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16 March 2021

From the NS archive: The age of reason

10 January 1948: It seems possible that JM Barrie knew no little girls.

By Rose Macaulay

Rose Macaulay, the English writer and novelist, wrote periodically for the New Statesman. In this short column from 1948, she writes on the chaos and irrationality of children’s entertainment. From six to 16, she says, children are at their most rational, and desire a simple, sequential storyline without extraneous material. Pantomimes — the typical children’s plays — are, she says, “manufactured by adults for adults”. Recalling a recent trip to the pantomime to see Peter Pan, she is scathing about Wendy (the “intolerable child”) and generally unimpressed by the production (“the Barrie whimsey is tiresome, the mother-motive sentimental, the humour uneven”). But ultimately it is not the stories themselves that are the problem — there are many that would entertain children — it is “the sickly pantomime infection”.

***

I put the age of reason in the human mind at, roughly, six to 16. Under six, logical thinking is still inchoate; after about 16, the mind begins to grow hazy, muddled, accepting those cliches, conventions, non sequitur, and hearsay reputations which are the food of the average adult. Entertainers of the young should bear in mind this rational quality, as well as the child’s preference for a good story that moves from event to event (however fantastic) with a sequence unconfused by quite irrelevant matter. I maintain (and have so maintained since I saw my first pantomime) that the dramatic entertainments we offer to children are all wrong: they are manufactured by adults for adults.

Take a child of nine or ten to a pantomime called (say) Robinson Crusoe; if it knows the story, as presumably even in this illiterate age it will, it will expect what to most children is one of the best stories in the world — a desert island story. It will expect a shipwreck, an island, the building of a hut, savages, and finally a rescue. Children know, from many books, what desert island life is, and they have a right to get it. What does this miserable pantomime give them? God knows. I scarcely do, as I have not seen it for some years; but I remember a horrible jumble of principal boys, clowns, singing ,villagers and sailors, in which nothing seemed to have any connection with a desert island.

[See also: From the NS archive: Paved with good intentions]

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The same silly grown-up mess is made of The Babes in the Wood (which should be an exciting story); we get a comic wicked uncle, comic murderers, worse than comic love scenes between Maid Marion and Robin Hood (however they got there; and, to make it more confusing still, Robin Hood is a young woman); a comic school, with comic Dame and Simple Simon, and a happy ending. Of course the young audience laughs; it would laugh at anything; but it can feel no sustained interest or excitement in these disconnected and irrelevant episodes. The only satisfactory children’s play that I have seen is Treasure Island; that admirable adaptation is everything it ought to be — exciting, adventurous, romantic, reasonable, amusing, a good story, and the principal boy acted by a boy.

Peter Pan, which I saw the other day after a good many years, made on me much the same impression as before. The Barrie whimsey is tiresome, the mother-motive sentimental, the humour uneven. The crocodile is good; so is Captain Hook; both greatly alarmed my six-year-old companion; the dog Nana never fails to bring the house down; and the flying is admirable and enviable. Peter, of course, should not be a girl; epicene though he was, Barrie does say he was a boy; pantomime tradition has decided from the first to make him a principal boy instead, presumably to please the uncles in the audience. So Peter minces and gambols prettily about, his hair a beautifully curled crop, his mouth a wilful rosebud; indeed, Miss Phyllis Calvert looks most graceful and charming, and flies like an angel, and, among all those rough real boys, is a sweet miss. This must be regretfully accepted, since Peter was not human. No such excuse goes for Wendy. What age did Barrie mean this intolerable child to be? Young enough, apparently, to sleep in the nursery with her brothers. But this year’s Wendy can scarcely, from her mature appearance, be under 17. Young children are not bothered by this; they accept Wendy as a little girl; but they do not understand why she was such an odd little girl, with such an improbable taste for mending other people’s clothes instead of tearing her own. It seems possible that Barrie knew no little girls.

[See also: From the NS archive: The depression]

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Many years ago I took three real little girls to Peter Pan; the youngest thought Wendy was grown-up and the actual mother of all the boys; the other two merely thought her very strange, and, I think, something of a class traitor, quite unnecessarily putting into grown-up minds the notion that little girls might be thus profitably and horribly employed. Anyhow, they felt no link with this smug child. For the rest, the pirates are alarming, as pirates should be, the house in the wood delightful, as houses in woods cannot but be. But the play would have gone very much better with children if Barrie (and the producers) had made in it no passes at adults; and this goes for all pantomime.

There are very many stories which would make admirable children’s plays, if they were kept clear of the sickly pantomime infection. Any good adventure or mystery story goes well, if acted straight. The Prisoner of Zenda, The Tale of Two Cities, and Sherlock Holmes were favourite plays of my own youth; and good plays could be (or have been) made of Ivanhoe, The Talisman, Coral Island, anything by Stanley Weyman or a hundred others. The pantomime tradition is revered, in this country; our form of it is so British that foreigners, it is said, have never been able to sit through it. Perhaps they are on the whole less far removed from the age of reason than we are. In any case, pantomime should invent its own material, and not mess up with vulgar adolescent nonsense good stories which are the heritage of that clear-headed and ill-used age.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)