On J.M. Barrie and Peter Pan

J.M. Barrie & Michael Llewelyn Davies

Charles Dickens once stated that Little Red Riding Hood was his first love, and if only he could have married her, he would have known perfect bliss. For me, my first love was Peter Pan -- that charming, exasperating rascal of a boy, killer of pirates and intimate of fairies. But in my generation, we first encountered Peter as portrayed by the actress Mary Martin (in a televised version of the stage play Peter Pan), which created a certain gender confusion. Was Peter a boy (or girl) I had a crush on, or the dashing figure that I wanted to be myself? Play-acting the role of Wendy was boring, too much sewing and mothering of Lost Boys;  play-acting Peter was so much better, strutting and scheming and  fighting pirates. I dreamed of flight, and fairy dust, and Indian drums sounding in the woods; and insisted on leaving the bedroom window cracked in case Peter should appear....

Peter's creator, Sir James Matthew Barrie, died on this day in 1937. Today's post is dedicated to Barrie and to Peter, two boys who never grew up.

Captain Hook and Peter by PJ LYnchJ.M. Barrie was already a well-known novelist and playwright when he sat down to write his first and only play for children, which he completed and offered to the theater producer Charles Frohman in the spring of 1904. It was unlike anything that had ever been presented to children on the London stage before, but Frohman loved it -- except for the title, which Barrie obligingly changed from The Great White Father to Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. ("Great White Father" is what Peter is called by Tiger Lily and her companions.) Although it had roots in the British pantomime tradition, Peter Pan was a wholly original concoction blending pirate stories, desert island stories, Indian adventures and fairy tales, all wrapped around a satire of family life in Edwardian London. Frohman took an enormous commercial risk in backing a play of over fifty parts and of actors wired to soar above the stage. No one knew if this preposterous play would work, especially its anxious author. On opening night, Barrie was ill with nerves, holding his breath at the critical moment when Peter asks the audience to clap their hands if they believe in fairies. What if no one clapped at all? But the audience responded with such wild applause that the actress playing Peter burst into tears.

Peter Pan by Alice B. Woodward

The opening of the play in December 1904 is now reckoned as the date of Peter's birth, for it marks the emergence of Peter as we know him, sword in hand and Tinker Bell at his side. Yet he really first appeared two years earlier in Barrie's adult novel The Little White Bird. The novel's narrator is a crusty bachelor who lives close to London's Kensington Gardens, where he meets a small boy and establishes an intense relationship with him. He charms the boy with stories about fairies, and about a run-away baby named Peter Pan who lives among the birds and fairies on an island in the Serpentine Lake.

From JM Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens illustrated by Arthur Rackham 2All babies were once birds, he tells the boy, and they still possess the power of flight. Parents, he warns, must keep their windows shut so that their babies don't fly off at night. Peter Pan is a baby who once heard his mother talk about the life he'd lead when he was grown, prompting him to fly to Kensington Gardens in order to avoid this fate. In the Gardens, he's neither bird nor baby but a creature who is "betwixt and between," glorying in his independence, determined to never grow up. Eventually, however, he tries to go back home, only to find that he's left it much too late. His mother has another baby now, and the nursery windows are firmly locked.

The Little White Bird, like most of Barrie's work, drew inspiration from the author's own life. He too lived close to Kensington Gardens, where he walked with his enormous St. Bernard dog, and where he first became friends with three little boys: George, Jack, and Peter Llewelyn Davies. Barrie held the boys spellbound with tales about magical goings-on in the park at night, when fairies emerged from the hollows of the trees, leaving messages for the boys to find. The first "Peter" in these stories was the real baby Peter, flying off from the Llewelyn Davies nursery to join the fairies' revels at night -- but soon a separate character emerged of the fairy-child Peter Pan, who had once been a human baby, but now lived in the wilds of the park. Barrie was an intensely autobiographical writer, mining his own life for story material to a degree that alternately charmed and exasperated the friends and family members who found themselves rendered into novels and plays. Thus to understand Peter Pan, we must take a closer look at his creator and his complicated relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family.

Baby Peter Flies Over London by Arthur Rackham

Born in Kirriemuir, Scotland in 1860, James Barrie was the frail, unprepossessing seventh child in a family of ten. His father was a hand-loom weaver, and although the family was far from affluent, they were comfortable, and good educations were provided for the Barrie boys. The eldest son, Alexander, graduated from Aberdeen University with first-class honors in Classics; and the next son, David, a brilliant boy, was expected to do even better. James, however, was a dreamy child more interested in games and Penny Dreadfuls (adventure comics) than excelling in academics. David was the acknowledged star of the family -- but when David was thirteen and James was six, David died in a skating accident. Their mother never recovered from this blow, and James spent the rest of his childhood trying to replace the boy she'd lost. He distracted his mother by begging for stories about the Scotland of her childhood (and would later make a good living turning these stories into articles and books). David remained enshrined in memory as the perfect child who never aged or disappointed. "Nothing that happens after we are twelve matters very much," J.M. Barrie wrote many years later.

Yet the years from ages thirteen to eighteen seem to have been the happiest of Barrie's own life, when he left his home and grieving mother to attend Dumfries Academy. Though Dumfries was co-educational, Barrie lived in a masculine world of sports, games, and intense friendships with other boys. He was small and thin, but good at football, cricket, fishing, and other sports, and especially at games of make believe involving pirates, bandits, and other stock characters from the Penny Dreadfuls. These games evolved into a Dramatic Club, establishing Barrie's life long devotion to the theater. He wrote his very first play for the club, a melodrama called Bandelero the Bandit.

J.M. BarrieBarrie knew from quite an early age that he wanted to be a professional writer, but his mother had other plans for him. He was to follow the path that David would have taken to a career in the ministry. Barrie dutifully went off to earn his M.A. at Edinburgh University, where he was miserable. He had been popular among the boys in Dumfries, but at university he was at a loss. He was an odd looking young man, barely five feet tall, and appeared much younger than he was. The women ignored him, and the men embarrassed him with coarse talk about the opposite sex. Barrie retreated into solitude, turning shy and reticent, which were traits he'd retain even when he'd become the most successful writer in Great Britain.

Barrie obliged his parents by completing his degree, but returned home still determined to be a writer, landing a job with the Nottingham Journal and sending submissions off to the London papers. The St. James Gazette began to publish Barrie's stories of Scotland in his mother's day, and with this slim encouragement he moved to London at the age of 24. He went with little money and few contacts, and yet within a very few years Barrie's work was appearing regularly in the top newspapers and journals in the country. He published three books about old Scotland -- Auld Licht Idylls, A Window in Thrums, and The Little Minister -- which turned into surprise best-sellers, elevating him in literary circles and opening society's doors. Barrie's boyhood idol Robert Louis Stevenson proclaimed him to be a writer of genius, and Barrie's circle of friends now included Thomas Hardy, Henry James, William Meredith, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.G. Wodehouse.

From Peter Pan in Kensington Garden illustrated by Arthur Rackham copy 2

Barrie then turned his hand to writing plays, scoring successes with Ibsen's Ghost and Walker, London. He loved the theater -- and he also loved to flirt with the pretty starlets of the day, although he never went beyond flirting until he met a young woman named Mary Ansell. Mary's career on the stage was undistinguished but she was lively and intelligent, and as the two grew close, the London society papers predicted an engagement. Mary waited while Barrie dithered about her. He worried that he was unsuited to marriage -- as a child he'd even had nightmares about it -- and the notes in his journals from the period show a man who is wracked with doubt. He loved Mary, but did he love her deeply? Was he capable of a steady, adult love? He worried that the answer was no, but hoped that the act of marriage would mature him -- so he proposed to Mary, married her in Scotland, and took her off on a Swiss honeymoon. The honeymoon was not a success, and Mary later referred to it as "a shock." Barrie's biographers suspect (as did many of his friends) that the marriage was never consummated -- for he seems to have been an entirely asexual man, incapable of physical passion. In a journal entry recorded during his honeymoon he makes this note for a scene in a future play:

Wife-Have you given me up? Have nothing to do with me?
Husband calmly kind, no passion & c. (à la self)

When the couple returned to London, Mary busied herself with their new house and dog, while Barrie retreated into his study and got back to work. He produced new stories, new plays, a sentimental biography of his mother -- and then began Tommy and Grizel, considered by many to be his finest novel. It's the tragic story of Tommy, a writer, who is married to his childhood friend Grizel. The marriage is not a happy one, for there's something vital lacking in Tommy -- he cannot love Grizel, or anyone else, in a physical way (or so the text implies without stating his lack of sexuality directly). He's not like other men, Tommy tries to explain, he's really just a boy who has never grown up. Barrie writes, "She knew that, despite all he had gone through, he was still a boy. And boys cannot love. Oh, is it not cruel to ask a boy to love?"

