The Admirable Crichton at the Shaw Festival

We found J. M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton, now playing at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), so clever and delightful in every detail that we’ll see it again if we can. We haven’t enjoyed ourselves so much at the theater in a long time.

Nicole Underhay as Lady Mary Lasenby, David Schurmann as Lord Loam, and Steven Sutcliffe as Crichton

Crichton (pronounced “CRY-ton”) is a 30-year-old butler in the high-toned Mayfair household of the Earl of Loam (David Schurmann), described by the playwright in the printed version of the play as “a widower, a philanthropist, and a peer of advanced ideas.” One of Lord Loam’s ideas is that class differences are artificial, and he has decreed that, once a month, all the servants in his house must take tea in the drawing-room with him and his family as guests and equals. These social events are dreaded not only by Lord Loam’s three daughters, but also by the servants. Crichton, who as butler is head of the servants’ hall, finds them excruciating:

ERNEST: Do you know, Crichton, I think that with an effort you might look even happier. (Crichton smiles wanly.) You don’t approve of his lordship’s compelling his servants to be his equals — once a month?

CRICHTON: It is not for me, sir, to disapprove of his lordship’s Radical views.

ERNEST: Certainly not. And, after all, it is only once a month that he is affable to you.

CRICHTON: On all other days of the month, sir, his lordship’s treatment of us is everything that could be desired.

Lord Loam’s daughters know how profoundly uncomfortable Crichton is with this charade of equality:

LADY MARY (sarcastically): How Crichton enjoys it!

LORD LOAM (frowning): He is the only one who doesn’t; pitiful creature.

CRICHTON: I can’t help being a Conservative, my lord.

LORD LOAM: Be a man, Crichton. You are the same flesh and blood as myself.

CRICHTON (in pain): Oh, my lord!

Under pressure, Crichton reluctantly explains his distaste for “equality” to Lady Mary:

CRICHTON: My lady, I am the son of a butler and a lady’s-maid — perhaps the happiest of all combinations; and to me the most beautiful thing in the world is a haughty, aristocratic English house, with every one kept in his place. Though I were equal to your ladyship, where would be the pleasure to me? It would be counterbalanced by the pain of feeling that Thomas and John were equal to me.

Steven Sutcliffe as Crichton and Nicole Underhay as Lady Mary Lasenby

A few days after the “servants’ tea,” Lord Loam and his family leave on a private yacht for an extended voyage to the South Seas. Crichton suggests a kitchen maid, Tweeny, as ladies’ maid on the yacht for Lady Mary and her sisters, and Crichton himself is persuaded to go along as Lord Loam’s valet.

Two months later, the entire party is shipwrecked on a deserted island in the South Pacific, where it becomes immediately clear that Crichton is the only one of the Londoners with survival skills. Indeed, Crichton finds himself in his element, able, intelligent, and masterful. He disabuses his erstwhile superiors of the notion that they can continue to be idle on the island, and as “nature” takes its course, their roles are reversed: Crichton becomes a benevolent, respected master of a smoothly run island establishment, and the others, who call him “the Gov.” (which is how the servants back in London referred among themselves to Lord Loam), become his servants.

Ready to fend off a wild beast on the island

Nature also takes course in the form of a blossoming romance between Crichton and Lord Loam’s eldest daughter, Lady Mary (who in the new “natural” order of things has been rechristened “Polly”, just as household servants in London households were given arbitrary new names by their superiors). After two years on the island, none of the party expects to be see London again. The sight of a ship forces the issue of what must happen to their relationships if they were to be rescued and restored to Mayfair.

In this show, every touch from director Morris Panych is golden; every minute a dozen small things tickle your fancy. It all works: the narration, the costuming, the songs, the singing animals (Panych’s idea, not Barrie’s), the little bits of pantomime business, the vanity of Ernest, who annoys everyone with his epigrams. The narration is taken directly from J. M. Barrie’s stage directions (reading his plays in print is a treat). The animals sing clever arrangements of swing tunes from the 1920s in close harmony. The “servants’ tea” scene in the opening act is comic genius. Panych’s material is superb, as Barrie’s characters are fully drawn and brilliantly colored, and Panych has given this show all the sauciness and scope of a well-directed musical.

