J. M. (James Matthew) Barrie, 1860-1937

Portrait

Biographical note

Scottish author and dramatist. He is best remembered for creating Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up, whom he based on his friends, the Llewelyn Davies boys. He is also credited with popularising the name Wendy, which was very uncommon before he gave it to the heroine of Peter Pan.

Barrie wished to pursue a career as an author, but was persuaded by his family — who wished him to have a profession such as the ministry — to enroll at the University of Edinburgh, where he wrote drama reviews for a local newspaper. He worked for a year and a half as a staff journalist in Nottingham following a job advertisement found by his sister in a newspaper, then returned to Kirriemuir, using his mother's stories about the town (which he called 'Thrums') for a piece submitted to a paper in London. The editor 'liked that Scotch thing', so Barrie wrote a series of them, which served as the basis for his first novels: Auld Licht Idylls [1888], A Window in Thrums [1890], and The Little Minister [1891]. Literary criticism of these early works has been unfavourable, tending to disparage them as sentimental and nostalgic depictions of a parochial Scotland far from the realities of the industrialised nineteenth century, but they were popular enough to establish Barrie as a very successful writer. His two 'Tommy' novels, Sentimental Tommy [1896] and Tommy and Grizel [1902], were about a boy and young man who clings to childish fantasy, with an unhappy ending.

Meanwhile, Barrie's attention turned increasingly to works for the theatre, beginning with a biography about Richard Savage (performed only once, and critically panned). He immediately followed this with Ibsen's Ghost [1891], a parody of Henrik Ibsen's dramas Hedda Gabler and Ghosts (unlicensed in the UK until 1914, it had created a sensation at the time from a single 'club' performance). The production of Barrie's play at Toole's Theatre in London was seen by William Archer, the translator of Ibsen's works into English, who enjoyed the humour of the play and recommended it to others. Barrie also authored Jane Annie, a failed comic opera for Richard D'Oyly Carte [1893], which he begged his friend Arthur Conan Doyle to revise and finish for him. In 1901 and 1902 he had back-to-back successes: Quality Street, about a responsible 'old maid' who poses as her own flirtatious niece to win the attention of a former suitor returned from the war; and The Admirable Crichton, a critically-acclaimed social commentary with elaborate staging, about an aristocratic household shipwrecked on a desert island, in which the butler naturally rises to leadership over his lord and ladies for the duration of their time away from civilisation.

The first appearance of Peter Pan came in The Little White Bird, which was serialised in the United States, then published in a single volume in the UK in 1901. Barrie's most famous and enduring work, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, had its first stage performance on 27 December 1904. It has been performed innumerable times since then, was developed by Barrie into the 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, and has been adapted by others into feature films, musicals, and more. The Bloomsbury scenes show the societal constraints of late Victorian middle-class domestic reality, contrasted with Neverland, a world where morality is ambivalent. George Bernard Shaw's description of the play as 'ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people', suggests deeper social allegories at work in Peter Pan.

Barrie had a long string of successes on the stage after Peter Pan, many of which discuss social concerns. The Twelve Pound Look shows a wife divorcing a peer and gaining an independent income. Other plays, such as Mary Rose and a subplot in Dear Brutus revisit the image of the ageless child. Later plays included What Every Woman Knows [1908]. His final play was The Boy David [1936], which dramatised the Biblical story of King Saul and the young David. Like the role of Peter Pan, that of David was played by a woman, Elisabeth Bergner, for whom Barrie wrote the play.

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