Lost, then found: Rare J.M. Barrie play published this week
NEW YORK — As mysteries go, “The Reconstruction of the Crime” is especially light, a stage farce billed as one “Sensational Scene” in which a man identified only as “The Victim” asks the audience to help find the culprit.
J.M. Barrie, the co-creator, was known for playing to the crowd.
Published last week in The Strand Magazine, a quarterly that has unearthed obscure works by John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald and many others, “The Reconstruction of the Crime” is a collaboration between Barrie and his friend and fellow man of letters E.V. Lucas, believed written during World War I and rarely seen since. The manuscript is part of the Harry Ransom Center archive at the University of Texas at Austin.
“It’s very much a subtle and sly comedy and that’s what Barrie really excelled at,” Strand managing editor Andrew Gulli told The Associated Press. “Also, there is audience participation which echoes back to ‘Peter Pan.’ Who can forget that Peter asks the audience if they believe in miracles?”
The play’s setting is a hotel room and the characters besides the Victim are “an asthmatic husband, a devoted wife and a doctor.” The “weapon” is a mustard plaster, given to a man, the Victim, who doesn’t need it. “The Reconstruction of the Crime” begins with the Victim poking his head through the curtains and asking for quiet.
“Please don’t applaud,” he says. “Of course I like it; we all like it. But not just now. This is much too serious. The fact is I want to take you into my confidence: to ask your assistance. A horrible crime has been committed. An outrage almost beyond description has been perpetrated upon an inoffensive gentleman staying in a country hotel, and the guilty person has to be found.”
The Scottish-born Barrie was a journalist and popular novelist before turning to theater in the 1890s, his greatest success coming in 1904 with the premiere in London of “Peter Pan.” He wrote or co-wrote dozens of books and plays and had a fondness for spoofs, parodying the works of Henrik Ibsen in “Ibsen’s Ghost” and Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” in “The Ladies’ Shakespeare.” Besides “The Reconstruction of the Crime,” he wrote a separate play with a similar title, “Reconstructing the Crime. A Strange Play in Seven Scenes.”
Anne Hiebert Alton, a professor of English at Central Michigan University who has worked on a scholarly edition of “Peter Pan,” said that Barrie was friendly with “Sherlock Holmes” creator Arthur Conan Doyle and that “Reconstruction of the Crime” reads like a send-up of his work.
“It has some of the same flavor of Doyle’s work and some things in common with Victorian drama,” she said. “And the play seems very polished. It doesn’t seem like something he and Lucas just threw together.”
Gulli notes that “The Reconstruction of the Crime” has a bumbling tone that might have served for an episode of “Fawlty Towers.” When the Victim believes himself in mortal danger, he phones the front desk in a tone of panic and officiousness John Cleese became known for.
“Is this the office? I’m dying. Who is it? Number 53. He’s dying. I’m dying. Number 53 is dying,” the Victim cries. “Is there a doctor anywhere near? What? One staying in this hotel? Thank God! Send him to me at once. And a lawyer. I want a lawyer. There isn’t one? What a rotten hotel. I want to make my will. I’m dying, I say. Number 53’s dying.”