This week, I celebrated my birthday by taking some friends to see Matilda on Broadway. This was my third time seeing the show, tying with my previous record of seeing Next to Normal three times, and as expected, it was delightful. All of the principles except for Karen Aldridge as Mrs. Phelps had changed since the last time I saw the show, and Christopher Sieber as Miss Trunchbull and Matt Harrington as Mr. Wormwood were especially great.
What spurred this blog, however, was a conversation that I had with Cassie Silva at the stage door. Silva was playing Mrs. Wormwood that night, and after chatting with me and checking out last year’s Halloween pictures of me as Miss Trunchbull, she asked me about my love for the show and particularly the show’s larger-than-life villainess. I offered a vague comment, something about how she gets to do things and go to places that other villains do not, but this was really to spare her from standing in the winter cold, listening to a much, much longer explanation.
Why do I love Agatha Trunchbull? For what reason have I felt compelled to make fan art, memorize some of her most memorable lines, and dress up as her for Halloween? Here is why.
Her Sense of Humor
Agatha Trunchbull is cruel and cutting, but her humor is always on-point. Are her insults mean? Of course, but they are also clever and infinitely quotable. Here are just a few of my favorites:
“He should have thought about that before he made a pact with Satan and decided to steal my cake!”
“Nonsense, haven’t I just told you that she is a gangster?”
“I shall crush you. I shall pound you. I shall consign you to the seventh circle of hell.”
“Oh, no, you are not ‘full.’ I’ll tell you when you are full. And I say that criminals like you are not full until you have eaten the entire cake.”
“Do you think I would allow myself to be defeated by these maggots, do you? Who do you think I am, Miss Honey? A weakling? An idiot? A fool? You?”
“You believe in kindness, and fluffiness, and books, and stories . . . This is not teaching!”
And of course, there is this absolutely perfect take-down from Act 2:
“How dare you. You are not fit to be at this school. You ought to be in prison! In the deepest, dankest, darkest prison! I shall have you wheeled out, strapped to a trolley with a muzzle over your mouth! I shall crush you. I shall pound you. I shall dissect you, madam! I shall strap you to a table and perform experiments on you! All of these disgusting little slugs shall suffer the most appalling indignities because of you. Yes, you! I shall feed you to the termites. And then I shall smash the termites into tiny fragments. And then I shall crush those tiny fragments into dust. And then I shall take the dust and feed it to the bloodworms. Then the bloodworms I shall feed to birds and the birds I shall release into the air and shoot them down with my 12 balled shotgun and so on, and so on, an infinitum madam, and infinitum.
Your father is a crook and so are you. Last night I was driving home and the monstrosity of an engine fell out. Well what do you say to that madam? You say nothing, and there is nothing you can say because you are genetically predisposed to evil and you must be destroyed before you are allowed to go on and grow a centimeter taller than you currently are. Vomit! Puke! Snot Stain are you listening? All of these disgusting little slugs shall suffered the most appalling indignities because of you, yes you! I shall rip the rebellion out of this class and devour it whole. I shall hang each and every one of you upside down by your ankles until all of your bodily fluids drain out through your noses and into jars, yes jars, which will be sent home to your parents with your school reports on which I shall write ‘Could do better!’.
Miss Honey has allowed her weakness and filth to permeate through this miserable collection of excuses for children and you, madam, standing there before me like the squit of squids, are its beating heart. You are the axis of evil, you are the nexus of necrosis, you are a rotting lump of pure wrong. You are the dark heart of all that is unholy in this land, a black hole of wrongheadedness from which, no light, no strength, no discipline can escape. But I am a match for you, madam. In me you have met the avenger, the spirit of all that is right. And I tell you there is nothing I shall not do, no length to which I shall not go, no punishment I shall not inflict, no ear I shall not stretch, no finger I shall not snap back to defeat you. Yes, I defeat you in exaltation, do you hear? Are you listening? Are you listening madam?”
I think everyone wishes they had a clever comeback in everyday life, so even though I don’t agree with the targets of her ire, I wish I had the confidence and quick-thinking to say exactly what I want in the moment.
Her Physical Strength
Usually when a story has a villainess instead of a villain, she is not physically intimidating. So many villainesses are femme fatale characters, relying on their street smarts and sexuality to get what they want. Agatha Trunchbull is sharp, but she also poses a physical threat to most people who encounter her, children and adults, male and female alike. She flat-out murders her brother-in-law Magnus, who is an escapologist and a professional athlete.
Unlike other female characters who will manipulate men to be their muscle, Agatha is the muscle. Unfortunately, she uses her strength to harm and bully people weaker than her, but as a character, she represents the minority of female villains who do not get physically intimidated easily.
