Het is vandaag precies negentig jaar dat “Winnie-the-Pooh”, het befaamde kinderboek van Alan Alexander Milne, is verschenen. Hijzelf zou een hekel gehad hebben aan deze formulering. Hij is immers ook de auteur van talrijke theaterstukken, een paar romans en zelfs enkele filosofische geschriften. Maar niets van dat alles heeft de tand des tijds doorstaan, behalve dus dat ongelooflijk populaire kinderboek.
Het was ook hieraan te wijten dat ik mijn licentiaatsverhandeling aan de heer Milne heb gewijd. Samen met een klasgenoot uit het college, die enkele jaren geleden is overleden (Michiel D.) en die psychologie studeerde, wilde ik het effect van dit boek op jonge kinderen bestuderen. Daarbij zou Michiel zich om de psychologische kant van de zaak bekommeren en ik mij met de literaire kwaliteiten bezig houden. Gelukkig werd dit voorstel afgekeurd, want meer dan dertig jaar na de feiten vraag ik me af hoe ik dàt in godsnaam zou klaargespeeld hebben.
Maar ik “mocht” dus wel een verhandeling schrijven over die toneelstukken van Milne die ooit zeer populair waren, maar waar sedertdien niemand meer (heel terecht) heeft naar omgekeken. De Engelse passages in onderstaande tekst zijn dan ook afkomstig uit mijn thesis, maar ik heb er soms wel wat aan geprutst omdat ik mijn Engels van toen te slecht vond, maar dat wil dan weer niet zeggen dat mijn huidige kennis van het Engels zoveel beter is…

At the age of fifty-seven, Alan Alexander Milne, already wealthy and famous for writing “Winnie-the-Pooh”, judged it was about time to enter the immortal gallery of writers, who considered themselves important enough for the writing of a story of their own life (perhaps the imminent World War had stimulated this idea). As a title he gave to his biography the phrase “It’s too late now”, motivating it in his Introduction as follows: “It means that heredity and environment make the child and the child makes the man, and the man makes the writer; so that it is too late now – it was probably too late forty years ago – for me to be a different writer. I say this neither regretfully nor complacently, I state it as a fact.” (p.X)
But we must keep in mind that Milne was very familiar with the works of Lewis Carroll and it may be that by this explanation he wanted to avoid deliberately the grim implication of a similar passage in “Through the Looking Glass”: “Seven years and six months!” Humpty Dumpty repeated thoughtfully. “An uncomfortable sort of age. Now if you’d asked my advice, I’d have said ‘Leave off at seven’ – but it’s too late now.” (p.266)
This is of course one of the famous death-jokes, so often appearing in Carroll’s work. For a full understanding, I will also quote the following lines: “I mean,” she said, “that one can’t help growing older.” “One can’t, perhaps,” said Humpty Dumpty; “but two can.” (1)
Alan Alexander Milne was born on January 18, 1882, in London NW 6. Most biographical accounts begin by mentioning that he was a Scot. This is even more amazing than in the case of Rod Stewart, because already Milne’s grandfather, a Presbyterian minister (1815-1874), moved from Aberdeen to England. Perhaps in consequence the difference between both is that Rod Stewart is proud of his Scottish origines, while Milne was infuriated when he was called a Scot. Probably because most of the time it was mentioned in connection with his so-called thrift. This was certainly unjustified, as Milne supported a lot of good causes financially. But it was certainly true that he insisted on being payed correctly, as far as his writing was concerned.
This minister (married to a missionary, who was with him in Jamaica) had quite a few children, but much less money, so that John Vine Milne (the eldest) had to go to work at an early age to earn an income to feed all his little brothers and sisters. He did all kinds of jobs, but in the evening he studied to get his B.A. He succeeded about the same time as his father died and started a private school in London (something his father had done also, when he had retired from the ministry).
In London he married a girl called Sarah Maria, who kept a School for Young Ladies. Henley House School was soon prospering. Milne’s father wanted to prove his “progressive” inclinations by accepting in his school a teacher of working-class origins. This was SF-author H.G.Wells who undoubtedly was an inspiration to the young A.A. to have a go at a professional writing career.
The Milne family had three children, three boys. Barry, the eldest (1879-1942), had a reputation of being a “bad boy”, so that Alan mentions him scarcely in his autobiography (it goes back to an unrepaid loan, but A.A.’s main objection was that Barry, being a sollicitor, was able to force their father’s hand in changing his will at his deathbed). The second one, Kenneth John (1880-1929), however, was inseparable from Alan (the autobiography is dedicated to him).
In this educational atmosphere, it is obvious that Alan was brought early into contact with literature. Being three years old, he already read “Reynard the Fox” and “The Pilgrim’s Progress”. When he was eight he “published” his first essay, the description of a walk, in “The Henley House School Magazine”. And together with his brothers he dramatized threepenny novels, as the sisters Brontë had done before them (Barry joined this, because he was allowed to play the part of the lover).
In 1893 Alan and Ken passed the Challenge at Westminster, as the examination for election into College is called. In that way Alan became the youngest Queen’s scholar in history. In his autobiography he writes about the “thrashing”, which seems to be inextricably bound up with college life: “It was not the actual pain but the perpetual fear of it which seems to me now to have been such an unnecessary hardship.” (p.99-100).
Milne continues arguing that this marked a change of character in him: he became more idle and “nonconformist”. Of course, always in his own restricted way. This “nonconformism” consisted e.g. in facing North during the sermon, while everybody was facing East!
Still, as the grandson of a vicar, it must have been quite rebellious to become an atheist and to criticize the established church. This anti-religious attitude is also reflected in his later works: it is the central theme of “The Ivory Door” and it is also reflected in the character of the “Very Reverend” James Hillary in another play, “Other People’s Lives”. In still another play, “To Have the Honour”, the character of Dr.Ainslie clearly echoing Milne’s own opinions when he says: “No country with an established church has any claim to be considered civilised. But the fools won’t see it.
In één van de zeldzame kritieken die Milne in ons taalgebied te beurt vielen, wordt hij hiervoor trouwens afgestraft: “’t Heele romannetje (Two People, in het Nederlands vertaald door Edward de Nève als Kamperfoelie, RDS) is gekunsteld, mist levenswaarheid. ’n Dosis niet onaardige geestigheid, welke echter de langdradige passages niet kan doen vergeten. Verder wat flauwe vlinderige agnosticismen over God en het hiernamaals, en ’n idiote vrees van de twee echtelingen dat hun liefde (lees: verliefdheid) zou kunnen tanen door de geboorte van ’n kindje! Er is wel ander werk te doen voor dezen flinken vertaler dan het overplanten van dergelijke papieren ‘Kamperfoelies’ in onze Nederlandsche belletristische floralieën (sic).” (Hardy, p.29)
In fact, it was this change of character which stimulated his literary activities. He joined the “Literary Society” (where they read a censored Shakespeare) and went secretly (as it was prohibited) to the theatre.
Meanwhile the family had moved to Westgate-on-Sea (the description is strikingly the same as that of Little Malling, the place where Reginald Wellard, the main character of Milne’s novel “Two people”, lives; his farm is even called Westaways) and it was there in the Christmas holidays of 1899 that Milne discovered “the itch for writing”. What happened?
During that time two boys and two girls of Anglo-Indian descent stayed with the Milne family. One of the girls tried to write a verse-letter to Ken, but did not succeed. Alan helped her out, but Ken saw it through. So they decided to write light verse together (as A.K.M.). When Alan was in Cambridge for mathematics (Ken became a sollicitor like Barry), he published some of them in the Granta, “A College joke to cure the dumps”, as this magazine advertised itself.
