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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, May 16, 2013


Just as I read THE CORSICAN BROTHERS (covered in my previous post) in order to understand the origins of the later "uncanny" films made from it, I recently re-read J.M. Barrie's 1911 PETER PAN in order to justify the comment I made in a review of the 2011 telefilm NEVERLAND:

NEVERLAND, though it was financed by the Syfy Channel as was the two-part ALICE, shows Willing warming to his material to better effect. Possibly this was because J.M. Barrie's PETER PAN has stronger adventure-currents than the source material of either Alice or Oz. To be sure, were I classifying the Barrie novel, I'd tend to consider it a "combative comedy," in that I think the comic tones of the book overpower the adventurous tones. Likewise the Disney version of PETER PAN. However, Nick Willing's version falls more completely into the category of the pure adventure-work.

I never saw PETER PAN performed as a play.  This was the medium in which Barrie premiered his most famous creation in its best known form, though a somewhat non-continuous version of Peter appeared first in Barrie's 1902 novel THE LITTLE WHITE BIRD.  I knew only the Disney film, which didn't impress me all that much.  I don't know when I read the novel except that it was not as a child: it could have been ten or twenty years ago. 

Without question in my mind, the book PETER PAN qualifies not only as a "combative comedy" but as a "combative comedy-adventure" after the fashion mentioned in this essay. However, the example I used in that essay, DC's INFERIOR FIVE, represents a very different form of "comedy" than the one evoked by James Barrie.

In my essay FUNNY BONERS I contrasted Freud's "relief theory of humor" with that of Schopenhauer's "incongruity theory."  However, to be honest I have not read anything but excerpts from Freud's JOKES AND THEIR RELATION TO THE UNCONSCIOUS.  When I recently came across a reference to Freud's having made a distinction between two types of humor-- one "tendentious" and the other "non-tendentious"-- I realized that I had not give Freud his due, having depended too much on secondary sources.  Though I still believe that Schopenhauer's theory encompasses more psychic territory than does Freud's, this Wikipedia entry establishes that Freud was aware of the type of humor that Heinlein called "the gentle smile:"

Freud made a key distinction between tendentious and non-tendentious humor. Tendentious humor involves a “victim,” someone at whose expense we laugh. Non-tendentious humor does not require a victim. This innocuous humor typically depends on wordplay, and Freud believed it has only modest power to evoke amusement. Tendentious humor, then, is the only kind that can evoke big laughs. However, Freud believed a mixture of both tendentious and non-tendentious humor is required to keep the tendentious humor from becoming too offensive or demeaning to its victim. The innocent jokework of the innocuous humor would mask the otherwise hostile joke and therefore “bribe” our senses, allowing us to laugh at what would otherwise be socially unacceptable. Therefore, we often think we are laughing at innocuous jokes, but what really makes them funny is their socially unacceptable nature hidden below the surface.

While I can't say that INFERIOR FIVE ever produced "big laughs," it was intended to do so, in that the feature was meant to "victimize" the standard straight version of the superhero with parodies of clumsy superheroes, dumb superheroes, etc. 

In contrast, Barrie's PETER PAN seems more focused on a low-key, homey type of comedy, tinged with a modest irony.  The opening chapters set the tone with their emphasis on what I've called "the small-scale world of home and neighborhood," and even the Darling children's voyage into a land of unbridled adventure never completely escapes that tone.  The same tone undercuts much of the potential nastiness of the conflict between Peter and his allies vs. Hook and his pirates.  There can be no doubt that the play and the book are combative works (though THE LITTLE WHITE BIRD does not seem to be), but the excitement is subordinate to the tone of incongruity.

Barrie's sense of irony rarely if ever translates to later film or television adaptations.  I can think of none that have communicated the frank but knowing estimation of children Barrie repeats throughout the book, one that most if not all children will instantly recognize:

and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.

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