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A Monthly Culture Matrix For the Cosmopolitan Traveler

Jack and the Beanstalk

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American Repertory Theater / Boston / Stage

The story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” was thought to have originated in the 1500s. But a 2016 study suggests that it may predate the early modern period. Using the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index, a catalogue of folktales, researchers borrowed the methods of evolutionary biologists to root out stories like Jack’s and Rumpelstiltskin’s. The ATU Index assigns numbers to recurring plots, symbols, and characters in folktales, creating a web of connections that reveals the literary genealogy of a tale. It turns out that the story of Jack, the magic beans, and the Giant was likely first told nearly 5,000 years ago. For its annual family holiday show, the American Repertory Theater has transformed this prehistoric story into a new musical fashioned for a digital age. The classic about a boy who traded his cow for some beans, and got much more than he bargained for, is now virtual, and comes with online activities. —C.J.F.

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