It was in fact the Granta that helped Milne in making a decision between Oxford and Cambridge: “Then one day a copy of the Granta came to Westminster.The Granta used to call itself the Cambridge Punch, until it got the idea of calling Punch the London Granta. It had been founded by R.C.Lehmann, and all the Cambridge humorists, Barry Pain, E.F.Benson, F.Anstey, Owen Seaman, had written for it. My friend the Captain and I stood looking at this copy of the Granta, and suddenly he said, ‘You outh to go to Cambridge and edit that.’ So I said quite firmly, ‘I will.’ (…) So it was to be Cambridge. I didn’t tell Father why.” (It’s too late now, p.123).
Gradually Ken stopped his contributions, so that the initials A.K.M. Changed to A.A.M., which became a trade-mark for later Punch readers.
As he had promised “his friend the Captain” he became the editor of the Granta in 1902. This meant that he had to write each week the editorial and the “Motley Notes”. One that became rather famous was: “When young, try a bike, when old, buy a trike“. Being an ardent cyclist himself, he befriended another “cycling fool”, Saxon Sydney-Turner, who brought him into contact with no less than Leonard Woolf and the flamboyant Lytton Strachey, although Milne never really liked Strachey because of his “lavatory jokes” (Thwaite, p.79).
But as biographer Ann Thwaite very aptly states: “It is interesting to speculate how different a writer Milne might have been if he had become more involved with these friends who would one day form the very core of what has become known as ‘Bloomsbury’.” (p.78) However, it was not to be: Milne preferred to be “ghost-like and shadowy”, as Leonard Woolf has written about him (p.77).
Years onwards Leonard Woolf would take the defence of critic Raymond Mortimer, who – after a negative review of a Milne play in “Nation” (a leftist newspaper for which Milne himself used to write some articles in the past) – was on the brink of being sacked by editor Hubert Henderson. Woolf, being the “literary editor”, risked his own neck in this case.
But this brings us also to the following passage in Milne’s autobiography: “One of the privileges of editorship was the possession of a free pass to the theatre.” The manager of the New Theatre, however, was ready to give this to him, only if he treated his productions “with more tenderness than they ad been in the past, (…) but, as I explained with dignity in the next number, for The Granta to take its revenge in this way ‘though apparently more expensive would in fact be rather cheap’. So Theatrical Notes were abandoned.” (p.140).
Milne also wrote a series of dialogues (“Jeremy, I and the Jelly-Fish”, The Granta, January 18, till March 8, 1902), which attracted the attention of Rudie Lehmann. Rudie introduced him to several magazines (including Punch), so that after he had taken his B.A., Milne decided to become a free-lance author. This was, however, financially not very rewarding and consequently he live on the very edge of poverty.
Meanwhile he had settle down in a cheap London apartment and he had his first book published, “Lovers in London” (London, Alston Rivers, 1905), a collection of articles he had written for the St.James’ about an imaginary girlfriend of his, Amelia. This book is usually not mentioned in a bibliography of his works and this is not very surprising, considering what he himself wrote about it in his autobiography: “I also got one or two reviews. The Sheffield Daily Independent said (…) ‘The only readable part of this book is the title’ (…) A few years later E.V.Lucas read it, and suggested that I should buy back the publisher’s rights, add some more chapters, and re-publish it at six shillings. So I borrowed Mother’s copy, read it, and hastily bought back all rights in it for £5. I didn’t want to re-publish it in any form, but I was terrified lest the publishers might.” (p.181)
In 1906 his luck changed: F.C.Burnand retired from the Punch-editorship, Owen Seaman became editor and asked A.A.Milne to be assistant editor. Alhoewel hij geen makkelijk man bleek om mee te werken, zou Milne hem daar toch eeuwig dankbaar voor blijven. Dat hij dan ook model zou hebben gestaan voor Eeyore, de altijd klagende ezel uit “Winnie-the-Pooh” is verre van zeker (p.125). Seaman was ook de peter van Dorothy de Sélincourt, de latere mevrouw Milne (eens getrouwd zou ze zich Daphne laten noemen).
Seaman was extreem-conservatief, hij gruwde van “liberals” om van “socialists” nog te zwijgen! Milne was “liberal” (“Naturally I was challenged to explain what I meant by ‘a Liberal’. The only definition I could give was ‘One who hates Fascism and Communism equally’” Thwaite p.410, vandaar dat hij na W.O.II zelf naar de conservatieven zou overstappen omdat de liberals in zijn ogen te sympathiek stonden tegenover het communisme), maar hij was vooral een stil type, dus dat ging wel.
Later zouden zijn bijdragen voor Punch in verscheidene boeken worden gebundeld. Adcock once has written that Milne (in contrast with Swift, who needed a whole broomstick) could write an essay on one of the bristles of a broomstick (p.244). And unfortunately he often does. He had to, as the subject-matter of the English humorous essay-writer of that time was “limited by certain taboos”, as Nicolas Bentley remarked: “One of the funniest things about the English is their sense of humour. It is not an emancipated or wholly adult sense, and its reactions are limited by certain taboos. No religion, no sex; avoid, if possible, irony or paradox. It is essentially a ‘jolly’ kind of humour, for being ‘jolly’ is a frame of mind peculiar to ourselves.” (p.20)
Milne, as an essayist, is often compared to his friend E.V.Lucas, but “Mr Lucas is a humorist. Mr Milne seems to us a wit. In reading a humorist you are always conscious of the depths – about which the humorist himself may be exceedingly shy. A wit has no depths. It is his business, qua wit, to have none. He is to play for us on the surface; and the only thing that matters (not that even that, he would tell us, matters) is whether he can play prettily. Mr Milne can play very prettily.” (XXX, p.693)
But how can one play prettily, if he has got nothing to play with? Or had he? According to Adcock “there are plenty of signs of the potential dramatist in the pre-war essays – in their easy and natural use of dialogue, and their deft, vivid handling of incidents: and there is a bite of realism in their genial satire and burlesque irony, which foreshadows the keener, riper irony and satire of ‘Bladys’ (sic).” (p.246)
Milne is, however, too much of a “wit” to be a good satirist. In his best moments he can produce definitions, such as the following one, apt to make Oscar Wilde blush: “A snob has been defined carelessly as a man who loves a lord; and, more carefully, as a mean lover of mean things – which would be a little unkind to the peerage if the first definition were true.” (The Red House Mystery, p.11)
But at his worst (like in “Ariadne”, for instance) he could invite criticisms such as this one by James Agate: “If only Mr Milne and Mr Coward would exchange worlds for a while! Or if both would take a ride together on a bus going Bermondsey way and have a look at the working man, or Brixton way and see what the great bulk of middle-class people look and talk like! Life is not, as these two seem to think, either all night-club or all potting-shed. Incidentally each has got the visible surface of the world postulated all worng. The wives of golfing stockbrokers do not wear hundred-guinea dinner-gowns from the rue St.Honoré. Provincial solicitors do not have drawing-rooms of the dreamy and creamy exquisiteness of the one in Ariadne’s house at Melchester.” (p.6)
Seaman begroette in “Punch” de Eerste Wereldoorlog “with smiling lips”… maar hij was wel zelf te oud om te gaan vechten. De antimilitarist Milne verbeet zijn tegenwerpingen (“I was a pacifist before 1914, but this – I thought with other fools – was a war to end war”, It’s too late now, p.211). Integendeel, hij nam als vrijwilliger dienst, want “life in wartime is hell anyway and only in uniform can one escape thinking about it.” (Thwaite, p.165).
Als soldaat begon Milne in zijn opleidingsperiode als verbindingsofficier tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog komedies te schrijven om de aandacht van de mensen af te leiden van de bittere realiteit. Zijn eerste stuk, “Wurzel-Flummery”, had als thema of iemand tegen heel veel geld met dergelijke onnozele familienaam zou willen rondlopen. It is a mildly political satire combined with a fierce attack on cheap popular drama. If Milne would have proceded in this way, his work might have reached a Wildean quality. Politicians are attacked for their love of money, which overcomes their interest in the people they are representing. Crawshaw, for instance, maintains that “the view of riches which socialists and such-like people profess to take is entirely ill-considered. A rich man, who spends his money thoughtfully, is serving his country as nobly as anybody.
