Saturday, 2 June 2007

J. M. Barrie and the Russian Dancers

Two years ago, in June 2005, I published a book. My book. This event was the culmination of eight months of research and writing: Research in an area entirely new to me - that of the life and times of the Scottish author and playwright, J. M. Barrie (1860-1937) - and the writing of a book was a new experience, too, choosing to put myself in the shoes of my grandmother and tell her story as Barrie's housekeeper. But that's another story...

My point here is that the whole experience drew me into a new world: the world of J. M. Barrie and his devotees. The excitement of discovering 'new' facts - details never before mentioned in his biographies - still pervades and, since publishing my book, I have continued occasionally to dig and delve. New findings, fresh thoughts and comments, are shared with other 'Barriephiles' through three dedicated websites (one British, one American, one French), and this is usually done by posting to their discussion forums. Sometimes documents are added to databases, etc, and, just occasionally, and with a little luck, a well-researched article may be accepted.

Fingers crossed!

J. M. Barrie and the Russian Dancers

I begin this piece with an acknowledgment for, if it had not been for a simple, innocent question - “Do you know something about 'The Truth about the Russian Dancers'?” - I might never have embarked on certain avenues of research. I happily admit that two weeks ago I knew nothing about the play by J. M. Barrie, but then I never could refuse an opportunity for a bit of sleuthing. Céline-Albin Faivre, I am grateful to you for your question. I thank you for your invaluable help, especially once you received a copy of the 1962 publication of the play, and I admire you for your splendid, developing website devoted to Barrie - - and for all you are doing, through diligent research, writing and translation, to render J. M. Barrie and his works both accessible and appealing to French-speaking people of the world.

Sir J. M. Barrie (1912)

Most of Barrie's biographers seem to have been unimpressed with his work 'The Truth about the Russian Dancers'. Either that, or they simply chose to ignore it. In so doing they also omitted mention of the playwright's associations with two prima ballerinas: Tamara Karsavina and Lydia Lopokova. This article is therefore an attempt to collate such scraps of information as exist in both early recollections and more recent sources.

With respect to this topic the notable exceptions to the generality of Barrie's biographers are Cynthia Asquith, Janet Dunbar, who included some of Karsavina's recollections, and Denis Mackail, who described the play as “charming, ridiculous, light, tender, and touching”, “an interpretation of the world of dancers as only one author could have seen it”, and “a very complete entertainment ... in itself”. Yet Barrie's take was not only a satirical comment on the ballet craze initiated by Sergei Diaghilev's ballet seasons in London around the time of the First World War. More significantly, it was a light-touch appraisal of the unique ability of Diaghilev's dancers to give performances which, despite the technical difficulties and peculiarities of dance, seemed natural and accessible.

The arrival of the Ballets Russes in London in the late spring of 1911, led by the dynamic Diaghilev, made a huge impact on an entire generation of British composers who were still in music school, or, as in Arnold Bax's case, had not been many years out. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, it seems also to have made an impact, some seven years later, on the "totally unmusical" Sir J. M. Barrie. This lack of musical appreciation was observed by Peter Davies who, when aged seventeen, had taken his 'Uncle Jim' to the opera on two successive nights. A few days later, on 13th July, 1914, Barrie had written to Peter's brother George: “Both nights of Long Leave did he drag me to the opera”. Years later, when commenting on this, Peter wrote: “Being himself totally unmusical, [Barrie] not only did not encourage such leanings, but in one way and another could not help discouraging them . . . the fact is that music and painting and poetry . . . had a curiously small place in J. M. B.'s view of things.” What, then, happened to arouse Barrie's interest in ballet? Or, should the question rather be: how did Barrie become interested in two prima ballerinas of Ballets Russes?

Lydia Lopokova, only five feet tall and appearing a little dumpy when compared with the likes of Anna Pavlova, nevertheless had a captivating vitality and exuberance and, during 1918 and 1919, was celebrated for the roles created for her by the choreographer Léonide Massine in 'The Good-Humoured Ladies', 'The Fantastic Toyshop' and 'The Three-Cornered Hat'. Not only that, but the ballerina, who in August 1918 had come to London via the United States, where she had married, had seen Maude Adams in 'Peter Pan' and had acquired an admiration for Barrie and his books. And once she had achieved success in London she had written to Barrie and flatteringly asked him to write a play for her.