David Schurmann as The Earl of Loam and Marla McLean as Tweeny

What’s priceless, though, is the way this superb cast delivers Barrie’s lines. No better Crichton could have been found anywhere than Steven Sutcliffe. He is as commanding on the stage as a Mayfair butler as he is as the buff, masterful “Gov.” on the island. The diminutive Marla McLean is an arresting and remarkably convincing Tweeny. David Schurmann, a world-class Shavian actor, plays the naïve and ineffectual Lord Loam. We were especially glad to see the ravishing Nicole Underhay back at the Shaw Festival.  Her transformation from a bored, jaded Londoner to an exuberant, accomplished island-dweller is something to see.

Crichton is a marvelous character, and he’d probably be better-known today if The Admirable Crichton hadn’t been overshadowed by the the popularity of Peter Pan, and if P. G. Wodehouse had not created Jeeves, who since the 1920s has been by far the best-known fictional member of the English serving classes. Jeeves was not strictly speaking a butler; he was a gentleman’s gentleman, serving Bertie Wooster as valet, personal secretary, butler, and jack of all trades. Still, Jeeves and Crichton have a lot in common as polished, intelligent, well-read masters of their own domains.

We think Wodehouse, a man of the theater who happened to be one of J. M. Barrie’s cricket pals, surely had Crichton as one of his models when he brought Jeeves into being. Early in The Admirable Crichton, for instance, we learn that Crichton has an ulterior motive for promoting Tweeny as a maid for Lady Mary and her sisters on the yacht:  the promotion will elevate Tweeny’s social status and make her a more eligible mate for himself.

CRICHTON (after hesitating): There is in this establishment, your ladyship, a young woman —

LADY MARY: Yes?

CRICHTON: A young woman, on whom I have for some time cast an eye.

CATHERINE (eagerly). Do you mean as a possible lady’s maid?

CRICHTON: I had thought of her, my lady, in another connection.

LADY MARY: Ah!

We thought immediately of Jeeves. In story after story, as Wodehouse devotees know, Jeeves manipulates his employer to his will, whether to inveigle Bertie Wooster into taking a vacation in the country (so Jeeves can go fishing), to further a romantic scheme of Jeeves’s, or to tighten his control over Bertie’s selection of ties and dinner jackets. Like Jeeves, Crichton manages to further both his employer’s needs and his own personal wishes at the same time.

And who can doubt that the title of Wodehouse’s first great collection of Jeeves stories, The Inimitable Jeeves, echoes the title of The Admirable Crichton?

The two essays in the Shaw Festival’s program for The Admirable Crichton, by Mr. Panych and Michael Billington, claim to find egalitarian socio-political overtones in the play; Mr. Billington says it has “subversive implications.”  We don’t see it at all.  J. M. Barrie was a romantic, not a socialist, and we’ve never detected any political agenda in his novels and plays. Indeed, if anything political can be extracted from The Admirable Crichton, it would be the fundamentally conservative notion that class distinctions aren’t the bastard offspring of leftist bogeymen like imperialism, feudalism, and capitalism, but arise naturally in every society.

But Barrie did have, along with the similarly apolitical P. G. Wodehouse, a genuine sympathy for and interest in servants as human beings. The Admirable Crichton includes an exquisite portrait of the social distinctions between different kinds of servants in large English establishments. Consider what we learn when Tweeny is interrogated by Lady Mary as a possible lady’s maid for the voyage:

LADY MARY: And you and Crichton are — ah — keeping company?

(CRICHTON draws himself up.)

TWEENY (aghast): A butler don’t keep company, my lady.

LADY MARY (indifferently): Does he not?