Peter Pan by Scott Gustafson

As Barrie's biographers have remarked, one can only imagine what Mary thought when she read passages like this in print, realizing that anything she said or did might be turned into story material. But if Mary minded, she didn't show it. She carefully, dutifully kept up the public appearance of a perfectly normal marriage. There were compensations. She was wealthy now, and her husband was a celebrated man. If she didn't have his passion, and couldn't have his children, at least she had as much of Barrie's affection and attention as he had to give until, in 1897, she began to lose even that.

Arthur Llewelyn Davies and sonsFor it was in 1897 that Barrie became acquainted with the three little boys in Kensington Gardens: five-year-old George, four-year-old Jack, and baby brother Peter, who came to play in the park each day attended by their nanny. They talked about cricket, pirates, and fairies; he dazzled them by the way he could wiggle his ears; and before long, Barrie was meeting up with boys on a regular basis. He had always found it easier to make friends with children than he did adults. They didn't mind his moods, his long silences; they enjoyed his black humor and quirky stories, and accepted him as an overgrown boy rather than as one of the grown-ups.

On New Year's Eve, the Barries attended an elegant dinner party where Barrie was seated beside the beautiful wife of a young barrister. He soon discovered, to his astonishment, that this was Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the mother of his friends George, Jack, and Peter -- while she discovered, with equal amazement, that the mysterious man who could wiggle his ears was the famous author J.M. Barrie.

Sylvia and Michael Llewyln DaviesSylvia was no stranger to fame herself, for her father was George du Maurier, illustrator for Punch magazine and author of the novel Trilby (which introduced Svengali to the world); her brother Gerald was a well-known actor; and her husband Arthur was the son of John Llewelyn Davies, a prominent theologian. Sylvia was charmed by Barrie's enthusiasm for her beloved boys, and invited him to visit them at home -- which he promptly did, reappearing there with increasing regularity.

Soon Barrie was a fixture in Sylvia's household -- to the chagrin of her husband Arthur, who could not fathom why this strange little Scotsman was so constantly underfoot, and of Mary Barrie, disconcerted by this new focus in her husband's life. Neither Arthur nor Mary had cause to believe that Sylvia and Barrie had embarked on an affair (and Mary, especially, knew how impossible this was), but the intensity of Barrie's interest in Sylvia's boys raised more than a few eyebrows. Sylvia, however, found nothing strange in it. Completely in love with her handsome husband, she saw nothing compromising in accepting Barrie's friendship, and nothing odd in his devotion to her darling sons. She pushed Arthur's objections aside, and Arthur learned to hold his tongue, accepting Barrie's presence in their lives with as much stoicism as he could muster. Barrie's wife, for her part, made a point of befriending Sylvia and coped as best she could with the awkward fact that her husband was engrossed in the lives of another woman's children.

The question inevitably rises in relation to Barrie's involvement with the Llewelyn Davies boys whether he was a pedophile, or had repressed pedophilic tendencies. Nico Llewelyn Davies, the youngest of the boys, when asked about this after Barrie's death, dismissed the idea categorically. "I don't believe that Uncle Jim ever experienced what one might call 'a stirring in the undergrowth' for anyone -- man, woman, or child," said Nico. "He was an innocent -- which is why he could write Peter Pan." Writer Andrew Birkin, who spent three years researching Barrie's life for his BBC television program The Lost Boys, interviewed many who had known J.M. Barrie and conducted an extensive correspondence with Nico. Nothing he read or heard indicated that Barrie had a sexual interest in the boys. "Barrie was impotent, it's fairly clear," says Birkin (on the DVD edition of his program). "That was the tragedy of his life. Had he not been impotent, I think he would have been a womanizer — he was always falling in love with his leading ladies over the stage lights. The suggestion that he was somehow pedophilic with these boys doesn't really stand up to close examination."

George  John  and Peter Llewyn Davies

In 1900, Sylvia gave birth to Michael, who would grow to be Barrie's favorite of her sons — but for now it was still George, the eldest, who was the child closest to his heart. Barrie's novel The Little White Bird (1902) is transparently based upon his relationship with George. Captain W., the novel's protagonist, meets a charming little boy in Kensington Gardens, and he sets out to win the affections of both the boy and his beautiful mother.

Barrie and his dog PorthosLike much of Barrie's fiction, the novel is too sentimental to suite most modern tastes (though saved by the delicious bite of Barrie's humor), and the intensity of the narrator's obsession with the boy makes for uncomfortable reading in our less innocent age. But this tribute to children and childhood was exactly suited to the temper of its day. "To speak in sober earnest," proclaimed the London Times, "this is one of the best things that Barrie has written….If a book exists that contains more knowledge and more love of children, we do not know it." George was proud of inspiring the novel (even though it earned him teasing from his school fellows), and Sylvia loved it. What Arthur and Mary felt about the book is not recorded.

In 1903, Sylvia became pregnant with Nicholas (called Nico), her fifth and final child. The day before Nico's birth, Barrie started work on Peter Pan. Unlike baby Peter in The Little White Bird, this Peter would be an older boy who lived in distant Never Land (called Neverland or Never-never Land in some editions), where he'd have the adventures that Barrie had so often play-acted with Sylvia's children. Barrie set the first scene in the Darling house on a shabby street in Bloomsbury -- "but you may dump it down anywhere you like," he wrote, "and if you think it was your house, you are very probably right." The beautiful Mrs. Darling was modeled on Sylvia, and the perfidious Mr. Darling, rather unfairly, on Arthur. Barrie later explained to the Llewelyn Davies boys that Peter was made "by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce flame. That it is all he is, the spark I got from you."

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens illustrated by Arthur Rackham

Other sparks came from Scottish fairy stories -- which Barrie would have heard or read in his youth, particularly as he was a fan of the writer and folklore enthusiast Sir Walter Scott. The fairy stories that he drew upon, however, weren't sugar-sweet Victorian confections about tiny butterfly-winged sprites, but older, darker stories about the dangerous fairies of the Scottish folk tradition. In these tales, seductive, heartless fairies lure children into the fairy realm, an enchanted world that lies at the heart of the woods, or underneath the Scottish hills. Time passes differently in that realm. A single night spent with the fairies might be a hundred years in human time -- so when the children go back home again, their parents are dead and gone.

Peter Pan by Michael HagueIn changeling tales, the fairies snatch infants and pretty children from their beds, whisking them off to fairyland as pampered pets, companions, or slaves. Sometimes a fairy is left behind, glamored to look like the stolen child: a bad-tempered, sickly, hungry creature who is a plague to the human parents. The lost children in changeling tales don't always find their way back home. Sometimes they stay under the hills, losing all memory of the mortal world -- just as John and Michael Darling forget their parents while living in Never Land.

Barrie's Peter Pan is human-born, not a fairy, but he's lived in Never Land so long that he's as much a fairy as he is a boy: magical, capricious, and amoral, like the fairies of the old Scots tradition. He's a complex mixture of good and bad, with little understanding of the difference between them; both cruel and kind, thoughtless and generous, arrogant and tender-hearted, bloodthirsty and sentimental. He is a classic trickster character -- kin to Puck, Robin Goodfellow, and other delightful but exasperating sprites of fairy lore. He's a liminal creature, standing on the threshold between fairy and child, mortal and immortal, villain (when he lures children from their homes) and hero (when he rescues them from pirates).

