Charming 'Little Prince,' now 50, celebrated in exhibit

December 21, 1993|By Michael Kilian | Michael Kilian,Chicago Tribune

The restaurant tablecloth doodlings of a World War II French combat pilot gave birth to a fantasy-book hero generations of children and adults have cherished ever since: Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince."

The endearing little chap -- whose doodled form Saint-Exupery described to his luncheon companion as "Nothing much. Just a little fellow I carry around in my heart" -- is now 50 years old, an anniversary New York's Pierpont Morgan Library is celebrating with an intimate but extensive exhibition that presents the now-classic book in what amounts to its birth throes -- and sheds a bit of light on its somewhat forgotten author, as well.

On display are Saint-Exupery's original sketches and watercolor illustrations, his original manuscript (which the Morgan Library acquired in 1968 and is shown complete with cigarette burns and coffee cup rings) and some 20 photographs of Saint-Exupery.

At the time of "The Little Prince's" publication, he also was celebrated as the author of several popular adult novels in

addition to being a much-decorated pilot and rather romantic adventurer.

The Morgan show even includes a love letter the ill-fated writer wrote to his wife, Consuelo, whom he had met in Buenos Aires in 1931.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Morgan has produced a 20-minute video on Saint-Exupery and his creation, narrated by Macaulay Culkin and shown daily during the run of the show.

Harcourt Brace is republishing a commemorative edition of "The Little Prince," which sells for $50 and contains prints of 20 original illustrations plus an essay by Morgan director Charles Pierce.

Chicago's Touchstone Theatre has just opened its eighth annual production of "The Little Prince," a rather mystical dramatic presentation that has become a holiday favorite.

In New York, a musical version of the story, starring 12-year-old Ramzi Khalaf (of "Falsettos"), has just opened at the John Houseman Theatre.

A charming tale as fanciful and bizarre as any child's imagination, Saint-Exupery's book relates the encounter between an aviator, marooned in the Sahara desert, and a small crowned visitor from a tiny planet the size of a house, which Saint-Exupery surmises is actually what astronomers have categorized as Solar System asteroid No. B-612. The boy relates his brief life story and his amazing adventures with creatures bad and good -- human and non- -- and helps the aviator through his predicament.

The aviator learns of the dangers of the Baobab tree, which threatens to strangle the tiny planet; how the boy daily cleans out the planet's several minuscule active volcanoes with a broom; of the prince's encounter with the Conceited Man, to whom "all other men are admirers"; his meeting with a businessman whose daily life is squandered counting his assets; and of a snake who welcomes the prince to the Earth.

In one typically wistful passage, the boy notes that, because of his planet's tiny size and frequent revolutions, he gets to see as many as 44 sunsets in the equivalent of an Earth day.

The prince says: " 'You know -- one loves the sunset, when one is so sad.'

" 'Were you so sad, then?' I asked, "on the day of the forty-four sunsets?'

"But the little prince made no reply."

In the end, as the prince and the aviator succumb to the rigors of the desert, it seems the boy has died. But, in the epilogue, the aviator notes he awoke the following morning to find no sign of the boy's body -- leading to the joyful conclusion that the lad simply has returned to his planet.

The publisher originally wanted to hire a professional artist to illustrate the story but later agreed that Saint-Exupery's own unpolished and affectionate sketches and watercolors better reflected the innocence of the boy and his tale.

For all its whimsy and fantasy, the story is intensely autobiographical -- with the prince representing

Saint-Exupery as a boy and the aviator as Saint-Exupery the man.

A pioneering aviator before World War II, Saint-Exupery (1900-1944) made flights from France to South America and Southeast Asia over routes that regularly took him across the Sahara. On a flight in 1935 attempting to set a speed record between Paris and Saigon, he crashed in the Libyan desert and survived three days with almost no food or water until rescued by a passing Bedouin.

It may have been in that experience that "The Little Prince" was conceived -- if only as a figure Saint-Exupery dreamed about.

The son of impoverished aristocrats, he early on decided on military aviation as a career and, while still in his 20s, won the French Legion of Honor for negotiating peace between Spaniards and Moroccans in securing air rights for France in Africa.

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