ON THE swelteringly hot day that was May the 6th, 1935, the writer caught his first and last glimpse of the diminutive figure whose pen had made the name of Sir James M. Barrie a household word amongst English-speaking peoples. A curious little figure he seemed, in his tall silk hat and much too heavy black overcoat, limping through the dust of Fleet Street, muttering inaudibly to himself, and rather suggesting by his appearance and manner an eccentric old gentleman who had slipped his keeper. Yet there could be no doubt as to the identity of the little fellow; those harassed features and deep-set eyes belonged only to the author whose slightly unusual plays had, throughout the years, created around him a certain atmosphere of mystery. Why, on such a hot day, so very unsuitably dressed, was he wearily trudging the pavements; and what was the cause of his most obvious annoyance? I had never expected to find the answer. Indeed the incident had been entirely forgotten, until Mr. Denis Mackail's book (Barrie, a Biography) suddenly enlightened me.
I have always found most interesting those biographies of which it might be said that their subjects, could they return to earth and read them, would find something at which to cavil. Paeans of praise, unless balanced by sound criticisms, make unconvincing reading, for one doubts the veracity of any biographer whose estimate of a man is that he was very nearly perfect; and I am relieved to find, after reading the latest account of his life and work, that Sir James was certainly not that. A most lovable man -- in certain circumstances -- he must have been; but there was about him, too, a strangely perverse quality whose nature was almost pathological, and for admitting as much in his full-length portrait of a friend for whom he obviously had a great affection, one is grateful to Mr. Mackail. His is an adult judgment of an artist whose charm, when he chose to exercise it, contained the propensities of magic; but whose childish moods, when he gave way to them, must often have exasperated his friends and acquaintances to the limit of endurance.
Legend dies hard in England, which is why, even having learned the details of his career, his own countrymen will persist in declaring the author of Peter Pan to be a sentimentalist whose plays were written with a pen dipped in a mixture of syrup and tears; who saw life through spectacles heavily rose-tinted, and who was the possessor of that dubious gift of the gods -- the "heart of a child". But of American critics I have more hope, for it is to their credit that, when considering a man, they insist upon disregarding the popular misconceptions of a gullible public, and concentrate upon the discovery of what he was like at those moments when, seeking escape, he shut himself away from the world. And for this reason they will, I believe, appreciate this study of a man who was a considerable artist; a study which must satisfy the seekers after truth, as certainly as it must annoy those who prefer to have their false fancies preserved.
From a study of Barrie's work it should not be difficult for future generations, if they are sufficiently interested, to draw some conclusions as to its creator's character. With a writer, it is said, the style is the man. And up to a point the argument is sound enough. But I think there can be no doubt in Barrie's case that a better understanding of the plays themselves is to be gained from some knowledge of their author's peculiar temperament, and of the circumstances in which a few of them were written.
That part of the popular legend which declares that Barrie was himself Peter Pan contains more than a grain of the truth; but the declaration frequently accompanying it, that Peter Pan is a perfect symbol of eager and adventurous boyhood, just will not do. The more one learns of Barrie's private life, the clearer it becomes that his soul was Peter Pan's; but the fact must not be lost sight of that the Peter Pans of this world, when one comes to look for them, are most often to be found in the care of a psychiatrist. For was a more unnatural child than Peter -- whose determination was not to grow up -- ever invented by God or man? He may have been; but fortunately only on rare occasions, for the lot of any creature so retarded in outlook could hardly fail to be miserably unhappy.
Imagine, if you can, a Peter Pan forced to grow up along with the rest of mankind, a soul tormented by the knowledge that it cannot always remain a part of the make-believe world in which illusions are still realities, and you will have gone some way towards understanding, and perhaps sympathizing with, at least one side of that strange personality whose plays either delighted, or sickened by their alleged sentimentality, the vast audiences that flocked to see them.
All his life, Barrie insisted upon remaining a child -- a boy imbued with the healthy spirit of adventure, whose passions were cricket, sixth-form pranks, heroes and heroines a little larger than life, and a belief that the moon was his for the asking. And, when one comes to consider the difficulties which must beset the course of anybody so determined as he was to swim against the tide, one has to admit what a successful job he made of it all. Adventures he had in plenty, both inside and outside the theatre; cricket, with himself as the captain of the oddest teams, he played throughout the years; jokes at the expense of his friends he nearly always got away with; the heroes and heroines of his generation were his devoted friends; and if by the moon we mean fantastic success, he certainly did not cry for it in vain. What, then, was the cause of the tragedies that were never for long absent from his life, those heart-rending experiences of his which made up the other side of the picture? The answer is surely obvious. Not even a genius can remain a boy, in a man's world, without having a few of his illusions shattered.
In his private life Barrie was far from happy, but of the friendships he made outside the domestic circle there is a long list, and none was more fortunate than his association with that other bizarre child of the theatre, Charles Frohman. Such was their faith in one another that they never once dreamed of signing a contract, and the tests to which their loyalty was put is in itself a drama. When Frohman lost his life on the Lusitania, Barrie lost the best producer he ever had, on either side of the Atlantic; a loss from which, he would have been the first to admit, he never quite recovered. Whilst those two children played together, the results were superb; but after the death of one of them, things were never quite the same. The magic which their association had wrought was somehow dulled.
The latter part of Barrie's life is perhaps the most touching, because in it one is made so acutely aware of the struggle he would not give up to remain eternally young. Not that his plays went out of fashion. They didn't. But into them there crept the note of bitterness that was a reflection of his anger at finding the world as it was, instead of as he would have liked it to be -- a world of brave little boys, and equally courageous little girls, who refused to be turned into anything so complicated as full-blooded men and women.
I showed a friend of mine the other day a card I had received from Noel Coward twenty years ago. On it he had answered my question, "What is your ambition?" He put: "To write a play like Mary Rose." My friend laughed. It amused him very much to think that the cynical Coward could ever, as he put it, want to write such a pretty-pretty piece as Mary Rose. But I could not agree with him. Nor did I consider it worthwhile pointing out that in this, as in other of his plays, Barrie was a cynic of the first water. I have more than once heard Dear Brutus referred to as a sweet play, yet the theme it expounds -- that given a second chance we should only make the same mistakes over again -- is hardly what I should term a sweet one.
From the now recorded facts, it appears that the day on which I saw Barrie wearily tramping the streets, he was returning from the Jubilee Thanksgiving Service in St. Paul's Cathedral at which he had been present as an honoured guest. In the crowds outside the Cathedral he somehow missed his car, and was forced to make the way home on foot. On reaching his apartment, it is said, he was in a state of great annoyance, and, refusing to attend a luncheon at which he was expected, went straight to bed.
A state of great annoyance! I can imagine how the grievances of a lifetime buzzed in his mind on that hot and dusty day. His health had suffered for some time past, and fate had refused to spoil him as it had once done. He must have felt very alone, and was certainly very much out of the limelight which secretly he adored.
Though it could have made no possible difference to him, I wish now that I had risked an intrusion upon his fractious mood, and plucked up sufficient courage to thank him for the hours of pleasure he had given me. It might have produced a smile. Even a bitter one.
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