JM Barrie's Mary Rose - Imagining death away

More than just a ghost story, JM Barrie's Mary Rose paints a picture of a world changed by war, and a writer deeply damaged by loss, writes Steve Cramer

"All of this room's past which can be taken away has gone. Such light as there is comes from the only window, which is at the back and is incompletely shrouded with sacking. For a moment, there is a mellow light, and if a photograph could be taken quickly we might find a disturbing smile on the room's face, perhaps like the Mona Lisa's, which came, surely, from her knowing only what the dead should know"

THE opening stage directions of JM Barrie's Mary Rose tell us at least as much about Barrie himself as this infrequently revived ghost story. Beyond the anthropomorphism of the room, there's a peculiarly morbid speculation on a piece of art whose enduring virtue is its ambiguity. The Mona Lisa is a piece, famously, which tells us more about the observer than the object. That Barrie's particular obsession was with death is hardly surprising.

Few lives could have been as frequently and bizarrely disrupted by mortality as Barrie's, from an early age. When his elder brother, David, died in a freak skating accident, Barrie took to wearing his late sibling's clothes in order to allay his mother's grief. Later he befriended Robert Falcon Scott; one of the seven last letters left in Scott's tent in the frozen Arctic was addressed to Barrie. His closest friends were perhaps George and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, both of whom died young, leaving Barrie as guardian of their five sons – upon whom, according to Barrie, he based Peter Pan. In the First World War one, George – of whom Barrie was particularly fond – was killed, while probably his closest remaining friend, Peter Pan producer Charles Frohman, reportedly declined a lifeboat on the torpedoed Lusitania with a line from Peter Pan: "To die would be an awfully big adventure."

All of which seems to indicate that Barrie's work might be a more profound project than it appears to be. Certainly this is the view of Tony Cownie, who is directing a new version of Mary Rose for the Royal Lyceum Theatre. "By the time of Mary Rose, Barrie was seen as quite a cosy writer," he says. "But his achievement is much greater than that. He was very big on the sensitivity of life. This all comes from his experience of childhood. It could only have marked him – he allowed himself to be damaged for his plays."

Barrie sat down to write Mary Rose in the summer of 1919. When it opened in London in 1920, just two years after the end of the First World War, there could barely have been an audience member who had not been touched by loss. And there would be no escaping the reality as the curtains opened, since one of the two characters that enter is a returned soldier.

Barrie's stage directions – he describes one of the soldiers, an Australian, as a man "whose chief life struggle before the war was to fell trees and see to it that they did not crash down on him" – emphasise lost innocence. The nationality of this, as it turns out, pivotal character also adds to the sense of lost youth; a relationship with nature corrupted and beliefs shattered is important to the play's tone. Australia's per capita losses (65 per cent) were far greater than any other allied nation.

On the face of it, the story Mary Rose has to tell has little to do with the war; its title character's story occurs before the start of hostilities. As a child about to enter adulthood, she disappears from a Scottish island on which her family are holidaying, only to emerge weeks later with no account of what has transpired. At a second significant juncture, as she enters motherhood, she disappears from the same ill-omened place, only to emerge, eerily, a generation later. What is emphasised about the character is her continual, childish innocence, as if, after her first disappearance, her growth is stunted. Parallels are drawn between 1904's Peter Pan and this character, yet Peter's continuation as a child is an act of choice, while Mary Rose's development is abruptly halted by inexplicable circumstance. The metaphor must have been especially relevant to a 1920 audience.

What must have seemed more relevant, though, was the clarion cry the play represented to reject all the established rationalistic beliefs that had been set down before the war, and enter into another form of belief, where the dead still lived, in parallel worlds to our own. The thought that the mighty legion of the dead might still be out there somewhere could be seen as a collective wish fulfilment for the play's post-war audience.

Even the "pre-war" dialogue of the young Mary Rose alerts us to occurrences in the everyday world that defy logic. At one point she speaks of her husband's navy career on HMS Valiant. The very mention of this ship appeals to a world beyond rationalism, for she sailed through the thick of the battle of Jutland, and while all the ships around her were badly damaged or sunk, somehow, beyond all logic, the vessel sustained not so much as a scratch of its paintwork.

Mary Rose sits comfortably alongside the great Modernist texts in rejecting the Victorian belief that scientific and technological progress would lead to a golden age. The industrial and technological miracle of the Titanic was part of a pre-war period which saw the arms manufacturer Gustav Krupp assure the world that so great was the destructive potential of his instruments of death that no power would use them. All such beliefs were rent asunder by the war. Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, like Mary Rose, centres on a pre-war holiday on a Scottish island and its sad post-war denouement, but the novel concentrates upon the internal, mental processes of the characters. A novelist, in turning to the stream of consciousness, has advantages over a dramatist, who must portray exterior action, yet that sense of some dread event, reflected upon, but unspoken, pervades Mary Rose. "There'a lot unsaid," says Cownie. "What are they not saying? What are the fears they won't speak of? These are things that run through the play."

This sense of a turning away from the material, utilitarian exterior world led to Modernist writers rejecting the industrialised notion of time. The invention of such things as Greenwich Mean Time and railway timetables, as well as the mechanisation of a workforce that worked to the rhythm of a clock rather than their own bodies – all inventions of the Victorian world – led to an oppression of the rhythms of time as we experience it as humans; texts of this era such as Shaw's Heartbreak House (1919) and Mary Rose privilege human time over mechanised time. Both plays take a couple of hours to play through on stage, but each takes place in the "human" time of a few minutes' reverie within the mind of a single character. These texts are about escaping the reifying processes of rationalism into a world of the imagination.

The enduring appeal of Mary Rose is its capacity to place the supernatural beside the natural, using each to appeal to us to escape the oppressive logic of modern times. Even death, Barrie seems to suggest, can be defeated.

&#149 Mary Rose is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, today until 15 November.

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