navigation

Monday, February 19, 2018

Peter Pan and Andrew Wyeth

I discovered this unlikely connection at Winter is Always, the recent Andrew Wyeth retrospective at Seattle Art Museum. As I've observed before, I find reflections of J. M. Barrie's famous character in  many unexpected places.




"Christina's World" is certainly Andrew Wyeth's most famous painting (although it was not at the SAM exhibit--it lives at MOMA in New York and does not travel). The history of the land around him--his home in Chadd's Ford, Pennsylvania, and a summer home in Maine--permeates all of Wyeth's work, and that leads us forthwith to his connection with fictional pirates.


Captain Keitt by Howard Pyle (1907)

I've written before in this blog about Howard Pyle, the illustrator who brought the image of the quintessential swashbuckling pirate to the modern world.




One of Pyle's students in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, was N. C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth, Andrew's father. N. C. Wyeth illustrated 112 books during his lifetime, including a 1911 edition of Treasure Island which is considered a masterpiece.


"Trodden Weed," 1951

Wyeth painted this self-portrait of sorts, Trodden Weed, with a piratical pair of boots previously owned by Howard Pyle.


Painter's Folly (1989). The house went up for sale in 2014 and
was ultimately bought by the township of Chadd's Ford in 2017.
Note the mermaids!

Andrew Wyeth considered Pyle his "spiritual grandfather," said Joyce Hill Stoner, the art conservator who worked for the Wyeths for thirty years. Pyle's house, Painter's Folly was the subject of several of Wyeth's paintings, as were Helen and George Sipala, the couple who lived in the house during his lifetime.

Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) was often in poor health as a child and was home-tutored. He had a difficult relationship with his demanding father, who died when his car stalled on railroad tracks when Andrew was 28. He considered his father's death to be a formative emotional event--much as J. M. Barrie was affected by his brother's death. After this, Wyeth turned from watercolors to egg tempera (i think Captain Hook would approve of this old-fashioned technique), which gives his work a stark and timeless quality.




Perhaps it is odd that I was so alert to connections to Peter Pan, but note the hook appendage in this portrait of Wyeth's neighbor Bill Hoper, a blacksmith and handyman. The docent who discussed the exhibit at SAM said that Wyeth's father wouldn't have approved of so much reality in a portrait--not an issue for Andrew.

Although he was one of the foremost American artists of the twentieth century, his style of work became unfashionable during his lifetime, considered too sentimental by those who preferred their art abstract. I admit I was drawn to seeing this exhibit because a friend of mine described it as bleak, and I hoped I would find some comfort in that given my own mindset after the death of my father last September. What I found in Andrew Wyeth's paintings was imagery that is almost surreal, realism that expands into symbol and emotion, a depth beneath what has been dismissed as cartoonish or antiquated. This is what I hope in some small way to bring to my portrayal of Captain James Hook: something close to the heart, or maybe the bone.

“Life is strange,” Wyeth once told [Edgar Allen Beem]. “From the outside, things may look one way, but when you look inside, they’re very different.”

*  *  *

Note for further reading: I came across A Piece of the World, a fictionalized memoir of Christina Olson of "Christina's World," not long after seeing the Winter is Always exhibit. Naturally, it is now on my reading list.





Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Captain of his soul

I would hate to say that I've been so wrapped in the minutiae of Peter Pan that I've missed some obvious facts connected with it, but I did not comprehend until today that William Ernest Henley--inspiration for the character of Long John Silver and also father of the young girl who gave J. M. Barrie's Wendy Darling her first name--wrote the poem Invictus. If today weren't Henley's birthday, and if Garrison Keillor hadn't mentioned him on today's edition of The Writer's Almanac, I don't know when I might have realized this.


November 26, 1892, illustration
of Henley in Vanity Fair by artist
Leslie Ward.


Born on August 23, 1849, Henley contracted tuberculosis of the bone and had his left leg amputated below the knee when he was 20. The experience led to his poem Invictus, written in 1875 and published in 1888.

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.



While it's this that Henley is most remembered for, he also lives on as the inspiration for the pirate Long John Silver in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island--and  thus all the interpretations of the character that have followed since.


2002 Disney animated feature. I may once have
attended a sci-fi convention dressed as
Captain Amelia.


"I will now make a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver ... the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you," wrote Stevenson in a letter to Henley after Treasure Island was published--a line that rather reminds one of a certain Captain James Hook.

But lest you think Henley was dour and embittered by his injury and the struggles of being recognized as a poet (he found arguably greater success during his life as a journalist, critic, and editor), he was described by Stevenson's stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, as "... a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one's feet."