Speaking about his Uncle Anthony, Clifton says: “I remember him saying once – it was at the Zoo – what a pity it was he hadn’t enough to devide among the whole Cabinet.” And we can very well imagine them both standing looking at the apes swinging on the boughs of a tree, or, more cruelly, looking at vultures devoring a piece of meat.
Milne makes fun of the theatre – through the mouth of Clifton – by describing characters and reading letters aloud, by using an unnatural intonation and vocabulary and so on. The autobiographical element in Clifton is not obscured, but comes clearly to the foreground in a discussion as this one:
Crawshaw: “You are not a qualified sollicitor at all… it is just the tomfool joke of a man, who, by his own admission, wastes most of his time writing unsuccessful farces. And I propose…”
Clifton: “Pardon my interrupting. But you said farces. Not farces, comedies – of a whimsical nature.”
Daarna wordt Milne naar de hel van de Somme gestuurd, waar hij vier maanden verbindingsofficier probeert te zijn tot hij met de “loopgravenziekte” (hoge koorts) gerepatrieerd wordt. Daarna besluit men hem in Engeland (meer bepaald in Dover) te houden om andere verbindingsofficieren op te leiden. Milne beseft dat hij “the lucky one” is (zijn tweede stuk), al betekent het in het stuk eigenlijk wel precies het omgekeerde en gaat het over een liefdesaffaire en niet over de oorlog. Toch zal het pas in de jaren twintig worden opgevoerd omdat het blijkbaar niet “luchtig” genoeg was…
Nog tijdens de oorlog werd het halve loon dat hij van Punch bleef ontvangen bovenop zijn soldij afgeschaft, “omdat hij voldoende inkomsten had van zijn toneelstukken” (dat was toen nog niet waar, maar het zat Seaman wel dwars dat hij in zijn vrije tijd blijkbaar liever toneel schreef dan bijdragen voor Punch). En na de oorlog bleek hij niet meer welkom als “assistant editor”. Zijn vervanger, Algernon Locker, deed zijn werk immers uitstekend. Milne trok zich dan ook terug uit de befaamde wekelijkse “dinnertable” van Punch, zij het in een vriendelijke brief waarin hij erop wees dat hij altijd dankbaar zou zijn voor de kansen die Punch hem had gegeven. Uit een later stuk “The return” (Fortnightly Review, february 1922) blijkt echter dat het toch veel harder is aangekomen dan hij wil doen uitschijnen. Vooral zijn vrouw was diep ontgoocheld en dacht dat ze nu tot de bedelstaf zouden herleid zijn. Milne “moest” dus wel succesvol zijn als toneelauteur. En hij zóu het ook zijn… althans toch tot een stuk dat hij (helaas) de titel “Success” had meegegeven. De woordspelingen lagen uiteraard voor de hand.
At the time this play was written, England was faced with political problems, involving frequent changes of the cabinet. These changes often implied personal dislikes among the leading statesmen. Most of the people interested in politics must have been aware of this and that has been probably the main source of inspiration for Milne.
Andrew Bonar Law (1858-1923) became prime minister in October 1922 (viewed in this light it is maybe interesting to note that in “Success” Freda calls the P.M. “Bobo”). During Law’s premiership, Lord Curzon (1859-1925) was foreign secretary and Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947) was chancellor of the exchequer (during his term of office, Baldwin settled the debts of the United States, which Law regarded as most unsatisfactory, so that he almost resigned). “In May 1923 ill-health forced Bonar Law to resign. Curzon expected to succeed him as prime minister but to his bitter disappointment he was passed over in favour of Stanley Baldwin – ostensibly on the ground that a peer could not be a prime minister; the truth was that Curzon’s pomposity and apparent arrogance were considered handicaps in a democratic age. (…) His career, in Sir Harold Nicolson’s words, was one of ‘successes rather than success’.” (Robert Norman William Blake in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1967, VI, p.924)
In the play we perceive the intrigues of the Mannock family against C.J.Mowbray, Richard’s rival for the chancellorship. The acquiring of this portfolio seems to be accompanied by a peerage. On the other hand the opening scene shows the ideological conflict between father and son by letting them discuss the Redistribution Bill, conceived by the government to diminish the electoral chances of Labour.
On stage the “socialist” Arthur, who on the spur of the moment sacrifices his political opinions in order to lay hands on a considerable part of his father’s money, may seem a truly Milnesque character, but in the stage-directions we get an altogether different, more objective characterization: “At the moment he is rebellious, hating the manner as much as a Vicar’s son hates the Litany. But it is doubtful if he has the moral backbone to fight against it for long. Success will have him for her own; let him make the most of his freedom meanwhile by denouncing the dishonesty of politics and the servitude of a career.”
A comparison with Barrie’s “Dear Brutus” has often been made, but conclusions emphasizing parallelisms are too rash. The dream “is not a vision of the ‘might have been’, but a fantastic medley of past and present” (S.C.R., p.160). With a quibble on magic-realism, we might say that “Brutus” is the magic and “Success” the realism.
The only correspondence I see between the two plays is the pessimistic trend: the second chance cannot alter the present situation, in fact there is no “second chance”, a sort of determinism, reminiscent of the naturalistic influences some critics (like Allardyce Nicoll or Ludwig Lewisohn) seem to have found in Milne’s works. Indeed, in the introduction of his autobiography, Milne writes that, when he reads a similar work by a fellow writer, he wants to know “what accident, what environment, what determination placed them (i.e. those writers) where they are?” (p.IX), a very Taine-like statement.
The characters of “Brutus” make no better use of their “second chance” as they made of the previous one (only Mr Dearth, the drunkard, has found salvation by having a daughter, but this is only to be accounted for Barrie’s love for children); Sally is left for the second time. Moreover, most critics doubt Mannock’s sincerity, when he is facing Sally for the second time: S.C.R. Speaks about the “absurdity” of a second love affair, while C.B. plainly attributes Mannock’s “heroic sacrifice” only to his imagination and is never uncertain about the ultimate issue (p.864).
Although not everyone was equally pleased with the play (Martin Armstrong calls it “delightful entertainment” but “quite superficial”), I would like to end with a quotation by S.C.R., with whom I fully agree: “Mr Milne has often been criticized for creating a big situation and then refusing to face it squarely. In ‘The Truth about Blayds’ there was some justice in this criticism. But it cannot rightly be applied to ‘Success’. Mr Milne shows us two sets of values and the tragic failure of the man who, having chosen the one, thinks suddenly to substitute the other. If it be objected that this is the familiar story of God and Mammon, it is sufficient to reply that that ancient dilemma has seldom been presented in a more delicately ironic form than in ‘Success’.”
Alhoewel Milne in de jaren twintig erg succesvol was over heel Engeland, dan was hij nóg populairder in New York. Men sprak op een bepaald moment zelfs van “Milnenomania”, alhoewel Milne slechts één maal – in 1931 – een bezoek zou brengen aan de States, terwijl zijn vrouw op haar eentje, omdat ze “zeer bevriend” was geworden met de Amerikaanse schrijver Elmer Rice, nog verscheidene malen zou terugkeren, iets wat ik helemaal niet begrijp, aangezien zijn stukken zo “Brits” zijn. En deze opmerking geldt dus uiteraard nog méér voor de vertalingen. Zo was Milne in Duitsland b.v. behoorlijk populair.
