Sir J(ames) M(atthew) Barrie

Definition

Theater

  • (1860 - 1937) Scottish playwright and novelist, whose lastingfame derives from the children's fantasy Peter Pan. AlthoughBarrie's more sentimental offerings led to his being described as"sugar without the diabetes" by the US theater criticGeorge Jean Nathan, he also wrote a variety of plays ranging fromsocial comedies to a tragedy.

    The son of a handloom weaver, Barrie studied at EdinburghUniversity before becoming a journalist. His first theatrical successcame in 1892 with the short farce Walker, London. In 1897 headapted The Little Minister from his own book and became closeto Sylvia Llewellyn Davies and her five sons, for whom he devisedhis stories of Peter, the boy who would not grow up. In 1902 Barrieenjoyed success with the costume drama Quality Street andthe social comedy The Admirable Crichton, about a butlerwho emerges as the natural leader of a group of castaways, which includeshis former employers, on a desert island.

    Peter Pan was first staged in 1904 at the Duke of York'sTheatre, London, with Nina Boucicault as Peter; this established therole as one for actresses. The play was revived in London each Christmasfrom 1905 to 1940, when the tradition was interrupted by the war.When a dinner partner once suggested "Not all your plays aresuccesses, I suppose, Sir James," the playwright retorted, "No,some Peter out and some Pan out."

    In 1908 Barrie wrote another popular social comedy, WhatEvery Woman Knows. Dear Brutus (1917), often consideredBarrie's finest work, shows nine people being given a second chanceat life but bungling it once again. The tragedy Mary Rose (1920),about the problems caused by a girl who does not grow up, shows theother side of the Peter Pan syndrome.

    His last play, the biblical The Boy David (1936), waswritten for the Austrian actress Elisabeth Bergner, who playedDavid. In Bergner's opinion, the play's failure precipitated Barrie'sdeath the next year. Barrie, however, left £2000 to "myloved Elisabeth Bergner for the best performance ever given in anyplay of mine".

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