Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2053
The central character of the play is Lob, a man so old that no one can remember his ever being any younger. Lob has invited eight people to his home for the midsummer night experience in his magic woods. He is a fairy like character, small and seemingly superhuman in both his understanding of human nature and his communication with nature, as manifested in his magnificent garden. His very name, from English folklore, ties him to Shakespeare's sprightly fairy Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, whom his fellow fairy in A Midsummer Night's Dream calls "a lob of spirits." Lob has invited the eight guests to grant them a second chance at life.
Even Lob's butler Matey, although not an invited guest, fits into the group—he is in need of a second chance. The five women guests have discovered Matey stealing rings from the guests and are about to report him to the police. Matey argues that he is a thief by circumstance, not character, led to thievery by fate. "I am not bad naturally," he says. "It was just going into domestic service that did for me." Man's way of life, he says, "all depends on your taking the right or the wrong turning." In act 2 he enters the magical wood along with most of the guests to change his fate. He is, actually, shoved into the woods by his master Lob, who stays in the house.
Will and Alice Dearth are disillusioned with life. Of Alice Dearth, whom we meet first, Barrie says in his notes, "Murky beasts lie in ambush in the labyrinths of her mind." She is a bright, beautiful, talented woman who is dissatisfied with her life and angry at her husband, from whom she is estranged. She wishes she had married another man, Fred, so that she might have had a better life. She tells Will, "If I hadn't married you, what a different woman I should be. What a fool I was." Will tries to tell her that while he might not be a good man, Fred is no better. The problem, he suggests, is not in him or Fred or fate, but in her.
Will Dearth is a painter, or was when he had confidence in himself. Overwhelmed by the "adorable wildness" of Alice as a young woman, Will married her and set out to be a great artist. But when he discovered that Alice "had no opinion" of him, he began to have no opinion of himself. If someone he loved as much as he loved Alice found that she did not care for him, he could not care for himself. He suggests that if they had children, she might have continued to care for him, but she tells him that he merely would have been a bad father, just as he is a bad painter and a bad husband. Will's major interests in life, now that more significant ones have been denied him, are in drinking port and smoking cigars. Now he is like Robert Browning's Andrea Del Sarto with his Lucrezia ("Andrea del Sarto," 1855): he is still a good craftsman, but the music is gone. When Alice and Will go into the woods of act 2, she is looking for her happiness with Fred, and he is looking for the child that might have been.
Mabel and John Purdie are also unhappily married. Mabel is described by Barrie as a passive, pleading woman. If Alice Dearth would use force to get what she wants, Mabel would purr on a man's shoulder until he gave in. Mabel is aware of her husband's philandering, but for the most part she chooses to suffer in silence. She is the loyal wife, who hopes that her husband will finally grow tired of his affair with Joanna Trout and return his love to his wife.
John is a romantic, who sees Joanna Trout as "spotless as the driven snow," while Mabel has "a horrid way of seeming to put people in the wrong." The people she seems to put in the wrong are Joanna and her husband, who are, of course, in the wrong. But neither Joanna nor John can see past their infatuation with each other. John insists that if he and Joanna had met earlier, then he would be happy. He laments that he must suffer forever because he took the wrong turn. He and Joanna enter the woods wishing for what might have been.
Joanna is as star-struck as John. She sees John as a perfect man trapped by fate to be bound to the "horrid" woman, Mabel. All of the evidence presented dramatically to the audience is that Joanna, while a lively woman, is shallow and blind to reality. John is clearly a simple-witted person, who utters inanities about his own assumed nobility, about Joanna, and about Mabel. But Joanna is not discriminating and takes John's romantic shallowness for nobility.
Lady Caroline Laney is another frail woman whose life shows her devotion to the insignificant trappings of life. She has been to an "enormously select school," where young women are taught to pronounce r's as w's. Her character demonstrates that, as Barrie points out in his notes, "nothing else seems to be taught." She is very proper but bored with life. When given a second chance, she takes it without urging. Her last words before entering the magical woods are, "One would like to know."
Besides Lob, the only character not to enter the woods is Mrs. Coade, called Coady by all the other characters. She and her husband, also called Coady because the couple is so well adjusted to each other that one can answer for the other, are content with life and with each other. Their relationship serves as a standard by which all the other characters are compared—except, of course, Lob, who is a bit more than a human character. Mr. Coade does enter the magical woods, perhaps more for the mystery than for any desire for a second chance. Lob, however, despite urging all the other characters to enter the woods, tells Mrs. Coade not to go. She goes to her room to await the return of the others.