Lydia Lopokova (1921)

Thus it was that the playwright and the ballerina met, and a close friendship developed between the pair. She had an amusing, idiosyncratic way with the English language and, tellingly, an appealing childlike gaiety; on her visits to him 'Loppie' would sometimes sit on Barrie's knee. While the two were matched also in height their ages were markedly different: Barrie was then 58, Lopokova was 26. In different circumstances, maybe, this age difference might not have posed a barrier to love but, by that time, the outgoing ballerina had also formed close friendships with various other eminent gentlemen, all of them at least 20 years younger than Barrie; these included Stravinsky, Picasso, T. S. Eliot and members of the Bloomsbury group, a tight-knit group of English intellectuals stemming from turn-of-the-century student friendship at Cambridge, one of whose members was a six foot tall admirer with whom she soon started to exchange correspondence.

In the spring of 1919, in response to his new friend's request, Barrie started to write a three-act comedy about the imaginary and fantastic life of a Russian dancer, and he intended that Lopokova should star in it; she was to have a speaking part as Madamoiselle Uvula, and the play was to run at the Haymarket theatre. Whether the play would have been successful, and where the relationship between Barrie and Lopokova may have led, we can only speculate because, on the 10th of July, when the play was about half written, the famous ballerina went missing. Her brief marriage to the ballet company's business manager, Randolfo Barrochi, an Italian whom she had married in America, was known to be breaking down, and immediately there sprang a rumour that she had run off with a Russian officer who she had met at a recent party at The Savoy Hotel, where she had been living.

Just two days later, however, she revealed to Diaghilev that she was staying with some Russian friends in St. John's Wood, not far from Barrie's beloved Lord's cricket ground and not a million miles from his home. To Barrie, she might just as well have been back in New York or St Petersburg, the city of her birth; his frequent attempts to communicate with his supposed friend by telephone were to no avail even though she was aware of these. In a letter to Diaghilev, composed on the day of her disappearance, Lopokova wrote that she had had a serious nervous breakdown and, when pressed by a reporter for The Observer newspaper a few days later, Diaghilev explained that the dancer was ill. According to the Daily Sketch, however, Lopokova told them some time later that she stayed in her hotel for a few days and then went to France.

Whatever the truth about Lopokova's disappearance – and more recent information suggests that she remained in London, although the thoughts that she had an affair with a Russian officer seem not to have been dispelled - her silence towards Barrie must have seemed at least disrespectful and may have hurt and annoyed him. But, if it did, he kept this secret. And so there was perhaps a frustrated, if not emotional playwright, and a Russian dancer friend who disappeared and said nothing to him. Little wonder then that Barrie's work on the full-length play ground to a halt.

Without much delay, however, for the late summer of 1919 would see the playwright engrossed in 'Mary Rose', Barrie's imagination fired him to start modifying his idea into a play with a difference, a revealing and much shorter work. While the new play was not created specially for his absent friend it is tempting to wonder whether he might have thought it could entice Lopokova to return to him. As it was, Barrie had to contend with the unexpected absence of a leading dancer who spoke English with an acceptable accent. His genius was to become evident in his creation of a silent role. At the core of the play's plot, which was based on the courtship of Lydia Lopokova by a new man in her life, there was a female Russian dancer who said nothing and then was obliged to disappear (by dying). This clever reflection of recent events by Barrie provided a pragmatic solution for him and for Diaghilev, although the finished play, if ever one of Barrie's plays could be considered finished, was not ready until the end of 1919.

