SStage Direction

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s poignant tale of a young prince who visits different planets is both a reminder of our common humanity – and a salve for our late-capitalist world. Neha Kale looks at how the classic story lives on in the 21st century.

Stage Direction’ is our new series looking at how a classic text goes from page to Opera House stage. In this first edition: the endlessly relevant The Little Prince, transformed now into a live event of circus and dance.

To fly is a portal to freedom. But to crash is its nightmarish inverse, a prospect terrifying in its finality. For Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, aviation disasters weren’t necessarily endings. They could spell new kinds of beginnings. What better than a life-and-death circumstance to bring long-buried wisdom and clarity to light? In 1935, the celebrated French writer-aviator – Saint-Ex to his friends – piloted a touring monoplane that failed in the Libyan desert.

There, he battled dehydration. He subsisted on white wine, two oranges and a thermos of coffee. Years later, in exile in New York City, he spun this experience into one of the most -loved children’s books in history, a novella that’s sold 140 million copies, translated into 300 languages – The Little Prince. 

“For me, The Little Prince is a book for everybody – it’s more for adults than for children,” laughs Anne Tournié. The acclaimed French director and choreographer, along with co-director Chris Mouron, is behind the newest adaptation of The Little Prince, which shows at the Opera House from 26 May. “His writing can inspire you for life.”

“The reason that everybody loves The Little Prince is that everyone recognises themselves in the story,” grins Mouron, an award-winning singer-songwriter who has toured the world for two decades. “When something very important happens in your life as a child, [the book says] ‘I am not alone, I’m not the only one in the world that has this emotion.’ There’s a sentence: ‘All grown-ups were once children…but only a few of them remember it.’”

Stage Direction’ is our new written series telling the stories behind the stories, and looking at how a text goes from page to Opera House stage. In this first edition: the endlessly relevant The Little Prince, transformed now into a live event of circus and dance.

To fly is a portal to freedom. But to crash is its nightmarish inverse, a prospect terrifying in its finality. For Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, aviation disasters weren’t necessarily endings. They could spell new kinds of beginnings. What better than a life-and-death circumstance to bring long-buried wisdom and clarity to light? In 1935, the celebrated French writer-aviator – Saint-Ex to his friends – piloted a touring monoplane that failed in the Libyan desert.

There, he battled dehydration. He subsisted on white wine, two oranges and a thermos of coffee. Years later, in exile in New York City, he spun this experience into one of the most -loved children’s books in history, a novella that’s sold 140 million copies, translated into 300 languages – The Little Prince. 

Antoine de Saint Exupéry next to the wreck of his 'Caudron C.630 Simoun' (Image: Bureau d’Archives des Accidents d’Avions)

Antoine de Saint Exupéry next to the wreck of his 'Caudron C.630 Simoun' (Image: Bureau d’Archives des Accidents d’Avions)

“For me, The Little Prince is a book for everybody – it’s more for adults than for children,” laughs Anne Tournié. The acclaimed French director and choreographer, along with co-director Chris Mouron, is behind the newest adaptation of The Little Prince, which shows at the Opera House from 26 May. “His writing can inspire you for life.”

“The reason that everybody loves The Little Prince is that everyone recognises themselves in the story,” grins Mouron, an award-winning singer-songwriter who has toured the world for two decades. “When something very important happens in your life as a child, [the book says] ‘I am not alone, I’m not the only one in the world that has this emotion.’ There’s a sentence: ‘All grown-ups were once children…but only a few of them remember it.’”

Antoine de Saint Exupéry next to the wreck of his 'Caudron C.630 Simoun' (Image: Bureau d’Archives des Accidents d’Avions)

Antoine de Saint Exupéry next to the wreck of his 'Caudron C.630 Simoun' (Image: Bureau d’Archives des Accidents d’Avions)

Saint-Exupéry was famously childlike. He dropped waterbombs from windows. He liked to read books in the cockpit, which occasionally threw off his concentration. The Little Prince is narrated by a pilot whose plane has crashed in the desert. It tells the story of a small prince, a traveller from a far-flung asteroid, who lives alone with a single rose.