Volledigheids- én eerlijkheidshalve moet ik er wel aan toevoegen dat Milne zelf in de “Rice-periode” ook een verhouding had met een jonge actrice, Leonora Corbett, voorheen de minnares van de dichter Louis MacNeice (2). De verhouding eindigde in 1941 toen Leonora naar New York vertrok om daar in “Blithe Spirit” van Noël Coward te spelen en nooit meer terugkeerde. Omgekeerd brak Rice rond die tijd met Daphne en zo kwam het paar, zonder veel gedoe, weer tesamen.
Dat er trouwens daarvóór reeds huwelijksmoeilijkheden waren, kunnen we afleiden uit zijn meest autobiografische stuk, “Michael and Mary” (1929). We could sketch it as follows:
Michael = Reginald (“Two People”) = Michael (“The Return”) = Alan.
And with less conviction:
Mary = Sylvia = Audrey = Daphne.
For the first line, there is also a “professional” correspondence: the writer (or literary agent) – soldier – writer circle. In the second line “beauty” is the linking element. The latter is not just an ordinary physical attractiveness, but for Milne it represents also an “Idea”: “A happy marriage is best founded on a spiritual appreciation of physical qualities” (Two People, p.80). It is maybe therefore that the otherwise so prudish Milne mentions here that Reginald has a certain complex: he sees his (beautiful) wife always naked, even when she is wearing a winter-coat. “Things aren’t moral and immoral, thought Reginald, they’re beautiful and ugly. Ugliness is the only thing which ought to be censored.” (p.222)
As a matter of consequence Reginald refuses to sign a petition to bring water, electric light and gas to the village, because the cottages are ugly and He, the Worshipper of Beauty, does not interfere with ugliness.
Besides I wish to mention that he is forty, while she is only twenty-five. Reginald has inherited a farm (and a fortune) and is supposed to be a bee-keeper, but alle work is in fact done by Challinor and Edwards, whle he gets all the stinging. She, on her side, takes care of the household. In fact, it is Mrs Hosken who does all the cooking and the cleaning, but giving orders is also a difficult task, I guess. For the rest she is stupid and beautiful. And she knows it, for the novel ends with this dialogue:
“Stay beautiful, my sweet Sylvia.”
“I’ll try, my darling, I expect it’s what I’m for.”
Milne has not fled from this possible identification between Michael and himself. On the contrary, in his introduction, we read: “Many of them (i.e.writers) are sentimental – really an extraordinary thing for a man to be. (…) They are ridiculously imaginative. (…) Whatever they imagine, that they are – for the moment. Michael, then, was this odd sort sort of person. No doubt he was a bit of a fool. I know that a writer can be a bit of a fool, because it has often been said or implied in print that I am a complete idiot.”
Here, as in nearly all his plays, Milne is basically dealing with sex (most acutely in Belinda, The Camberley Triangle, The Dover Road, Ariade, Miss Marlow at Play and Sarah Simple). We are reminded herewith of what George Melly says about the subject: “Admittedly during the 20s and 30s the middle classes had pushed their way into the permissive club. Adultery for example was allowable in the theatre as a pretext for comedy rather than melodrama. Huxley’s early novels were extraordinary open in their anatomization of sexual behaviour. Yet it seemed to be necessary to use the comic or satirical approach in order to get away with it. Lawrence, Joyce, and Miller were unacceptable because they were explicit.” (p.37-38)
However, “Michael and Mary” is not a comedy and what is more, there are discussions about sex on stage. Probably this was still due to the sensation caused by the publication of D.H.Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” the year before. In act one, scene two, for instance, Mrs Tullivant (the landlady who lets two separate rooms to the still unmarried Michael and Mary, although they have no money to spare) is telling Reverend Simon Rowe “how nice” his son is getting along with Miss Mary. When the Reverend (who did not know anything about a Miss Mary) frowns at this statement, she declares indignantly that there will never be any sexual intercourse under her roof, at least when they do not wear a ring on their finger.
Ann Thwaite probeert te bewijzen dat Milne uiteindelijk toch als “pacifist radical” bij Seaman in ongenade is gevallen, maar dat kan ze moeilijk hard maken, aangezien Milne zijn extreme afkeer van de oorlog vooral in privé-brieven (b.v. naar zijn broer Ken) ventileert, terwijl met uitzondering van “The boy comes home”, er in zijn toneel bijvoorbeeld nooit een allusie wordt op gemaakt (3).
Het is pas nà zijn ontslag bij Punch (4), meer bepaald in de herfst van 1922, toen Lloyd George de oorlog wilde verklaren aan Turkije (“a debt owed to the British war dead at Gallipoli”), dat Milne openlijk (en dan nog wel in de linkse Daily News) zich tegen een dergelijke oorlog uitsprak (en tegelijk natrapte naar Punch, die Lloyd George steunde). Het leverde hem wel lof op van E.M.Forster, die twee jaar later “A passage to India” zou schrijven.

Zelf schreef Milne halfweg de jaren twintig “Winnie-the-Pooh” over de knuffelbeer van zijn zoon Christopher Robin en de andere troeteldieren van zoonlief. Oorspronkelijk heette Winnie eigenlijk Edward, maar Christopher Robin veranderde van gedacht nadat hij in de Londense zoo een echte beer uit het Canadese Winnipeg had gezien, die van zijn bewakers dan ook de naam Winnie had meegekregen. (Eigenlijk was het ooit de kleine mascotte geweest voor de Canadese soldaten in de Eerste Wereldoorlog, aangekocht door luitenant Colebourn, maar kleine beren worden groot natuurlijk, zoals ook de fans van Knud nu al weten.) Pooh van zijn kant verwijst naar een zwaan die de kleine Christopher elke dag eten gaf in het park. “Pooh was de juiste benaming voor een zwaan,” laat A.A.Milne Billy Moon (zoals hij Christopher Robin echt noemde, terwijl hijzelf door Billy en andere intimi “Blue” werd genoemd omwille van zijn opvallend blauwe ogen en zijn voorliefde om in het blauw gekleed te gaan) zeggen. “Als je ze riep, en ze kwam niet (wat zwanen doorgaans plegen te doen), dan kon je nog altijd doen alsof je gewoon: pooh! had geroepen.” En inderdaad, bij het zien van de Winnie-beer in de zoo zou Christopher “Oh Pooh!” uitgeroepen hebben wegens de stank en daardoor een link gelegd tussen de twee.
Het boek werd een onmiddellijk commercieel succes, dat ook door de kritiek als dusdanig werd onthaald (met als memorabele uitzondering Dorothy Parker, die er een hekel aan had; de parodie “Popeye the Pooh” van William Faulkner gaat eigenlijk meer over de grilligheid van bestsellerslijsten dan over Pooh zelf).
Twee jaar later voegde hij daar nog “The house at Pooh Corner” aan toe en nog later verschenen de verhaaltjes en de liedjes (“Hums” eigenlijk, dus niet om te zingen maar om te neuriën) apart, wat na zijn dood in 1956 nog herhaaldelijk onder zeer gediversifieerde vormen zal gebeuren, want de “merchandising” was al in de jaren dertig begonnen. In 1929 had Milne de Amerikaanse rechten immers voor slechts 842 euro verkocht aan ene Stephen Slesinger. Deze verkocht ze in 1961 door aan de Walt Disney Company, met dien verstande dat hij 4 procent op de omzet zou krijgen en de erven van A.A.Milne 2,5 procent.
De eerste tekenfilm (in 1966) volgde nog trouw het boek, al waren er zelfs toen al kritische opmerkingen. Zo o.m. over het feit dat Winnie nu plotseling een kort rood truitje kreeg aangemeten. Sommigen zagen hierin een ingreep van zedenmeesters tegen de originele “naakte” beer (5), maar het moet toch duidelijk zijn dat juist nu opvalt – en dan precies omwille van dat truitje – dat hij eigenlijk in zijn blote kont rondrent!