'The Truth about the Russian Dancers' is a whimsical one-act play with richly romantic incidental ballet music commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev from Arnold Bax (who received a knighthood in 1937). It is set in "one of the stately homes of England, but it has gone a little queer owing to the presence in the house of a disturbing visitor". Subtitled “Showing how they love, how they marry, how they are made, with how they die and live happily ever afterwards”, the play features as its female lead a Russian ballerina named Karissima who, alone in the cast, dances instead of speaking; she dances rather than simply mimes all her part, including even the responses in her wedding ceremony. Although the overall tone of the work is lightly satirical, some of Bax's score has considerable emotional weight, especially the music concerning the love of the Ballerina for Lord Vere and her decision to bear him a child. This costs her her life since, when the new "Russian Dancer" is made living, one must die to enable the greatness of Russian ballet to live on.

Being a dancer, though, the Ballerina gets to perform an encore after her death, and after the end of all dialogue. When it is time for her to return to her funeral bier, the ballet company's Maestro takes on the sacrifice himself, allowing her to live as a British aristocrat's wife and the mother of the new little Russian Dancer, already well-enough developed that she is chasing butterflies in the garden while dancing on point.

But, with Lopokova now missing for five months, who should now play the lead?

It so happened that Diaghilev's prima ballerina, Tamara Karsavina, who was dancing in London at the time, was connected by marriage to Kathleen Scott (née Edith Agnes Kathleen Bruce, afterwards Lady Scott, later still Lady Kennet), the widow of Robert Falcon Scott, naval Captain and famed explorer of the Antarctic, and mother of Barrie's Godson, Peter Markham Scott. Karsavina had married British diplomat Henry James ('Benji') Bruce in Russia in 1915, and the diplomat's father, Sir Hervey Juckes Lloyd Bruce, was a first cousin of Kathleen.

Tamara Karsavina (1921)

It is not clear how the decision to offer the lead to Karsavina came about, although in retrospect it seems she was the obvious choice; she had been a Prima Ballerina for almost ten years. Understandably, Kathleen (Lady Scott by then), may have seen good reason to introduce Barrie to Karsavina soon after the ballerina's arrival in London in 1917 by taking him to see her perform with Ballets Russes. She knew that in June of that year Karsavina had made a perilous flight from Russia with 'Benji' and her 17-month old baby, Nikita. This was just a few months before the Bolshevik Revolution, and they had had to escape without help from a distant cousin, Robert Bruce Lockhart, the British Consul-General in Moscow who, in different circumstances, would have been able to secure their safe passage. In any event, it is known that Lady Scott took Barrie on a special mission to visit Karsavina at the end of 1919. Here is a little of Karsavina's version of what happened:

“I have written a play for you,” he (Barrie) said in his peculiar rasping voice, and had a fit of coughing.

“I speak English with a Russian accent,” I replied.

“Oh, can you speak at all? I didn't know”

He then read the play. His strong Scotch accent, his cough, and to tell the truth, the play itself, rather overwhelmed me. I even thought at times that he was pulling my leg. After the reading he told me that he first intended the name Uvula for me, but it occurred to him that it might be taken as an allusion to the part of the palate so-called, and he changed it into Karissima, which should be spelt with a K so as to resemble my own name.

When she studied the script for herself, Karsavina understood the point of Barrie's remark, ”Can you speak at all?” She could not speak, according to the author, except with her toes. She found that the script had unspoken lines for her part, actually presented in the manner of stage directions, and it was her task was to translate those directions into movement – directions such as: 'KARISSIMA is sad'; 'KARISSIMA makes movements which mean all this is Greek to her'; KARISSIMA is eager'.

The main theme of the piece is that the Russian dancers are not like ordinary humans. They are called into being by a master-spirit and can only express themselves through their own medium: “they find it so much jollier to talk with their toes.” I had before everything to establish beyond question with my public that Karissima's natural mode of progress was on her toes and her utterance that of a being in possession of a language surpassing human speech.

Questions to the playwright, seeking clarification on some points, were sometimes met with unhelpful but not unfriendly answers:

“Don't ask me what I meant: I don't know myself,” he used to say.

Karsavina realized that her aim should be to strike a delicate balance between the sheer extravagance of the play and the deeper feeling underlying it. And to do this she needed music which would have poetic quality as well as rhythmical value.

