Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Book 60 of 2013: Peter Pan and Other Plays by J.M. Barrie

My course this year has had a whole host of required reading, which is kind of to be expected in a Literature course. Most of the books you have to buy yourself, but as with the one I did the year before, one book is provided with the course materials. I’m not entirely sure why this should be, my best guess is that it’s because the text required is one in a collection of which you only need to read one particular story. So I guess they don’t want people complaining about buying a £7 book for just thirty or so pages of it.

Whatever the reason, I’m not complaining. It’s basically a free book!

This year’s book was Peter Pan and Other Plays by J.M. Barrie of which I only needed to read Peter Pan for my course (and watch a film, and write an essay). Of course, being me, I couldn’t take a 338 page book and only read a small chunk of it, so I read the whole thing, even though 90% of it was totally unnecessary for the course.

This edition of the book was published by Oxford World’s Classics and comprised of The Admirable Crichton, Peter Pan, When Wendy Grew Up, What Every Woman Knows and Mary Rose, all of which are plays by J.M. Barrie, perhaps the most famous of which is Peter Pan. Being an Oxford World’s Classics book it’s got a lengthy introduction at the beginning (that kind of spoils some of the points in the actual plays) as well as extensive notes in the back of the book about points which may need to be elaborated upon.

When I decided to read the whole book I couldn’t help but wonder if I might be making a slight mistake. It’s a fairly thick book and I was under some time constraints as this was one of the texts I needed to write an essay about. I don’t often read plays so I was a little worried about getting stuck into something that was going to take a long time to read and which I would maybe not enjoy a great deal.

Well, I’m glad I read the whole thing because I did really enjoy it. It did take me a little while to get through but an awful lot of time was spent reading the introduction, because I was concerned about missing something that might have proved to be important in my assignment. And a little while longer was spent on Peter Pan as that was the text I was actually supposed to be reading.

Of all the plays in the book The Admirable Crichton was my favourite. It’s a play about class issues and where people belong in the social structure. A wealthy family, who couldn’t help but remind me of the Downton Abbey crew, possibly because one of the daughters was Lady Mary, have a party and discuss the proper positions for their staff. They then go away on holiday and are shipwrecked. The head of the family completely loses his head and it’s up to the butler, the titular Crichton, to save the day. In doing this he becomes the leader of the band, turning the class conventions on their heads with hilarious results. Until I read it I hadn’t been aware that Barrie was a bit of a satirist.

Mary Rose was a lot more serious and quite creepy than the others, which made it stand out to me as well. It tells the story about a girl visiting Scotland as a small child and disappearing when her father takes her to an island in the middle of a loch. About a week later she shows up again, in the same spot where he’d left her, apparently none the worse for wear and with no idea of what had happened to her. The family resolves not to speak of it and she grows up.

Time passes and Mary Rose gets married. All is going well until she convinces her husband to take her to Scotland to the place she visited as a child. Once again she winds up vanishing, but this time it’s twenty-five years before she shows up again. It’s sort of a story about being snatched by fairies, without ever actually referring to them as such, and reading it in bed at night made it feel decidedly more creepy.

Almost all of the plays, with the exception of Mary Rose, had lots of funny bits and I could almost picture them being played out on stage. Having been in the local drama group I found myself mentally casting people I’d been in the group with as different characters. I could really imagine us doing What Every Woman Knows or perhaps even The Admirable Crichton and I found it really easy to imagine those on stage.

Only ever having seen Peter Pan in the Disney version, and the snippets in Finding Neverland, I found it really hard to picture it as being performed on the stage. I think it’s partly due to the stage directions being so complicated and quite technologically advanced for the time when it was written (dual level sets, people flying, a fairy who takes the form of a light, a house being build around a character on the stage), it made it difficult to picture exactly how all of that would be done in a theatre. I’d love to see if performed live to see whether my imagined version of it was close to the real life one.

I was also surprised by how prosey the text was. Most of my experience of plays has come from playwrights like Shakespeare, Marlowe and Webster so I’m used to that style of writing. A lot of the stage directions, particularly in Peter Pan but also in the other plays, read almost like part of a short story. I imagine those bits might have been narrated or at least printed in the programme because they give huge amounts of backstory without actually having any real way of portraying them on the stage.

From that respect I’m glad that I went as far as to read the whole book because otherwise I might have thought that style was something that was unique to Peter Pan, whereas in reality I think that it’s something which is unique to Barrie. Although I suppose that before I could properly comment on that I’d have to read some more of his works.

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