In 1977 kwam dan een eerste echte “Amerikaan” op de proppen, namelijk Gopher de bever. En toen was het hek van de dam, kunnen we wel met een terechte woordspeling stellen.
Ondertussen is ook Slesinger reeds overleden, maar zijn nabestaanden ontvangen – enkel gebaseerd op die dubieuze transactie dus – nog steeds een kleine 34 miljoen euro per jaar. En dan denken ze nog dat ze door Disney in de zak worden gezet, zodat ze eind 2005 een proces hebben ingespannen voor een achterstallig bedrag van 805 miljoen euro. Ook de advocaten die de belangen van de kleindochter van Milne vertegenwoordigen, zijn naar de rechter gestapt om zowel de erven Slesinger als de Walt Disney C° te dagvaarden.
Ondanks al die copyright-problemen bracht in 1991 het Nederlandse kindertheater Artemis toch ook een eigen versie op de planken, geregisseerd door Reinhilde Decleir en met niemand minder dan Hans Teeuwen als Konijn!
Milne zelf heeft dat gelukkig niet meer moeten meemaken, want het brak hem op het einde van zijn leven reeds zuur op dat zijn naam meer verbonden werd met de Pooh-boeken dan met de tientallen toneelstukken die hij had gepleegd. Deze boulevardstukken (“suburban domestic comedies“) zijn heel terecht vergeten, maar zijn inderdaad helaas veel typischer voor de figuur van Milne dan de ontwapenende Pooh-boekjes.
I prefer the characterization “suburban domestic drama” to Virginia Woolf’s term “middlebrow literature”, because this would also include other genres, and the “comedy of social commentary” (Pellizzi, Bridges-Adams), because each of the components would urge a separate definition. Besides, the suburban atmosphere is present even in Milne’s most pastoral work, “Winnie-the-Pooh”. Frederick Crews formulates it in Latin in the following way: “Sed Musa hujus fabulae A.A.Milnei nec rustica nec urbana, sed suburbana.” (p.108)
Before I can attempt to define “suburban domestic drama”, it is necessary to delimit the meaning of the word “suburb”. In G.S.Fraser’s “The Modern Writer and His World” I have found a description that suited my purpose better than any item from a dictionary: “The suburb is neither the country nor the town. The Industrial Revolution pushed more and more people into the towns in Great Britain but the desire to get away from the ‘shop’, the crowdedness and inconvenience of London flats if one is bringing up children, the expense of a house with a garden in London, the wish of busy office workers to get into touch with nature, if only at week-ends, all these pushed the new middle classes out to the edges of London again; and the same kind of process was taking place in all the larger industrial and commercial towns.” (p.152)
Suburbanites lack “urban sophistication” but also “the deep, slow, natural rhythms of genuine country life”; they “would not claime to be ‘upper’ middle class, but would be properly offended if you suggested they were ‘lower’ (…) They are neither poor nor rich” (Fraser, p.152-153)
In fact they are “Nowhere Men”, as John Lennon – of suburban parentage himself – would say – although the other three Beatles were certainly “lower middle class” (6) and A.A.Milne was undoubtedly “upper middle class”. Een en ander vertaalde zich ook in het huishouden van A.A.Milne dat “uiteraard” bestond uit een nanny (van wie Christopher Robin veel meer hield dan van zijn ouders, hij zàg haar ook veel meer), een chauffeur (want A.A.Milne zelf was “a lousy driver”), voor hun buitenverblijf een tuinier, plus dat die zijn vrouw ervoor moest zorgen dat op vrijdagavond, als de familie uit Londen kwam afgezakt, er een lekker maal op tafel stond. Dus mogen we ook wel aannemen, aangezien Mrs.Milne geen klap uitvoerde, dat er in Londen ook wel een “housekeeper” was, wellicht zelfs ontdubbeld in een kokkin en een kuisvrouw!
However, the fact that the typical suburbanite is middle class is not unimportant, for as we all know theatre-going in England is a specifically middle-class habit.
G.S.Fraser gives a “generic description” of popular drama, which is possible, for “in retrospect, one play of the sort does not sort itself sharply out in one’s mind from another.” (p.154)
I will use this description and prove its validity as far as Milne is concerned by mentioning at least one example from his plays for each general characteristic.
– “The setting is in the living room of a suburban villa, with French windows opening out on to the garden”: French windows are explicitly mentioned in “The Lucky One”, “Mr.Pim Passes By”, “The Romantic Age”, “To Have the Honour” and “Sarah Simple”.
– “And through these French windows young people in white flannels wander in and out with tennis rackets under their arms”: Norah Field and Ronny Derwent (“The Great Broxopp”) and Thomas Todd and Letty Herbert (“The Lucky One”) are the most striking examples, but actually it is golf that they are talking about. A full description of a game of tennis is, however, to be found in “Two People”, while I can refer the amateurs of golf to “The Red House Mystery”.
– “The play perhaps begins with a comic servant dusting the furniture”: Dominic (“The Dover Road”) does so.
– “And describing to a curious visitor the various endearing characteristics of the family”: not the servant, but Dinah tells Mr.Pim, who is just “passing by”, everything he ought to know about the family. In “The Truth About Blayds” we see his grandchildren, Oliver and Septima, trying to describe “the great poet” in a less romantical way to Royce, who is invited to Blayds’ birthday as a representative of the younger poets. In fact, Milne seems to have had an inclination to include “a stranger” in his plays: there is a nameless stranger in “The Stepmother” and “Portrait of a Gentleman in Slippers”, and besides the mysterious Carraway Pim, there is the similar Denis Clifton in “Wurzel-Flummery” and Latimer in “The Dover Road”. It is remarkable that these parts were always played by the man who was at the same time the producer of the play: Gerald du Maurier played the stranger in “The Stepmother”, Dion Boucicault played Clifton and Pim (7).
– “The young people are probably minor characters”: besides the ones mentioned above, examples can be provided by any play that does not have a restricted cast. It is, however, typical that they are not merely minor, but also negative characters. In this respect, Arthur and Freda Mannock (“Success”) and Amyas and Alftruda Bendish (“Sarah Simple”) have to mentioned as specific examples.
– “The heroine is as likely as not a sweet, fluttering, managing mother (in her forties, but still very attractive) in whom every suburban matron in the audience can see herself”: and Daphne Milne in particular, I would like to add. Irene Vanbrugh seems to have been very popular in these roles. She played the title-part in “Belinda”, Olivia in “Mr.PIm Passes By” and – less corresponding to this type – Isobel in “The Truth About Blayds”. Other similar heroines are Sally Carchester (“Success”), Sarah Simple and Clarissa Marlow (“Miss Marlow at Play”), but they have no children. This is not surprising, as in these plays the generation conflict is not necessary for the action (with the possible exception of “Success”, where Sally’s lover, Richard Selby Mannock, has three children).
– “The young people’s complications are put in to show her powers of management”: Olivia is helping Dinah and Brian in “Mr.Pim Passes By”.
– “But the main plot is perhaps the wistful revival and the gracious laying to rest of some romance in her own past life – perhaps the return of some old admirer, bronzed and still handsome, from the Far East. Nothing will come of his return except that it arouses her husband, who is such a nice man, but who perhaps has been taking her too much for granted, to a new attentiveness”: A.A.Milne changes the situation, but the affirmation of marriage remains the stock-theme. In his plays it is usually the runaway husband who shows up again, repents and falls in love with his lawful wife, e.g. In “Belinda”, “the Camberley Triangle” and “To Have the Honour” (in “Success” Mannock returns to his wife not because he actually loves her, but because “success has closed in on him”) and conversely (the wife having run away) in “Sarah Simple”. In “Michael and Mary” the lawful husband has no honest intentions, but his death enables the two main characters to continue to live happily ever after. In “Mr.Pim Passes By” a (false) rumour of the return of such a dishonest husband is enough to strengthen the relationship between George Marden and Olivia. Ariadne returns to her husband after a harmless love-affair (that was prevented by accident) with a business-relation of his (“Ariadne, or Business First”), while A.L.Royce, too, comes back to marry Isobel after all. The main theme of this play (“The Truth About Blayds”) is hypocrisy and Milne (as in so many other plays, e.g. Wurzel-Flummery, Belinda, To Have the Honour, Ariadne and Success) seems to approve of it. (Later he will use the reverse situation of Blayds for a paragraph in “Two People”: one Nixon wrote his first play in collaboration with a certain Stenning, who died immediately afterwards and although he did not write much of it, everyone thinks that Nixon is a fraud, as he cannot write a second good play.)