CRICHTON: No, your ladyship, we butlers may — (he makes a gesture with his arms) — but we do not keep company.

AGATHA: I know what it is; you are engaged?

(TWEENY looks longingly at CRICHTON.)

CRICHTON: Certainly not, my lady. The utmost I can say at present is that I have cast a favourable eye.

Another great English dramatist, by contrast, had no interest in servants as people. Many of Emsworth’s readers will recall the exchange between Algernon and his butler Lane in the opening scene of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest:

ALGERNON: Why is it that at a bachelor’s establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne? I ask merely for information.

LANE: I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.

ALGERNON: Good heavens! Is marriage so demoralising as that?

LANE: I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.

ALGERNON (languidly): I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane.

LANE: No, sir; it is not a very interesting subject. I never think of it myself.

But Wodehouse and Barrie do find servants interesting. In “Jeeves in the Springtime,” Jeeves speaks to his employer about his own personal life with the same delicacy and reserve as Crichton. Asked how he knows that Bingo Little’s uncle lives in Pounceby Gardens, Jeeves tells Bertie Wooster, who is narrating the story,

“I am on terms of some intimacy with the elder Mr. Little’s cook, sir. In fact, there is an understanding.”

[Bertie narrates:] I’m bound to say that this gave me a bit of a start. Somehow I’d never thought of Jeeves going in for that sort of thing.

“Do you mean you’re engaged?”

“It may be said to amount to that, sir.”

“Well, well!”

The stories of P. G. Wodehouse owe much of their interest to the cooks, butlers, valets, gardeners, secretaries, and pig-keepers who populate the country estates of Lord Emsworth and Bertie Wooster’s relatives.

J. M. Barrie, one of Emsworth’s favorite writers, was a elegant English prose stylist who can fairly be mentioned in the same breath as Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. The Admirable Crichton first appeared in 1902, two years before Peter Pan. The play is less fantastical than Barrie’s Peter Pan, and also much lighter — we’re remembering the dark, wonderful Peter Pan at the Shaw Festival in 2001.

To those who appreciate this production of The Admirable Crichton, we recommend not only the reading editions of J. M. Barrie’s plays, but also Barrie’s novels, like A Window in Thrums and The Little White Bird. We hope fervently that the Shaw Festival will be doing more Barrie plays over the next few seasons.

J.M. Barrie’s Half an Hour at the Shaw Festival

This one-act play really does take just half an hour to perform, and we’re still puzzled as to why the Shaw Festival didn’t put another short one-act play into its mid-day show, which is generally close to an hour long. But James M. Barrie’s Half an Hour still packs a lot into one show. 

In some marriages not every touch is welcome, or kindly intended.

Into some people’s lives there comes a moment that decides everything — sometimes, as in this play, a moment of high drama and irony. We meet the high-toned Lady Lillian (Diana Donnelly) in the middle of an intense, bitter, late-afternoon marital quarrel that crushes the last hope she may have had of living amicably under the same roof as her brute of a husband, Richard Garson (Peter Krantz). She keeps our sympathy even when we learn that for months she has had a lover, the adventurous and dashing Hugh Paton (Gord Rand); she flees to his arms instead of dressing to receive the dinner guests her husband has invited. 

Norman Browning and Laurie Paton as Mr. and Mrs. Redding; Peter Krantz as Richard Garson

Until now Lady Lillian has resisted Hugh’s urgings that she leave England with him — he is returning to his work as an engineer in Egypt — but in the wake of this last quarrel with her husband she decides impulsively and desperately to abandon her miserable marriage, leave everything behind, and join her lover. What follows is an emotion-drenched and entirely unpredictable series of events. 

The scenes of this short play linger in the mind, and the final suspenseful scene, with Peter Millard, Laurie Paton, and Norman Browning, is unforgettable. Diana Donnelly, one of our favorite Shaw Festival actors, is superb as the desperate, trapped Lady Lillian. 

