by Kristen McDermott
Ben Jonson, a city–raised boy, was far less reverent than Shakespeare about fairies. When he included the Queen of Faerie in The Alchemist, she was merely the disguise donned by a female con artist to bilk a law clerk (with too much book–learning and too little wit) of his inheritance.Convinced by the swindlers Subtle and Face that he is actually a changeling and the Faerie Queen’s nephew, poor Dapper agrees to hand over all his metal, particularly his coins, and blindfold himself with what he is assured is the bit of the Faerie Queen’s petticoat with which he was swaddled as an infant. When another "client" interrupts, Dapper is convinced to wait by the offer of fairy delicacies:
She, now, is set
At dinner, in her bed; and she has sent you,
From her own private trencher, a dead mouse,
And a piece of gingerbread, to be merry withal.(3.563–6)
Jonson well knew the forms of traditional fairyland–encounters, and plays with them here. He might also be mocking those who receive their fairy lore imperfectly, from books, rather than from the traditional source — the mother’s or nurse’s knee. In each case, though, Jonson seems to see his fairy characters as controlling and correcting the greed and materialism of urban humans, rather than fulfilling — however indirectly — their dreams and fantasies.
Another fairy character appears in Jonson’s 1616 play, The Devil is an Ass, a satire of urban mores and manners. The minor devil Pug approaches his master, Satan, with a grandiose scheme to capture a human soul and graduate from mere nuisance to true devil. We know Pug is Puck because when he first begs Satan for the chance to win a human soul, Satan assumes that all he can accomplish is:
the laming a poor sow, or two?
Entering a cow, to make her cast her farrow?
Or crossing of a market–woman’s mare,
‘Twixt this and Tot’nam? These were wont to be
Your main achievements, Pug. You have some plot now,
Upon a tunning of ale, to stale the yeast,
Or keep the churn so, that the butter come not,
‘Spite o’ the housewife’s cord, or her hot spit?
. . .Foolish Fiend, Stay i’ your place, know your own strength
. . .You would make, I think,
An agent to be sent for Lancashire,
Proper enough; or some parts of Northumberland,
So you had good instructions, Pug. (1.1.8–34)
Satan judges that the rural fairy is not meant for serious sin, and that his place is the countryside. He is correct; Pug spends the entire play struggling to corrupt a vain, ambitious fool named Fitzdotterel who, like Faustus, believes he has conjured Pug up from Hell. However, Fitzdotterel’s folly and the vice of his friends are so great that the humans consistently get Pug into trouble.It is quite common in later literature, influenced by Puritan movements, to see fairy characters translated into devils, and Jonson may well be satirizing his old friend and rival’s magical play, but Pug shares with Shakespeare’s Puck and with Queen Mab the ability to remind humans that what we tend to dismiss as "fantasy" is actually the deepest truth about us — the secret desire no one else can see.
After Jonson, we see few fairies onstage. The rise of the Puritans banished such "demonic" figures from public view; the drama of the ensuing "enlightened" 18th century was more concerned with tales of classical heroism and contemporary social satire. The Romantic poets were fascinated with the unseen world and the ancient English traditions, but they scorned the theatre as an impure art form, preferring to write "closet dramas" that were not performed.In the later 19th century, the novelists Bram Stoker and Wilkie Collins, both connected to the theatre as well, delighted in tales of eerie monsters, ghosts, and vampires, but not in exploring the fairy as an expression of the human imagination. However, their popularization of the literature of the fantastic paved the way for the dazzling pantomimes of the Victorian period and for a new fashion in fairy–plays.
The re–awakening of interest in fairies during the Victorian age has been studied at length by a number of scholars, most recently Diane Purkiss in At the Bottom of the Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Nymphs, and other Troublesome Things. She and many scholars link the Victorian preoccupation with spiritualism and the supernatural to a variety of factors, including the beginnings of a Freudian interpretation of the subconscious, anxiety about industrialization and rapidly–changing technologies, or economic tensions;she also suggests that the eroticisation and exploitation of the image of the child is behind the fairy–fascination of the era. The explanation for why fairies became so much more popular on stage is rather simpler: electric lighting.
The great era of Victorian stage pantomime was made possible by advances in stage technology and a need to compete with the new entertainment media of photography and moving pictures. The explosion of fairy–tale extravaganzas — which frequently included elaborate productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — were the inspiration for William Schwenk Gilbert’s Iolanthe: or, the Peer and the Peri, the first "fairy tale opera." Gilbert and Sullivan were, by 1882, superstars of the Victorian English stage; lyricist Gilbert,the son of an author of magical tales for children, made it his particular project to celebrate all the most beloved English folk traditions, from pirates to poets to peris (the Persian word for fairy). His tale is a satire and only nominally magical — it concerns a fairy woman and her half–human son, who loves a mortal shepherdess and longs for a career in Parliament. Victorian audiences enjoyed such absurdity, but the operetta was successful chiefly because it was performed in the first theatre in the world to be wired for electricity.The fairies’ hair, wings, and wands actually sparkled! The magic of the spectacle made up for the worldliness of the story.
Barrie, who was certainly familiar with both the pantomime tradition and Gilbert and Sullivan, brought them together in his most beloved play, Peter Pan. The son of working–class Scottish parents, he grew up on tales of adventure, pirates and fairies among his favorites. His biographers believe the accidental death of his brother, David, when Barrie was seven traumatized him into preferring a perpetual state of childhood, preferring the perspective of children to that of adults.
Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, may have been born of Barrie’s own grief, but he is also the heir to the aspect of Faerie that most attracts humankind: the erasure of boundaries between the present moment of reality and the timeless experience of magic and myth:
All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up . . . .You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end . . . .
"Why can’t you fly now, mother?"
"Because I am grown up, dearest. When people grow up they forgetthe way."
"Why do they forget the way?"
"Because they are no longer gay and innocent and heartless. It is only thegay and innocent and heartless who can fly."