– “Or perhaps the admirer can be shunted off on a daughter”: Claude Devenish marries Delia (“Belinda”).
– “The dialogue of the play does not aim at wit or incisiveness, but at an effect of pleasant natural chatter”: this is not exactly true in Milne’s case. This might well be the only reason why he excels his colleagues as there are Dodie Smith, Esther McCracken, John Van Druten, Merton Hodge, Daphne du Maurier, St.John Ervine, John Hastings Turner and Emlyn Williams.
Fraser mentions Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer” as “the original ancestor of all suburban domestic drama” (p.155), but adds immediatley that this play surpasses beyond all doubt all its later imitators.
It is very important to stress the sexual prudery of these plays. E.g. in “The Dover Road”, to see if the youngsters really love each other, Latimer lets them have breakfast together, but the bed seems to him quite an comfortable place for such a test. A similar sexual prudery undermines “Belinda”, as she is supposed to be a sexy woman, but in fact for twenty years she has had a score of suitors (who kept on calling her very formally Mrs.Tremayne) and has never accepted one as a husband (which I have to admit she could not do legally) or as a lover. The same unreal absence of physically sexual urgencies spoils also the climax in “The Camberley Triangle”. Kate has chosen her husband and Norwood has left with his tail between his legs. She can no longer resist the temptation and flings her arms around Dennis’s neck. He, however, does not agree: as he had promised her, he will try to conquer her again. And he starts by asking her to dinner. Very funny, if we know that Dennis has been a soldier, who has not seen his wife for four years. It makes one think that Norwood was right about his flirting with Indian girls anyway!
I could draw a parallel with the corresponding music, the so-called “popular music”: “The general tone of this style and the songs that belonged to it denied the physical nature of sexual relationships, and expressed trite emotions about simple events with almost no reference to any shared experiences.” (Gillett, p.10)
The same can be said about violence: if a play involves violence, this is certainly not shown on the stage (Milne’s “Michael and Mary”, where “the mean husband”, Harry Price, gets a heart-attack and dies, while struggling with Michael is a marginal exception).
If one has left his partner, it is assumed that they have a mistress or a lover. In frequent cases Milne formulates it explicitly (as in the case of Leonard, Mannock, Sarah and Ariadne) or it is implied in the fact that most departures are ensued by a flight to the States (Sarah Simple and Harry Price), to Australia (John Tremayne) or to the continent (Michael Brown and Leonard’s attempt).
If one is left by his partner, he or she is supposed to have had no sexual intercourse with any of his or her suitors, as this is very clear in the case of the suitors appearing on stage.
The presence of children in the household is important. It gives us an interesting picture of the disrupted families: neither the Winters, nor the Browns, nor the Prices, nor the Carchesters, nor the Bendishes, nor Leonard and Eustasia have children. Richard Mannock has three of them and consequently he returns relatively soon to his wife (although this is not in the least his main motive, of course). Only John Tremayne is an exception, but he did not know that Belinda was pregnant when he left her.
In fact everything in suburban domestic drama has to contribute to that “reassuring sense of safety”, for which people came to the theatre. Literally G.S.Fraser formulates it this way: “In the 1920s and 1930s, people of this class, when they ran up to London or the nearest large town to see a play, looked for a kind of drama which would reflect the comfort and the safe boundaries of their own lives. (…) The plot is sometimes a little thin, perhaps; but the very cushioning of the action by the conventions of middle-class decorum allows one to sit back in one’s stall with a reassuring sense of safety.” (p.154).
J.S.R.Goodlad focuses his book even exclusively on this aspect (“In the following chapters, it will be argued that popular drama is concerned with the survival of the social system”, p.7, and “if popular drama continues the function of ritual as a method of social control, it is likely to be conservative in outlook”, p.173).
G.S.Fraser connects it with the specific nature of a suburban community: “Because of its isolation in tis suburban fastnesses, and that insulation, of which I have spoken, from disturbing currents of feeling and thought, this section of the middle classes (and one might describe it as the dead centre of middle-class life in Great Britain) represents one of the most stable factors in our national life.” (p.153)
Several people had attempted to establish the factors that affected the interest of the audience to such a degree that they went to see similar plays regularly. McQuail has discovered six needs, Hudson seven and Goodlad eight, that are satisfied by popular plays. It is of course self-evident that they correspond a great deal and therefore I will extract from them a list of these “needs” in descending order of importance:
1)a need for amusement, “entertainment”, after hard labour;
2)a need to satisfy curiosity, to follow an intrinsically interesting story;
3)a wish to see a portrayal of everyday life (the spectators are not excaping from their social obligations, but want an understanding of society, which is necessary for their participation in it and their tolerance of it);
4)a need to had a moral or “meaning” presented: virtue takes the upper hand;
5)a need for excitement, spectacle;
6)a need to take part in mass reactions, therefore popular plays tend to denounce every form of individualism: conformity with the masses is prevailing;
7)a need to release repressed emotions (by laughing at the problems of stage-characters, one is laughing at one’s own problems; stress can be relieved by being submitted to strong emotions such as fear, horror and suspense);
8)a need to hear well constructed speeches.
We can illustrate this by means of Milne’s most popular play, “Mr.Pim Passes By”, which – for the more experienced spectator or reader – does not contain anything that appeals to him, so that at first sight he estimates it quite incomprehensible that this play could have such a success. By analysing it, however, it becomes clear that this play fulfils nearly all these needs. It is an entertaining, amusing story with a very thin plot, but curiosity is aroused by the revelation of Mr.Pim and the audience wonders how this created conflict will be solved. It gives a pleasant picture of everyday life with its (small) matrimonial problems, which can be laughed at at ease, as the play is topped off with a proper happy ending: the “villain” remains dead (Pim’s assertion of his being alive was a mistake); Brian maries Dinah; George and Olivia love each other more than ever; George makes a few concessions (Olivia may re-decorate the room in a more lively way; Brian is allowed to remain a socialist and a futuristic painter). Provided that the play is well staged, spectacle will also be supplied, and, above all, the dialogue is as buoyant as ever (“It does not matter what is said provided it is said beautifully,” Walter Pater). Or, as W.A.Darlington puts it: “When he (i.e.Milne) wrote a play I was always sure of enjoying the texture of his dialogue, even if the subject did not happen to appeal to me.” (p.238)
Herbert Gorman has, however, another point of view on this matter: “While these plays are extremely diverting to read, one will sometimes doubt their adaptability to the stage.” (p.22)
Nog pompeuzer echter zijn de stukken waarmee Milne hóger wil mikken. Zoals “De ivoren deur”.
Als typisch romantisch stuk staan de personages symbool voor een aantal eigenschappen:
Eric en Perival staan voor waarheid, experimenteel onderzoek, intelligentie en moed;
Brand en Helios voor schijn, twijfel, heldere momenten en compromis;
de kapitein en de kanselier voor leugen, dogma, dwaasheid en lafheid.
– het is een duidelijk voorbeeld van zwart-wit psychologie;
– het is uiteraard een tendensstuk (men moet naar de Waarheid streven);
– er gelden ook geen strenge regels;
– er zijn emotionele scènes (het weerzien van Eric en Perival, nadat ook Eric door de deur is gegaan);
– poëtisch taalgebruik (doet onecht aan; moeilijk om vlot te spelen);
– en natuurlijk Ware Helden (Perival, Eric).
