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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1755

First produced: 1917

First published: 1923

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Romantic fantasy

Time of work: Midsummer Eve

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

Lob, the ancient Puck

Matey, his butler

Critique:

Barrie's thesis—that the exigencies of human life are the fault of the individual, not of so-called...

(The entire section contains 1755 words.)

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First produced: 1917

First published: 1923

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Romantic fantasy

Time of work: Midsummer Eve

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

Lob, the ancient Puck

Matey, his butler

Critique:

Barrie's thesis—that the exigencies of human life are the fault of the individual, not of so-called Fate—is fancifully developed in DEAR BRUTUS by means of a folk superstition concerning Midsummer Eve. The play is fantastic and realistic at the same time, fantastic in that its characters are transported into the realm of the unreal, realistic in the perfectly candid way in which the various relationships among the characters are set forth.

The Story:

Dinner was over, and the ladies of Lob's house party returned to the drawing-room after leaving the gentlemen to their cigars and wine. Matey, the butler, had stolen jewelry from one of the guests. The women called him in to tell him they knew he was the thief. When Matey returned the jewelry, the women stated that they would not report him if he told them why they were guests at the house. Matey either could not or would not give them a direct answer. In the course of the conversation it was learned that their host was mysteriously ageless and that Lob was another name for the legendary Puck. Matey admitted that Lob always asked a different party of guests to his house for Midsummer Week. He warned the women not to venture outside the garden on this Midsummer Eve. When he left them with the warning not to go into the wood, the women were puzzled because there was no wood within miles of the house.

Host Lob entered thoughtfully. He was followed by old Mr. Coade, who was collecting notes for a projected work on the Feudal System, and Mr. Purdie, an intellectual young barrister. Coade and Purdie suggested that the group take a walk to discover a mysterious wood. Lob said slyly that the villagers believed that a wood appeared in a different part of the neighborhood each Midsummer Eve. He pretended skepticism to sharpen the curiosity of his guests, who went to prepare for the adventure.

Among Lob's guests was Lady Caroline Laney, unmarried and of disdainful poise, and Joanna Trout, single and in love with love. Joanna and Mr. Purdie were caught kissing in the living room by Mabel Purdie, who saw them from the garden. She came in. Joanna, surprised, asked Mabel what she was doing in the garden. Mabel answered that she was looking for her lost love. Her calm candor caught Jack Purdie and Joanna completely off guard. Jack admitted his love for Joanna. Mabel left the lovers grieving that fate had not brought them together earlier. Alice Dearth entered. Cattishly, Joanna revealed that Mrs. Dearth had at one time been an artist's model. Dearth, an artist now broken by drink, entered. Alice Dearth had grown to despise him for his sottishness. Dearth regretted not having a child; Alice Dearth regretted not having married a former suitor.

When the party reassembled, Lob revealed that to go into the forest gave one another chance, something nearly everyone in the group was seeking. Dearth drew aside the curtain to reveal a forest in the place of the garden. He entered the wood and disappeared. Mabel Purdie followed him. Next went Jack Purdie and Joanna, followed by Alice Dearth, Lady Caroline, and old Mr. Coade. Lob enticed Matey to the edge of the wood and pushed him into it.

In the moonlight of Midsummer Eve, in the fanciful realm of the second chance, Matey and Lady Caroline discovered that they were vulgar husband and wife. Joanna was in search of her husband. When Mr. Coade, now a woodlander, appeared dancing and blowing a whistle, Joanna said that she was Mrs. Purdie; she suspected her husband of being in the forest with another woman. They saw Purdie in the company of Mabel, whom he chased among the trees. In the forest, Mabel and Joanna had changed places. Purdie and Mabel mourned that they had met too late.

In another part of the forest, Will Dearth and his young daughter Margaret raced to the spot where the artist's easel was set up, for Dearth was painting a moonlit landscape. Margaret was worried over her excess of happiness; she expressed her fear that her father would be taken from her. The pair agreed that artists, especially, needed daughters and that fame was not everything.

Alice, a vagrant searching for scraps to eat, passed the happy pair. She told them that she was the Honorable Mrs. Finch-Fallowe, the wife of the suitor that she had recalled in Lob's house, and that she had seen good times. Dearth approached a nearby house to get food for the vagrant woman. Margaret, somehow afraid, tried to restrain him.

