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It was sunny, it was warm, and May was lazily giving way to June when I opened my copy of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” in Regent’s Park.
I can’t always remember the places I read books, but I remember this because I was there in the park right along with the characters: calling Peter Walsh and Lucrezia and Septimus Warren Smith into being beside me—albeit with 90 years and a gold-rimmed page between us. And when the summer sun shone over London through Virginia Woolf’s prose, it burned my skin.
Later that day I saw “Peter Pan” in the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
In this production, the story of the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up was entirely re-envisioned and reframed: It began in a World War I-era hospital, where nurses tended to wounded soldiers; a lonely mother paced the same (and yet somehow completely separate) space, singing strains of old children’s songs.
Then Neverland was built from the detritus of war.
The wounded soldiers transformed into Lost Boys and Captain Hook—nurses into Wendy and Smee. Hospital beds were overturned and became grassy knolls, a house, a lagoon. Tinker Bell was a puppet made of metal rods and lightbulbs; the croc’s mouth was a ladder and his eyes lanterns; the mermaid puppets were crowned with eerie gas masks.
I was also impressed by the pirates, who were clothed not in the Disney-fied seaman’s stripes and patches, but in fully-realized versions of the villains from the backyard make-believe games of my childhood: the black-clad mercenary, the knight with a crested helmet—villains of those same games where my brother’s faded black t-shirt worn belted over black tights (and plastic sword) seemed, to us, to stand for all that was daring and heroic and adventurous.
This was a “Peter Pan” full of nostalgia, of longing, of loss, of the immediacy of the Neverland summer mixing with the air of Regent’s Park. I was transported, and I was not the only one.
As Hook shouted to the Pirates to kill Wendy, the script received an impromptu rewrite that summed up the beauty of live theater:
HOOK: Kill the girl!
PIRATES: Yes! Hurrah! (etc.)
SMALL FEMALE CHILD IN THE AUDIENCE, cutting through the silence in desperation: NO!
The rest of the audience laughed.
I turned to look at the unintentional comedienne, but she had buried her face in her mother’s chest. She could not watch cold-blooded murder.
I love moments like this, when the lines between truth and fiction are blurred somewhere between the stage and the audience, when the investment of the audience matches – or surpasses – the investment of the actors onstage. A few years ago, when I was acting in “The Chronicles of Narnia,” the fight sequence that ended with the slaying of the White Witch’s hench-wolf would almost always be met with wild cheers and laughter from the audience. But there was a day when, as the laughter ebbed, a toddler shouted into the darkness of the 350-seat auditorium in tearful outrage: “It’s NOT FUNNY, somebody DIED!”
I wandered through Regent’s Park before heading home, mulling over the play and the little girl who had believed just a bit too much. But had she really? Hadn’t she been asked – just minutes before – to believe in Tinker Bell, the same way we’re all asked to believe whenever we take our seats in an amphitheater or a darkened auditorium?
In the middle of a path off to my right, I saw a red-haired kid gleefully brandishing a long stick while his father demanded that the youngster hand over his sword. When he would not, the father wrestled the sword out from out of the kid’s fists, held it over his head with both hands, and then—knowing, but not quite believing, what was coming—I saw him break it in two and fling the pieces into the big trash bin beside him. The kid stared up at him, disbelieving, and started to sob—huge, abrupt, wracking sobs, as if an actual adversary had actually triumphed by breaking a sword over his head.
Had that happened?
Had that really happened, or had it not—and, if not, why did it feel so real to me? Why did it feel so real to the tiny red-headed soldier, whose crumpling face I could still envision, while, disoriented, I made my way out of the park with the words of Virginia Woolf layered over the mother’s singing children’s songs and Peter flying on ropes, and that girl shouting “NO!”, and Septimus with his fantastical visions of dogs becoming men, of learning the truth of life, while his wife wished his madness would stop?
And I thought back to the summers we spent in the backyard, where my siblings picked onion grass and wild strawberries and jousted with long, crooked sticks, half-believing the hammock-turned-vertical truly had the power to imprison us, as our fingers grasped the netting and we shouted for the villain to set us free.
Alona R. Bach ’16 is a history of science concentrator in Cabot House.
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