up to become well-mannered, law-abiding citizens, Maurice Sendak continues to probe the primitive powers of children.

In dreamy, funny, homely illustrations alive with music and movement, and in prose informed by muses Blake and Melville, Mr. Sendak has rewarded children's primal honesty with his own since his first appearance as a published illustrator in "The Wonderful Farm" by Marcel Ayme in 1951.

"It is my involvement with this inescapable fact of childhood -- the awful vulnerability of children and their struggle to make themselves King of All Wild Things -- that gives my work whatever truth and passion it may have," Mr. Sendak said in 1964 after receiving the prestigious Caldecott Medal for "Where the Wild Things Are."

As co-founders of the Night Kitchen, a national children's theater company based in New York, Mr. Sendak and children's author Arthur Yorinks are taking their crusade for truth and passion to the stage. Next Wednesday, at a joint benefit in Baltimore for the non-profit Night Kitchen and the Maryland Committee for Children, the two old friends will read from their work and discuss their art and theater.

Nearly 30 years after Max's taming of the Wild Things first horrified over-protective adults, and 22 years after baby Mickey's nude descent to slumber in "The Night Kitchen" prompted librarians everywhere to clothe his genitals in ink, the creative climate is still stifling, Mr. Sendak says.

"I thought we've been through it . . . [but] we have swung back so violently to such a reactionary time. It's worse than [Sen. Joseph] McCarthy times. You never get out of the dim land of controversy," he says by phone from his home in Connecticut.

Similarly, children are still getting double-crossed by mass culture, Mr. Sendak says in a comfortable, gravelly voice. "The preconceived notion of what's appropriate for children seems to never change -- that kind of sinister, boring taboo persists no matter what social changes occur."

All the more reason to launch the Night Kitchen, which will premiere early next year with "Really Rosie," a musical written by Mr. Sendak and Carole King, which premiered as an animated film in the early '70s. The season will continue with a chamber opera based on Mr. Yorinks' "Hey, Al," a fantastic tale of a janitor and his dog, with music by Peter Schickele.

Mr. Yorinks is planning a new, unnamed comedy with New York writer and performer Bill Irwin for the theater's first season. Mr. Sendak and Mr. Yorinks are also collaborating on a full-length, non-musical version of "Peter Pan" that will tap some of the sadder veins coursing through the James M. Barrie classic. The season will conclude with Humperdinck's opera "Hansel & Gretel," designed by Mr. Sendak.

The Night Kitchen fills a cultural chasm, Mr. Yorinks says in a separate phone interview. "It is clear we have neglected children in all areas of culture and art . . . we tend to think that if we give kids anything in the arts, it has to be reduced. If it's either a play or opera -- if you can get to that -- it has to be simple, and that's a big mistake. Kids are not simple. Kids are complicated. They have feelings and ideas, and all kinds of experience that are the opposite of simple."

Blindness to children's capacity to understand makes it tough to raise money for the Night Kitchen, Mr. Yorinks says. "On the one hand, when we approach people, they say, 'That's fantastic.' Then we start talking about what it really costs, and people get this look on their face as if to say, 'But it's only for kids.' Even enlightened presenters are used to spending almost nothing."

When Mr. Sendak and Mr. Yorinks, 38, first met over 20 years ago when the younger man arrived on the older man's doorstep with a collection of stories he had written, it was creative kismet. Both the youngest siblings born into Brooklyn families, they were allowed to flourish -- Mr. Sendak as an artist, Mr. Yorinks as a pianist -- without the barriers that often divide the pursuits of children from those of adults. Neither man attended college, but steeped themselves in literature, music, theater, movies and the visual arts and took jobs that were fruitful artistic apprenticeships. In his first full-time job, Mr. Sendak built models for a window-display company. All that he and Mr. Yorinks absorbed became inextricably intertwined with their own inventions and enabled them to expand easily to other disciplines.

In the past 10 years, Mr. Sendak has designed sets for many operas and ballets. Mr. Yorinks, formally trained as a pianist, fell in love with writing and the theater. The author of several children's books, including "Louis the Fish," "Bravo Minski" and "Oh Brother," in partnership with illustrator Richard Egielski, (thanks to matchmaker Sendak), Mr. Yorinks has fused his literary and musical skills to write for opera, ballet, film and theater.

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