Peter Pan and Captain Hook by Michael Hague

Peter's last name derives from the Greek god Pan, the son of the trickster god Hermes by a wood nymph of Arcadia. Pan is a creature of the wilderness, associated with vitality, virility, and ceaseless energy.

Peter playing the pipes by Michael HagueIn the ancient writings of Servius we find this detailed description: Pan is "formed in the likeness of nature with horns to resemble the rays of the sun and the horns of the moon; his face is ruddy in the imitation of ether; he wears a spotted fawn skin resembling the stars in the sky; his lower limbs are hairy because of the trees and the wild beasts; he has the feet of a goat to resemble the stability of the earth; his pipe has seven reeds in accordance with the harmony of heaven; his pastoral staff bears a crook in reference to the pastoral year which curves back on itself; and finally he is the god of all nature." Pan's young namesake does not have goat legs or horns, but he does ride on the back of a goat, and he plays the pan-pipes, an instrument Pan invented from hollow reeds.

Like Peter, the god Pan is a contradictory figure. He haunts solitary mountains and groves, where he's quick to anger if he's disturbed, but he also loves company, music, dancing, and riotous celebrations. He is the leader of a woodland band of satyrs -- but these "Lost Boys" are a wilder crew than Peter's, famed for drunkenness, licentiousness, and creating havoc (or "panic"). Pan himself is a distinctly lusty god -- and here the comparison must end, for Peter's wildness has no sexual edge. Indeed, it's sex and the other mysteries of adulthood that he's specifically determined to avoid. ("You mustn't touch me. No one must ever touch me," Peter tells Wendy.)

Wendy by Scott Gustafson

Barrie added three girls to Peter's story (over the Llewelyn Davies boys' initial objection): Wendy Darling, the fairy Tinker Bell, and the Indian princess Tiger Lily. "Wendy" was a nonexistent name at the time. It came from a child named Margaret Henley who referred to Barrie as her "friendy" -- but she couldn't pronounce her "f"s and "r"s, and so the word came out as "Wendy". (Due entirely to Barrie's play, Wendy soon became a popular name for little girls.) Tinker Bell was originally called Tippy in the earliest drafts of the play, and Tiger Lily's tribe is called the Piccaninnies -- a name mercifully left out of modern renditions. (Barrie's Indians are fantasy Indians, "savages" imagined by Edwardian children, and have as much to do with actual Indians as Nanna the dog has to do with actual nannies.)

Captain Hook comes directly from the make-believe games that Barrie played with George and his brothers, as well as from the pirates in the Penny Dreadfuls that Barrie loved as a child. Hook was first portrayed on the London stage by Gerald du Maurier (Sylvia's brother), who brought such menace to the role that children were carried screaming from the stalls. "How he was hated," recalled his daughter, the novelist Daphne du Maurier, "with his flourish, his poses, his dreaded diabolical smile! That ashen face, those blood-red lips, the long, dank, greasy curls; the sardonic laugh, the maniacal scream, the appalling courtesy of his gestures." Hook's villainy was never entirely played for laughs -- he was allowed to be a truly menacing figure, saving the role from pure camp and adding gravity to Peter's story.

Captain Hook and the Crocodile by David Wyatt

While Barrie was busy with the enormous task of making this extravagant fantasia work on stage, Arthur Llewelyn Davies made a sudden move and relocated his family to Berhamsted, twenty-five miles away from London. Barrie still came to visit them, but he could no longer be a daily presence. Instead, he wrote wistful letters to the boys as he hovered anxiously around the theater, watching his actors learn to fly and Peter Pan come to life. Peter himself was played by a young starlet (Nina Boucicault in the first London production, Maude Adams in New York) -- largely because of labor laws preventing child actors from working after 9 pm, but also because of the British pantomime tradition in which the Principal Boy was always played by a girl. Great secrecy surrounded the Peter Pan rehearsals, which of course made the press and the public all the more eager to learn what Barrie had up his sleeve. 

On opening night (December 27, 1904), Sylvia and the boys came into town to accompany the nervous author to the theater. Back in New York, producer Charles Frohman waited to learn if he had a hit or a disaster. Finally a cable came. Peter Pan was an overwhelming success. The critics were charmed, and (more importantly to Barrie) an audience full of children had been enthralled. So many little children were injured, however, by going home and jumping from the furniture that he hastily rewrote the opening scene to explain that fairy dust was required to fly.

The announcement of the first performance of Peter Pan

With this new success, Barrie was busier than ever. He visited Sylvia and the boys as often as his schedule would allow -- but the family was happily settled in Berkhamsted, and Barrie was busy back in London with new stories, new plays, and a variety of political and charitable causes.

Then, in 1906, disaster struck. Arthur was diagnosed with cancer, requiring an operation that would remove half of his jaw and palate. Barrie was immediately at his side, dropping everything to put himself at Arthur's assistance, as well as quietly picking up the cost of his expensive medical treatment. When the operation was completed, Arthur's face was a ruin and he could barely speak. Barrie remained posted at his bedside -- nursing him, reading to him, conversing with him (as Arthur slowly communicated by writing). Arthur found Barrie kinder and wiser than he expected, and the relationship between the two men changed. When Arthur came home from the hospital, Barrie was a welcome (and necessary) presence in the household. The two families spent their summer holidays together, and everyone insisted that Arthur was getting better, but by autumn the tumor had spread, and by the following spring, Arthur was dead.

The Lost Boys by Trina Schart HymanArthur left little money behind, so now Barrie took over the family's support. He had earned a small fortune from Peter Pan and insisted it was theirs as much as his. Sylvia brought the family back to London, to a house near Barrie and Kensington Gardens. "And here, I think, Sylvia did succeed, gradually, in regaining something of the zest for life," wrote Peter Llewelyn Davies, years later, about his mother. "The boys were a fond amusement and distraction for her, relatives came frequently, and the dog-like J.M.B. still living at Leinster Corner and in constant attendance… Everything must have been done, by all who had the care of us and above all by Sylvia herself, to shut out the imp of sorrow and self-pity from our young lives."

From Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens  illustrated by Arthur Rackham

Daily life went on. Barrie continued to write, and Peter Pan continued to cast its spell, becoming the most famous of Barrie's works. The tale of Peter Pan as a baby, originally published in The Little White Bird, was now available in a separate children's book edition, called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. The script of the play was published under the title Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up; and eventually Barrie novelized the story of the play in a book titled Peter and Wendy. He ended this volume with a brand new scene in which Peter comes back to Wendy's window years later, and discovers she is all grown up. The little girl in the nursery now is Wendy's daughter, Jane. The girl examines Peter with interest, and soon she's off to Never Land herself where her mother can no longer go, no matter how much she longs to follow.

Flying Above London by Scott Gustafson

Meanwhile, Barrie's relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family took its inevitable toll on his marriage, and he learned that his wife was having an affair with a young writer named Gilbert Cannan. He begged Mary to break it off, but this she had no intention of doing. Cannon had pledged to marry her, and she wanted a divorce. Barrie disappeared to Switzerland while the scandal raged in the London papers, then returned to London in October for the ordeal of the divorce proceedings. Two days after the case was over, Sylvia collapsed at home. Now she, too, was diagnosed with cancer, in a form impossible to treat. As was the practice of the time, she was not allowed to know how ill she was, though as the illness went on and on and on, she suspected that she was dying. She remained in bed until the following spring, seemed to be improve a little in the summer, and insisted on taking her sons on a fishing holiday to Devon. While the boys fished, she grew weaker and weaker. The children were not told she was dying. She passed away on August 27th, with her mother and Barrie in the room, and Barrie was left to break the news to the boys as they returned from the river.

Barrie now assumed all responsibility for the boys. The elder three were at Eton by this time, where their school fees had long been paid by Barrie, but Michael and Nico remained at home supervised by their nanny, Mary Hodgson, with Barrie living close by. Barrie was now an extremely wealthy man and he lavished money on his young wards -- on clothes, books, sports equipment, and extravagant summer holidays; nothing was too good for them that might the ease the grief of losing their parents. Michael was the most like Barrie of all the boys -- a dreamy, fey, creative child, and Michael was as excessively attached to Barrie as Barrie was to him. At Eton, Michael wrote to Barrie every day. There were more than two thousand letters between them -- most of them later burned by Peter (the family archivist), who was embarrassed by their sentimentality.