Many young women talk about how Ursula from The Little Mermaid is an important character to them because of her size and curves. In her own way, Agatha Trunchbull is an important character because of her size.
There are very few prominent female characters in Broadway theater that look like Agatha Trunchbull. Not only is she very tall, she is enormous, athletic, and muscular. This is a woman who could take on the Rock or Hulk Hogan in the ring, and I honestly don’t know who would come out on top.
For this reason, I have always felt conflicted about having a man play the role of Agatha Trunchbull. So few juicy roles are written for women of that size and stature, and I would love to see someone like Dot-Marie Jones have a chance at the role. Casting directors might argue that they don’t encounter enough women with the right build to play the role, much less the acting, singing, and dancing abilities, but the men playing this part are wearing substantial prosthetics. What is stopping a taller actress from bulking up with some well-placed padding? I think casting for the role should be open to both men and women if it isn’t already because it could inspire young girls, who don’t typically see characters that look like them on-stage, to pursue acting.
A Warning to Matilda
At its core, the musical adaptation of Matilda is about the cycle of bullying. Matilda is bullied on a daily basis at home and at school, and she sees two prime examples of what bullying does to a person in Miss Honey and Miss Trunchbull. Miss Honey was bullied by her aunt, Miss Trunchbull, and as a result, she is quiet and reserved. She struggles with self-doubt and depression, constantly calling herself “silly” and “a fool.” When she has a gifted student like Matilda, she is easily discouraged by naysayers like Mrs. Wormwood and Miss Trunchbull, and she does not fight her aunt’s ownership of her father’s house. As a result of bullying, she does not love herself, and she does not see herself as being worthy of love or respect.
It is never explicitly said that Agatha Trunchbull was bullied as a child, but there are clues, particularly in Bertie Carvel’s interpretation of the role. Her devotion to rules, order, and discipline is almost religious in nature. She believes that so long as she follows society’s rules and disciplines herself, she will be a winner and get what she wants. It reminds me of people who tell bright but socially awkward teenagers that everything will be better after high school, and once they get into the real world, they will immediately find friends and their place in the world. Does it happen sometimes? Yes, absolutely. Some of my best and most meaningful friendships were forged after high school, but not everyone is going to have a Cinderella story in the “real world.” The 2014 film The Skeleton Twins addressed this damaging myth poignantly. Milo, played by Bill Hader, tells his sister how everyone said life would get better for him after high school, and all the jocks that bullied him would end up working at gas stations. The truth is that he looks them up on Facebook, and they have wives and children. They are happy and successful, and he is not. Good people still have bad things happen to them. People who follow the rules are not guaranteed to get what they want.
Imagine going through high school as Agatha Trunchbull, this large athletic girl who doesn’t seem to have many friends. She embraces hard-work and discipline as the answer to her problems, and it pays off in Olympic medals. With all of her accomplishments, however, she still lives in her sister’s shadow. Her sister, the acrobat, is beloved and admired for her athletic skills. Together with her husband, she has built a successful act and a loving marriage. In Agatha Trunchbull’s mind, all of this does not add up. She followed the rules, and yet her sister gets everything she wants. Something is wrong. Instead of accepting a new truth about the world, that life is not always fair and she will not always get what she wants, she twists the rules until she comes out the winner and the hero of her story. Like Trunchbull, Matilda similarly gets very worked up when something happens that she doesn’t think is fair. Her protest of “That’s not right!” is very simple and childish and sounds a whole lot like Trunchbull’s ranting about “winners and losers.” At certain points, Carvel’s performance of Trunchbull also takes on the mannerisms of a young girl, high-pitched and fussy, suggesting that she still has the mindset of a temperamental child.
The difference between Matilda and Trunchbull is that Matilda grows out of that mentality and forges a path that is neither Miss Honey’s complacency nor Miss Trunchbull’s bullying. For Matilda, the turning point is when her father is caught by the Russian mob, and the mob boss gives her a chance at revenge. Instead of seeing her father get beat to a pulp or excusing his behavior, she chooses neither path. She acknowledges that he is very, very stupid while also not perpetuating the cycle of bullying. In that one decision, she breaks the cycle of the bullied becoming the bully, a cycle that Agatha Trunchbull was not willing to break herself.
For all those reasons, Agatha Trunchbull fascinates me as a villain and as a tragic character. She is a woman of immense physical strength but so frail and easily breakable, both mentally and emotionally. Whatever personal tragedies she experienced in her own life does not excuse her intimidating the children in her school, abusing Miss Honey, or murdering Magnus. Understanding how the victims of bullying can become bullies themselves is a significant step towards more Matildas in the world and less Trunchbulls.