Playing Fairy: Puck and Pan Onstage

by Kristen McDermott

Many children of the 1960s have vivid memories of applauding the black–and–white TV screen as the diminutive musical comedy actress Mary Martin, playing Peter Pan, begged the unseen audience to "clap for Tink." However, as I watched the recent film Neverland, a dramatization of the events that led to author J.M. Barrie’s composition of this play, I realized that the excitement created by clapping for the TV screen was nothing compared to what it must have been for children in a darkened London theatre in 1904,as a "real live" Peter Pan begged them from the lip of the stage to clap, and they felt that their own small hands were reviving the animated spotlight that represented Tinkerbell.

Folklorist Katherine Briggs notes, "English fairy beliefs. . . from Chaucer’s time onwards have been supposed to belong to the last generation and to be lost to the present one." For this reason, the presence of a fairy onstage automatically draws us into a sense of timelessness, a sense of being cut off from the ties of reality and the familiar. In creating Tinkerbell for Peter Pan, Barrie drew on an existing tradition of fairies onstage that stretches back to Shakespeare in English drama, with even deeper roots than that. In fact, the presence of fairies in drama can be said to go back to the very beginnings of drama as ritual.

If, as anthropologists believe, drama had its beginnings in religious invocations, there is certainly no mystery in the fact that the professional English theater in its first era so frequently dealt with the miraculous unseen world. The professional theater as we know it in the English–speaking tradition had its beginnings in the annual "mystery play" cycles performed every summer at the feast of Corpus Christi. This church celebration of the central mystery of Christianity — the incarnation of Christ — presented the entire Bible, from Genesis to Apocalypse, over three action–packed days. Each segment of the drama, produced by a different village or trade guild, depicted some marvelous Biblical event,with all the imaginative special effects the medieval mind could devise.

Detail from "Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania"
by Joseph Noël Paton

By Shakespeare’s time, the mystery plays had been banished by the Protestant church that was now the official faith of England. The English people, starved for a sense of miraculous spectacle denied them when the Catholic Church was outlawed, turned to the stage to feed their sense of wonder. Briggs suggests that the explosion of fairy–references in the plays of the turn of the 17th century reflected the giddy relief felt by the English people after the death of Elizabeth I; their fears that religious intolerance and war would follow the death of the childless queen were allayed by the peaceful accession of the Protestant James I who, at least in the first years of his reign, promised both tolerance and prosperity to his new nation.It was probably not insignificant, either, that James was a Scot, a Celt, a fervent believer in witchcraft, and a writer of poetic romances in his youth.

It is not surprising, then, that playwrights like William Shakespeare, seeking to please both the courtiers educated in romance and classical myth, as well as recently–rural London citizens, made use of a full complement of ghosts, witches, and fairies, integrating them into the adventures of the human beings depicted on stage. The most memorable of these characters are the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, particularly Puck, the mischievous hobgoblin who attends Oberon, King of Faerie, and who embodies the transitional state of folk beliefs about the world of Faerie in the early modern period — a time of increased urbanization and industrialization in Europe, and particularly England.

Traditional criticism regards the world of Faerie in Midsummer as an elaborate metaphor for poetic art and the power of the imagination, and that is certainly true. However, Shakespeare never made purely metaphoric use of folkloric material. He knew that many people in his audience were recently arrived from the countryside and, as I have discussed in Shakespeare and the English Holiday Calendar, he made a specific effort to connect his dramatic worlds to the everyday spiritual life of his audience through references to folk belief.