Myself and My Islands
MYSELF AND MY ISLANDS
BY SIR JAMES BARRIE
[ Although Sir James formally abjured public speaking in his now famous 'MacConachie' address to the students at Glasgow, the critics, those archenemies of the dramatist, were unwilling to let him off so easily. He was recently the guest of honor at a dinner of the Critics' Circle, where, after Mr. A. B. Walkley had responded to the toast, 'The Drama and Barrie,' Sir James made the speech printed below. The regrettable fact must be recorded that Sir James's first word of greeting to his hosts was most impolite. Speaking as a dramatist, he addressed the assembled critics as 'Scum!" ]
From the Times, May 27
Critics to right of him, critics to left of him, critics upper entrance at back leading to conservatory, critics down stage centre—into that Circle someone has blundered. How I wish I could keep it up, dealing blows all around in this author's well-known sledge-hammer style. 'Barrie gives them Beans'—Evening News. 'A Roland for an Oliver'—Daily Chronicle. 'Swashbuckler Barrie swashes on his Buckler'—Mail. 'Barrie spells Walkley with a small w'—Morning Post. That is the kind I should like to give you. But, alas! in the word's of the poet Pewelli of the blessed isle, so familiar to you all, Poga, mema allalula, which means that your chairman has spiked my guns. …
I remember once going the length of very nearly telling a critic that quite possibly he was mistaken. It was many years ago, before I had written any plays, when red blood boiled in my veins. It is not a bad story, though unfortunately the critic comes rather well out of it; indeed I would not repeat it here except that I come rather well out of it also. It marks the night when I decided upon a rule of conduct with regard to you gentlemen, which, so far as I can remember, I have never broken. An historic occasion for me, therefore, and I am sorry I cannot remember what the weather was like. The criticized was one of my first books, a Scotch novel, and the critic was a man to whom I suppose everyone here would take off his hat in homage and in proud memory—. He not only slaughtered my book, but attacked my Scotch and picked out one word in particular as not being Scotch at all. To be as particular as that, is perhaps always a mistake in criticism, and I thought I had him.
I wrote a brief letter to that paper saying that this word was not only good Scotch but was in frequent use in the Waverley novels, that I could tell Mr. Lang in which, but that as he was at present editing them he would find them all worth reading. I then put the letter in my desk and went exultantly to bed. But there was something wrong about it and I could not sleep, and somewhere in the early hours I made up my mind to tear up that letter and never in my life to answer criticism. These two vows I have kept, and in both cases with a happy result. A few days afterward Mr. Lang wrote in that same paper,—and you are good men if you can do what Lang did,—saying that he was rather unhappy about his review because he considered, on reflection, that he had not been quite fair to the book. Well, that led to a friendship much valued by me, though the word was never, never referred to between us. As for the other half of my vow, I like to think it is. part of the reason why you have done me the honor of asking me here to-night.
Not, of course, that there is anything objectionable in our arguing with one another, but the other way seems to suit me best. Sometimes, I must admit, it has been rather a close thing. Several times I have indited a reply saying 'Oh, indeed!' or something stinging like that; but my post box is at the far end of the street and there is also time for reflection when one is putting on one's muffler. So the retort is never sent, though if the post box were nearer or the muffler were not one of those that goes round twice, there is no telling. I have never even answered Mr. Shaw, though in the days when he was a critic he began an article on a play of mine with some such words as these, 'This is worse than Shakespeare.' I admit that this rankled.
I wish I could think, gentlemen, that my forbearance toward you is owing to deeply artistic reasons; but no, it is merely because I forever see the fates hanging over you and about to stretch forth a claw. However you may ram it in—I refer to the rapier—I have a fear that something disastrous is about to happen to you in the so much more important part of your life that has nothing to do with the pen—bad news, ill health, sudden loss; and so I forgive you and tear up. I am even letting you off cheaply to-night in case one of you is run over on the way home, as I have a presentiment is going to happen. How easy it would be for some incensed author to follow a critic or two to their office on a first night and give them a sudden push as a bus came along. But I dare say you are all rather nippy at the curbstones.
So you see it is no use my attempting to talk to you about the drama of tomorrow. That secret lies with the young, and I beg of you not to turn away from them impatiently because of their 'knowingness,' as Mr. Hardy calls it in his new book. The young writers know as much about nothing as we know about everything. Yet they suffer much from the abominable conditions of the stage. Through them only shall its salvation come. Give them every friendly consideration, if only because they belong to the diminishing handful which does not call a play a show. 'Have you seen our show?'—'I call that a nice little show.' Heigh-ho. Has the time come, gentlemen, for us all to pack up and depart?
No, no, the drama will bloom again, though it will not be in that garden. Mr. Milne is a very fine tulip already, and there are others for you to water. Miss Dane has proved that the ladies have arrived. For my part, anything I can suggest for the drama's betterment is so simple that I am sure it must be wrong. I feel we have all become too self-conscious about the little parts we play—they are little parts even in our own little lives. If we talked less about how things should be done there might be more time for doing them. Suppose we were to have a close season, in which we confined ourselves to trying to write our plays better, act them better, produce them better, criticize them better? But it can't be so simple as that.