The lovers are torn between their carnal passions and their need to pack.

Since James M. Barrie himself was apparently immune to carnal passion of any kind, we were a little surprised at the director’s decision to add touches of eroticism to the first two scenes. In the opening quarrel, Richard Garson strokes his wife suggestively even as his words make clear that he despises her; the implication is that their relationship included not only cruel words, but also sexual brutality. Minutes later, when Lady Lillian jumps into the arms of her lover, patrons are likely to wonder whether the Shaw Festival is about to cross new boundaries of explicitness in portraying physical passion.  But it all worked only to heighten the dramatic tension inherent in the story.

Eating our picnic lunch in the park after the play, we got to thinking about other short pieces of dramatic fiction from the same era (Half an Hour premiered in 1913). We were reminded not only of the characteristic “twists” in O. Henry stories like “The Reformation of Calliope,” but also of the wonderfully clever and sometimes cruel stories of Saki.  And we thought in particular of the final line in Saki’s short masterpiece “The Open Window”: “Romance at short notice was her specialty.” 

In case the Shaw Festival should ask for requests . . .

How about a John Mortimer play at the Shaw Festival?

By now, Jackie Maxwell’s probably finished her list of Shaw Festival shows for 2011. But we’ve been thinking that we ought to be more proactive in letting Ms. Maxwell know what we’d like to see on stage in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario next year, or maybe the year after, especially now that we’ve seen most of what we’re likely to see at the Shaw in 2010.

So herewith our helpful suggestions.  We’ve already vetted them for compliance with the Festival “mandate” (plays during George Bernard Shaw’s lifetime, or set during that period):

A Voyage Round My Father (John Mortimer)

The late writer, a great favorite of ours, would never have created Rumpole of the Bailey if not for his eccentric father, a blind barrister who specialized in divorce. This play — we’ve read it, want very much to see it performed — is a tension-packed fictionalized account of the mutually abusive and mordantly funny relationship between Mortimer and his dad. We can see Michael Ball and Steven Sutcliffe in the lead roles. The play’s our first choice.

Alice Sit-By-The Fire (J. M. Barrie)

For the last 20 years, the only plays besides Shaw’s that you’d have a betting chance of seeing at the Shaw Festival in any given year have been Noël Coward’s and Oscar Wilde’s. But we think James M. Barrie ought to be in the rotation too. Not that he’s been ignored altogether; in fact, the Shaw is doing Barrie’s one-act Half an Hour as its lunchtime show this season.  But the only full-length Barrie play besides Peter Pan that the Shaw has ever done was The Admirable Crichton, and that was before our time as Shaw patrons.

James M. Barrie

In his day Barrie had a long string of successful plays. We’ve read most of them, and they’re packed with lively, witty dialogue, vivid characters, clever plots, and bittersweet sentiment. They don’t seem at all dated or flat. We’d be thrilled with Mary Rose (a good choice for the slot usually reserved for a “mystery thriller” in a Shaw season playbill) or Quality Street. But our first choice would be Barrie’s 1905 comedy Alice Sit-By-the-Fire.

Like Peter Pan, Alice Sit-By-the-Fire is concerned with the impact of a powerful imagination on reality. In Peter Pan, the Darling children’s playworld becomes real as Neverland; in Alice Sit-By-the-Fire, a teenage girl’s imagination, inflamed by cheap theatrical melodramas, spins out of control as she transforms herself into a heroine who can save her too-youthful mother from a forbidden romance. We could see Diana Donnelly and Julie Martell in the mother and daughter roles.

The Iceman Cometh (Eugene O’Neill)

Ms. Maxwell has been cautiously introducing accustoming Shaw Festival audiences to Eugene O’Neill over the last several years, so with any luck The Iceman Cometh is already in her sights. She softened up patrons in 2004 with Ah! Wilderness, O’Neill’s wistful comedy about a teenage boy, his family, and the summer he became a man. Then she ratcheted up the misery in 2009 with A Moon for the Misbegotten, a play about the earthy and disagreeable Hogan family.

