The Trunchbull has always been big! “I was never a small person,” she snaps. “I have been large all my life and I don’t see why others can’t be the same way.” One kindergartener reasons that she must have started out as a baby, an offense for which the Trunchbull holds him up in the air by his ears, squealing.
I have been large all my life and I don’t see why others can’t be the same way. What a thing to say! In this odd sentence lies the heart of the Trunchbull as a character. A deliriously infuriating children’s villain, the Trunchbull was the last great character written by Roald Dahl, for his last long children’s book, Matilda, published in 1988, just two years before his death. The Trunchbull, who runs Crunchem Hall, Matilda’s school, is large—and has always been large—and is infuriated at the very idea that she might once have been small, like the maggots she abuses. To her mind, if anyone is powerless, it’s their own fault.
As the literary critic Merve Emre notes in a recent exceptional piece about Dahl, Matilda herself is utterly uninteresting, a character with no interiority, no real desires. “She barely speaks, and when she does, what she has to say is unremarkable and even charmless,” Emre writes. “She is not a heroine; she is not even a proper person.” Perhaps when a reader is a child with a similar hunger for books, she relates to little Matilda, but as an adult, I find the only characters with any vividness in my imagination are the villains, Mr. Wormwood and the Trunchbull. It’s no surprise that the two filmed versions of the story—though they both do a lot of work to humanize Matilda—still allow those villains to steal the show, in unequal measures. The 1996 film was directed by Danny DeVito, who played Mr. Wormwood, so naturally that character got plenty of screen time. The biggest star in Netflix’s new film of Matilda the Musical is Emma Thompson; correspondingly, her Trunchbull, at last, is allowed to assume center stage.
Where did the Trunchbull come from? Why is she such a remarkable villain, such an indelible character? And what does it mean to have this evil woman played, for the first time in 13 years, by a woman?
Roald Dahl, too, was large: 6’5”. He, too, towered over the trembling smaller people in his life: the family he loved but frequently berated, the friends he picked fights with, the publishers he bullied. According to Jeremy Treglown’s clear-eyed biography of Dahl, when Knopf’s legendary editor in chief, Robert Gottlieb, sent Dahl a polite missive telling him that they’d finally had enough, staffers stood on their desks to cheer. Yet, unlike the Trunchbull, Dahl remembered being small. He in fact prided himself on his understanding of children’s psyches—the way they felt put-upon, the way they viewed all adults, even the nice ones, as suspect.
The Trunchbull is not the most objectionable woman Dahl ever wrote. His oeuvre is filled with grotesque female characters, treated grotesquely, particularly in the stories for adults he published in Playboy in the 1970s. (Not that his prejudices ended there.) But she is notable for the relish with which Dahl describes her. Dahl based the Trunchbull, physically, on the late founder and principal of an English horticultural school, going so far as to show his illustrator, Quentin Blake, a photograph of the woman. Unlike dainty, beautiful Miss Honey, the Trunchbull is ugly: “an obstinate chin, a cruel mouth, and small arrogant eyes.” She has a “deep and dangerous voice,” “big shoulders,” “thick arms,” a “massive bosom.” A former hammer-thrower—in an era when women didn’t typically compete in the event—the Trunchbull is, in a word, mannish, the Cold War joke of the East German women’s Olympic team brought to life. The novel’s first draft played up this aspect even further: The Trunchbull possessed the “shadow of a jet-black moustache” and wore men’s military uniforms. (You can see that clothing in Blake’s early sketches of the character.)
The Trunchbull, Dahl writes, never walks. “She always marched like a storm-trooper with long strides and arms aswinging.” Rarely does the Trunchbull say anything: She “barks,” she “shouts,” she “bellows,” she “booms.” Sometimes she erupts in a volley of snorts, the sound of “a riding-stable when the horses are being fed.” She has a face like a boiled ham and the neck of a bull. If you meet her, “you should behave as you would if you met an enraged rhinoceros out in the bush”: You should climb a tree until the danger has passed. This woman who is not a woman, that is to say, is hardly human.