I was awed at the task of first choreographing my part within the weird frame of Barrie's play. Music, of the quality that Arnold Bax composed, shaped into form my first gropings. And ever since I knew that if I listened to the music, the shape and curve, the rounds and angles of the movement just sprang, as it were, from the sound.

During the rehearsals, Barrie often called out from the stalls to delete or add some lines:

Barrie, who attended rehearsals, altered, added, or changed the script every time, almost driving the actors crazy.

'The Truth about the Russian Dancers' first opened at the London Coliseum on 15th March 1920, where it ran as part of a Variety bill for just a few weeks. The production was choreographed by Tamara Karsavina, and the sets and costumes were designed by British artist Paul Nash who, by that time, had made a name for himself in London's theatreland. The producer was the actor Gerald du Maurier, uncle of Barrie's 'lost boys' and father of Daphne, then aged 12. In ballet and box-office terms its success was modest, however, owing, at least in part, to Bax's eccentric take on fractured dance rhythms; classically trained dancers couldn't dance to it. Nevertheless it was received warmly by some drama critics. A.B. Walkley of The Times was appreciative of Barrie's work and the infinite care with which the finished product had been polished; he gave it lengthy, enthusiastic reviews in two successive editions of the newspaper. This might not have surprised anyone, however, because Walkley was known to be a devoted follower of Barrie, engaging in dialogues with him. Only a few months earlier Barrie had reworked 'The Admirable Chrichton' in preparation for its revival and, in a reply to the critic, Barrie had written, “What does touch me a good deal is that you cared enough about Crichton to say "hands-on". Your original writing about it gave me more pleasure than I have got from anything else I can remember said about my plays.” Punch magazine's reviewer, 'T', was generous with his praise of 'The Truth about the Russian Dancers': “But the triumph is the triumph of the whimsical author. I don't think he has ever done anything better; more ambitious things, yes, but nothing so free from flaw.” That the playwright had striven to hone his play to perfection became evident years later when Cynthia Asquith, his secretary for the last twenty years of his life, found ten different typescript versions of the play. And later still, Karsavina revealed her own script to be version number fourteen, although it is not known whether this related to the 1920 production or to the later one: the play was revived at the Savoy Theatre in 1926, again with Karsavina playing the lead role, but it ran for just 37 performances, never to be seen again.

Tamara Karsavina (c. 1920)

Barrie's friendship with Tamara Karsavina grew throughout the preparation and first production of the play, and continued to grow into a close relationship through the early 1920s, with the two often going to the theatre together. On one occasion they watched a performance of 'Quality Street' – of which Barrie commented to her: “It bored me to write it, it bores me to see it” - and on another they attended the first night of 'Mary Rose'. He called her 'Tommy', inscribing the name in some of his books he gave her, and he invited her to his Adelphi Terrace home on many occasions.

But what became of Lydia Lopokova in the meantime? She broke her absence by appearing as a dancer in New York in a show called 'The Rose Girl' in February 1921, and in early May she appeared in Paris dancing with Ballets Russes once more. What she did during the period since her abrupt disappearance in July 1919 remains a mystery, other than that she later wrote that she gave up dancing for 18 months, which revealed nothing other than that she remained tight-lipped about the episode. She returned to London with Ballets Russes in late May 1921, and by the end of July she had danced in a dozen ballets in that season. Of major significance in her personal life was the frequent attendance at these performances by the person she had first written to in December 1918, the eminent economist John Maynard Keynes. The relationship between 'Loppie' and 'Maynard' began to get serious at the end of 1921, and they married in August 1925. Eventually she became a British aristocrat's wife when she acquired the title of Lady Keynes in 1942 by virtue of her husband being created Lord Keynes, Baron of Tilton.

Barrie continued to feature quite prominently in Lopokova's life, however, after her return to dancing and London. The two kept in touch by letter and telephone, and they met from time to time. The dancer addressed the playwright as 'Barrie', for, as she once wrote to Maynard, “I could not call Barrie 'Jim' – I never address him 'Sir' either.” A letter he wrote to her on 7th August, 1923, is held in a collection of her letters (not accessible at the time of writing this article) at King's College, Cambridge, and a telephone conversation was referred to in a letter she wrote to Maynard on 20th January 1924: “Barrie tells me on the telephone that Massin [Lopokova's name for Léonide Massine] coached Gladys Cooper's 'Peter [Pan]' in all her movements, especially on the wires! He [Barrie] is so very occupied with the rehearsals that I can't ever see him. Now it is 'Alice sit by the fire', but he is well and was expecting Nicholas [Nico Davies, presumably] to-night.”