Back in the house, Lob was waiting for the return of his guests. There was a tapping on the window and Jack Purdie and Mabel, still charmed, entered. They noticed but did not recognize the sleeping Lob. Still under the influence of Midsummer magic, Purdie spoke words of love to Mabel. He was interrupted by the entrance of Joanna, his Midsummer Eve wife. Lob seemed to leer in his sleep. Suddenly the enchantment disappeared; the trio recognized the room and Lob. After the complete return to reality, Purdie realized that fate was not to blame for human destiny. Ashamed but honest, he admitted that he was a philanderer and asked Mabel to forgive him.

Matey returned, still the vulgarian in speech and dress. He stated, to the surprise of those present, that his wife was with him and he introduced Lady Caroline Matey. The charm was broken, to the horror of the fastidious Caroline Laney and to the embarrassment of Matey.

Still piping on his whistle, Mr. Coade returned. Although he did not recognize Mrs. Coade, he expressed his admiration for her lovable face. The old man returned to reality after making his wife proud that he had chosen her again in the world of the second chance.

Alice Dearth, hungry, entered and looked ravenously at the refreshments. Between mouthfuls of cake she bragged of her former affluence as Mrs. Finch-Fallowe; she mystified the other guests with talk of a painter and his daughter in the forest. Dearth, the happy painter of the forest, came in. In their disenchantment, Alice knew that she would have been unhappy with the former suitor, and that Will Dearth would have been happier without her. Dearth was momentarily crushed by the loss of Margaret, but he recovered to thank Lob for providing that night's experience.

Lob, who had been curled up in a chair in a trance-like sleep during the adventures, and who had leered and smiled in his sleep as his guests came back to the actual world, returned to the care of his beloved flowers. Midsummer Eve was past; the world of might-have-been had ended.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

"Men at some time are masters of their fate," Cassius tells his co-conspirator in Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR (II, ii), "the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings." Beginning with this quote as a premise, James Barrie tests Cassius' notion in his play DEAR BRUTUS by taking an oddly assorted group of characters and giving them that "second chance." But if the play's idea comes from JULIUS CAESAR, its shape and mood are closer to that of another Shakespearean play, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM: the time of the second chance is Midsummer's Eve, the locale is an enchanted wood, and the manipulator of the action is Lob, a modernized Puck, a child-man of ancient, but indefinite age.

Matey, the butler, caught in the act of stealing the ladies' jewelry, sets up the action when he states ". . . it all depends on your taking the right or the wrong turn. . . . I would give the world to be able to begin over again." He gets his wish and proves himself to be, once again, a thief—albeit a rich one. His aristocratic antagonist Lady Caroline Laney, however, becomes his wife and thereby demonstrates that, beneath her haughty surface, she is actually servile. Jack Purdie sees himself as an exceptionally sensitive soul, trapped with an unresponsive wife, who wants only a woman who can "plumb the well of my emotions." After exchanging women and fantasies in the enchanted wood, he realizes that he is "not a deeply passionate chap at all. . . . I am just . . . a philanderer!" And it is Purdie who sums up the play's thesis:

It's not fate, Joanna. Fate is something outside us. What really plays the dickens with us is something in ourselves. Something that makes us go on doing the same sort of things, however many chances we get.

Charming old Mr. Coade learns that he is not a potentially great scholar spoiled into amiable laziness by inherited money; he is simply a carefree, likeable man without ambitions. And Alice Dearth learns that her bad marriage could have been even worse, for she might always choose the wrong man—for her.

The one exception is Will Dearth, a mediocre, alcoholic, cynical artist who meets Margaret, his "might-have-been" daughter in the woods. The Will Dearth of Act II, "ablaze in happiness and health," is quite different from the "chop-fallen, gone-to-seed sort of person" we saw in Act I and the charming, happy-sad scene between father and daughter is one of the most touching in modern theater; few curtain lines are as memorable as Margaret's fearful lament, from the darkened stage, as she fades into nothingness: "Daddy, come back; I don't want to be a 'might-have-been.'"

The question Barrie leaves us with in the final act is whether or not the magical experiences of having seen themselves fail at "second turnings" will not enable the party guests to effect real changes in their personalities. When Joanna asks Matey about this, he replies that it only happens once in a while.

The audience is left with the feeling that at least the characters now understand their own mediocrity, even if they can do little about it. And, to Barrie, even such a modest shedding of illusions is a good thing. It is also hinted that for the best of them, Will and Alice Dearth, there is some possibility of a real change and revitalization of the "rather wild love" which, Barrie states in an early stage direction, they had for each other before it went "whistling down the wind."

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