Friday, June 11, 2010

Dichotomous Motherhood in the Stage Version of Mary Poppins

Taegan sent several postcards from New York, two of them specifically about Mary Poppins . She was quite enthusiastic about the show; as she writes on one card to her Aunt Katie, “The maery papins sowe was so coll my faivret peat was win maery popins flide of the stage.” I, too, was impressed with the show’s special effects. Not only does Mary Poppins make a grand exit through the rafters of the theater, as Taegan points out in her short note to my sister-in-law, but the magical nanny also appears on the stage out of nowhere toward the beginning of the production and later proceeds to pull a hat stand and a floor lamp from her carpet bag, just like in the movie! And although the play doesn’t include the tea-party-on-the-ceiling scene from the book and the film, it does boast its own episode of ceiling gymnastics, which I won’t spoil with any further details. In any case, my aim here is to report on the show’s portrayal of Mrs. Banks—and motherhood in general—a portrayal which I see as limiting women in some unfortunate ways.

Before arriving at the New Amsterdam Theatre and reading through the information in the show bill, I didn’t realize that the stage version of Mary Poppins is actually the result of a combined effort between Disney and legendary producer Cameron Mackintosh. It therefore incorporates many of the beloved Disney songs and scenes, but it also includes additional material, some drawn from the stories in the original PL Travers texts. This combination was, of course, instructive for Taegan, as she is learning that a text can change dramatically as it is adapted from one genre to another.

One of the changes that Mackintosh makes is the introduction of an additional mother figure besides Mary Poppins and Mrs. Banks. His cast of characters also includes Miss Andrew, a dictatorial and cruel nanny who raised Mr. Banks himself and briefly returns to the Banks nursery to try her hand at taming the out-of-control Jane and Michael. Miss Andrew is promptly turned out—in fact, she is trapped in a giant bird cage and disappears with a flash of light to beneath the stage—by the “practically perfect in every way” Mary Poppins. In Miss Andrew, the show offers us an explanation for Mr. Banks’s cold and unforgiving demeanor. Mr. Banks is not responsible for his neglect and mistreatment of his wife and children; instead, his childhood nanny is to blame. We therefore pity him as he repeatedly sneaks into his study to escape the commotion of a household with children and when he grimaces as Mrs. Banks attempts to land a kiss. Mr. Banks’s personality changes—indeed, he turns out to be kind and attentive to both the children and Mrs. Banks—only when the good mother figure, Mary Poppins, enters his home. As Christopher Rawsen points out, then, “’Mary Poppins’ is really about the liberation of a middle-aged man” (par. 10). And this liberation comes at the hands of Mary Poppins, who proceeds to dole out a metaphorical “spoonful of sugar”—in contrast to Miss Andrew’s “brimstone and treacle”—in every instance when any sort of “medicine” must “go down” in the Banks household. In this way, the show points to “bad” mothering as the ultimate source of a man’s shortcomings as a husband and father. It also posits motherhood as dichotomous, with Miss Andrew as purely evil and Mary Poppins the ideal mother figure.

While Miss Andrew certainly serves as scapegoat for Mr. Banks’s early cold-heartedness, the narrative makes it perfectly clear that Mr. Banks’s biological mother is equally to blame in that she turned the young George Banks over to Miss Andrew’s supervision. At one point during the production Mr. Banks attempts to conjure up memories of his mother and recalls that as a child he often went for days without seeing her. A good mother, it is implied, does not neglect the full-time care of her children. By the end of the play, both Mr. and Mrs. Banks have learned this lesson, as they agree that they no longer have need of Mary Poppins or any other nanny, as Mrs. Banks will tend to Jane and Michael herself. In this, of course, the show ends much like the Disney movie, when Mrs. Banks uses her suffragist sash as a tail for the children’s kite. In Mackintosh’s version, though, Mrs. Banks’s dedication to the cause of votes for women gets a slight makeover. Instead of a suffragist, at the beginning of the play Mrs. Banks is a former actress, still pining for a career onstage. At the end, however, she rededicates herself to the care of her children, assuring the newly compassionate Mr. Banks that she will be most happy to take over the duties of the nursery. In this way, this Mrs. Banks’s desire for fulfillment outside of the home is subjugated to motherhood in a similar way as it is in the movie, only minus the overt—and perhaps disturbing, to a contemporary audience—symbol of the suffragist sash blowing in the breeze as a kite tail.

Overall, then, the play not only reasserts the message of the Disney film version, that the foundation of a functional and loving family is a self-sacrificing mother, but it also outlines the disastrous consequences of bad mothering in its portrayal of Mr. Banks as psychologically scarred by the neglect of his biological mother and his upbringing at the hands of Miss Andrew. The message of the stage adaptation of the Mary Poppins story has not changed much from that of the 1964 film. If anything, the message is even harsher for women of today: put aside your interests in order to mother your children full-time, or else your children will lose touch with their humanity.

I do find one anomaly in the show’s depiction of Mrs. Banks. As the narrative progresses, she seems to grow less and less willing to stay out of her husband’s affairs. By the end, she insists—reasonably enough, of course—that he discuss with her his concerns regarding his career. But then she goes so far as to show up at the bank during Mr. Banks’s meeting with his bosses and insist that they triple his salary. This maneuver is portrayed as successful; the bank elders yield easily to her demand, and her husband seems grateful for her interference. I’m not sure what to make of this scene, given Mrs. Banks’s otherwise easy reconciliation with the role of stay-at-home mom. It seems to point to the desire of a twentieth-first-century audience to see female characters who are able to achieve “the best of both worlds,” to both mother their children on a full-time basis and move freely and confidently in the public realm. Perhaps this scene functions to reassure women who work in the home, then, that they will be respected in the public sphere despite—or indeed because of—their commitment to their children and homes in the private sphere. I’m open to ideas here . . .

Works Cited

Rawsen, Christopher. “Stage Review: ‘Mary Poppins’ Makes Trip to Broadway in Lavish Style.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 17 Nov. 2006. ( 11 Jun 2010.


  1. Interesting--and disappointingly the same, apparently.

    As I'm thinking about this, the one thing that sticks out in my memory was a kind of contempt for Mrs. Banks (the movie version) for her so OBVIOUS deference to her husband, even and especially in the face of her suffragette rebellion. It made her a less sympathetic or likable character, even to my childhood/adolescent mind. I'm not sure they did themselves any favors by making her such an idiot.

    On the other hand, she like her husband does seem more grown up by the end. So perhaps the message to stay home and put your children first remains intact after all.

    Or perhaps the message might arguably be to simply to grow up and be a good parent, whatever that might look like? (I was thinking the other day, I'd have been a much better mother if I'd been more emotionally mature . . . which wouldn't necessarily have precluded creating a life *I* loved, perhaps?! Of course, that assumes a certain level of maturity!)

  2. Dani, you are right. Mrs. Banks's demeanor is more "grown up" in the end. And she seems to come to regard her suffragette activities as childish and something that she must put aside in order to be a good mother. All in all, the movie really uses feminism as the butt of the joke, I think. Mrs. Banks must remove herself from the frivolity of the suffragette movement in order to become a real woman, a good mother. Interesting, though, that although she kind of acts more grown up, Mrs. Banks does not assert her own personhood in the end anymore than she does in the beginning. She remains completely subservient to her husband's desires, following him mindlessly as he seems to lose touch with reality and go on an outing with the children and fly kites after he loses his job.

    Thanks so much, Dani!! You make me think!