In some ways this befits a cartoon villain. The Trunchbull only has one mode, frightening rage, and her punishments are Looney Tunes punishments. That poor kindergartener, his ears stretching like taffy. Or Amanda Thripp, thrown by the pigtails over the school fence in “a long graceful parabola.” The description of her impact is Keatonesque: “She landed on the grass and bounced three times and finally came to rest. Then, amazingly, she sat up. She looked a trifle dazed and who could blame her, but after a minute or so she was on her feet again and tottering back towards the playground.” Because the children in Matilda are unbreakable, able to withstand any punishment and come tottering back, Miss Trunchbull can be an unspeakable monster and still an object of comedy.
Yet there’s more to the Trunchbull than that. In her utter incuriosity and stubbornness, she recalls, in extremis, any number of teachers I once suffered under. Dahl contrasts the Trunchbull with “most head teachers,” who understand and like children, and who are “deeply interested in education.” Not the Trunchbull! I’m certain my kids have looked at a cruel, ignorant teacher, just as I did, and wondered, just as the book wonders about the Trunchbull, how she ever got her job in the first place.
There’s absolutely nothing the children of Crunchem Hall can do about her. Their parents, already intimidated by the Trunchbull, do not believe the stories about students thrown through windows. They certainly would never believe that a modern school is run by a woman who believes that all children are worthless, or that the only way to teach them is to physically hammer information into their brains—any more than they would believe a modern school’s disciplinary system includes a box out in the woods full of nails and broken glass called the Chokey. It’s the powerlessness of the students at Crunchem Hall that rings true to small children, who are used to being ordered around by adults, only some of whom have their best interests at heart.
Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s musical version of Matilda opened in England in 2010. From her first entrance, the Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical has, unlike Dahl’s Trunchbull, a philosophy. Drawing on the Dahlian gag of the headmistress as a former hammer-thrower, Kelly and Minchin make her the worst kind of phys-ed teacher, the ex-jock devotee of discipline, someone who insists that the only way to succeed in life is to follow the rules to a T. With great passion, she sings:
If you want to throw the hammer for your country
You have to stay inside the circle all the time
And if you want to make the team
You don’t need happiness or self-esteem
You just need to keep your feet inside the line
“That’s her ‘I Want’ song,” marveled Bryce Ryness, who played the Trunchbull on Broadway and in the show’s national tour. “It’s like the ‘I Want’ song of someone from North Korea. This is not, ‘I want these things because I deserve it.’ It’s the opposite of that: structure, conformity, discomfort. The goal is something higher than yourself.”
Ryness is a male actor. Through the 13-year history of the musical, the role has always been played by a man in an enormous padded outfit, despite some criticism. (In smaller productions, or in schools, the licensing organization suggests that the character can be played by a male or female performer, as long as they’re larger than everyone else.) “The way I had it described to me,” said Ryness, “was that she occupies a space between a man and a woman.”
It’s easy to think of casting men in the role as a facile, funny, attention-getting way to deliver the Trunchbull’s mannishness onstage—a touch of the British pantomime in a modern musical. Certainly my kids, when they first saw the show, were absolutely tickled to learn it was a man under all that padding, and the role’s outstanding originator, Bertie Carvel, won an Olivier Award in London and was nominated for a Tony on Broadway.
But there’s more to it than the joke, and performers playing the Trunchbull have been urged by the show’s director, Matthew Warchus, not to lean into silliness. “The character is comic,” Ryness said, “but the actor needs to be a little scary.” Part of that scariness comes not only from the actor’s size, but his strength. Through the show’s development, the role came to require certain physical feats that only very powerful, very athletic actors can pull off: a gymnastics routine on a trampoline; spinning and throwing Amanda Thripp by her pigtails. For a time, the role was notorious, Ryness said, for injuring the actors who performed it. Ryness, a former competitive water polo player, gritted out a hurt shoulder, but Craig Bierko, who was meant to replace Carvel on Broadway, only lasted about two weeks before he had to withdraw from the show entirely. Four months later, a similar fate delayed the debut of one of his successors.
When I asked Ryness if a woman could play the Trunchbull onstage, he was dubious, because hardly any men could play the role without injury. “I mean, look at the trail of dead of men throwing out their backs and things,” he said. “If you can find a woman who’s the proper height and who’s strong enough to spin a teenager around, sure, put her through. But this version of the show, you’re looking for a needle in a haystack. She’s not in musical theater—she’s playing for the LA Sparks.”