Arthur Rackham  from JM Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Barrie's literary star continued to rise, and he was awarded a baronetcy in 1913 in recognition of his status as one of the best loved authors in Britain. George started university that year, where he remained on close terms with his guardian, but Jack, who was in the Navy now, and more independent than his brothers, resented the dominant role that Barrie had taken in their lives. The following year, Barrie took all of the boys except Jack to Scotland for a fishing holiday (Jack was on a ship in the North Atlantic), and it was there that they learned the news that England was now at war with Germany. George and Peter, like so many young men, immediately signed up to defend their country, and by December George's battalion was posted to the Western Front. With The Little White Bird packed in his kit-bag, he departed for the trenches of France, sending fond and cheerful letters back to Barrie and urging him not to worry. In March, George sent a letter from the Front saying, "Keep your heart up, Uncle Jim, & remember how good an experience this is for a chap who's been very idle before. Lord, I shall be proud when I'm home again, & talking to you about all this. That old dinner at the Savoy will be pretty grand…." By the time the letter reached London, George Llewelyn Davies had been shot and killed.

Captain Hook & Peter by Scott Gustavson"I have lost all sense I ever had of war being glorious," Barrie wrote in one of his last letters to George, "it is just unspeakably monstrous to me now." Sylvia's brother Gerald (the original Captain Hook) also died that year in the mud of France; and Charles Frohman drowned shortly thereafter in the sinking of the Lusitania. Barrie despaired, fearing the war would swallow everything and everyone he loved -- but peace was declared before Michael came of age, and Jack and Peter came safely home. Peter never fully recovered from horrors he witnessed at the Front; he struggled with depression for the rest of his life, and died by suicide many years later. For now, however, life went on. Jack married a girl he'd met while stationed in Scotland. Nico, the youngest, left home for Eton. Michael started at Oxford University, where he cut a dazzling figure. His close friend (and probable lover) Roger Stenhouse introduced him into Lytton Strachey's Bloomsbury set, where Strachey pronounced him "the only young man at Oxford or Cambridge with real brains." Michael was handsome, brilliant, a gifted writer, and seemed to have the world before him. And just before his twenty-first birthday, he drowned in a boating accident.

Peter Pan in Scarlet by David WyattLike his mother, undone by the death of her son David, Barrie never fully recovered from Michael's loss, particularly since it came on the heels of losing Arthur, Sylvia, George, Gerald du Maurier, and Charles Frohman. He aged visibly, and for a long while barely had the will to go on living. But go on he did, supported by his affection for his three remaining "Lost Boys," and eventually for their children too -- a brand new audience to charm with stories of pirates, Indians, and fairies. He continued to write, to socialize, to travel, to stay active in charitable and political causes, until he died in 1937, with Peter and Nico at his bedside. "To die will be an awfully big adventure," Barrie once wrote in the voice of Peter Pan. In his will, he left the Peter Pan royalties to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.

When Barrie commissioned the Peter Pan stature by Sir George Frampton that stands in Kensington Gardens to this day, he hoped it would allow Peter to be remembered long after his play was forgotten. But one hundred years later, Peter is just as popular as ever, and there are few children who don't know his story -- through picture books, or the Disney animation and other films, if not directly from Barrie's play or the pages of Peter and Wendy.

Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens by Sir George FramptonPeter's story has inspired several works of fiction for both children and adults (see the Further Reading list below), and Barrie's life has inspired two dramatic productions: the excellent BBC television series The Lost Boys, and the film Finding Neverland.

Finding Neverland is a charming but heavily fictionalized concoction, playing fast-and-loose with the facts of Barrie's life in order to tell a simpler, more romantic story. Here, Arthur is conveniently dead before Barrie meets Sylvia, and Sylvia's mother is turned into a villain, attempting to keep Barrie and Sylvia apart. The boys are reduced from five in number to four, and are portrayed as older when they first meet Barrie. (In real life, Peter was just a baby.) In the film, it's Peter (not the eldest, George) who is portrayed as Barrie's special friend; and Peter again (not the middle boy, Michael) who shares Barrie's dreamy temperament and interest in writing. The biggest change is that handsome, charismatic Johnny Depp plays the part of the Scottish playwright, depicting him as a gentle, fey dreamer, rather than the odd little sharp-edged man that he actually was. But the movie has moments of magic, the period sets and costumes are lovely, and overall it is worth seeing, provided it's taken with many grains of salt.

Peter Pan by Charles VessAndrew Birkin's television series The Lost Boys, on the other hand, is specifically based on the known facts of J.M. Barrie's life, drawn from a vast array of surviving journals, correspondence, manuscripts, and photographs, as well as extensive interviews with those had known James Barrie. The last of the Lost Boys, Nico Llewelyn Davies, read and advised on Birkin's script -- and when the final production was broadcast, Llewelyn Davies phoned up Birkin in tears, "undone," he said, by the way actor Ian Holm had turned into his Uncle Jim. (The series is available on DVD, and I highly recommend it. I also recommend Birkin's web site, where he generously makes a treasure trove of Barrie material -- journals, letters, story notes, photographs, etc. -- freely available to fans and scholars.)

James M. Barrie was a boy who couldn't grow up, and out of this conundrum he gave us Peter, the boy who wouldn't grow up -- a character so vivid, so universal, and so emotionally true that he seems to belong to folklore now, not to one author's imagination. One hundred years later, children still dream of flying off with Peter to Never Land, where they'll never bathe, or eat broccoli, or (the worst fate of all) have to turn from children into grown-ups.

Some years ago I knew a little boy who referred to adults, like me, as human beings. "Aren't you a human being too?" I asked.

With a look of scorn for the stupidity of my question, he answered, "I'm not a human, I'm a child."

When I pointed out that one day he would grow up to be a human too, he shook his head and insisted, "No. I'm going to stay a boy."

J.M. Barrie would have perfectly understood the desire to stay a child forever -- and advised him to keep his window open, so that Peter Pan could find him.

Peter Pan in Scarlet by David Wyatt

Credits: The art comes from a variety of sources and is credited in the pictures captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see the captions.) All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artists and author.

Some further reading, nonfiction: J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys by Andrew Birkin (Yale University Press reprint, 2003), J.M. Barrie: The Man Behind the Image by Janet Dunbar (Collins, 1970), The Peter Pan Chronicles by Bruce K. Hanson (Carol Publishing, 1993), "The Boy Who Couldn't Grow Up: James Barrie" by Alison Lurie (in Don't Tell the Grown-ups, Back Bay Books reprint, 1998), Barrie: The Story of J.M.B. by Denis Mackail (Ayer Co. reprint, 1977), Gateway to the Modern: Resituating J.M. Barrie, edited by Bold & Nash (Scottish Literature International, 2014). and Letters of James M. Barrie by Viola Meynell (Norwood Editions, 1942).

Some further reading, fiction: Peter Pan & the Only Children by Gilbert Adair (Dutton, 1988), Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry (Disney Editions, 2004), The Lost Girls by Laurie Fox (Simon & Schuster, 2004), Second Star to the Right by Mary Alice Kruesi (Avon, 1999), Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean (Oxford University Press, 2007), After the Rain by J. Emily Somma (Daisy Books, 2003), and Wendy by Karen Wallace (Simon & Schuster, 2004).


Theatre is Dead: a Myth & Moor watch party

Theatre is Dead

Guest Post by Howard Gayton

Hello, it's Howard here, inviting you to the online live premiere of my theatre company's new play, Theatre is Dead! -- an absurd dark comedy for the times we are living in. Live performances are running every Thursday and Friday night on Zoom throughout the month of June -- but this week, Myth & Moor is hosting a "Watch Party" for the Friday performance, June 19. (There's more information on how to join in below.)

