Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4586
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 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 earl, the socially superior and conventionally obvious candidate, but Crichton the butler. Crichton is a man who knows his place both with respect to his employers, to whom he knows he is inferior, and with respect to his fellow servants, to whom he is undoubtedly superior. His progressive assumption of authority on the island is a natural extension of his regular duties, and he is accustomed to having other people under his authority. What is unforeseen, but very humorous, is the total inability of the upper-class members of the shipwrecked party to make any practical contribution to attending to their immediate survival needs. Even with three minutes’ warning of the impending disaster, they were unable to dress themselves suitably and have only one pair of boots between them. The most useful contribution the Honorable Ernest can make is to compose exasperating epigrams, and the three young ladies seem unaware of the seriousness of their predicament as they bemoan the loss of their hairpins. Such concern for trivia in the face of a desperate situation does not inspire confidence in their ability to survive.
That the relationship between master and servant is already becoming strained is apparent from the way Crichton follows the example of the peer’s daughters and criticizes him for having left behind the hairpin he found on the beach. While the girls cannot see beyond the normal function of the hairpin, Crichton can visualize its use in a number of ways. The earl of Loam is quick to realize that Crichton may be stepping out of line, and a discussion of leadership develops, with the peer and the butler arguing from exactly opposite viewpoints from the ones they took in the first act. Indignantly, the upper-class members of the party decide to go it on their own, despite having saved nothing at all from the wreck. That anything was salvaged was only because of the foresight and industry of Crichton, and in due course the smell of his stew wafting along the beach brings the others crawling back to the campfire.
The events of the third act take place after a lapse of three years or so. The physical conditions of the party have taken a turn for the better, and they are comfortably housed and well fed. A number of ingenious contraptions have been devised to improve the quality of their lives, and it transpires that this is all because of the drive and ability of “the Guv.” The audience may suspect that Crichton is “the Guv” but does not know for certain until he appears on the stage, a distinctly regal figure. There has been much discussion among the women prior to his appearance about who will have the honor of serving him, and the honor falls to Lady Mary, now known as Polly, who begs Tweeny to let her wear “It” for the occasion. “It” is the skirt Tweeny was prudent enough to put on the night they escaped from the wreck, the only such garment on the island.
While the audience may have admired Crichton’s quiet efficiency and obvious leadership potential in act 2, the figure he cuts in act 3 is disquieting. Despite the order and efficiency he has imposed on life on the island, despite the benefits he has brought to the others who clearly would not have survived long without him, he is, nevertheless, a dictator, and it is galling to see the women courting his attentions. At a time when the Labour movement was gathering strength and the Fabians were active, Barrie may well have intended a warning to the upper echelons of society of impending social change. After all, he, himself, was nearing the top of the social ladder, having started off on its lowest rungs. It is reassuring to see the old order restored in the last act, with a return to the status quo.
Having seen a more worthy side of the upper-class characters in their newly found identities on the island, the audience might expect to see them retain some of their improved qualities, but this is not to be. When they regain their former position of social superiority, they also become subject once again to the shallow conventions and superficial moral preoccupations of society, as exemplified by the attitudes of the dowager. The distorted account that emerges of their life on the island is not a willful fabrication by the characters. It is a fantasizing of the reality of the fantasy. It is what would be expected of them by society, and in this deception it is society that should be condemned. Through the medium of humor, Barrie thus succeeds in criticizing both the philosophy that all human beings are equal and the idea that any kind of social revolution would be an improvement on the existing social order. That the existing social order is not without its defects is freely admitted, but any social critique is subordinate to the primary purpose of the play, which is to entertain and amuse.
Reality and fantasy coexist in Peter Pan, also, but in contrast to The Admirable Crichton, the boundaries between the two states are fluid and indistinct. Barrie is concerned above all with the progression from the one to the other, and in most cases this is the progression from the imaginative existence of the child into the prosaic life of the adult. At first, adult reality and childhood fantasy seem diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive, but it soon becomes apparent that the degree to which the characters in Peter Pan are able to enter into and become part of the fantasy is directly dependent on their distance from childhood. Wendy, like her mother, will always retain a childlike streak in her nature that will ensure that her memory of Never Land will never fade completely, no matter how old she becomes, but Peter Pan will never leave Never Land because of his refusal to progress to adulthood.