Eugene O'Neill

We think folks ought to be sufficiently braced now for O’Neill’s masterpiece about the down-and-outers and losers who hang out in Harry Hope’s grimy Greenwich Village bar. Ready or not, we want to see The Iceman Cometh, and we think Ms. Maxwell should lure Ben Carlson back to the Shaw Festival to play the salesman Hickey. It’s a play that cries out for the talents of a repertory company like the Shaw’s.

The Dresser (Ronald Harwood)

The golden age of British theater! We wish we could have been there in the decades before television when great classical actors like John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson played all over the British Isles. We know The Dresser only from the film version from the early 1980s, starring Albert Finney as a fading Shakespearean and Tom Courtenay as his long-time dresser.

The part of "Sir" was based on British actor Sir Donald Wolfit

This portrait of the delicate and complex relationship between “Sir” (the actor) and Norman (his dresser) is a perfect fit for the Shaw, which last year gave us slices of English vaudeville during the same time period (John Osborne’s The Entertainer and Coward’s Red Peppers). We see David Schurmann and Evan Buliung in the lead roles.

They even made a movie from Shaw's Androcles and the Lion

Androcles and the Lion (Bernard Shaw)

Why does Jackie Maxwell, year after year, like Christopher Newton before her, avoid Androcles and the Lion?  Why should a short list of plays one wants to see at the Shaw Festival need to include one of Shaw’s most celebrated plays? Surely it’s not too hard to stage; the Shaw has done it twice before, though not since 1984, before our time. 

Happy to help!

Political correctness takes a hunk out of Peter Pan at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Banished from Neverland

Just when you think that political correctness has done its worst, some fresh horror comes along. What possible excuse could the Stratford Festival have for banishing Tiger Lily and the Indians from Neverland?  

Among all the fantastic denizens of Neverland, the Indian princess is by far the worthiest. Captain Hook murders his own men when the whim strikes. Peter Pan is impossibly vain and selfish. The Lost Boys tell lies about the mothers they never knew. The crocodile is a monomaniac. Amidst these villains and rogues, Tiger Lily alone is decent and heroic.  

James M. Barrie’s Indian princess is the essence of courage under pressure. Captured by the pirates, tied to Marooner’s Rock to be drowned by the rising tides, and facing spiritual torture, Tiger Lily stands resolute, as Mr. Barrie tells us in Peter and Wendy (his novelization of his play):  

Her hands and ankles were tied, and she knew what was to be her fate. Yet her face was impassive; she was the daughter of a chief, she must die as a chief’s daughter, it is enough. She was to be left on the rock to perish, an end to one of her race more terrible than death by fire or torture, for is it not written in the book of the tribe that there is no path through water to the happy hunting-ground?  

A prototypical feminist, Tiger Lily is in control of her own sexuality. From Peter Pan, Act II:  

She is the belle of the Piccaninny tribe, whose braves would all have her to wife, but she wards them off with a hatchet.  

Accomplished in woodcraft, she is a natural leader. Again from Peter Pan, Act II:  

TIGER LILY comes first. She puts her ear to the ground and listens, then beckons, and GREAT BIG LITTLE PANTHER and the tribe are around her, carpeting the ground.  

As the Indians track noiselessly along the warpath, Barrie shows us Tiger Lily “bringing up the rear, the place of greatest danger.” She is “proudly erect, a princess in her own right.”  

From a 1907 book

And to her friends, Tiger Lily is loyal to the death. Grateful to Peter Pan for rescuing Tiger Lily from the Marooning Rock, the Indians guard the home of the Lost Boys and suffer heavy casualties when the pirates attack.  

What finer fictional role model could a girl have? What better symbol of feminist empowerment? No wonder that young women clamor to play this strong, brave, virtuous, loyal heroine.   

