Yes, the original E.T.A. Hoffman story Nutcracker and Mouse King (1816) does indeed contain a ballet scene! The French adaptation by Alexandre Dumas, The Tale of the Nutcracker (1845), which the first Nutcracker ballet was based on, does as well. However, the scene is given a humorous/satirical treatment in both versions. It’s not exactly a fluffy divertissement, though it does take place in the realm of sweets, the Act II equivalent in the Nutcracker ballet…
Here’s Hoffman’s version:
“Nutcracker clapped his little hands, and along came a few small shepherds and shepherdesses, hunters and huntswomen, who were so white and tender that you could have believed them to be pure sugar, that Marie had not yet noticed, even though they had been strolling in the woods. They brought over a favorite gold armchair, placed a white cushion of licorice upon it, and very courteously invited Marie to settle down. No sooner had she done so than shepherds and shepherdesses came and danced a very pretty ballet, whereby the hunters blew their instruments quite decently. But then they all vanished in the bushes.
“Forgive me,” said Nutcracker, “forgive me, dearest Demoiselle Stahlbaum, for doing such a miserable dance. You see, the dancers all came from our marionette ballet, which is controlled by wires, and which can only do the same things over and over again. There are also good reasons why the hunters were so drowsy and feeble in their blowing. The sugar basket does hang at nose level on the Christmas tree, but it’s still too high. Well, why don’t we stroll a bit more?”
– (E. T. A. Hoffmann, Alexandre Dumas, Nutcracker and Mouse King and the Tale of the Nutcracker, Translated by Joachim Neugroschel, Introduction by Jack Zipes, (United States of America: Penguin Classics, 2007), p. 49)
The Dumas version, however, doesn’t offer the marionette explanation…
“No sooner was she [Marie] sitting than, as is customary in operas, the shepherds and shepherdesses, the huntsmen and huntswomen took their positions. They began to dance a delightful ballet accompanied by horns. The huntsmen blew the horns in a very masculine way that colored their faces so that they looked as if they had made preserves of roses. When the performance was done, they vanished in the bushes.
“Please forgive me, my dear Mademoiselle Silberhaus,” said Nutcracker, giving Marie his hand. “Forgive me for offering you such a dreadful ballet. These rascals can only keep reiterating the same choreography that they’ve performed a hundred times. As for the huntsmen, they blew their horns like good-for-nothings. I assure you that I’ll be dealing with them all. Let’s leave these nobodies and let’s continue our promenade, if you please.”
– (E. T. A. Hoffmann, Alexandre Dumas, Nutcracker and Mouse King and the Tale of the Nutcracker, Translated by Joachim Neugroschel, Introduction by Jack Zipes, (United States of America: Penguin Classics, 2007), p. 142)
Jack Zipes, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics volume of the Hoffman and Dumas Nutcracker stories, writes that “Dumas had no facility with the German language, and it is unclear whether he translated “Nutcracker and Mouse King” or whether he had the tale translated for him to adapt.” (p.xxvi)
I don’t know if Dumas’ poor understanding of German played a role in the differences between his ballet scene and Hoffman’s, but, it also seems possible that Dumas could have been using this passage to critique the theater of his day, implying that the choreography in ballets was repetitive and unoriginal…What do you think? Leave your thoughts and insights in the comments! 🙂