The archetypal boy who never grew up, Peter Pan evolved in the stories of Kensington Gardens with which Barrie enchanted the Davies boys. The earliest literary version of these stories was a novel, The Little White Bird, which, contrary to Barrie’s original plan, came to be dominated by Peter Pan. Barrie was increasingly attracted by this new character as his ties with the Davies family became even closer, and in 1903 he grew absorbed in writing a new play that would have Peter Pan as the central character. The scene for the play had already been set two years earlier in the gardens of Black Lake Cottage. At that time, Barrie had made a photographic record of the boys’ adventures, with a preface ostensibly written by Peter Llewelyn Davies, whose name the hero of the new play assumed. Using the working title of “Peter and Wendy,” Barrie offered his play to Herbert Beerbohm Tree, knowing it would entail an elaborate and expensive production, but he was not interested. It was Barrie’s American associate, the impresario Charles Frohman, who grasped the play’s potential and spared no effort to make it a success. He engaged the talented Dion Boucicault as producer, a recent innovation in the theatrical world, where production had traditionally been the concern of the actor-managers, and the play opened at the Duke of York’s Theatre on December 27, 1904.
The plot of Peter Pan is calculated to appeal to the imaginations of the young. The Darling children, Wendy, John, and Michael, are induced by the intriguing, magical boy Peter Pan and his fairy acolyte Tinker Bell to abandon their comfortable nursery and savor the delights and perils of Never Land. The climax of the first act comes as they fly out the nursery window.
In the second act, the children become acquainted with the other inhabitants of Never Land. The Lost Boys, children without mothers who as babies fell out of their baby carriages, recognize Peter as their natural leader. They are permanently in danger from the Pirates, a motley crew led by the dastardly Captain Hook. The Redskins are enemies of both the Lost Boys and the Pirates until Peter and the Lost Boys rescue the belle of the tribe from death by marooning at Hook’s hands. The appeal of the island is enhanced by the antics of the mermaids, the threat of the wolves and the Never Bird, not to mention the ticking crocodile that follows Hook inexorably around and around the island, waiting for the moment when it can finish making a meal of him.
In the fourth act, a great battle between the Redskins and the Pirates ends in victory for Hook, and it is then very easy for him to abduct Wendy and the Lost Boys as they prepare to leave Never Land. Only Peter can rescue them from the pirate ship before they are made to walk the plank, and this he does with great enthusiasm. Hook meets his nemesis, the crocodile, and the Darling children return to the security of their nursery.
Peter is unique among the characters in his insistence that he does not want to grow up. The Lost Boys have no fixed opinion on the subject and are easily talked into going back with Wendy and her brothers to be adopted, and Wendy herself realizes that growing up is inevitable. It is easy to see the parallel between Peter’s refusal to countenance even the thought of growing up with the singular circumstances of Barrie’s own childhood. Physically, he remained a child longer than most of his contemporaries and was marked throughout his adulthood by his short stature (he was just over five feet tall); on the other hand, carefree childhood ended abruptly for him at the age of six when he embarked on the fantasy relationship with his mother, trying to live up to her expectations for his older brother.
Barrie’s emphasis on the reluctance of Peter Pan to grow up is often interpreted as a disenchantment with adult life and an idealization of childhood, but Never Land offers only a temporary refuge from, and not a permanent solution to, the problems of growing up; childhood as epitomized by Peter, and to a lesser extent, the Lost Boys, is not ideal. Peter is callous and self-centered. He is illogical, inconsiderate, irresponsible, and irrepressible, but nevertheless endearing. His insouciance sets him apart from Wendy, who is already burdened with responsibilities and is happy to assume more.