But there’s no Indian princess in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2010 production of Peter Pan, which we recently saw.  Yes, there is a female character named Tiger Lily who is part of the “Marooning Rock” scene, but she’s not an Indian princess, does not lead a band of braves, and has no “Indian” characteristics.  Out of an absurdly misplaced sense that she and the other Indians are offensive to native Americans, director Tim Carroll has cut them out of the play and replaced them with preening, bare-bellied “Amazons”. 

The cover page of a 1915 book illustrates the three-way balance of power on Neverland

Consider the violence this does to the integrity of the play. First, it distorts the balance of power in Neverland. Anticipating Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four by 45 years, Barrie created a violent world with three powers in perpetual states of war and shifting alliances. But the Stratford show has only the Lost Boys against the pirates.  The nameless Amazons have no higher profile than Neverland’s mermaids, wolves, or fairies.  

Eliminating the Indian princess also destroys the parallels between the Darling household and the fantasy island. The play is so constructed that the actor who plays Mr. Darling, who pretends to be a stern master in his house, can also play Hook, who is a bona fide tyrant. (For example, Christopher Newton played both parts in the Shaw Festival’s 1987 Peter Pan.) The actress who plays the patient Mrs. Darling can also play the stoical, virtuous Tiger Lily. (In the Shaw Festival’s 1987 Peter Pan, Nora McLellan played both parts.) Indeed, the playwright means us to understand that, in the children’s imaginations, their parents are Hook and Tiger Lily.

But in the Stratford show, Mrs. Darling has no counterpart in Neverland.  In fact, the faux Amazon “Tiger Lily” jumps into the play as a fantasy projection of a character invented solely by Mr. Carroll for this show: Lily, the narrator’s (Mr. Barrie’s) maid.

The base of the statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Park, which we visited on our trip to London several years ago, is composed of a jumble of the magical and wonderful people of Neverland

Most important, replacing the Indians with bland “Amazons” violates the premise that Neverland and its inhabitants as the ultimate projection of the children’s fertile imaginations. Even in their Bloomsbury home, the fantasy life of Wendy, Peter, and Michael is so powerful that pretense can hardly be distinguished from reality. The children imagine the dog Nana as a nurse — and she is a nurse. They imagine their father as an overgrown child, and that is just how he behaves.  

In Neverland, where the children’s imaginations rule absolutely, the world of the nursery reappears, transformed. We need only look around Neverland to know just what toys the Darling children have in their nursery, what games they play in nearby Kensington Park, and what children’s books they burrow into on rainy days. Especially the books — luridly illustrated memoirs of bloodthirsty pirates! Picture folios of exotic, stupendous beasts (like wolves and crocodiles)! Stories of sailors, sirens, and mermaids! Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales! Treasure Island and The Last of the Mohicans.  Stories of strange, un-Englishlike peoples and their strange ways in the far corners of the world! Stories of the British empire, its frontiers, and its heroes! And more than one volume in the children’s library, surely, about the diverse customs and ways of North American Indians.  

Mary Martin and Sondra Lee as Peter Pan and Tiger Lily in the 1960 musical adaptation

When children play, anything is possible, including a world co-inhabited by such unlikely real-world companions as mermaids, pirates, wolves, and Indians.  But who would really suppose that “Amazons” were part of the Darling children’s fantasy world? The toy chest and doll house in their nursery surely included wooden pirates, tin soldiers and sailors, mermaids, fairies, cowboys, and Indians — but what girl ever played with “Amazon” dolls? In 1904, middle-class English children learned Greek mythology, but one can’t imagine that these children would ever have been taught about giant female warriors who (according to legend) cut off their right breasts so as to facilitate the use of bows and spears, and who (again according to legend) kept men as slaves and mated with them once a year to propagate the race.  

And the Darling children would never have dreamed up the provocatively dressed creatures in the Stratford show. (One blogger who saw Peter Pan in Stratford thought the Amazons looked like Xena the Warrior Princess.) It may be that in today’s hypersexualized culture, prepubescent children may fantasize about dressing up like Lady Gaga. But these were Victorian children.  

