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The Parent Trap

A sesquicentennial for the father of Peter Pan.

Nov 8, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 08 • By DAWN EDEN
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Following Peter Pan’s 1904 premiere, Barrie showed his support for the women’s suffrage movement by making his heroines increasingly mannish—that is, mannish in Barrie terms, e.g., prideful and manipulative. In Alice Sit-by-the-Fire (1905), a childish wife battles her husband for the admiration of their children—and wins. Theirs is not a marriage per se; the children are merely pawns in their power struggle. In What Every Woman Knows (1908), the title refers to the inconvenient truth that the wife holds the true power behind the throne. This is borne out by heroine Maggie Shand’s control over her husband’s career, as she feeds him the inspirations that lead to his political success, and does it so subtly that he does not even realize he is being manipulated. Yet the play marks a certain feminist progression for Barrie as Maggie, unlike his previous female protagonists, is not a mother. In fact, she seems to have no interest in children at all—they are not so much as mentioned in the play. 

Maggie’s resorting to subterfuge did not sit well with those who sought greater influence for women. The feminist writer Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale, writing in 1914, called What Every Woman Knows “almost a contribution to the opposition, for it showed the heroine using those indirect arts of which we are so weary. .  .  . ‘The Twelve Pound Look,’ however, is pure gold,” she added, “and we owe Barrie sincere gratitude for it.”

There was, indeed, joy in suffragette city over that 1910 comedy. Ex-wife Kate deflates the pride of her former husband Harry, a wealthy egotist, by revealing that she left him not for another man but merely for the freedom afforded her by a typewriter she bought for £12. In Barrie’s world, the clickety-clack
of the machine signals the death knell of men’s absolute monarchy. While Harry has two sons by his new wife, Kate has no children. Like
Maggie of What Every Woman Knows, she doesn’t need them in order to extend her control over men. Moreover—and here is the progression from
Maggie—Barrie makes it clear that Kate
has spiritual progeny. We see her eyes gleam as she envisions the “two little girls” who will one day break the hearts of her ex-husband’s sons by choosing men who “don’t get on.” We hear her voice lower as she slowly warns Harry, and “all” husbands, to be on the watch lest that “£12 look” come into their wives’ eyes. Lo and behold, Harry’s comeuppance is assured as his current wife admires Kate’s typewriter at
play’s end.

But it wasn’t enough for Barrie  merely to create a feminist heroine. As the originator of the Wendy Dilemma, he had to atone for his previous crimes against the women’s movement. This he did in remarkable fashion in his next play, A Kiss for Cinderella (1916), by effectively killing off Wendy and raising up Kate in her place.

Cinderella is a London charwoman who has fallen under the adorable delusion that she truly is the fairy-tale heroine. A make-believe “little mother” in the classic Barrie mode, this ultra-feminine factotum plays nurse, seamstress, and confidante to the wayward souls in her picturesquely poor neighborhood. Like Wendy, she even takes in “Lost Boys”—four young war orphans, each sleeping in a treehouse-like box nailed five feet high along the walls of her flat.

But, while Peter Pan can live forever by shirking responsibility, mother figures in Barrie’s world are doomed to mortality—like Mrs. Darling who, by the time her daughter marries, is not merely dead, but “dead and forgotten.” (Not for nothing did Barrie originally give Peter Pan the title The Boy Who Hated Mothers.) And so the final act of A Kiss for Cinderella finds its protagonist at a convalescent home, where she is dying of pneumonia. The home is run by Barrie’s ideal woman, a female doctor named Bodie—a fiercely independent, no-nonsense suffragette, unmarried and childless, who does Kate of the £12 one better by doing a man’s job. Barrie’s stage direction gushes, “If we did not have a heroine already, we would choose Dr. Bodie.”

Yet, while one of Dr. Bodie’s charges raves that she is “an angel,” she is more like an exterminating angel—giving Cinderella a bucolic haven to spend her final days while sending the patient’s employer a “whacking bill.” No wonder that, in this revision of the tale of the glass-slippered heroine, it is Dr. Bodie who wears the expensive shoes. (She is, as Cinderella observes, “very particular about her feet.”) The clock struck midnight a long time ago. Now the Great War is on, it’s a new day in England, the modern woman is in the ascendant, and the self-sacrificing Cinderellas of the world are destined to devolve into dust and rags. Mrs. Darling is indeed dead and forgotten; Wendy, too. Long
live Kate!

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