While Lydia's letters to Maynard indicate occasional contact with Barrie, including reports of the odd meeting for tea or dinner, this particular letter seems to show that she maintained a desire to meet with him over a period of at least a few years during the early 1920s. Other letters showed concern for Barrie's health and well-being: On 22nd February 1924 Maynard, writing from King's College, Cambridge, told Lydia of a forthcoming performance of 'The Duchess of Malfi', adding, “Why don't you and Barrie come down together for that play?”. On 2nd March he asked her again, “Have you asked Barrie? Dennis [Robertson] enquired because he also had thought of asking him; but D thinks he will refuse partly because he always refuses things, and partly because Cambridge may be rather haunted for him by the one who was drowned.” Lydia replied on 6th March writing, “I telephoned to Barrie, first in the bath he was (although clean I never thought he takes one), after he telephoned and I proposed the offer to [go to] Cambridge – a drastic refusal, besides he owns a little neuritis.” Maynard Keynes's mention of “the one who was drowned” would seem to refer to Barrie's ward, Michael Davies. Michael's drowning, in 1921, was life-changingly devastating to Barrie; this was very evident to Barrie's family and friends. But it seems that Keynes was confused. Michael was an Oxford scholar and he drowned in the river Thames at Sandford Pool, outside Oxford. There was no direct connection between Michael and Cambridge. For family connections we have to look at Michael's father, Arthur, and his uncles Charles, Crompton and Theodore, and also their father, John, all of whom were alumni of Trinity College, Cambridge. It so happens that Theodore also had died by drowning in a river (in the Lune, near Kirkby Lonsdale, in 1905) but it seems unlikely that Keynes would have known this.

For how long did the friendships between Barrie and the two Russian ballerinas last? While both dancers became British citizens and lived in England for the remainder of their lives, no evidence has been found that Barrie was invited to, or attended, Lopokova's wedding at St Pancras Central Register Office in 1925, or that either ballerina attended Barrie's funeral in Kirriemuir in 1937. According to Keynes's nephew, Milo Keynes, Sir Frederick Ashton once revealed to him that he had heard that for some time Barrie had had Lopokova in mind for another play but, in itself, and even if true, this does not constitute evidence of an enduring close friendship between the playwright and the dancer.

As for the play, 'The Truth about the Russian Dancers' went unpublished until 1962 when it appeared in America with an illuminating introduction by Tamara Karsavina. It was later published as a paperback in 1987.

Somewhere there is in existence a film of Karsavina dancing the role of Karissima, a short film sequence which reportedly was made at the request of Lopokova, for no official film was made of either the 1920 or the 1926 production.

Tamara Karsavina, centre, in 'The Truth about the Russian Dancers', 15 March, 1920

Photographs of the 1920 production were taken on the day of the premiere, and Barrie sent six of them to Huntly Carter, an English drama critic who also was seriously interested in the Russian arts. These six photographs, showing Karsavina and other characters in the ballet, together with the envelope addressed in Barrie's handwriting, were auctioned in Sheffield in January 2006.

A forthcoming, as yet untitled book about Lydia Lopokova, written by Judith Mackrell, Dance Critic for The Guardian, is due to be published in the UK by Orion in April 2008. It remains to be seen whether Mackrell has unearthed any details which throw further light on the friendship between Barrie and Lopokova, or on Barrie's view of ballet. In the meantime it is reasonable to say that, over the almost 100 years since the establishment of Ballets Russes in 1909, Russian dancers have not lost their special ability to give natural performances of technically difficult choreography, as is demonstrated nowadays in performances by the present day companies. As Poesio Giannandrea wrote of a Kirov Ballet production of 'La Bayadere' in The Spectator in 2000, “It is the expressive 'magic' on which Barrie commented that keeps 19th century works alive”.