About the company:

Peter Oswald and I created Columbina Theatre in 2016 to present new works rooted in verse theatre, mask theatre, Commedia dell'Arte, clowning, and tomfoolery. My own background is Commedia (I co-directed a touring company, Ophaboom, for twenty years), while Peter was Writer-in-Residence at Shakespeare's Globe (working with Mark Rylance), and has had his work performed at the National, on the West End, off-Broadway, and other venues around the world.

For Theatre is Dead!, we're joined by actor Alice Welby and stage manager Patrick Collins.

My work cabin at the end of our garden.

About the play:

Theatre is Dead! began life in my work space here on Dartmoor: a small cabin at the end of our garden (pictured above). Peter and I had been developing the piece as a stage play when the world was turned on its head by Covid-19 and theatres all across Europe went dark.

I'd also been exploring the art of Foolery through the international Nomadic Academy Fools -- and when the pandemic hit, I helped to take NOA's training sessions online, working with Fools across Europe for hours each day via the Zoom platform. Through this, we discovered a way of performing on Zoom that seemed to reach through the computer screen to give a "live performance" experience to our online audience of Fools. I began to wonder if this could be applied to other areas of theatre.

Theatre is Dead  rehearsal for stage version

Meanwhile, Peter and I had a Zoom meeting to discuss the future of our company. Like many theatre practitioners whose work has been ground to a halt by Covid-19, we were asking the question: What now?

Looking again at Theatre is Dead!, it dawned on me how relevant to the pandemic lockdown it is: two theatrical clowns isolated inside the belly of a whale, wondering if their profession will survive. We staged a reading of the play over Zoom for family and friends, and their reaction was the same as ours: that it's both prescient and timely. "Get it out there," they urged us.

We quickly began work on adapting the play for this new form of … well, we’re not sure what to call it. It's not traditionally staged theatre, of course -- more like a hybrid mix of a radio play, a theatrical reading, and Zoom. It is also an experiment: can three actors, locked down in three separate locations (Bristol, London, and rural Devon) bring the energy of a live event to the rectangular box of computer and tablet screens?

The shows we're presenting this month will not be filmed -- the gathering of the online audience for each live show is an integral part of what makes this theatre, not film or tv. We’re trialling the name Screen Plays Cloud Theatre to describe what we believe could develop into a new form of online live performance -- allowing companies (particularly small companies) to present new works and trial new plays, especially now when the future viability of traditional theatre spaces is still uncertain.

Theatre is Dea Peter and I adapting Theatre is Dead! to Zoom during the Covid-19 lockdown

We are working on Zoom, despite its limitations, because it is so familiar to many people now -- but our aim is to develop a custom platform for theatrical performance, tailored to the needs of theatre practioners, and with more flexibility for audience engagement. If we can develop such a platform, then perhaps more companies will be able to develop shows. And perhaps this will be a life-raft for theatre, taking us through these trying times until we can all meet together in physical space again. 

Is theatre dead? We don't think so. We think it's still very much alive.

Theatre masks

Information on the Myth & Moor Watch Party:

Join us!Although you're welcome to come to any of the June peformances, Terri and I are inviting the Myth & Moor community to join us online for this Friday's  show, June 19, at 7:30 pm (UK time). The show itself is about an hour long, and you're welcome to stay afterwards to have a chat about the play with us.

Tickets are free, but please book your ticket as numbers for each show are limited. You can do so here. The show is performed live on the Zoom platform, so if you are new to Zoom, you'll need to sign up (for free) before the event.

On behalf of Columbina, Terri, and myself: We hope to see you there!

If you'd like to know about future Columbina shows, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. (We'll also be on Instagram soon.)

Columbina Theatre

At the Bumblehill Studio


From the gutter to the stars...

Deer

For April Fools Day, Howard answers the question: Why do we need fools?

FoolHis year-long Journey Into the Heart of the Fool continues, despite Coronavirus. His circle of Fools is now working online (since the Fools themselves are locked-down across Europe), finding new ways to continue their training until they can meet up again.

Our "Funding for Foolery" campaign continues as well. We're still hoping to meet our goal and to keep all this stuff-and-nonsense going. If you can throw a bob or two in the hat at these uncertain times, here's the link to his  GoFundMe page.

Fool Report #3: You'll find Howard's latest video update on the GoFundeMe page too -- and I warn you, it's very Foolish indeed. Complete with tiger hat and Coronavirus beard, heaven have mercy.

Happy April Fools Day from Howard, Tilly, and me.

Foolish Tilly

Deer 2


The Fool Report #2

The fool cards from the Dodal Tarot, Karyn Easton Tarot, and Rider-Waite Tarot.

Helsinki

As my Fool of a husband begins his second week working with Jonathan Kay and his merry band of Fools in Finland, here are some pictures snapped on Howard's bicyle commute through the streets of Helsinki each morning and evening.

He reports that the work has been fascinating, challenging, and full of both high points and lows. Last night, Howard's group of Fools-in-training went to see Jonathan's show at the FIC Festival...watching the master Fool perform...and today they were back in the studio, seeking entrance into the archetypal realm for themselves.

Our heartfelt thanks go out to everyone who has helped make Howard's exploration of Foolery possible. The journey is just beginning....

Helsinki

Helsinki

Helsinki

If you'd like to know more about Jonathan Kay's practice and philosophy of Foolery, listen to his discussion of "The Fool, Archetypal Play, and Self-Realisation" with Amisha Ghadiali (July 2019).

Meanwhile, the Funding for Foolery campaign continues. Please help us to keep our own dear Fool on the road:  https://gofundme.com/f/q5cuph.

Fool With a Flower by Cecil Collins

Art above: The fool cards from the Dodal Tarot, Karyn Easton Tarot, and Rider-Waite Tarot. "Fool With a Flower" by the English surrealist painter and printmaker Cecil Collins (1908-1989).


The Fool Report #1

Fools from the Dodal Tarot, Karyn Easton Tarot, and Rider-Waite Tarot

Howard Gayton

As Howard travels to Finland today at the start of his year-long Fool's Journey, we send love and gratitude to all of you who have helped make this possible.

Meanwhile, the "Funding for Foolery" campaign continues until the end of the month, and all contribtions (no matter how small) will allow us to keep this dear Fool on the road: https://www.gofundme.com/f/q5cuph.

Tilly, I'm afraid, has mixed feelings about this. She's proud of helping with the fund-raiser, but didn't realize that the end result would be Howard going off without her. He'll be traveling to four other countries as the year progresses (France, Spain, Germany, and Ireland) -- but don't worry, Tilly, he'll be home in-between.

And no doubt just as Foolish as ever.

Howard Gayton en route to Foolery

Art above: The fool cards from the Dodal Tarot, Karyn Easton Tarot, and Rider-Waite Tarot.


That's the way to do it: Punch & Judy

The Little Cabin by the Woods

At the back of our garden, up against the woods, is the two-room cabin where Howard has his office and a small theatre studio. My own studio is not far away, so I often hear a variety of sounds drifting over the hedge between us: it might be accordion or mandolin practice one moment, lines declaimed from Shakespeare the next...or the odd "swazzle" voice of the classic English puppet Mr. Punch: a sound which initially sent Tilly into fits of barking until she finally figured out that it was just Howard at work.

Looking for Mr Punch

Howard has loved Mr. Punch since his university days, when he wrote his thesis on the puppet's history -- so once he became a professional puppeteer he began work on his own Punch & Judy show. But then other theatre projects claimed his time, and the Punch puppets were all boxed away... until the morning, I came downstairs to find them grinning at me from a chair.

Punch & Judy puppets

For much of that summer, Howard's studio was transformed into a puppetry workshop. There were carpentry tools, lumber, and swathes of red-and-white striped cloth crowding the practice room; tiny puppet clothes hang from our washing line; and more and more puppets staring at me when I walked through our livingroom.

Puppets on a wash line

Punch & Judy puppet heads

Judy, Mr. Punch and the Constable

I confess I was never a big fan of Punch & Judy or of slap-stick comedy in general before I met Howard -- whose life has been devoted to the European form of masked theatre known as Commedia dell'Arte, which is very slapstick, and very funny, and which won me over its mix of ridiculous pratfalls and sly, wry intelligence. Howard helped me to see the mythic roots of such comedy in Trickster tales and Dionysian revels, in the sacred anarchy of traditional carnaval and rural folk pageantry. As I learn more and more about the roots of comedy from Howard, I find myself fascinated by lines of connection between the various forms of mask/puppet theatre and folk use of these arts in ritual form: in the Jack-in-Greens and Obby Osses of England, in the ceremonial clowns of North America's indigenous peoples, and in other folk rites and sacred traditions all across Europe and around the globe.

