J M Barrie’s returning ‘lost’ play gives us an early glimpse of Peter Pan

JM Barrie in 1893. Wikimedia

James Matthew Barrie’s first play, written when he was 17, was initially branded a “grossly immoral” production. Those who liked it were “the irreligious, the frivolous, the giddy”, according to the Rev D L Scott, a church minister, writing in a local newspaper. Performed in 1877 at Dumfries Academy in south-west Scotland where Barrie was a pupil, other responses were more positive, to be fair.

According to the Dumfries press, the teenager who would go on to write the children’s classic Peter Pan, was “excellent” in one of the leading roles. The performance “passed off very creditably” in front of a “full” house. The controversy also brought benefits: the stir that it caused in the press reached as far as London, and drew patronage for Barrie’s drama club from the actor Sir Henry Irving and the Duke of Buccleuch.

For the first time since 1877, Bandelero the Bandit is being performed at the academy on June 26 by the Scottish Youth Theatre, along with excerpts from Peter Pan. There will be a introduction from Professor Ronnie Jack of Edinburgh University, who discovered the text of the play at Yale. Barrie himself had believed the play to be lost.

The performance is also thanks to the tenacity of the Dumfries-based Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust. The trust is currently raising money to redevelop the Moat Brae house and garden where Barrie used to play as a child into a National Centre for Children’s Literature and Storytelling. It was a key inspiration for Neverland, in a town where Barrie spent the “happiest days of my life” as a schoolboy.

The view from Moat Brae house. Moat Brae House Trust

Not just for little ones

Barrie is much more than a children’s writer. In his lifetime, his novels were seen as comparable to Thomas Hardy, while his plays were ground-breaking and hugely successful. This theatre work was challenging and strikingly modern, whether addressing the question of women’s place in society; engaging with the New Drama, with its social conscience and emphasis on simplicity; or discovering the possibilities of cinema. His fiction is equally innovative – much more so than the sentimental “Kailyard school” of late 19th-century Scottish writing that it was once grouped with – whether reminiscing about the Auld Licht Idylls of old Scottish village life or exploring supernatural themes with ease, such as in Farewell, Miss Julie Logan.

The significance of Bandelero, too, goes beyond that of juvenilia. Without giving too much away, it is a play about a misunderstanding. Bandelero is captured for a murder he didn’t commit, and the play tells the story of an attempt to rescue him. As Ronnie Jack has said, it is “a refreshing, youthful piece which anticipates many of the key characteristics of Barrie’s later dramatic art”.

It is witty, direct and vivid, based in the burlesque form. It shows many of the characteristics that would be seen in the writer’s later work. There is, for instance, a keen interest in stagecraft. Just as in his later work, there are very specific directions in the play’s “tableaux”. Here’s one typical example that relates to Smike, a comic sidekick character:

Hauls SMIKE through screen which is made of paper and they roll on floor, terrific fight, but ultimately SMIKE gets best of it and puts one foot on the prostrate body.

The costumes, too, are described in colourful detail. Sir Richard Vernon, for instance, has a “dark green coat, red waistcoat, black knickerbockers tied with ribbons, gray hair and moustache”. The future dramatist and novelist was interested in the technicalities of theatre, he later recalled, from his earliest days in the audience of the Theatre Royal, Dumfries (the oldest working theatre in Scotland, which Robert Burns also once attended).

Dumfries Theatre Royal, Scotland’s oldest working theatre. Summonedbyfells, CC BY

All present and correct

The “gallant outlaws” in Bandelero meanwhile perhaps offer a prototype for Captain Hook and his band. There is also evidence of Barrie’s humour and self awareness -— in his use of Scots language, for instance, through Smike, who impersonates a priest and ends the play with a “Pax Vobiscum” (peace be with you).

Walk the plank! Wikimedia

The accomplished and knowing writer of The Admirable Crichton or What Every Woman Knows is certainly present here, even if in embryonic form. Jack identifies the influence of Shakespeare, Dickens and writers of adventure stories, like RM Ballantyne. He writes that Bandelero shows Barrie as an advocate of “quintessential theatre… highlighting visual and aural effects”, offering “strong evidence that Barrie the schoolboy was naturally attracted to these effects from the outset of his career”.

Linked to the new performance, I am involved in organising a symposium on June 26 and 27 at the Dumfries campus of the University of Glasgow. Its wide-ranging topics include the birth of Scottish children’s literature in the 18th century; instructional chapbooks; young adult writers; and Scottish authors from Allan Ramsay to George Mackay Brown. In effect, it contextualises Barrie as a children’s writer with Scottish genealogy.

But I stress, children’s literature is only part of the picture. Not only does Bandelero the Bandit richly deserve its new performance. I am confident that it will offer new insights into the work of a complex writer who deserves full and fresh recognition.