William Ernest Henley died in 1903 at the age of 53, leaving behind not only several volumes of poetry and critiques but also three plays written with Robert Louis Stevenson.

And returning to Peter Pan, as always we must here at Hook's Waltz, J. M. Barrie was a friend of Stevenson and found his own inspiration in  the character of Long John Silver. And it was Henley's five-year-old daughter Margaret who may have been the inventor of the name Wendy. Sadly, Margaret died of meningitis in 1894, at the age of 6, eight years before the play Peter Pan was first performed.




Friday, July 28, 2017

Peter Pan and the historical novel

The Stowaway began as a fantasy story, but it very quickly became a historical novel about Edwardian England (and other places). When I discovered the Historical Novel Society, I realized I had found a group of people who also understood the pleasures and perils of research. And when the organizers announced their 2017 conference would be held in Portland, Oregon--only a few hours' trip away from me--I knew this was something I shouldn't miss.



And sure enough, I found panels and sessions on topics immediately relevant to my work, from one on historical fiction set in and around World War I (a conflict that will inform the potential sequel to The Stowaway) to panels on Gilded Age fiction (including fairy tales set in that time period) to Victorian funeral customs  (as there is a funeral in The Stowaway).


Art in Harper's New Monthly Magazine,1880, by George du Maurier,
grandfather of the Llewelyn Davies boys who inspired
J. M. Barrie to write Peter Pan.


I also learned about new places to find primary source materials, some expensive and difficult to access for non-academics, but others free and online, such as ProfNet (set up for journalists, but helpful for other writers as well), The American Association for State and Local History, and Google Scholar --and don't forget Google Maps. The Metropolitan Museum's website Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History is particularly wonderful, both as a historical reference and for illustrations of building interiors.

Always of interest to historical fiction writers is the question of balancing history with fiction. Specific facts add realism to a novel and bring the reader deeper into that world, but too much of that can distract from the story the writer is trying to tell. Inaccuracies can throw a reader out of the story. And as was also discussed at the Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association conference I attended in Seattle last year, a historical novel is also a novel about today. Research turns up new information every day, and our interpretations of the past vary accordingly--and it's unavoidable that we bring our own contemporary values and outlook to what we write. We inevitably comment on the time we're writing in as well as the time a novel takes place, and that, along with putting the past into context with the present, makes historical fiction relevant to modern readers.


Peter Pan in Barrie's hometown of
Kirriemuir, Scotland.

The 2018 HNS conference will take place next August in J. M. Barrie's home country of Scotland. This is a little more difficult to arrange than a four-hour drive from home--but no doubt it would be worth the effort.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Manga in Neverland (Volume 3)

I am delighted to announce that Elaine Tipping has posted the Kickstarter campaign for Volume 3 of her Peter Pan manga (with a lovely animation). This volume, chapters 7-10 of the webcomic, contains full versions of Neverland adventures J. M. Barrie only mentioned briefly in his book. If you like reading about the shenanigans of the lost boys, you will especially enjoy this.




Elaine and I agree that too many people have never read the original Peter Pan, and thus she's illustrating it rather than other, altered versions that have appeared since the book's publication in 1911. Barrie's book contains both whimsy and darkness that other versions such as Walt Disney's 1953 animated feature skip over, and Elaine Tipping's manga embraces them as well.




The rewards for each campaign level include digital and print versions of Volume One and Volume Two, chibi keychains, tote bags, art cards, and character notebooks. I'm especially hoping for the completion of the second stretch goal: A new eight-page Wendy adventure. And, of course, supporting the continued manga adventures of Peter Pan means seeing more of Captain Jas. Hook in future editions.




Elaine began her Peter Pan webcomic in 2011, and updates it every Sunday. In addition to supporting and reading the collected, updated comics in book form, you can follow the story as it's completed on Smackjeeves, Deviant Art, tumblr, and Tapastic.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Pirates of the Moving Van


Ensnared with tape, in cardboard stacked
Doth rest my books in sad estate.
I glance at them, by headache wracked,
Oppressed by every box and crate.




The blog cries out to be renewed,
To speak again of Hook and Smee!
Thus pressured, I become unglued,
And so resort to poetry.



Wednesday, March 29, 2017

An A to Z of Captain Hook

A quick alphabetical journey through the world of The Stowaway:


Adventure, because that's what we're here for, after all.

Brig, the square-rigged ship the captain sails.


Alice B. Woodward, 1907

Coats. in red, blue, or gray, depending on the occasion.

Derision, at which the captain excels.

Eating, an adventure in itself in foreign realms.

Flute, which Captain Hook played in his youth.

