Courage

Courage the PlayBARRIE: You students may discover that your life is not unlike a play in three acts, with the second act omitted. It is your longest act, but how little record you will keep of it. All you will know is that this man or woman you have become in Act Three is not what you set out to be in the days of your youth. You will not know how or when the thief came in the night, nor that it was you who opened the door to him, but something bad may get into you in the middle act and lay very still inside you until it has you out and takes your place. It has got in already if an uphill road dismays you. Carlyle held that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains. Well, I don’t know about genius, but the courageous life, I think, is an infinite love of taking pains. You try it.

THE STORY: J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, delivers a commencement address to the students of St. Andrew’s University, Scotland. In telling about the heroes he has known throughout his life, each an example of courage in the face of adversity, Barrie opens the locked door to his own life.

THE BACKSTORY: As a child I had been transfixed by Peter Pan, but it was not until the late 1970’s that I was able to experience the other side of J.M.Barrie. It was at a wonderful production of What Every Woman Knows at Actors Theatre of Louisville, starring the unforgettable Susan Kingsley (whom I was fortunate enough to direct in a one-act of mine, A Gothic Tale, before her sad and sudden death). I left the theatre entranced by the author and hit the Louisville Public Library immediately where I found a volume of his collected works. Reading it, I felt as if I were reading the diary of a kindred soul. Because of the darkness of a number of my works, I am generally viewed as a serious dramatist with something of a macabre turn. But there is also a plain of romance in my heart, rather vast and somewhat untapped, and it is out of this region that Courage springs.

In 1922, Barrie was asked to give a commencement address to the students of St. Andrew’s University. It was such a successful speech that it launched a new career for him as a public speaker, and caused generations of successive undergraduates to curse his name when they were expected to memorize it. He called the speech “Courage,” and I have borrowed that title and the commencement setting, though the contents of my play touch on Barrie’s speech only slightly. It tells rather the story of his life, in his own remarkable words, detailing among other things his extraordinary relationship with the five Llewelyn Davies boys and their remarkable parents. Its title and theme I adopted as the name of my company, Courage Productions.

The play, a one-man evening, was first performed at the Actors Theatre of Louisville Humana Festival of 1983, with Paul Collins as Barrie. (Paul, coincidentally, was the voice of John in Walt Disney’s animated film of Pan.) He later played it quite successfully for a limited off-Broadway run. Several other actors have done it throughout the years, including yours truly. I perform it to this day.