(Curiously, the Amazons are played by actresses of ordinary size who hardly suggest the plus-size women warriors of legend. While Mr. Carroll’s concern for the feelings of native Americans does him credit, he was apparently unconcerned that women like our wife might think the Amazons were there only as eye candy for male patrons like us.)

And did the Stratford Festival think for a moment that today’s kids would have any idea who “Amazons” were, or know anything about their mythical matriarchal society? The kids will instantly recognize the pirates, the mermaid, and the fairy Tinkerbelle. The Amazons will only puzzle them.  

Perhaps Brit director Tim Carroll was merely casting about for a people so imaginary that no modern-day people could possibly be offended. But if putting Tiger Lily on stage might offend people, it’s time for people to adjust their sensitivity meters. 

In writing Peter Pan James M. Barrie never set out to show us anything “true” about native Americans, pirates, fairies, mermaids or anyone else.  What Mr. Barrie did set out to do was to show us how highly imaginative children think when they play. As Mr. Barrie announced at the beginning of his play, “All the characters, whether grown-ups or babes, must wear a child’s outlook on life as their only important adornment.” The Indians, like all the other characters in Peter Pan, are only playmates who behave in accordance with the arbitrary and ever-changing rules of children’s play, as illustrated in this wonderful scene from Peter and Wendy:  

Should we take the brush with the redskins at Slightly Gulch? It was a sanguinary affair, and especially interesting as showing one of Peter’s peculiarities, which was that in the middle of a fight he would suddenly change sides. At the Gulch, when victory was still in the balance, he called out, “I’m redskin to-day; what are you, Tootles?” And Tootles answered, “Redskin; what are you, Nibs?” and Nibs said, “Redskin; what are you Twin?” and so on; and they were all redskins; and of course this would have ended the fight had not the real redskins, fascinated by Peter’s methods, agreed to be lost boys for that once, and so at it they all went again, more fiercely than ever.  

Does Peter Pan — as Mr. Barrie wrote it — include caricatured elements of native Americans? Of course it does — and wildly inaccurate stereotypes of mothers, fathers, pirates, and mermaids, too. In conceiving Tiger Lily and her people, these Victorian children jumbled together all the romantic and exotic bits of information they thought they knew about North American Indian tribes. What else would children do? 

All that is true in Peter Pan is its portrait of three children’s fantasy life. That’s more than enough. 

Aside from missing Tiger Lily in the show — no small point — Emsworth thought that the Stratford Festival’s Peter Pan was pretty good entertainment. See this post

Peter Pan at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

The Stratford Festival’s Peter Pan is not a stage version of the Disney movie, nor is it the dreadful musical play version that schools often do. It’s the original.

Two minutes before showtime, the only empty seat in the Avon Theater was right in front of us.  A woman explained to us that when her little son saw the gauze screen veiling the stage, he remembered a movie that had scared him, began crying, and had to be taken out.  The boy never did see the splendid sets or costumes or any of the wonderfully choreographed action of Peter Pan in person; he watched it all on the lobby monitor with his grandmother.

This was a shame, we thought afterward, because this was just the sort of Peter Pan that a fainthearted child could safely enjoy.  The Darling children’s father (Sanjay Talwar), lampooned and patronized by his wife and children, is neither formidable nor fearsome.  The pirates are lovably cartoonish, and the bumbling, benign Captain Hook (Tom McCamus) won’t inspire nightmares.

As for Neverland’s savage Indians — wait, this Peter Pan doesn’t have any Indians!  — merely playful, posing, sexy “Amazons”.  We’ll have more to say in a later post about this alarming capitulation to the tyranny of political correctness.  (Here it is.)