Als we de personages ontleden dan komen we tot de volgende vaststellingen:
Perival en Eric: helden, mannen uit één stuk, wensen de Waarheid te kennen;
de kapitein en Bruno: ruwe, domme, “typische” soldaten, die de Waarheid niet onder ogen wensen te zien;
de kanselier is sluwer, leugenachtig, hij tracht profijt te halen uit de situatie (symbolisch: hij gaat op de troon zitten);
Helios is een zwakkeling, die de Waarheid ontwijkt;
Brand doet zich opzettelijk schijnheilig voor om Perival en Eric te redden, toch streeft hij niet naar de Waarheid;
Carlo incarneert de bijrollen van de domme soldaat en de koppige volksmens die de Waarheid niet kan aanvaarden.
Dergelijk theater kan men ook als “symbolistisch” beschouwen, net zoals b.v. “De poort van Ishtar” (1937) van Frederik Schmidt-Degener (zou de groep die ons land vertegenwoordigde op het Eurovisie-songfestival van 2008 hiernaar verwijzen?).
Ondanks zijn frustratie omwille van het succes van “Winnie the Pooh” vroeg Milne aan zijn illustrator, E.H.Shepard (die zelf pas in 1976 is gestorven), om op zijn graf twee tekeningetjes uit de Pooh-boeken te plaatsen: Piglet die een dandelion (pisseblom) wegblaast en Pooh en Christopher Robin die de ondergaande zon tegemoet gaan. (Het is echter niet gebeurd.)
Milne had de pretentie om reeds op 57-jarige leeftijd een autobiografie te schrijven die hem voor altijd in het pantheon van de Grote Auteurs zou moeten verheffen. Helaas voor hem en gelukkig voor ons is hem dat dus niet gelukt, hij zal steeds in ’s werelds herinnering blijven voortleven als de geestelijke vader van de meest bescheiden beer uit de kinderliteratuur (“I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother me“), niet alleen bij rockartiesten (waarvan kwatongen misschien zouden durven veronderstellen dat zij aan geen “serieuzere” lectuur toekomen) maar ook bij Erkende Genieën als Christopher Isherwood of Ingmar Bergman. En Haruki Murakami vindt van zichzelf dat hij een “onschuldige Winnie de Poeh-blik” kan opzetten (uit “Puntmopjes” in de bundel “Blinde wilg, slapende vrouw”, p.224).

In Zweden was er zelfs een dichter, Nils Ferlin (1898-1961), die zichzelf identificeerde met Eeyore, terwijl de fictieve dichter Warren Penfield in “Loon Lake” van E.L.Doctorow op een bepaald moment (p.159 in de Nederlandse vertaling) met “Pooh bear” wordt aangesproken. Gerard Reve had dan weer een voorkeur voor “Teigetje” en in “De Avonden” heeft hij een erotische verhouding met een speelgoedkonijn. Over konijnen gesproken, ook Richard Adams geeft in interviews grif toe dat de dierenportretten in “Winnie-the-pooh” hem hebben geïnspireerd bij het schrijven van “Watership Down”.
En Michel Wuyts mag de wielrenner Alexander Vinokourov dan nog gemeenzaam “Vino” noemen, in zijn eigen land (Kazakstan) wordt hij “Vini” genoemd, met een expliciete verwijzing naar de sympathieke beer. Net als Winston Churchill tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog trouwens.
Is bovendien de “beer” die John Irving iedere lezer tot steun wenst in “The Hotel New Hampshire” eigenlijk ook niet gebaseerd op Winnie? Met haar bijnaam “Pooh” verwijst Bainbridge Percy, de wraakengel van Garp in het gelijknamige boek, uiteraard wel degelijk naar de “Bear of Very Little Brain” maar dan niet onmiddellijk op een sympathieke manier, om het met een understatement te zeggen (al is de bijnaam tegelijk ook een “vergoelijking” van haar onbezonnen daad).
En natuurlijk is er ook nog Brian Jones van The Rolling Stones die in de jaren zestig uit pure bewondering het buitenverblijf van wijlen A.A.Milne in Hartfield, Sussex kocht (Cotchford Farm). De keerzijde van de medaille is wel dat hij dus in het zwembad van Milne is verdronken…
Hoe populair “Pooh bear” wel werd, bewijst het feit dat zelfs kroonprins Charles van Engeland zijn hond Pooh heeft genoemd. Op filmgebied is er “Sirens” (1994), waarin de hoofdpersonages, vertolkt door Hugh Grant en Tara Fitzgerald elkaar resp. Pooh en Piglet noemen. Er was in Engeland trouwens ook een reggaegroepje dat zichzelf The Piglets noemde (voor “Johnny Reggae”, een compositie van Jonathan King, later net als Michael Jackson, Gary Glitter en Jeffrey Jones aangeklaagd voor pedofilie overigens). En Carly Simon schreef de muziek voor “Piglet’s Big Movie”, een Amerikaanse animatiefilm uit 2003 van Francis Glebas. Twee jaar later, in 2005, toen political correctness op zijn hoogtepunt (of moet ik zeggen: dieptepunt?) was, dienden in Britse bibliotheken alle afbeeldingen van Piglet te worden verwijderd, omdat ze beledigend zouden zijn voor de moslimgemeenschap…
In Vlaanderen is de grootste bekende Pooh-fan Raymond van het Groenewoud. Op zijn elpee “Ik doe niet mee” staat dan ook het nummer “Janneman Robinson” zoals Christopher Robin in de Nederlandse versie wordt genoemd. Een knappe vertaling overigens, want een aantal filologen zijn van oordeel dat Milne ook pedagogische bedoelingen had. Dat hij als aanhanger van de Nieuwe-Schoolbeweging voor een empirische instelling pleitte. Hij wilde m.a.w. het initiatief meer aan de kinderen zelf laten, ze alles zelf laten ontdekken a.h.w., vandaar de goede keuze van de naam Robinson.
Summing up, what can Milne offer us? A satire with a too far-fetched inital premise (“Wurzel-Flummery”); a profanation of “Romeo and Juliet” (“The Romantic Age”); a sparkling play about prudish prostituting (“Belinda”) and a funny play about prostituting prudery (“Miss Marlow at Play”); a play inviting questions (“The Boy Comes Home”); some miscarried plays for children; some plays about the eternal triangle; a poor contribution to the Shakespeare-versus-Bacon controversy (“The Truth About Blayds”); one of his best plays, dealing with reality and appearance (“The Lucky One”); and a possible tragedy spoilt by a ridiculous and chatterous first act (“Other People’s Lives”); but above all, a timeless classic (“Winnie-the-Pooh”) with a delicate handling of human feelings, an atmosphere of absurdity, a frequent use of puns, all this for the benefit of the adults, enjoying it at least as much as the children. Or let me say rather that children derive a different kind of pleasure from it.
“What would you do, if your house was blown down?”
Before Piglet could think, Pooh answered for him.
“He’d come and live with me,” said Pooh, “wouldn’t you, Piglet?”
Piglet squeezed his paw.
“Thank you, Pooh,” he said, “I should love to.”
(The House at Pooh Corner, p.158)


(1) Lewis Carroll (ed.Martin Gardner), “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” & “Through the Looking Glass”, London, Anthony Bland, 1960.
