Sir James Barrie Analysis
In his dramas, only once (in Der Tag) did Sir James Barrie abandon comedy as his medium of expression. His plays are known for their lighthearted whimsicality and are enjoyed for the elements of farce that even the more serious ones, such as Dear Brutus, contain. The majority of his characters are little more than caricatures, but Barrie nevertheless succeeds in capturing the essence of each, not least because of the careful notes about them that usually form part of the text of a given play. Comedy of character is augmented by verbal humor and a deft handling of the comic situation to put the theme of the play across to the audience with a minimum of effort. The result is that a Barrie play seems light, almost flippant, with the underlying social message only fleetingly apparent. Although the tenor and atmosphere of his plays faithfully reflect the society that filled the theaters when they were first produced, Barrie’s themes and preoccupations are no less relevant today.
Walker, London was Sir James Barrie’s third attempt at writing for the stage, but the first to meet with any real success. The idea for the setting came from a summer Barrie had spent on a houseboat on the Thames, and the play captures the lazy indolence of life moored to the riverbank. It is not by any means an outstanding work but is of interest as an early approach to the question of the relationship between fantasy and the real world, which was to become a constant preoccupation in Barrie’s subsequent works.
The pleasant lethargy of the party on the houseboat is disturbed but not spoiled by an uninvited guest, an undistinguished London barber by the name of Jason Phipps. Phipps has run away from the reality of his everyday life, and for the duration of his holiday, which should have been his honeymoon, has decided to assume the identity of one of his customers, the celebrated African explorer Colonel Neil. Mrs. Golightly and the other members of the houseboat party are indebted to the newcomer for his ostensibly heroic action in saving Bell Golightly from drowning in a punting accident, and they are delighted to be able to offer hospitality to one so famous. The audience, however, is well aware that Neil is an impostor. He has bribed the only witness of the accident to support the heroic version of the episode, and he is being diligently searched for by his jilted fiancée. During the week that Phipps spends on board the houseboat, he regales the company with vivid descriptions of the adventures he has had on his explorations, drawing his listeners unwittingly into the fantasy he is building. As Neil, Phipps makes proposals to both Bell Golightly and her cousin Nanny O’Brien—proposals that they find difficult to reject, because they are caught up in the fantasy, too. As himself, however, Phipps realizes that the girl for him is the faithful Sarah, who catches up with him in the end. The last act is virtually pure farce and ends with Phipps making a quick exit into his everyday life before he can be unmasked.
Barrie had originally intended the play to be entitled “The Houseboat,” but there was another work in existence by that title and thus a new one had to be found. As Phipps leaves the stage for the last time, he is asked for his address. He gives it as Walker, London, the new title of the play: “Walker” was a slang word meaning a hoaxer.
The theme of assumed identity recurs in Quality Street, which was first produced in October, 1902, only one month before the equally successful The Admirable Crichton, enjoying a run of fourteen months. As with Walker, London, the definitive title of the play was a later alteration. The working title was “Phoebe’s Garden,” but Quality Street, the name of an actual town between Leith and North Berwick, appealed to Barrie; the final title subtly reinforces the notions of hidebound respectability with which the play deals.
The action takes place in Quality Street during the...
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