Punch & Judy woodcut prints  circa 1850

Punch & Judy by Percivall Arthur Wise

Mr PunchThe ritualized slapstick violence of Punch & Judy is problematic today, however, for we tend to "read" the story in a literal fashion, interpreting the action as domestic abuse, when it is best understood metaphorically, as the unleashing of pure anarchy. Mr. Punch is a Trickster figure: a manifestation of Trickster's wicked delight in violating all social norms and constraints, brazenly knocking down every authority figure...which is precisely why children love him. The challenge for performers today is to craft a story that conveys this same archetypal spirit of contrariness, freedom and anarchy, without tacitly condoning violence, domestic or otherwise, in the real world. Howard's re-telling of the Punch & Judy story treads this line carefully, without losing the glorious mayhem that gives children such delight. (See Emma Windsor's post on the subject on the Puppet Place News blog.)

That contrary old rascal Mr Punch

"It was in the early 1990s," Howard recalls, "while I was working at Norwich Puppet Theatre, that I began to carve my own Mr. Punch. Later, at the Little Angel Theatre in London, I carved several of the other characters found in classic Punch & Judy shows. I'm a puppet director and performer, not a maker, but the P&J characters are fairly simple and I wanted to try my hand at making them myself -- working in the Little Angel workshop under the Drawing from Punch Magazine  1854eye of master carver Lyndie Wright. I made Judy, Joey, the Baby, the Policeman, the Devil...but I never finished the full set. Other theatre work intervened, and Punch went into a storage box. Years later, when I moved to Devon, the box disappeared into a dark corner of the attic.

"Then, in the spring of 2016, I attended an excellent Punch & Judy workshop at the Little Angel, run by Professor Glynn Edwards (aided and abetted by Professor Clive Chandler) -- and when I came home, I searched the attic and rescued Punch from the dust and cobwebs. I'd dreamed of performing a Punch & Judy show for a long, long time, and now I was determined to do it -- but I had to work slowly, between other jobs, and the process spread over another two years: first finishing the puppets, then building the booth, and finally developing and practicing the show.

Building the Punch & Judy booth

The portable booth's collapsible frame

"I was lucky to have some expert help. My mother, a retired theatre costume designer, made all of the puppets' clothes, and covered the booth in traditional candy-striped fabric. The booth has to be light and portable, quick to assemble and disassemble, and her clever design of the booth's fabric cover allows for easy removal. I used a simple wooden frame for the stage, until our friend David Wyatt -- a multi-award-winning book illustrator -- stepped in. David generously designed and painted the glorious sign that crowns the booth today.

Howard & Jennifer Gayton

The booth in process (with Tilly's approval)

Punch & Judy sign by David Wyatt

"I then took my P&J booth on the road for trial performances in various public and private settings: learning the mechanics of the back-stage action, discovering all the ways that it could go wrong (in one show I swallowed the swazzle!), exploring each puppet's character and finding the rhythm and movement of the show.

Mr Punch & the Devil in Oxfordshire

"Highlights along the way included some wild off-grid performances with Hedgespoken Storytelling Theatre, birthday shows for Dark Crystal designer Brian Froud and fantasy novelist Delia Sherman, and two years' of performances at the Shambala Festival's Puppet Parlour. This summer I worked as the official Punch & Judy man for Teignmouth beach -- performing on a classic seafront pitch with Tony Liddington and his hilarious Flea Circus.

Punch & Judy, Teignmouth beach

Punch & the Baby, and the Flea Circus

PJ1

"I love contrary, naughty Mr. Punch, and the way he makes children scream with laughter, and plenty of adults as well. Despite all the entertainments on offer in our complex, fast-paced, digital world, these simple objects of cloth and wood, and a funny swazzle voice, can still create magic."

Punch & Judy  Southport Beach 1950

If you'd like to know more about the history of Punch & Judy, I recommend "That's the Way to Do It!" on the Victoria & Albert Museum website, curated to honor the show's 350th anniversary in 2012 -- a date based on the first known puppet play in England to contain a version of Mr. Punch, recorded by Samuel Pepys in 1662. He noted seeing it in Covent Garden, writes the V&A's curator,

"performed by the Italian puppet showman Pietro Gimonde from Bologna, otherwise known as Signor Bologna: 'Thence to see an Italian puppet play that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw, and a great resort of gallants.'

Punch & Judy by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)

"Bologna was one of many entertainers wo came to England from the continent following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Unlike today’s Punch & Judy, performed with glove puppets in canvas booths with the audience outside, Bologna used marionettes -- puppets with rods to their heads and strings or wires to their limbs – and performed within a transportable wooden shed, and as such would have been quite a novelty. Pepys was so delighted by the show that he brought his wife to see it two weeks later, and in October 1662 Bologna was honoured with a royal command performance by Charles II at Whitehall, where a stage measuring 20ft by 18ft was set up for him in the Queen’s Guard Chamber. The king rewarded ‘Signor Bologna, alias Pollicinella’ with a gold chain and medal, a gift worth £25 then, or about £3,000 today. Other Italian puppeteers appeared in London, and on 10 November 1662 Pepys took his wife to see another show in a booth at Charing Cross performing: 'the Italian motion, much after the nature of what I showed her at Covent Garden.'

Punch & Judy by George Cruickshank (1792- 1878)

"Pepys usually referred to the shows as Polichinello, a name relating to Punch’s roots in the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, where masked actors improvised comic knockabout plays around a number of stock characters, and Polichinello was the subversive, thuggish character whose Italian name Pulcinella or Pulliciniello may have developed from the word pulcino, or chicken, referring to the character’s beak-like mask and squeaky voice.

Commedia puppets

"Punch’s characteristic voice comes from the use of a reed retained at the back of the Punchman’s or ‘professor’s’ mouth, calling for expert alternation of reed use when Punch is talking to other characters. In Britain the reed is called a swazzle, and in France a sifflet-pratique. Its A Punch & Judy voice swazzlemost common Italian name was pivetta, but also sometimes strega, or witch, and franceschina, after Franchescina, one of Punch’s wives in the Commedia dell’Arte who had a voice like a witch. Swazzles are made of thin metal today, but bone or ivory were formerly used, each equally tricky to master and easy to swallow.

"Mr. Punch made himself thoroughly at home in Britain during the 18th century. His wife was the shrewish Dame Joan who made his life a misery, and his hunched back and pot belly became more pronounced. The marionette Punch was the celebrity disrupting the action in puppet plays all around the country, in established puppet theatres and in fairground booths where puppets were a popular feature of all the great fairs and small country wakes throughout the century."

Marionette shows were expensive to operate, however, "and by the end of the 18th century glove puppet versions of the Punch show, performed in small portable booths became a familiar sight on city streets and country lanes instead."

Punch & Judy by Thomas Frederick Crane

"With Punch’s move from marionette stage to portable booth came new clothes and new companions. By 1825 we hear in Bernard Blackmantle’s The English Spy of his wife being called Judy instead of Joan: ‘old Punch with his Judy in amorous play,’ and of Punch’s having a Toby the dog, usually played by a real dog.

A role for Tilly, perhaps...?

Punch & Judy shows were not just for children in past centuries. As the V&A curator notes:

Aspects of the comedy such as the marital strife between Punch and Judy, and in Piccini’s show the relationship between Punch and his girlfriend Pretty Polly, obviously struck a chord with many adult members of the audience.  Punch was a well known celebrity with the satirical magazine named after him in London in 1841, children’s picture books published based on his shows, and images of him proliferating on all manner of household artefacts, from doorstops to baby’s rattles.

