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 nonprofit 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 dimland 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 of 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.
In addition to establishing the Night Kitchen, Mr. Sendak has just completed an illustrated version of "I Saw Esau," published by Candlewick Press, a groundbreaking work of traditional children's rhymes and songs by British folklorists Iona and the late Peter Opie. He calls it a "little Mao handbook for children."
When it comes to the rantings of little children on the loose, Mr. Sendak and Mrs. Opie are in accord. "We believe in the essential violence and cannibalism of small human beings. It is necessary in order to survive. Neither of us have a whiff of sentiment attached to childhood."
Mr. Sendak has also signed a contract with TriStar Pictures in Hollywood to produce a series of children's films. "I want them to be totally different," he says. "Away with 'Home Alone,' away with 'Beauty and the Beast,' away with 'Hook.' It's such misguided offal it's unbearable."
As old age approaches, Mr. Sendak is often advised by friends to slow down. For him, that is desertion. "Who can afford to be discreet and cautious these days, and sit home and do kiddie books when the world is flopping?" he asks.
To point his genius in so many directions is "My way of declaring war on something I abhor and hate," Mr. Sendak says. The Los Angeles riots, the depletion of the ozone layer, AIDS, AIDS babies -- "I think of them as almost battlefronts. . . . I might have been dreaming of golf, retirement or suicide, but you have to work triple hard, because . . . everything is so bad. If I have any creative powers at all, I simply have to expand on them.
"I am known," Mr. Sendak admits, "for my Cassandra-like predictions. "They don't call me Morose Sendak for nothing."
A WILD NIGHT
What: The Maryland Committee for Children, an advocate for families since 1945, presents an evening with Maurice Sendak ++ and Arthur Yorinks.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall, at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University.
Tickets: $35, $100.
Call: (410) 752-7588.