Act 2 finds Lady Caroline Laney married to Matey, no longer a butler but now a rich businessman. The dialogue suggests that he has made his fortune by less than honest means. He is the same thief that he was as a butler, showing that his character, not fate, has caused him to be what he is.
Joanna Trout becomes Joanna Purdie, wife of John. But she cannot find her husband, for he is romantically involved with Mabel. As he wished Mabel to be more like Joanna in act 1, now he wishes Joanna to be more like his new love, Mabel. Still the romantic, he is in love with love. In the close relationship that marriage brings, he soon tires of reality. Since the sight of his wife's garments "lying about" on his chairs does not suit his ideas of romantic love, he turns to affairs with other women who do not clutter his life with reality. He now loves Mabel for the same reasons he loved Joanna.
With his second chance, Will Dearth becomes a soul-conscious painter, described by Barrie as "ablaze in happiness and health and a daughter." Margaret, the might-have-been daughter, is a delightful creature who acknowledges her father's talent and glories in his love. Will is as perceptive and loving as he was earlier, but his new-found contentment and his daughter's love have transformed him into an "uncommonly happy nobody" rather than the "great swell of a painter" he imagined himself to be. He understands that his sensitivity can be the source of happiness as well as unhappiness. "Fame is rot," he tells Margaret, "daughters are the thing." This scene between Will Dearth and Margaret is easily the most poignant in the play.
Alice Dearth enters the scene still looking for happiness. She is now Fred's wife, but Fred has not made any difference in her values. She has servants, a motor car, a town house; but she complains of being hungry. Will and Margaret, although they have little money, give Alice what they have and share their good fortune with this unhappy woman. Seeing that the ragged painter and his delightful daughter are the happiest of humans, Alice grows even sadder and advises Will not to lose Margaret. Will, however, follows after Alice, when she leaves to try to satisfy her appetite. He sees a house in the woods, excuses himself from Margaret, and tries to find some food for Alice.
In the last act the characters return one and two at a time to Lob's drawing room. As they return, they are still under the spell of the woods. John and Mabel believe they are romantic lovers, but when Joanna comes in, John begins to forget who is his wife and who is his mistress, asking at one point, "Which of you is my wife?" He begins to understand that he is not the "deeply passionate" man he had thought himself to be, but rather a romantic philanderer. Joanna recognizes what has been going on and determines that, although she may philander again, it will not be with John Purdie. They all realize what the woods has taught them: that, as John says, "it isn't accident that shapes our lives . . . . What really plays the dickens with us is something in ourselves. Something that makes us go on doing the same sort of fool things, however many chances we get." John first announces the theme of the play and explains the title when he quotes the lines from Julius Caesar. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ But in ourselves, that we are underlings."
The thieving butler Matey and Lady Caroline enter the room, still caught up in their dream of his being a wealthy financier. The others, including Mrs. Coade, who comes from her room to greet the guests, recognize the truth. Matey's financial success in his "might-have-been world" has been gained by "pilfering on a large scale." As John points out to him, "in the essentials you haven't altered."
Next to return is old Coade, who had spent his time in the woods playing upon a flute. He does not immediately know his wife, but as he looks at her he finds her face to be "very soft and lovable." He had spent his time in the woods of the second chance dreaming of the face of his wife of over thirty years. To him she is never old, just beautiful. Their life together has been happy because of the essential love they share, and when Coade returns to reality he proposes to her again, "wanting the same soft face after thirty years." In his second chance he has not written the book he always thought he might write, but he whispers to Mrs. Coade, "You are all I need."
Alice Dearth eventually returns in a dinner gown and introduces herself as "the Honorable Mrs. Finch-Fallow," still Fred's wife, still hungry. She remembers seeing the painter in the woods, remembers him as "a jolly, attractive man." When Purdie remarks that Will Dearth was "far from jolly" when he was with his wife, Alice remarks, without knowing she is speaking of herself, "Perhaps that was the lady's fault."
Will Dearth arrives looking for food for the hungry Alice. When he sees Alice, reality slowly intrudes upon him until he knows that his magnificent daughter was merely a dream. He is then struck dumb by the pain of his loss. Yet he has the dignity to thank the sleeping Lob for the hour he had with her. Alice leaves the room overcome with emotion.
The theme that humans are in large measure responsible for what happens to them is repeated by most of the characters after their return from the woods. Given a second chance, most merely repeated their earlier mistakes, mistakes caused not by fate but by something in themselves. When Joanna asks of the midsummer night's dream, "does it ever have any permanent effect?" Matey, who has seen the experiment on several occasions, ends the play by saying, "So far as I know, not often, miss; but, I believe, once in a while."
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