Thursday, August 16, 2012

James Barrie

Will probably be remembered, as long as he is remembered, as the author of Peter Pan, though I do not have the sense that many people, either adults or children, read the original play anymore (I must admit, I have never read it myself). In addition to Pan (1904), two of Barrie's other plays were chosen for the 1958 list: The Admirable Crichton (1902), and Dear Brutus (1917) [ his ages at the publication of these books: 42, 44, & 57]. Much like Lewis Carroll, such reputation of him as survives is as a children's author who in private life had issues with emotional immaturity and dysfunctional sexual problems, though in fact he was a major figure in the adult literary, theatrical and social worlds of his time, achieving a high measure of fame and esteem during his lifetime. As such his biography is well-chronicled. His stature as an important literary figure seems to have been gradually, but steadily fading, since the 1920s. However he does remain a name, to the point that there was even a film (Finding Neverland) within the last decade based loosely on his life in which he was played by Johnny Depp; I have not seen this movie, though the previews do not strike me as particularly capturing the interesting essence either of James Barrie's life and work or of his era. But I am basing this on my own reading from and about this time, which is doubtless itself grotesquely flawed.

This is the only James Barrie book I own, a copy of his 1891 novel The Little Minister. I have not read it, either. It belongs to a set of "The World's Popular Classics" which my wife found set out in several boxes by the side of one of our country roads a few years and brought home, knowing I have a fondness for such collections. The set sits currently on the whatnot in the living room. The Little Minister is regarded as sentimental Victorian junk by most professional readers, but it was a best seller in its time.

I should pick up a copy of Peter Pan if I ever run across one. It still is a classic, and it is the kind of thing one of my children might pick up and read someday if they find it on the shelf. Modern children are obviously busier, or at least have more things other than books to distract them, than their forbears, so my sense actually was that this would never happen; however my oldest son has taken up and read (at fairly long intervals) Frankenstein, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Christmas Carol in this manner and he is only ten, so maybe some minor good--but here I am still assuming that reading tired old books produces some kind of valuable result, when my entire life had been one long refutation of this once widely-believed tenet..  

I have not read anything of Barrie's, though he does interest me a little, because he did manage to produce a minor classic after a sort, and because his generation of writers represent a curious time in literary as well as British history. This period when Barrie was solidly ensconced in the literary establishment, roughly 1900-1920, is among my least favorite in English literary history, as far as the writing goes; but the earnestness, the assumptions regarding the value and permanence of literature and the arts and religion and much of what might be called the entire English way of life--even if, as I believe, these were frequently unconscious and internalized--and these characteristics proving largely unable to survive World War I and the onset of modernity, nonetheless hold a high amount of fascination for me.

The Admirable Crichton is the story, now become somewhat of a cliche, of some typical English aristocrats who get shipwrecked on a desert island during a disastrous yachting outing, in which circumstances the butler Crichton is revealed to be a naturally superior man to his masters--the effect sounds like Jeeves and Wooster meet Gilligan's Island. Also like Jeeves, Crichton is assiduous in his efforts to maintain the relations proper to everyone's social positions. To believe in the necessity of this so thoroughly even when one is perfectly capable of occupying a higher station than one is born into, and to actively promote its preservation, would not seem to be logically consistent to anyone who did not grow up in a society with such a strictly delineated hierarchy. The supposed contradiction is almost always presented in these British works with the implication of being comedy, and, unlike some of the even more aristocratic cultures on the continent, which do not even seem to allow for the possibility of such a reversal of parts between master and man, it does not seem to be considered matter for concern with regard to the general health of society; at the same time, even while highlighting some of the absurdities of society as currently constituted, the idea that it should be fundamentally reorganized is never very strongly pressed either.

The (original) film version of The Admirable Crichton, made in 1919, was called Male and Female. Among its stars was Gloria Swanson of Sunset Boulevard fame. Here is a clip of it (embedding is not allowed). To those of us who lived in the days when public screenings of silent movies usually meant an ancient, filthy print of actual celluloid being run through a actual film projector, these modern restorations are so good that they barely even look real.

With regard to Peter Pan, the IWE observes that "Many reviewers have read into Peter Pan all kinds of deep symbolic intents and perhaps they are right, but also there is the possibility that its author intended it simply as a clever fairy tale for children". That's my kind of summary. While the 1953 Disney interpretation is probably the iconic one, film versions of the story are legion, and the title role has been a signature part for many legendary actresses, including the original, the great and beautiful Maude Adams, of whose performances there does not seem to be a film record however.

Many people consider the 1924 version the best of them all (Barrie was still living at this time--he died in 1937). This selection from it at nearly five minutes is a little long, but it is worth it for the dog (who comes in around the 2:50 mark), which is hilarious. I am not previously familiar with this Betty Bronson person who played Peter, but she was a babe. The girl who plays Wendy (Mary Brian) is cute too. The smaller of the boys--I can never keep Michael and John straight--has a strong resemblance, in facial expression and texture and wave, if not color, of hair, to my five year old son. Another unbelievable restoration:

Mary Martin is one of the famous actresses identified with the Peter Pan role, which she first played in her 50s. Below is the "We Can Fly" scene from her 1960 television version, which was very popular and well-received at the time.

And of course, I cannot leave out the Disney version of the same part, though even upon its original release, before a critical mass of the public realized how offensive its racist depiction of Indians was, I don't think it was considered one of their best movies. I do like the cartoon depiction of Edwardian London here. It really is the primary London of my imagination; Walt Disney was doubtless reared on all the same books I was. Cartoon Wendy has it going on too. Whoever does her voice has the Teresa Wright/Eva Marie Saint thing going on which was apparently a common way of speaking at the time, and which we can only hope might return in some form someday.

Dear Brutus was a work of Barrie's mature years, and was apparently very successful despite making its appearance in the darkest depths of World War I and being a fantasy set in a country house during Midsummer's Week (life goes on, wherever it is not completely overturned, I guess). Even in 1958 the encyclopedists noted that "it is seldom revived, perhaps because it has no one part that is sufficiently outstanding." I am always intrigued by the idea that writing and art of this sort still exists, is still welcomed, and needed, in times of grave crisis and societal upheaval, when most people's attention is directed upon grimly serious matters. I am curious about this play. The only video clip of it I can find is from a college theater production, and a recent one at that; the actors and direction I found too affected however to make it worthwhile to put up here.

Barrie was a Scot, from the town of Kirriemuir, in Angus (Forfarshire from 1700-1929), which is farther north in Scotland than most of her famous authors hail from. His birthplace, at 9 Brechin Road, is now a National Trust museum. He is buried with his parents in the cemetery here as well, though he lived continuously in London after he was 24. The closest railroad station to the town appears to be Dundee, which is about 20 miles away.

In London the statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, where Barrie, who lived in the neighborhood, used to walk his dog, is famous. Lancaster Gate and Queensway on the Central Line look to be the closest subway stops.

Here is footage of Barrie, who comes across as genuinely eccentric in this short clip, at the dedication of what appears to be the well-known Thomas Hardy statue in Dorchester in 1931.

Barrie was a degree holder (M.A.) from  the University of Edinburgh

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