Alfred Hitchcock and the "Call" of Mary Rose

By Tibbetts, John G. | Post Script, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Alfred Hitchcock and the "Call" of Mary Rose


Tibbetts, John G., Post Script


How should the likes of me know what to do with a ghost that has lost her way on earth?

--James M. Barrie Mary Rose, Act III

If the dead were to come back, what would you do with them?

--Alfred Hitchcock, 1967

The impact on Alfred Hitchcock's films of the works of playwright James M. Barrie--a subject hitherto relatively unexplored--is significant and crucial. (1) In particular, Barrie's comingled themes of eroticism and death in his play, Mary Rose (1920), resonated so profoundly with Hitchcock that he was obsessed with bringing the play to the screen. Although he was never to realize that ambition, the thematic and musical elements from the play, as we shall see, found their way into the situations and characters of many of his films: including those selected for this paper, Rebecca (1940), The Paradine Case (1947), Vertigo (1957), Marnie (1964), and Family Plot (1976). The results cast a fresh light on the wellsprings of Hitchcock's oeuvre and reveal a personal and psychological affinity between him and Barrie that borders on identity.

Alfred Hitchcock was twenty-one years old when he attended the opening night of James M. Barrie's Mary Rose on 22 April 1920 at the Haymarket Theater in London. It ran for 399 performances on its first run before opening on Broadway in New York a year later. (2) Mary Rose went on to become his most successful play, surpassed only by Peter Pan, with which it shares important thematic implications. (3) In brief, it tells the strange story of Mary Rose, a young woman who has the discomfiting habit of abruptly disappearing from the scene on several occasions--first, as an eleven year-old child on an island in the Hebrides; second, as a young wife and mother during a return to the island many years later; and lastly, as a ghost haunting her childhood home in search of the baby left behind so many years ago. Throughout the passing years Mary Rose remains ageless, almost childlike, unaware and outside of passing time and experience. Each vanishing, moreover, is accompanied by the eerie "Call" of "celestial music" that emanates from the enchanted island and which, in the end, summons her to an unworldly, and unknown, fate. (4) In all, Mary Rose displays the enigmatic blend of charm, fancy, and disquiet that marks so much of his oeuvre.

"[It is] the most moving of all his plays," remembers his personal secretary, Lady Cynthia Asquith, "steeped in what, for want of a less over-worked word, must be called 'magic." Asquith added that the performance of the title role by Barrie's favorite actress, Fay Compton, was "enchanting": "One moment Mary Rose's voice and manner would be quite everyday--almost homey; the next, some quick subtle inflexion made it shiversomely eerie ..." (Asquith 33-34). (5) Critic Alexander Woollcott described it as "a tragic and unforgettable play ... which is the wonder and delight of London ..." (6)

What did it all mean? What was it all about? Critics and audiences alike were vexed, but fascinated. The 60-year old Barrie, at the time publicly acclaimed as a writer second only to Shaw and Stevenson, kept his own counsel. (7) Biographer Denis Mackail, who knew Barrie personally, observed that Barrie himself refused to offer any meanings to the whole business:

   It was never vouchsafed. For nobody
   knew it. The players certainly didn't,
   and the author had told everything
   by this time and had nothing more to
   say ... He was in an extraordinarily
   strong position for keeping yet another
   secret from his admiring public,
   for he didn't even know the answer
   himself! (546)

We do know, however, that, as with Mary Rose, Barrie set many of his stories on enchanted islands, not the least of which is the Never Land of the notoriously famous Peter Part. (8) He and his friends had visited such a place in the Outer Hebrides during the summer of 1912. It was here, he recalled, "we caught Mary Rose. …

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