J. M. Barrie

In short, even though this Peter Pan is still a ripping children’s adventure tale, it’s painted in broad strokes and scrubbed of whatever might either offend or stimulate. And it betrays the influence of decades of Disney and Pixar cartoon features. An essay in the program reminded us that Peter Pan topped one drama scholar’s list of the finest English language plays of the twentieth century.  (Emsworth, who is devoted to J. M. Barrie’s novels as well as to his plays, would rank it nearly as high.)  But this production does not suggest nearly enough of the psychological complexity of this dark play — too little of what puts Peter Pan in the ranks of plays like PygmalionDeath of a Salesman, and Fences.

At the Shaw Festival in 2000 we were fortunate to see a Peter Pan that did, indeed, mine the riches of James M. Barrie’s play, a show that is among our most memorable theater experiences.  We will remember the Stratford Festival’s Peter Pan, on the other hand, mostly because it was our eldest grandson’s very first play.

Boy and swan along the banks of the Stratford-on-Avon

Our excursion to Stratford, Ontario with this seven-year-old was a great success.  He tolerated the long drive and back with admirable patience, had fun trying to feed the swans along the river, was mesmerized by the play, and thrilled at the swordfights and the crocodile. And he never ran out of questions.  Were these real pirates?  Is Captain Hook really dead?  Does the man write a different play every night?  (In this production there’s a narrator — not J. M. Barrie’s idea, but intended to represent him — who sits at a table to the side of the stage writing the play, which unfolds in his imagination before our eyes.)

Michael Therriault as Irving Berlin in the 2009 Broadway musical “Tin Pan Alley Rag”

There’s still a lot to enjoy in this show, including plenty of clever sight gags and fine acting from the entire large cast.  Michael Therriault bucks the tradition of casting a slender woman as Peter Pan; he is lithe and acrobatic, vain and cocky, with a strong stage presence.  Our grandson noticed right away, though, that Mr. Therriault doesn’t look much like a boy.  We had to agree; in fact, the 36-year-old actor is a good deal closer to his grandpa’s age than to his. We also noticed that the diminutive figure of Michael, the youngest of the Darling children (played by Stacie Steadman), was not very boyish.

We thought Sanjay Talwar was a riot as Mr. Darling and that the ensemble work of the Lost Boys was immensely entertaining.  Sara Topham was an excellent Wendy — although the way she delivered some of her lines gave me flashbacks to The Importance of Being Ernest, in which Ms. Topham played Gwendolen Fairfax last year in Stratford (see Emsworth’s thoughts on that worthy show).

Sara Topham last season as Gwendolyn Fairfax

J. M. Barrie’s original 1904 stage play has no part for a narrator, but this show does (James Kirriemuir, who, unlike the other actors, is miked for sound). The narration is, at least, still the playwright’s prose, for the most part, taken either from his detailed stage directions, which help make the original play a joy to read, or from Peter and Wendy, the tremendously popular novelization of the play that Barrie himself wrote five years later.  Still, we felt there was too much of it.

Why a narrator at all?  We suppose Brit director Tim Carroll saw it as a device for speaking directly to the patrons; at one point the narrator invited us to chime in on which of several episodes in Neverland they’d like to see played.

But Peter Pan already includes the most famous bit of audience participation in modern theater: the moment when, with the fairy Tinkerbelle’s life hanging in the balance, Peter Pan asks the children in the audience to clap if they believe in fairies.  We thought having Mr. Barrie address the audience detracted from the thrill and uniqueness of the “save Tinkerbelle” moment.

We missed the play’s final coda (Mr. Barrie wrote it but regarded as optional) in which Peter returns to take Wendy back to Neverland for “spring cleaning” after she has grown up and has a daughter of her own.  But this wistful, sentimental scene did not belong, perhaps, in a production like this.

As promised, Emsworth’s thoughts on the Stratford Festival’s thoroughly disgraceful capitulation to political correctness — a Peter Pan without Tiger Lily, the Indian princess! — are at this post.

More broadly, Emsworth’s pre-season thoughts on the entire lineup of shows at the Stratford Festival in 2010 are at this post.