Dear Brutus by J.M. Barrie

Yes, I read plays too. I actually have quite a few: all of Oscar Wilde, a cool modern version of Antigone, Moliere, all of Shakespeare’s and so on. I was a drama minor at the University of Montana, you see.

Don’t get excited. I’m no actor. I feel silly trying to be someone I’m just NOT and can’t do it with any conviction.

True story: My acting teacher said very sadly to me once in a tone that let me know I was a lost cause: Oh my dear, you are a WRI-TER, not an actor. The idea being that writer’s can describe life, but not live it. It’s a funny idea. One of those things you think about when you wake up at 3am.

Dear Brutus is an old-fashioned play by the renowned author of Peter Pan. I came across it in the high school library. My copy is officially Property of Mount Si High School. Yes-sir-ee. I’m a thief and should not have graduated.

Wait, I didn’t. But not because of that.

Oh well.

The whole concept of the play is getting a second chance at life. Barrie based it on a Midsummer Night’s Dream, but he twisted his work around to really get the message across about second chances and choices. If you know your Shakespeare (and I do) you’ll know that on midsummer evening, people tend to stumble around in forests and change personalities and fall in love with all the wrong people and stuff like that.

Kind of sounds like a weekend at Evergreen State College.

Barrie’s themes for Brutus are the notions of regret, fate and personal choice. How many of us, if offered the chance for a do-over, would take it? If we did would it change anything?

Barrie thought not, and his characters prove him right.

A group of people, each whom have a big or small regret, are spending the weekend at a country house near an ancient forest. With the threads of superstition regarding midsummer night, and help from their Puck-like host, Lob, the group spends the evening wandering around the wood, being the people they would have become had they chosen different roads. Surface changes abound, but  each of them appears to be exactly who they would have been just the same, only in different circumstances.

Matey, the Butler, laments that he has become a petty thief due to his career choice and his exposure to the low company of domestic help.  If he could only live it all again he would have taken a position in a clerk’s office and, as a result, been an honest man. In the wood he finds himself a rich and successful banker who delights in embezzling money. Lady Caroline, who was a snob before the wood, is his doting wife.

Mr. Coade has an unfinished book on the Feudal System. His one regret is that he is rich and comfortable. He tells his gentle wife that he wishes he were poor, thinking that this might have made him more ambitious. In the wood he is occupied with playing a flute in the manner of Pan. He dances through the woods and has no more ambition than he did when encumbered with wealth. Mrs. Coade is the one character that has stayed behind; the one character that would not live her life over again. She doesn’t get to see her husband dancing around in gala costume happy to be single, and the audience is slightly grateful for that, as Mrs. Coade is the “best one” as Barrie calls her.

John (Jack) Purdie is a brilliant scholar with the gigantic flaw of egotism. Before the wood, he is married to Mabel, but is busy having a passionate affair with Joanna Trout. These two misguided souls convince themselves that their love is a noble thing, while Mabel is just being petty for being upset when she walks in on the two of them kissing. In the wood, the situation is reversed, and the exact same scene takes place only this time the misunderstood lovers are Mabel and Jack and the petty wife is Joanna.

Alice Dearth is the smouldering beauty who detests her husband for his alcoholism. Her husband, Will Dearth, is a good sort of guy, who has failed as an artist, and drinks to ease the pain of it.  His wife despises him and the two have agreed to split up. The wood shows them a different story; Will is a poor, but happy painter with a young daughter named Margaret, while Alice is homeless and wandering, having made a bad marriage to a man who left her.

Here is Barrie’s romantic fantasy. In the real world having a child would not cure alcoholism or an unhappy marriage. But I’m not sure it’s so much about that, as Dearth’s experience represents the man he might have been had he lived for someone else and not just himself, or had he looked at his world with a different perspective and not given up just because he failed at fame and glory.

Margaret is the best character in the whole play. She is ” aged to the moment when you like your daughter best” and she and Dearth are good friends as well as father and daughter. She is lively and funny and charming, all the stuff that makes her a jewel among daughters. The dialogue between she and her father is brilliant. Throughout it, Margaret talks of their life together, and her pending adulthood. She is supposed to have some vague sense of what she is – a dream – but no real knowledge until the very end, when Dearth leaves her alone in the wood.

Margaret: (unexpectedly) Daddy, what is a ‘might-have-been’?

Dearth: A might-have-been? They are ghosts, Margaret. I daresay I “might have been” a great swell of a painter, instead of just this uncommonly happy nobody. Or again, I might have been a worthless idle waster of a fellow.

Margaret: (laughing) You!

Dearth: Some little kink in me might have set me off on the wrong road. And that poor soul I might have been might easily have had no Margaret. My word, I’m sorry for him.

The most tragic moment in the play is when little Margaret realizes she is just a shade, and cries out that ‘she doesn’t want to be a might-have-been’ even as she’s fading away in darkness and illusion.

The group returns to the house humbled and illuminated by their experiences. Jack Purdie sums it up wonderfully when he cites the ‘something in ourselves that makes us go on doing the same sort of fool things, however many chances we get”

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.’ ~Shakespeare

It is a fanciful, but oddly complex play, and a theme I return to again and again. Second chances. What if?

I always think “How different I would be if…”

But perhaps I wouldn’t be. Just in different circumstances. Besides, life pretty much tramps forward, whether we like it or not.

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4 Comments

Filed under Literature, Plays

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