Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 601
“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.”