The General, the ship's polydactyl cat.

Harpsichord, another instrument from the captain's past.

Islands, in the Caribbean and in the Never Sea

Jolly Roger, of course.

Kiss, or is it a thimble?

Lure, the province of...

Mermaids. Some appreciate them more than others.


Howard Pyle, 1910


Night watch. It's best if you can trust your crew.

Oranges, to prevent scurvy.

Peter Pan, although perhaps we shouldn't mention him. Maybe we should say Poetry instead.

Queen Victoria, whose Navy was a misadventure for some.

Romance. Wouldn't you be disappointed if there were none?

Stars, to guide your way home.

Tinker Bell. We shouldn't mention her either. Let's change this to Thimble.


American Dorcas steel-cored
thimble with forget-me-nots
(the color of his eyes)


Undertow. Don't get caught.

Vivian Drew, because this is her story too.

Water, fresh from recent ports or kept palatable with a bit of rum.

Xerxes, in one of the captain's many volumes of history.

Yearning, for adventure, love, or home.

Zoology. There are many strange creatures to be foun.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Finding Peter Pan on Broadway (and beyond)

In my line of work, nearly any stage or movie production related to Peter Pan counts as research, including the stage version of Finding Neverland--although I had to wait a while for the national tour of the Broadway show to come through my town



It's a lovely work of fantasy--unfortunately, not only in its forays into the imagination of J. M. Barrie, but in its contorted biographical details. However, it's hard not to love a show that includes in its cast a real dog (Sammy, in the performance I saw).


Sammy (right) as Porthos,with understudy Bailey and animal
trainer Bill Berloni (KSP Images)


Those digressions from fact were particularly jarring in the first act. Luckily, the first act also contains most of the sets and ensemble numbers I enjoyed most. Theater critics disagree on the value of using projections rather than full sets, but I found them transporting and an agreeable contrast with the reality of the stage. Most of the magic for me in Finding Neverland was in those fantasy sequences, particularly "Believe" with its red balloons and a mermaid, and Sylvia Llewellyn-Davies' beautiful final scene.


Photo by Carol Rosegg

I didn't think Finding Neverland had quite as much heart as Peter and the Starcatcher, which surprised me. The fact that its songs are written by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy of boy band Take That is probably part of that. But the ensemble numbers were great fun, as were all the scenes featuring the full company, and the entire cast--many of whom have Peter Pan-related experience--was uniformly excellent.

Tony Award-nominated Tom Hewitt played Captain Hook in the Cathy Rigby Peter Pan (as well as the not dissimilar roles of Frank N'Furter in The Rocky Horror Show, the title role in Dracula: The Musical, and Scar in The Lion King). Kevin Kern understudied Glee's Matthew Morrison on Broadway, and brought a similar style to the role. Christine Dwyer, who also played Wicked's Elphaba on Broadway, is only the second actress to portray Sylvia Llewelyn Davies in the musical. Perhaps most impressive of all, the young actors who play the Llewelyn Davies boys are able to trade parts.




Of particular interest to this blog, of course, is the character of Captain Hook. Here he is more than a villain--he is the goad to Barrie's success, with a musical number and backup performers of his own.


Clearly the shirt designers were expecting me.


Most audience members won't be catapulted out of the story the way I was by its digressions from fact. I won't poke too many holes in the narrative here--the details are easy to look up--but I will say that J. M. Barrie was never anything but commercially successful as a playwright, and New York producer George Frohman didn't come into the picture until "Peter Pan" was already a London hit. (Frohman is a colorful character in the musical, though, and a useful foil.) I also felt for J. M. Barrie's wife Mary, given that Jim was at least as much at fault for the breakup of their actual marriage as she was. Most galling, though, is the deletion of the youngest Llewelyn-Davies boy, Nicholas (which I attempt to redress in The Stowaway, in my own small way).




Of course, the musical is based on the 2004 "semibiographical" film starring Johnny Depp, which was no more accurate, and as such can't make too many changes and still resemble its source material. Finding Neverland began life as a 1998 play, The Man Who Was Peter Pan, by Allan  Knee, who adapted it for the 2004 film starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. The musical version was proposed by La Jolla Playhouse in 2011, but had its world premiere in Leicester in 2012. Its official world premiere took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2014, and the Broadway production began in 2015.Changes--some substantial--were made to the production all along its trajectory--perhaps appropriate, as J. M. Barrie made innumerable tweaks to his own production of Peter Pan.

A fun note: Sandy Duncan, who played Peter Pan on Broadway in 1979, played the role of Mrs. DuMaurier in the Broadway production of Finding Neverland for a month.