A movie, of course, is a different kind of creation. While it seems possible that Warchus, who also directed the Netflix film, considered a male actor—there were early reports that Ralph Fiennes was attached, for example—in the end, unconstrained by the physical needs of the stage (and, who knows, perhaps sensitive to criticism), he cast Thompson. She’s not the first woman to portray the Trunchbull. Pam Ferris, who played the role in the (non-musical) 1996 film, didn’t tower over the children as in Blake’s illustrations, but she was given a full face of gruesome makeup: fake nose, fake mole, and half a mouth full of false teeth, for a particularly gnarly effect. They even embedded false eyelashes in her chin—shades of Dahl’s jet-black moustache.
Thompson, too, endured hours in the makeup chair to play the new film’s Trunchbull, but the goal seems not to have been to make her ugly, but instead to make her big: big chin, big nose, an imposing profile off a Roman coin. The effect is to harden Thompson’s femininity, to create a face you might even call intimidatingly handsome.
And Thompson plays the role with zeal, belting out the Trunchbull’s two great songs—“The Hammer” and “The Smell of Rebellion”—in a powerful alto. (Those who know the musical through the original cast recordings will be surprised how much more intimidating the songs can be when not delivered in Carvel’s reedy, slightly silly voice.) Her usually stern countenance pays off when she encounters Lavender’s newt in her water glass. Thompson shrieks and dances away—and then the Trunchbull catches herself and is even more angry. I thought of how Dahl wrote the scene:
The Trunchbull, this mighty female giant, stood there in her green breeches, quivering like a blancmange. She was especially furious that someone had succeeded in making her jump and yell like that because she prided herself on her toughness.
Thompson’s performance conveys something even more clearly: that what enrages this Trunchbull is not only that she showed weakness but that she acted, for a moment, like a little girl. The rest of the characters at Crunchem Hall don’t mind little girls—Amanda Thripp loves the way she looks in her pigtails, and everyone adores Matilda. But the Trunchbull was never a baby, and she was never, ever, a little girl.
Netflix didn’t allow me to talk to Thompson or to Warchus about the choice to let the Trunchbull finally be played by a woman. (Indeed, when I told them the focus of my story, Netflix publicists stopped responding to me entirely.) But I don’t find the Trunchbull actor’s gender to be a problematic issue—or at least no more problematic than the Trunchbull herself, as Dahl wrote her 30-plus years ago.
I’m fascinated by the Trunchbull, this emblem of masculine femaleness, unfair and sadistic, as inexplicable and immovable as a mountain to the poor children of Crunchem Hall—until Matilda shows up. Matilda undoes her: destroys the tyranny of her administration, reveals her culpability in a great crime, and frightens her into unconsciousness. In the new movie, Thompson’s progressively greater dishevelment shows how her commitment to order is undone by the actions of Matilda and the other “revolting children.” By the end, she’s hanging upside down, covered in mud, screaming in fury, her undone hair tied into pigtails—hated, girlish pigtails—before she’s flung through the roof of the building.
Ryness told me that, while it does not appear anywhere in Dahl’s book, the creators of Matilda the Musical did give the Trunchbull a backstory. When Ryness was cast, Warchus explained that the Trunchbull, too, was bullied as a child—not by classmates or a teacher, but by her beautiful, graceful family. (Her sister’s an acrobat, as we learn.) “She felt like an outsider her whole life,” he said. “So her noble quest now, the way she sees it, is to teach the next generation how not to bully people who are like her.”
This is patently ludicrous, and I’m deeply grateful that, no matter how useful this backstory is for a performer in search of their motivation, none of it creeps into the text of the musical. Instead, the Trunchbull is allowed to be what she is meant to be: inexplicable, unpredictable, and unfair. It doesn’t matter if she’s a man or a woman or somewhere in between. It doesn’t even matter that she’s hardly human. To the children of Crunchem Hall—and the children who read Matilda, and now watch this new version on screen—she remains a pure representation of something larger, something that’s always been large: adults, as seen through very small eyes. Even if you love them, even if they’re your parents or your teachers or the author of a book you adore, you never know when a grown-up might turn into a monster.