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About the Playwright: Sir James M. Barrie

By Angel M. Pilkington
From Insights, 2000

 

Sir James M. Barrie was born in Kirriemuir, Scotland, to David Barrie and Margaret Ogilvy in 1860. He attended his first school in 1867, a little private school run by two sisters. Later, he spent five years at the Dumfries Academy. On his first day there, a boy came up to him on the playground and asked what his high jump was. Barrie gave a response and asked the boy what his was; this line of questioning went back and forth, and each time the other boy claimed to be better. Then Barrie was asked what his hundred yard time was; Barrie did not know his time and asked the boy for his. The boy responded, “Five seconds less than yours” (Thomas Moult, Barrie [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928], 8). Barrie saw the joke against himself, and a friendship immediately began.

In 1883 Barrie began his writing career at the Nottingham Journal as a leader-writer. He was able to write on a wide variety of topics, including articles about the theatre such as “Lear's Fool” and “Stage Tricks” (Moult 36). Even during the year that he worked at the Nottingham Journal, Barrie was engaged in much other writing, and it was not long before he emerged as a novelist and playwright. His many successes include A Window in Thrums (1889), The Little Minister (1891), Margaret Ogilvy (1896), Sentimental Tommy (1896), Tommy and Grizel (1900), Quality Street (1901), The Admirable Crichton (1902), and Dear Brutus (1917).

Barrie started to write when he was a child, drawing heavily on his personal experiences. He wrote his first novel, A Child of Nature, while he was at Dumfries. Speaking about A Child of Nature, Barrie said, “It was a tale of Dumfries. A long thing, one-hundred thousand words” (Moult 9). The “Hanky School” in his novel Sentimental Tommy is a description of the first private school he attended in 1867, and he also drew on that experience for Quality Street (James A. Roy, James Matthew Barrie [London: Jarrolds Publishers, 1937], 40 41).

The story of his mother, Margaret Ogilvy, was published one year after her death. Many female characters in Barrie's novels and plays are based on his mother. Barrie said of Jess in A Window in Thrums: “There was never any Jess, anything in her that was rare and beautiful she had from my mother” (Moult 28). Barrie had a deep admiration for his mother. In 1896, he said of his novels, “They were written to please one woman who is now dead, but as I am writing a little book about my mother, I shall say no more of her here” (Roy 163).

Barrie is most recognized today for Peter Pan, a character based on the children in Barrie's life and on Barrie himself. The story of Peter Pan began with a book called The Little White Bird, published in 1902. The character, Peter, was introduced as a baby, and he was later developed into the play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. The play premiered in 1904, and productions and adaptations of Peter Pan are still common, including Steven Spielberg's movie, Hook (1991).

In recent years Barrie’s reputation has suffered because he is thought to be overly sentimental. However, he had an amazing sense of humor and a gift for realism. In Portrait of Barrie, Cynthia Asquith said, “He didn't want children to take Peter Pan seriously. His favorite reaction to his own play was that of the little boy who, favoured by a seat in the author’s box, and at the end injudiciously asked what he had liked best, promptly replied: ‘What I think I liked best was tearing up the programme and dropping the bits on people's heads’”([London: James Barrie, 1954], 219).

In The Peter Pan Chronicles, Bruce K. Hanson said, “Poetic and sentimental as he sounds, Barrie always was able to separate feelings from the real-life events that he was writing about.” Sometimes his analysis seems almost cold-blooded. Barrie gave his sister’s fiancé a horse for a wedding present. When the fiancé died from a fall off the horse, Barrie wrote down an idea for a novel. “After death, a character [a la Maggie] talks beautiful resignation, &c. Yet what is the feeling at heart? A kicking at the awfulness? A bitterness? Work this out in novel, showing how almost no one in these cir[cumstances] gets at other’s real feelings. Each conceals from the other” ([New York: Birch Lane Press, 1993], 27).

Sir James Barrie's work is still popular today because of the many rich elements he took from his own life and the lives of people around him. He believed in the power of emotion, but he also was possessed of an irrepressible humor. He saw the pathos and beauty in humanity, but just as clearly he perceived the confusions and the cruelties. How else could he have made Peter Pan, Wendy, and Captain Hook?

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