I wish I could write mine better, and I presume I am revealing no secret when I tell you that the only reason I don't is because I can't. If there were any other reason I should deserve the contempt of every one of you. I remember my earliest lesson in that.
For several days after my first book was published I carried it about in my pocket, and took surreptitious peeps at it to make sure that the ink had not faded. I watched a bookshop where it was exposed on a shelf outside the window, and one day a lady—most attractive—picked up my book and read whole paragraphs, laid it down, went away, came back, read more paragraphs, felt for her purse, but finally went away without buying. I have always thought that if my book had been a little bit better she would have bought it. 'The little more and how much it is.' In that case, a shilling. But what should be written up behind the scenes is 'The little less and how much it is.'
You have all in the course of earning your livelihood applied adjectives to me, but the only criticism that makes me writhe is that observation of Mr. Shaw's which I have already quoted. I wonder if he has changed his mind? He has changed all sorts of things. Here I must begin to be gloomy. None of your adjectives gets to the mark as much as one I have found for myself—'Inoffensive Barrie.' I see how much it at once strikes you all. A bitter pill; but it looks as if on one subject I were the best critic in the room.
Your word for me would probably be 'fantastic.' I was quite prepared to hear it from your chairman, because I felt he could not be so shabby as to say 'whimsical,' and that he might forget to say 'elusive.' If you knew how dejected those terms have often made me. I am quite serious. I never believed I was any of those things until you dinned them into me. Few have tried harder to be simple and direct. I have also always thought that I was rather realistic. In this matter, gentlemen, if I may say it without any ill-feeling, as indeed I do, you have damped me a good deal, and sometimes put out the light altogether. It is a terrible business if one is to have no sense at all about his own work. Wandering in darkness.
To return to cheerier topics. I don't often go to the theatre, though I always go to Mr. Shaw's plays, not so much for ordinary reasons as to see whether I can find an explanation for that extraordinary remark of his. But I will tell you what I think is the best play written in my time. My reason for considering it the best is that it is the one I have thought most about since, not perhaps a bad test. I mean Pinero's Iris. One more confession—I will tell you what has pleased me most about any play of mine. It is that, everything included, and the dresses coming from the theatre wardrobe, the production of one of them—a little one, it is true, The Twelve Pound Look—cost just under £5.
My not going often to the theatre is not because I don't like it, but because the things I like best about it can be seen without actually going in. I like to gaze at the actors, not when dressed for their parts, but as they emerge by the stage door. I have never got past the satisfaction of this and it is heightened when the play is my own. The stage doorkeeper is still to me the most romantic figure in any theatre, and I hope he is the best paid. I have even tried to dart past him, but he never knows me, and I am promptly turned back.
I wait, though, in the crowd, which usually consists of about four or six persons, not of the elite, and when the star comes out they cheer and I hiss. I mean just the same as they do but I hiss. This sometimes leads to momentary trouble with the other loiterers, but in the end we adjourn inoffensively to a coffee stall, where I stand treat.
You may sometimes wonder why I write so much about islands, and indeed I have noticed a certain restiveness in some of you on the subject. There are more islands in my plays than any of you are aware of. I have the cunning to call them by other names. There is one thing I am really good at, and that is at slipping in an island. I dare say it is those islands that make you misunderstand me. I would feel as if I had left off clothing if I were to write without an island.
At present I am residing on an island. It is called Typee, and so you will not be surprised to hear that my companion's name is Fyaway. She is a dusky maid, composed of abstractions but not in the least elusive. She is just little bits of the golden girls who have acted for me and saved my plays. There is not one of them whom I have not watched for at the stage door and hissed ecstatically. She moves about my coral isle with the swallow-flights of Ellen Terry, and melts into the incomparable Maud Adams. She has Irene Vanbrugh's eyes to light the beacons to scare the ships away; and there are bits in her of many other dear sirens who, little aware of what I have plucked, think that they are appearing complete to-night in London.
Forbes-Robertson retired so that he could lend to us, on the island, his silver voice, and Du Maurier pulls in with Bancroft to make sure that we are not acting. There is no theatre as yet, but Charles Frohman is looking for a site. For the dead are here also, and you can hardly distinguish them from the living. The laughing Irving boys arrive in a skiff, trying to capsize each other; and on magic nights there is Sir Henry himself, pacing along the beach, a solitary figure. If Shakespeare were to touch upon our shores he would offer, to sell us Fame at a penny the yard—no bidders. Sometimes a play is written and put into a bottle and cast into the sea. I expect it never reaches you; at any rate if it is whimsical that is not it. Fyaway has a native name for me which means 'The Inoffensive One.'
Come to our island when you feel you have been sufficiently mauled by the rocks of life, and we will give you grassy huts. You can still write your criticisms. Bring your bottles. As I may not pass this way again, I may say that A. B. W.'s hut stands waiting him, a specially attractive one with palms and a running stream. We had a long discussion about Mr. Shaw, but we have decided to let him land.
I thank you heartily, gentlemen, for the high honor you have done me. Mutual respect is, I am sure, all we ask of each other. It must be obvious to you that in making such a long speech I had two main objects: to try a new title on you—'The Inoffensive Gentleman'; and to watch whether I thought you could stand one more island.