Sir James Barrie Critical Essays

J. M. Barrie


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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

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.

Quality Street

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 Napoleonic Wars. The heroine, Miss Phoebe Throssel, has fallen in love with a local doctor, Valentine Brown. Both Phoebe and her sister Susan, an old maid, expect that “V. B.,” as they refer to him, is calling to make his declaration and ask for Phoebe’s hand. Unfortunately, it becomes apparent that he has other news: He has enlisted in the army and will be leaving forthwith to join the campaign against the French. The Misses Throssel cover their disappointment admirably and, as convention demands, say nothing of love.

The second act takes place ten years later. The blue and white frilliness of the Throssel parlor has been subordinated to the requirements of a classroom. It transpires that Phoebe and Susan, having invested their money according to Brown’s advice, have suffered a substantial loss and have been forced to earn their living by opening a school. Phoebe appears to have aged much more than ten years, assuming prematurely the garb and attitudes of the old maid she seems destined to become. The sisters’ new way of life is highly distasteful to them, but for respectable women in their position, society offers no other choice. Their drab existence is suddenly brightened by the return of Valentine Brown and the rest of the troops. The doctor is visibly struck by the change in Phoebe when he calls on the Throssels unexpectedly, for she is at her most severe in her schoolmistress attire. Phoebe suddenly realizes that she no longer has to act older than her years. They have caught up with her, and she has come a long way from being the pretty girl that she was when the troops left for the war.

When Phoebe next appears on the stage, she has discarded her cap and drab clothes and has pulled out all her ringlets, so that she is virtually her former self, except for what she has experienced during the ten years. It is in this guise that Brown sees her next. She is inspired to pass herself off as her own niece, Miss Livvy, a ploy that her sister is pushed into supporting. The mechanics of the deception give rise to some comic scenes, particularly when the sisters find themselves having to deceive their gossipy and envious friends, the Misses Willoughby. By wearing the same fashionable veil as her friend, which can be opened or closed at will by the wearer, Phoebe is accepted as Miss Livvy, but the ladies sense a mystery and are desperate to find out what is happening.

Phoebe daringly sets out on a round of balls given to celebrate the victory, and act 3 shows her in full swing, acting in her assumed identity in an outrageously flirtatious way and turning the heads of all the men present. She is determined to take revenge on Valentine Brown for having forgotten that he kissed her once, ten years before. For all those years she treasured both the memory of the kiss and her guilt at the impropriety of having allowed him to kiss her, only to find on his return that he does not even remember the event. The climax comes when it looks as though Brown is going to propose to Livvy, and she is preparing to reject him out of hand. Much to her surprise, however, he confesses that it is her aunt Phoebe whom he really loves; in courting her, so much like her aunt in appearance but so different in behavior, he has come to realize where his affections really lie, and where they have always lain.

The sisters now have to find a way of getting rid of the unwanted Livvy. She takes to her bed and Phoebe reappears, but the Misses Willoughby are extremely solicitous. As it seems inevitable that the deception will be discovered, the tension rises until Valentine Brown, in his capacity as a doctor, goes into Livvy’s bedroom and reappears to report on the progress of the patient who does not exist. He then joins forces with the sisters to dispose of Livvy. He wraps the phantom up and takes her out to his carriage, which is sent off with the maidservant in attendance to convey the sick Livvy home. The suspicions of the watching neighbors are lulled and the way is clear for Valentine Brown to make his proposal and for it to be accepted by his beloved Phoebe.

In Quality Street, the assumption of a new identity is not a fait accompli as in Walker, London. It is a deliberate ploy, but it is seen to happen onstage in direct response to a development in external circumstances affecting the character. Whereas the character assumed by Jason Phipps was based on an idealization of the attributes of a person unknown to the audience, Phoebe finds her model in her own past, so her escape from her own personality is more pragmatic and less fanciful; the essence of her assumed nature has lain dormant within her. It is only in her uncharacteristic coquetry that Livvy is different from Phoebe, and in this there is a large measure of making up for lost opportunity, a foreshadowing of the development of this theme in Dear Brutus.

The Admirable Crichton

The approach to fantasy in The Admirable Crichton is quite different. In this play, Barrie draws a definite line between the “real” world, where the characters originate, and the fantasy one, where they end up after the shipwreck. The desert island, however, is only fantasy to the audience; for the characters, it becomes reality, and they journey from the reality of the “real” world to the reality of the fantasy and back again in the course of the play.

The Admirable Crichton, one of Barrie’s most successful plays, is a comedy with a social message. The dominant theme is the equality of all individuals. As a philosophical ideal, the concept that all human beings are naturally equal is espoused by the earl of Loam and is fashionably exploited in the peer’s unprecedented declaration that one day a month all his servants will meet the other members of his household on equal terms. Thus, the first act of the play opens on one such day, when the house is in a turmoil. It is immediately apparent to the audience that both masters and servants alike find the imposition of equality frustrating and unnatural. For the daughters of the house, it is a tiresome bore to receive their servants in the drawing room and address them as social equals using a respectful form of address. When “Miss” Fisher, Lady Mary’s maid, is piqued by not taking precedence over the lower-ranking Tweeny, the audience may laugh at such trivial preoccupation with position in circumstances of temporary, but nevertheless total, equality, but Barrie is reminding them how deeply ingrained in society are the distinctions of rank and privilege.

The second act takes place a short time after the first, but the setting is a remote desert island. The main characters have been shipwrecked, and they appear on the stage immediately after the catastrophe; a particular feature of the set is that unidentified objects drop at intervals from the trees to the ground, adding to the strangeness and hostility of the environment in which the castaways now find themselves. It is not long before both the audience and the characters become aware that the man best equipped to lead the castaways in their survival effort is not...

(The entire section is 4586 words.)