If Peter Pan is a combination of Barrie himself and the characteristics that most appealed to him in the children of whom he was so fond, then Wendy must surely be a distillation of elements from the women in Barrie’s life. The strongest parallel is with his mother, particularly as she emerged for him in her stories of her early childhood. Domestic responsibility came early to her, and she was already mothering her younger brother at the age of eight. The theme of motherhood is very strong in Peter Pan, and the maternal qualities of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies with her five sons must have served as a model for the scenes of Wendy and the Lost Boys. At the same time, Wendy’s commonsense organization of the unpredictability of life in Never Land does not exclude her from participating in the great adventure. She is still a child and eligible to enjoy the delights of this children’s preserve. She is already marked by feminine intuition, however, and if she is mother to the Lost Boys, then she expects Peter to be the father, a role of which he is particularly wary. The whole of the scene in the house underground in act 4 is built around Wendy’s enactment of an adult role into which she will inevitably grow and Peter’s avoidance of the parallel one that he will never accept.
Dreams are the substance of Peter Pan, and Barrie leaves the skeptical with the option of interpreting the fantasy on this level. On the other hand, even Mrs. Darling knows that Peter’s shadow has substance: She has rolled it up and put it away in a drawer, and Tinker Bell’s remarkable recovery after drinking the poison intended for Peter convinces every child in the audience, at least for the duration of the play, that fairies do exist.
If Peter Pan epitomizes childhood, then Lob in Dear Brutus is the essence of worldly experience. He is likened, by the other characters in the play at the beginning of the first act, to Puck, or what Puck would have looked like if he had forgotten to die. He is thus at the opposite end of the age spectrum to Peter but like Peter is instrumental in strangely altering the lives of the other characters. The first act opens in a darkened room in his house, looking out onto a moonlit garden, a pertinent reversal of the usual situation. When the main characters enter the dark room, the lights go up and the ladies of the house party attempt to discover why they, particularly, have been invited. The butler, Matey, is blackmailed into giving them as much information as he knows, which is little. All he can say is to beware of the wood and not to venture out beyond the garden. His advice sounds ridiculous, because as the characters all know there is no wood for miles around, but it is Midsummer’s Eve, and strange tales are told about a magic wood and its properties. When the men of the party join the ladies, they are full of enthusiasm for a project clearly suggested by Lob—namely, to go out to find the fabled wood.
During the remainder of this act, it becomes apparent that the lives of all the guests are marred in some way. Purdie, for example, cannot help being attracted to women other than his wife, and the current object of his attentions is Joanna Trout. Will Dearth is a failure and an alcoholic who is despised by his wife. Coade has achieved nothing at all in his life and even confuses his second wife with the memory of his first. Will Dearth observes that there are three things generally viewed as never returning to people: the spoken word, past life, and neglected opportunity. They would all welcome a second chance at life, and this the wood could provide. The climax to the first act is the discovery that the mysterious wood now entirely surrounds Lob’s house, and one by one the characters venture out into it.
Act 2 shows how the characters react to the boon of a second chance to live their lives. It is entirely predictable that they will repeat the mistakes of their lives in the real world, and this they proceed to do. Purdie, married to Joanna, chases after Mabel, in reality Mrs. Purdie. Alice Dearth has married her other suitor, and although she is the Honorable Mrs. Finch-Fallowe in name she is now only a vagrant. Of all of them, only Will Dearth has benefited, possibly because the value of his life only declined once his wife saw him as a failure. He now delights in the daughter he wanted but never had in reality.
The third act takes place back in Lob’s house. The characters drift in from the wood, leaving their fantasy existence, and in Dearth’s case, his darling Margaret, behind. Their return to reality is gradual, however, and they are able to compare their two states, to arrive at some profound but depressing conclusions about the flaws in their characters that have made their lives what they are. It is Purdie, the now self-confessed philanderer, who quotes the lines from Julius Caesar that furnish the elliptical title of the play: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
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