Further Critical Evaluation of the Work

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

James Barrie’s best plays are those in which he treads the thin line between “reality” and “fantasy” with the touches of fantasy adding a lively, imaginative dimension to the essentially realistic situations (except for PETER PAN, where touches of reality sharpen the meaning of the fantasy). QUALITY STREET is...

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James Barrie’s best plays are those in which he treads the thin line between “reality” and “fantasy” with the touches of fantasy adding a lively, imaginative dimension to the essentially realistic situations (except for PETER PAN, where touches of reality sharpen the meaning of the fantasy). QUALITY STREET is a charming “realistic fantasy” about a prolonged love affair that finally succeeds against the obstacles of time, age, and human misunderstanding.

Even in 1902, the subject matter and attitudes present in the play would have seemed dated, had Barrie not taken the edge off of the play’s realism with a number of adroit theatrical devices. His touch is light, sentimental, and gently ironic so that one is moved by the plight of the spinster sisters, but does not take them too seriously. By placing his story in an English provincial village during the Napoleonic wars and emphasizing period settings and costumes, Barrie further distances his action from the modern world and so justifies actions and speeches for his characters that would be excessive and trite in a modern context. But the appeal of the play can probably best be accounted for by the fact that in mood and feeling it is close to a fairy tale.

The specific fairy tale is “Cinderella.” Phoebe Throssel is the girl kept from her Prince Charming, Valentine Brown, not by conniving stepsisters, but by her intended’s perversity in enlisting in the army rather than proposing to her. Upon his return ten years later, it is age, exaggerated by Phoebe’s spinsterly role as schoolmarm, that keeps them apart. The transformation is occasioned not by magical intervention, but by Phoebe’s own frustration.

So she effects her change—into her own niece Livvy—and goes off to the ball. There, like her prototype, she charms everyone including the object of her affections, but must keep her true identity a secret. The “glass slipper” which reveals the heroine and resolves the hero to marry her is replaced by the more conventional device of a talkative maid. Valentine Brown is converted by his flirtation with Livvy to the idea that it is Phoebe he really wants because she is mature and lady-like. They will live, as in all fairy tales, happily ever after, with Phoebe getting her Prince Charming and Valentine getting both the lady-like Phoebe and the flirtatious “Livvy” in one woman.

Whether or not such a conclusion would be acceptable in the modern world—either Barrie’s or our own—is very doubtful. But “Quality Street” is no more real than “Never Land,” and, while not so obviously a “wish-fulfillment” play, QUALITY STREET is as much a fairy tale for adults as PETER PAN is for youngsters.

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