(2) In “Four Days’ Wonder”, geschreven in 1933, schrijft Milne volgende “wonderlijke” passage: “Julie Treherne was an extremely beautiful and intelligent actress, who had been wedded to het Art and Mr.Allison for ten years, and had no intention of being unfaithful to either. In fact, she loved them both devotedly. But Mr.Allison and she equally recognized that an actress is not as other women, and that, within certain specified limits, it was necessary for her to be all things to all men, particularly if they were, or might be, connected with the theatre.” (p.130-131)
(3) Het is overduidelijk dat Ann Thwaites bekroonde biografie in het teken staat van een rehabilitatie van Milne, maar het moet eveneens duidelijk zijn dat ze op bepaalde tijdstippen wel zonder moeite kan toegeven dat ze daarin niet is geslaagd. Anderzijds is het eveneens overduidelijk dat ikzelf aan mijn licentiaatsverhandeling een kater heb overgehouden, waardoor ik de neiging heb Milne te kleineren, terwijl hij af en toe toch scherp uit de hoek kon komen. In onze tijd is het b.v. nauwelijks nog voor te stellen wat het betekende op een opmerking van prinses Marie Louise (de kleindochter van Queen Victoria) over de “luiheid” van de “lagere klassen” te riposteren met: “Ja, de meeste van mijn vrienden zouden ook liever 50.000 £ verdienen met de loterij i.p.v. ervoor te moeten werken…”
(4) Milne zou wel zijn leven lang bijdragen blijven leveren voor Punch. Eén keer (in 1934) deed hij het onder een pseudoniem en prompt werd het manuscript hem terugbezorgd. Toen hij dan zijn identiteit bekendmaakte, werd het alsnog gepubliceerd. Een verhaal dat mij (in omgekeerde zin) helaas maar al te bekend in de oren klinkt…
(5) De beer waarop Shepard zich voor de oorspronkelijke tekeningen baseerde, was overigens niet die van Christopher Robin, maar wel die van Shepards eigen zoontje Graham, Growler genaamd. Shepard was opgegroeid in de buurt van A.A.Milne, maar ze waren nooit vrienden geworden. Ook in het latere leven niet (vooral niet omdat Shepard wél een supporter was van “de Groote Oorlog”). Bij Punch zou Shepard Milne opvolgen aan de fameuze “tafel”, maar hij had uiteraard al tekeningen ingestuurd toen Milne zelf nog assistant editor was. En Milne vond er niks an. Toen E.V.Lucas Shepard dus suggereerde als illustrator van Milnes eerste kindergedichten, was Milne zeker niet enthousiast. Maar het zou blijken dat Shepard het beste bij Milnes werk paste. Zeggen dat Milne zou zijn afgegaan, mocht Shepard zijn werk niét geïllustreerd hebben, is echter overdreven, wat bewezen wordt door de kinderboeken van andere auteurs die Shepard heeft geïllustreerd en die het bij lange na niet zo ver hebben gebracht. Dankzij Milne zou Shepard een van de eerste illustratoren worden die via royalties werd betaald (i.p.v. met een vast bedrag), maar anderzijds zullen alle contracten (ook die i.v.m. merchandising) via Milne worden afgesloten, waarbij Milne zelf een onderliggend contract had met Shepard in een verhouding van 80 tegenover 20!
(6) “Whereas the Liverpool club audience was mainly composed of young people of working class origin, already working in factories and offices, the London scene was more middle-class in make-up, comprised largely of art school and university students. By 1965 this distinction was no longer valid, but it was marked in 1963” (British Beat, p.21)
(7) Die Gerald du Maurier, vader van de schrijfster Daphne du Maurier, was ook de eerste kapitein Hook, wat niet helemaal te verwonderen was, want hij was tevens de broer van Sylvia Llewelyn (1866-1910), de moeder van de vijf kinderen die Barrie inspireerden bij het schrijven van het stuk. De eerste Peter Pan was trouwens Nina Boucicault (1867-1950), de zus van genoemde Dion, die in de archieven Dion Boucicault jr. (1859-1929) wordt genoemd, want ze zijn beiden kinderen van Dion Boucicault sr. (1822-1890), eveneens een acteur. Het feit dat Peter Pan traditioneel door een meisje wordt gespeeld, heeft natuurlijk te maken met een praktisch gegeven: als het een jongen was, moesten de andere spelers immers nóg jonger zijn. Toch is dit geen “vondst” van Barrie, maar van zijn Amerikaanse manager Charles Frohman (die later zou omkomen toen hij met de Lusitania op weg was naar Engeland) die zijn protégée Maude Adams per se in die rol wilde, ook al zou de Amerikaanse première bijna een jaar (6/11/1905) na de Engelse (27/12/1904) plaatsvinden. Maude Adams zou de rol overigens twintig jaar lang spelen! Een andere bekende Peter Pan is Mia Farrow.

John Adcock, Gods of Modern Grub Street, London, Nicholson and Watson, 1923.
James Agate, “Comedies of Evil and Good”, The Sunday Times, April 26, 1925.
Martin Armstrong, “Mr Milne’s ‘Success’ at the Haymarket”, The Spectator, July 14, 1923.
C.B., “Camp and Cabinet”, The Saturday Review, June 30, 1923.
Nicolas Bentley, “Wags and Wits”, The Spectator, January 3, 1941.
Andrew Birkin, J.M.Barrie and the Lost Boys, 1979.
W.Bridges-Adams, The British Theatre, London/New York/Toronto, Longmans Green & C°, 1944.
Frederick C.Crews, The Pooh Perplex, New York, Dutton, 1965.
W.A.Darlington, I Do What I Like, London, MacDonald & C°, 1947.
Ronny De Schepper, The plays of Alan Alexander Milne, Universiteit Gent, onuitgegeven licentiaatsverhandeling, 1973.
Ronny De Schepper, Winnie, De Rode Vaan nr.4 van 1982.
Ronny De Schepper, Ook A.A.Milne was graag ontevreden, De Rode Vaan nr.38 van 1986.
G.S.Fraser, The Modern Writer and His World, London, André Deutsch, 1955.
Charlie Gillett, The Sound of the City, London, Sphere Books, 1971.
J.S.R.Goodlad, A Sociology of Popular Drama, London, Heinemann Educational Books, 1971.
Herbert S.Gorman, “New Vogue of the Printed Play”, The New York Times Book Review and Magazine, July 18, 1920.
Paul Hardy, “Kamperfoelie”, Boekengids, 14, 1936.
Roger Hudson, “Towards a Definition of People’s Theatre”, Theatre Quaterly, vol.I, no.4, oct.-dec.1971.
Kathleen Kelley-Laîné, Peter Pan ou l’Enfant triste, Calmann-Lévy.
Dr.Dan Kiley, The Peter Pan Syndrome.
Ludwig Lewisohn, “The Changing Drama”, The Nation, vol.III, no.2870, July 3, 1920.
Chris May & Tim Phillips, British Beat, London, Sociopack Publications, s.d. (mijn exemplaar dateert uit 1976)
D.McQuail, Factors Affecting Public Interest in Television Plays, PH.D.Dissertation, University of Leeds, 1967.
George Melly, Revolt into Style: the Pop Arts in Britain, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1972.
Alan Alexander Milne, It’s too late now, the autobiography of a writer, London, Methuen, 1939.
Christopher Robin Milne, Betoverde plekjes, Den Haag, Sirius en Siderius, 1980.
Allardyce Nicoll, British drama, an historical survey from the beginnings to the present time, London/Bombay/Sydney, George G.Harrap & C°, 1932.
Camillo Pellizzi, English Drama: the last great Phase, London, Macmillan, 1935.
S.C.R., “Mr Milne and His Critics”, The Nation & The Athenaeum, October 27, 1923.
Jacqueline Rose, The case of Peter Pan, or the impossibility of children’s fiction.
Ann Thwaite, A.A.Milne, the man behind Winnie-the-Pooh, New York, Random House, 1990.
Paul Verduyckt, Eenvoudig kan ook, De Morgen, 26 juli 1991.
XXX, “Not That It Matters”, London Times Literary Supplement, November 28, 1919.

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