JM Barrie: Peter Pan Man - a play by Anne Stenhouse
The trouble with Barrie
Edinburgh author Anne Stenhouse talks to Steve Cramer about her new play, which pits JM Barrie against his unruly alter-ego
Few lives could have been as dogged by mortality as that of JM Barrie. From his childhood, much of which he spent imitating his brother (who died in a bizarre skating accident), through his youth, and on to his latter days, those close to Barrie were in the habit of dying prematurely. This might go some way to explaining the peculiar flavour of his writing, which, at its most commercially successful, managed to combine popular escapism with something much darker in its subtext. This odd but fascinating contradiction is as evident in his minor work as it is in the likes of Peter Pan and Mary Rose.
Late in his life, Barrie made a revelation about his creative process which illustrated the dichotomies under his texts. At an address to the graduating student class of 1922 at St Andrews University, he spoke of having an alter ego. ‘M’Connachie,’ he said, ‘is the unruly half of me, the writing half. He is the one that writes the plays.’
In JM Barrie: Peter Pan Man Anne Stenhouse has written a one-act play which picks up upon this moment, and reflects upon its significance. In it, Barrie and ‘M’Connachie’ engage in a dialogue shortly after the revelation was made.
‘M’Connachie says: “What did you tell them about me for?”,’ says Stenhouse, reflecting an anxiety that beset the author as much as any modern celebrity writer. ‘He feels that now he’ll become like a politician, where the personality, the figure himself becomes more important than the work, than what he actually has to say.’
She continues: ‘Part of it is that idea of a dialogue, where the artist somewhat stands outside of himself and observes his alter ego. I think a lot of artists use that detachment, and the play explores that process.’
Stenhouse’s new play is presented by Theatre Broad at the Byre, not far from where Barrie made the speech, in an evening that will also incorporate two lesser-known short plays by Barrie himself: Seven Women and The Twelve Pound Look. Stenhouse explains that much about the play is contingent on the context of the speech. ‘The speech was given to a group of students who were probably the first generation of graduates to emerge after the Great War. Obviously, there was a great disillusionment around at the time, and I think Barrie’s purpose at the start was to reassure this new generation that there were things worth doing.’
It might also be significant that at the time of the speech, a turning point had been reached in Barrie’s life. ‘Having seen one of his young wards, George, killed by a sniper in the First World War, he wasn’t somehow prepared for the death of another, Michael, by drowning and this changed him,’ Stenhouse explains. ‘Up until then, he hadn’t shown much conscience in drawing on the lives of the children he adopted and those around him for his work, but around this time he largely stopped writing plays. There were several stages to his career, from journalist to novelist to highly successful playwright, and this point was the last phase, where he almost abandoned creative work.
JM Barrie: Peter Pan Man, Byre Theatre, St Andrews, Thu 23 Jul.