On his voyage he visits other planets occupied by adults whose behaviour he finds perplexing. There’s a conceited man desperate for his audience to admire him. A businessman who has no time for daydreaming. A lamplighter who lights his world with a streetlamp but can’t rest because of the speed at which it’s spinning.

The Little Prince was written in a world shaped by the rise of fascism, a war that had bred mass death and redrawn global borders, and a pervading mood of anxiety and isolation. Like many Frenchmen of his era, Saint-Exupéry fled France for New York City in 1940 after his country fell to Germany.

The wreckage of his last flight, a Lockheed Lightning aircraft, was discovered in 2004 off the coast of Marseilles, where the production staged its January 2019 premiere.

Saint-Exupéry looms large in the cultural imagination and The Little Prince is almost eerily relevant to the present day.

The conceited man, for instance, asks the little prince to clap his hands for him, recalling the narcissism of social media, the way it yokes happiness to validation. In Tournié and Mouron’s version, which combines dance, video-mapping technology and aerial acrobatics, the character takes selfies. “We made it a little more modern,” says Mouron.

The businessman believes he owns the stars. “And of what use is it to own the stars?” the little prince asks. “Its use is to make me rich,” the businessman responds. This exchange recalls the worst instincts of late capitalism, its habit of framing nature in terms of monetary value.

The Little Prince - presented by the Sydney Opera House in association with Broadway Entertainment Group.

Images: Philippe Hanula

The Little Prince - presented by the Sydney Opera House in association with Broadway Entertainment Group.

Images: Philippe Hanula

For Tournié, the book powerfully evokes the kinship between humans and non-human. “The message of ecology is very strong,” she says. “[It’s about] taking care of each other, taking care of animals. We have to respect each other, not trash things. As a human being, it is essential.”

The Little Prince, unsurprisingly, has attracted many adaptations. In 1981, a musical theatre production called The Little Prince and the Aviator debuted on Broadway. In 2015, the book gave rise to an animated Netflix film, starring Paul Rudd, Jeff Bridges and James Franco.  

 French-Italian 3D animated film The Little Prince (2015)

 French-Italian 3D animated film The Little Prince (2015)

The Little Prince owes its power to the brevity of its prose and the simplicity of its allegory. When Tournié and Mouron were adapting it, they were led by the elegance of Saint-Exupéry’s language and the essential elements of the text.

“It was totally clear that The Little Prince was an acrobat,” says Mouron, who narrates the production and sings to music by composer Terry Truck.  “It was so clear that the lamplighter was a flying acrobat, the rose a female dancer, the aviator a dancer also. It’s very, very complicated to [adapt] a masterpiece, to make the audience completely free when they see the piece. We wanted it to be really respectful.” She smiles. “I didn’t want to change a single comma.”

The Little Prince shows at the Joan Sutherland Theatre from 26 May to 6 June 2021. Find out more.

For Tournié, the book powerfully evokes the kinship between humans and non-human. “The message of ecology is very strong,” she says. “[It’s about] taking care of each other, taking care of animals. We have to respect each other, not trash things. As a human being, it is essential.”

The Little Prince, unsurprisingly, has attracted many adaptations. In 1981, a musical theatre production called The Little Prince and the Aviator debuted on Broadway. In 2015, the book gave rise to an animated Netflix film, starring Paul Rudd, Jeff Bridges and James Franco.  

 French-Italian 3D animated film The Little Prince (2015)

 French-Italian 3D animated film The Little Prince (2015)

The Little Prince owes its power to the brevity of its prose and the simplicity of its allegory. When Tournié and Mouron were adapting it, they were led by the elegance of Saint-Exupéry’s language and the essential elements of the text.

“It was totally clear that The Little Prince was an acrobat,” says Mouron, who narrates the production and sings to music by composer Terry Truck.  “It was so clear that the lamplighter was a flying acrobat, the rose a female dancer, the aviator a dancer also. It’s very, very complicated to [adapt] a masterpiece, to make the audience completely free when they see the piece. We wanted it to be really respectful.” She smiles. “I didn’t want to change a single comma.”

The Little Prince shows at the Joan Sutherland Theatre from 26 May to 6 June 2021. Find out more.