Punch & Judy

"As today, some censured the shows for Punch’s violent behaviour, but Punch & Judy found an ally in Charles Dickens, whose novels include several references to the shows. Dickens defended them as enjoyable fantasy that would not incite violence:

" 'In my opinion the Street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realities of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were made moral and instructive.' "

Or as Mr. Punch himself would say, "That's the way to do it!"

Howard Gayton

For more information on Punch & Judy, visit the V&A's Punch & Judy pages, Punch & Judy Online, and the Punch & Judy Fellowship. For puppetry in general, see The Curious School of Pupptry (where Howard teaches), the Puppet Place News blog, Puppeteers UK, and The Centre for Research on Objects & Puppets in Performance.

The art above is credited in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) Some of my text comes from a previous post in the summer of 2016, when Howard began to put his Punch & Judy show together. All rights to the text quoted from the V&A website reserved by the V&A Museum, London, 2012.


Nonsense and Foolery

Fool and flower

Fool and bear

My husband, Howard, a theatre director and performer, is about to embark on a year-long Journey into the Heart of the Fool -- via the Nomadic Academy of Fooling (NOA), led by the extraordinary Jonathan Kay. In order to achieve this, we've set up a fund-raising page to help cover the NOA tuition cost, and I hope, dear readers, that some of you might consider contributing. Even the smallest donation will help to get this creative, kind, and lovely man on the road to making magic.

The GoFundMe page is here.

In the video below, filmed in my studio, Howard and I discuss fooling, clowning, Commedia, and a particularly fateful trip to Arizona. A certain hound makes a cameo appearance at the end...and also contributes enthusiastic water-slurping noises in the middle, bless her.

Foolery

In the spirit of nonsense and foolery, here is some further reading on the subject of tricksters, transgressors, and clowns:

A Chorus of Clowns in Masked Comic Theater by the always-brilliant Midori Snyder

Shaking Up the World: Trickster Tales by me (with a recommended reading list)

Merry Robin: The Native British Trickster by mythic scholar John Matthews

Transgression: a conversation on the subject of tricksters & transgressors

Dare to be Foolish: because all artists need to be fools sometimes

Also, if you're feeling very brave, here's a video clip of the Grey Gnomes, some deucedly odd little characters found infesting Howard's studio a few years ago. Don't worry, we've had the fumigators in since then and they haven't dared to come back....

Ophaboom

Me and the Fool I married

And of course, any help you can give us in passing on news of the fundraiser would be very, very appreciated by our whole foolish family.

Fool in training

The colour photographs above (except for the last one) are from Howard's work with the Daughters of Elvin medieval music & dance troupe, directed by Katy Marchant. performing in Devon and Northern Ireland. The black and white pictures are of Howard and his Commedia company, Ophaboom Theatre, performing on the streets of Denmark.


May Day morning on Dartmoor

Beltane Border Morris

After waking before dawn for an outdoor Easter Sunrise Service a few weeks ago, this morning I rose in darkness again for a celebration rooted in the pagan faith: a gathering of Border Morris dancers on a quiet road by Hay Tor, on Dartmoor, to call up the sun at the dawn of Beltane with the pounding of feet, the cracking of sticks, and the music of fiddle, squeezebox and drum. 

My favorite troupe (or "side," as they're traditionally called) is Beltane Border Morris: a wild and wonderful group of dancers who describe their art as the dark side of folk. This isn't the "bells and hankies and tea with the Vicar" sort of Morris dancing, it's fierce, eerie, athletic, unbridled -- invoking magic from the bones of the land and the old country lore that has not been forgotten.

Beltane Border Morris

Beltane Border Morris

Beltane Border Morris

Border Morris originated in the west of Britain -- probably sometime in the late Middle Ages, arising from dance traditions that were older still -- developed primarily by dancers and musicians along the border between England and Wales. The distinguishing characteristics of Border Morris (as opposed to other forms) are shorter sticks, higher steps, ragged costumes, blackened faces, and larger bands of musicians. The history of the blackened face is much disputed: it may have had ceremonial significance in the dance's deeply pagan origins; or it might have originated as a form of disguise adopted in years when Border Morris was frowned upon as rowdy, subversive, and un-Christian. It's important to remember today, however, that it is a form of masking, making the dancers anonymous and Other than their usual selves, and not intended to mimic black skin.

Beltane Border Morris

Beltane Border Morris 12a

Beltane Border Morris 8

Border Morris certainly is rowdier than most other forms of Morris; it's also more overtly pagan, and thus (to me) more powerful. Often performed at sacred times in the Celtic lunar calendar, the dances are tied to the seasons and the mythic wheel of life, death, and rebirth. Like other forms of sacred dance the world over, the drum beat and the dancers' steps weave patterns intended to keep the seasons turning and maintain the balance of the human/nonhuman worlds. Yet in contrast to other, more mannered forms of Morris, Border dancers unleash an energy that is earthier, lustier, more anarchic...both joyous and unsettling to watch, especially by dawn, dusk, or firelight. 

Beltane Border Morris

Border Morris at Hay Tor

This morning, there were two other local sides dancing with Beltane: Grimspound Border Morris, and a small group bedecked in ribbons whose name I didn't catch. The air was cold, nipping fingers and toes, as they danced the sun up over the moor and beat out a rhythm for summer's return.

Grimspound Border Morris

Border Morris at Hay Tor, 2018

Border Morris ay Hay Tor, 2018

When the sun was high, we said our goodbyes and made our way home across the moor, then down to Chagford through hedgerow lanes turned yellow with flowering gorse. It was early still. The village was quiet, and my own household still fast asleep. But while they slept, at the foot of Hay Tor the remnant of an ancient folk ritual ensured that another summer would come. The land had been blessed. We'd all been blessed: dancers, watchers, and sleepers alike.

Beltane Border Morris 7

To learn more about Beltane Border Morris, please visit their lovely new website. You can watch a short video from this morning here -- and from previous May Days here and here. For more information about the folklore behind May Day and Beltane, go here.

Beltane Border Morris

I wish you an abundance of May blossoms and wildflowers, fecundity in your creative work, fluid communion with our animal neighbours and all the non-human world, the lusty good luck of the Jack-in-Green, and all of the season's good blessings for growth and renewal -- especially for those of you who live on the world's other side, entering the Long Dark of the year.

I wish you stories, poems, pictures, tunes, and collective or personal ceremonies to ease the transition from winter to summer...and summer to winter.

I wish you dreams of drums, and of feather-clad dancers who move like a murder of crows taking flight.

I wish you a blessed, wild, and merry Beltane. Up the May!

Hay Tor

Hay TorWith thanks to my May Day morning companions, Miriram and Denise.


When the magic is working

Dartmoor ponies on the Commons

From "Seeing Around the Corners" by Susan Cooper (1976):

"But of course, the whole process is a mystery, in all the arts. Creativity, in literature, painting, music. Or in performance: those rare lovely moments in the theater when an actor has the whole audience in his hands suddenly like that. You may have all the technique in the world, but you can't strike that spark without some mysterious extra blessing -- and none of us knows what that blessing really is. Not even the writers, who talk the most, can explain it at all.

A gentle encounter

"Who knows where the ideas come from? Who knows what happens in that shadowy part of the mind, something between Plato's cave and Masterlinck's Hall of the Night, where the creative imagination lies? Who knows even where the words come from, the right rhythm and meaning and music all at once?

Tilly and the ponies

Brown pony

"Those of us who make books out of the words and ideas have less of an answer than anyone. All we know is that marvelous feeling that comes, sometimes, like a break of sunshine in a cloud-grey sky, when through all the research and concentration and slog -- suddenly you are writing, fluently and fast, with every sense at high pitch and yet in a state almost like a trance.

White pony

"Suddenly, for a time, the door is open, the magic is working; a channel exists between the page and the shadowy cave in the mind.

"But none of us will ever know why or how."

Light brown pony

Like Cooper, I'm fascinated by the various ways one finds this state of trance, or magic, or flow, or grace (call it what you will). Discovering our personal methods for reaching it best -- with the least amount of struggle, the fewest obstacles put in our own way -- is surely one of the most useful skills we learn over a lifetime in the arts.

Curiosity

My husband is a director, performer, and teacher who specializes in mask theatre -- such as Commedia dell'Arte: a traditional form of slapstick comedy that is also deeply archetypal. As a teacher, he trains university-level drama students how to work with masks -- which requires finding that same state of trance in order to let the "mysterious blessing" come through to bring the masks fully to life.

Commedia masks

In mythic terms, he is the psychopomp, leading his students from one world into the next -- from time-bound daily reality into the timeless flow of performance art -- but the goal, when their classroom days are done, is to have the skill to cross over on their own, using their own best methods of travel.

The Servant - pyschopomp and trickster

Howard Gayton & Peter Oswald  rehearsal for ''Sorry About the Poetry''The masked Servant & the Poet in rehearsals for "Sorry About the Poetry"

Howard returning from mask stateHoward returning from "mask state" at rehearsal's end

The students are at the start of their creative lives, and I remember well what those years felt like -- when you think you know what art requires, and then the realization comes that you must go deeper and deeper still (if you're serious at all) into the unknowable, uncomfortable, vulnerable place where the root of creativity lies...which is to say, you must go deeper and deeper into yourself, which can be daunting indeed.

Even now, after all these years, I still have days of sharp (or anxious, or befuddled) resistance to this act of deep surrendering...but the joy of age is that I know my own process now, the daily habits, practices, and mindset that will carry me past each block and obstacle and back into the work of writing,

Every day I breathe deep, open up the heart again, and let the Mystery in.

Dartmoor pony

Words: The passage by Susan Cooper is from Dreams & Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1996). The poem in the picture captions is from River Flow by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Wild ponies grazing on the village Commons; Commedia dell'Arte masks in our livingroom several years ago (there's been a change of curtains and rugs since then); and Howard with Peter Oswald in an early rehearsal for Peter's Commedia-inspired play, Sorry About the Poetry.

This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in March 2014 (although the mask-theatre rehearsal pictures are new). My apologies for the lack of new post this week. I'm still recovering from flu, but hope to be back to a normal studio schedule by Monday. Fingers crossed.


Away with the Birds

Two years ago, in a Monday Tunes post, I recommended Away With the Birds by Hanna Tuulikki. This week, while we're on the subject of birds, I'd like to look closer at this powerful, unusual composition and performance project. Tuulikki, of English and Finnish heritage, studied environmental art at The Glasgow School of Art and is now based in Edinburgh, where she creates interdisciplinary works deeply rooted in myth, folk history, and the natural world.

In an interview by Sharon Blackie, Tuulikki explains:

"Away With the Birds/ Air falbh leis na h-eòin is a multi-artform project exploring the mimesis of birds in Scottish Gaelic song poetry, and at its heart is a vocal composition written for a ten-person female vocal ensemble. The score reinterprets archive recordings, texts, and living traditions, weaving together fragments of songs and poems that are imitative of birdsong into a textural tapestry of sound. Over five movements, the music journeys through communities of waders, seabirds, wildfowl and corvids, evoking sea, shoreline, cliffs, moor and woodland habitats. Within the composition, there is never a soloist -- rather, each vocal part contributes to the whole. The ensemble sing the sea, the winds, and the motion of birds -- wading on the shoreline, swooping before cliffs, and beating skeins, calling to mind the ecotones were species meet. 

"Two years ago, on the Isle of Canna, in the Hebrides, we performed the composition within the harbour -- along the shoreline, in the water, and on a skein-shaped platform -- with speakers set up, to amplify and drift the voices across the water to the audience, mingling and interacting with the sounds of the island. As the music ebbed and flowed, my intention was to create a space for listening and for becoming present, for tuning into a sonic continuum that reaches into the 'more-than-human' world.

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

"The idea for the work emerged from my interest in music from around the world, and noticing that in cultures where people have intimate connection with the land, they are also good mimics of the sounds around them -- their music seems to grow directly out of the sounds of the environment....

"Ethnomusicologist Ted Levin describes this tradition as 'sound mimesis' -- the use of sound to represent and interact with the natural environment and the living creatures that inhabit it, and more broadly the exploration of 'representational and narrative dimensions of sound-making.' He describes a spectrum of sound mimesis ranging from 'sound' to 'song,' from iconic imitation to stylized evocation, and symbolic metaphor or representation. It's my belief that our music, and perhaps even our language, have their origins in 'sound mimesis,' evolving from our listening to the sounds of the animate landscape. And so I began to seek out a musical tradition like this, closer to home.

"I decided to focus particularly on birds because of my childhood interest in them, but mostly because I am deeply affected by their sounds! The complex musical patterns of songbirds never fail to impress, the haunting calls of the waders across the water move me, and the chattering vocalizations of certain seabirds make me laugh! I listen in awe at this more-than-human music."

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

"When I began to investigate traditions in the English-speaking world, I found only two songs imitative of actual bird sounds -- 'The Cuckoo' and 'The Blackbird,' which are actually of Irish and Manx origin. There are plenty of songs about birds -- for example, 'The Birds in the Spring' or 'Polly Vaughn' -- but it appears that the only symbolic and representational aspect of mimesis remains here.

"As my search continued, I discovered a wellspring of Scottish Gaelic tradition, preserved mainly in the Western Isles, which seems to reach deeper into mimesis, perhaps because people's intimacy with the land was maintained for longer. The songs and poem imitate the sounds and evoke the movements of various species of birds -- mainly waterbirds -- which is indicative of the Western Isles landscape. There are songs of seabirds that nest on cliffs -- kittiwakes, guillemots, Manx shearwaters, Leach's storm petrels; waders such as oystercatchers and redshanks; wildfowl such as whooper swans and geese; and poems of corvids and cuckoo. The bird-sounds ghost through the melody of the songs, expressed in the words, vocables (non-lexical sounds) and rhythms and, collected together, reveal a spectrum of mimesis: some are directly imitative and others are more stylized. I think Gaelic lends itself to the mimesis of birds, because I believe the language has evolved through a close relationship with the land and its community of sounds.

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

Away With the Bird

"As well as imitating the birds, the songs carry symbolic and cultural meaning. One thing that I love about them, and it came as a surprise to me when I realized it, is that they are nearly all matrilineal -- either sung by women, from a woman's perspective, or about women. From work to leisure, birth to death, the songs have a social function rooted in women's activities and domains -- songs about the men out hunting the seabirds on the cliffs, and waulking songs about love; to magico-religious songs such as those about the redshank, a keening song to sing the departed safely over to the spirit world, and the oystercatcher, who does St. Bride's work of caring for children. As much as this project is about birds, and ancient traditional culture, it is also about women and, in the same way that Gaelic culture preserved sound mimesis, I often wonder about the significance of how women's songs appear to have also preserved those older traditions.

"These two aspects, the ecological mimesis and the matrilineal, became the conceptual and compositional framework for the piece, from the macro to the micro, from the wider shape of the project, to minute details. It is no coincidence that the piece is called Away With the Birds, with its double meaning! Contained within this musical portrait of the inter-relationship between bird and human is the recognition of a lineage 'outside' the written word, that stretches back to early hunter-gatherer cultures, for whom bird-calls and animal cries had magico-religious symbolism -- like the slay-toed fowlers who scaled the cliffs of St. Kilda, and the women who bore the song-poems."

Away With the Birds

Hannah Tuulikki

To learn more about Away With the Birds, visit the project's website and Tumblr journal. (The photos in this post are from the latter.) To follow Tuulikki's current projects, visit the artist's website.

To read Sharon Blackie's interview with Tuulikki in full, seek out the March 2017 issue of EarthLines Magazine. The magazine has stopped publication, but backlist issues are still available and I highly recommend them.

Videos above: "Away With the Birds, a taster" (2013), and "Red Bird Red Bird," another exploration of birdsong by Hannah Tuulikki (2014).

Words & pictures above: The quoted text is from "Voice and Gesture: Sharon Blackie Talks to Hannah Tuulikki" (Earthlines Magazine, Issue 17, March 20170); all rights reserved by Blackie & Tuulikki. The photographs are from the Away With the Birds Tumblr page; all rights reserved by Tuulikki.

Related posts: When Stories Take Flight (myths & folklore of birds) and The Speech of Animals.