Robert Greenham
May 2007


ASQUITH, Cynthia: Portrait of Barrie (Barrie, 1954)
BARRIE, J. M.: The Truth about the Russian Dancers, with an introduction by Tamara Karsvina (Dance Perspectives, Inc., 1962)
BIRKIN, Andrew: J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys (Yale University Press, 2003)
BRUCE LOCKART, R. H.: Memoirs of a British Agent (Putnam & Co. Ltd, 1932)
CALDWELL, Miller H.: A tribute to J. M. Barrie (c/o
DUNBAR, Janet: J. M. Barrie: The Man Behind the Image (Collins, 1970)
GIANNANDREA, Poesio: Kirov magic (The Spectator, July 1, 2000)
HILL, Polly & KEYNES, Richard (ed): Lydia & Maynard: Letters between Lydia Lopokova and John Maynard Keynes (Andre Deutsch, 1989)
KARSAVINA, Tamara: Introduction to The Truth about the Russian Dancers (Dance Perspectives, Inc., 1962)
KARSAVINA, Tamara: Theatre Street, with preface by J. M. Barrie (William Heinemann, 1930)
KEYNES, Milo (Edited): Lydia Lopokova (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983)
MACKAIL, Denis: The Story of J. M. B. (Peter Davies, 1941)
'T': At The Play (Punch, March 24, 1920)
Unknown: Obituary for John Maynard Keynes (The Times, 1946, c/o,,217299,00.html


Holly Golightly said...

I am translating your marvellous essay.

Atticus said...

Thank you, Holly, that is wonderful. I am so pleased. Mais n'hésites pas à me demander, s'il te plaît, si tu as besoin d'un coup de main. Comme tu sais très bien, ma prise de bout du doigt sur le français est deuxième à tous. Je n'ai pas besoin de connaissance, simplement je croissants mes doigts.

Holly Golightly said...

J'ai traduit la moitié pour le moment. Tout va bien. J'espère finir cette semaine. :-))))

marie.l said...

Superbe la vidéo et ce passage au ralenti des pointes de Tamara Karsavina. Je ne saurai comprendre vos lignes mais je me plairai à venir vous rendre visite néanmoins, d'autres merveilles m'attendent chez vous !

Atticus said...

Merci beaucoup, Marie. Je suis flatté et heureux que tu as visité mon blog parce que je sais que tu ne parle pas l'anglais. J'ai l'intention, de temps en temps, à écrirer quelque chose à propos de la poésie - je sais que tu l'aimes - mais je dois te dire qu'il sera la poésie anglaise. Peut-être je peux te recommander le website . À bientôt!

Fauna Amor said...

Fantastique!Je lis mieux l'anglais que je ne le parle,et j'ai appris des choses merveilleuses ici!
Depuis qu'Holly m'a parlé de cette ballerine,j'étais curieuse,intriguée.Ce texte m'a ouvert de jolies portes...
Many many thanks.

Atticus said...

Merci, Fauna, tu es très gentil avec tes commentaires. J'espère que je pourrai faire des sujets suffisamment intéressants pour toi à l'avenir.

Lamousmé said...

Cher monsieur Robert de ma Holly préféréee ;o)
je suis ravie de vous lire même si je ne suis pas certaine de tout comprendre car mon anglais est bien moins bon que votre français!!!

Holly Golightly said...

Pas d'inquiétude Holly va tout traduire ! :-)))

Muse said...

Je viens aussi conseillée par Holly et découvre un univers de la danse sur ce billet; une de mes amies est danseuse étoile à l'Opéra de Marseille et j'ai cru un instant la retrouver aux barres...merci.
Et merci Holly pour nous faire découvrir le blog de votre ami .

marie.l said...

Monsieur Robert, ma douce Holly est une fée, mais une fée bien particulière, elle travaille beaucoup plus que ne le font les autres fées et sa baguette, si elle est magique est aussi la plus active de celles que j'ai pu croiser. Merci pour le lien du dictionnaire, j'y ai rencontré de bien bizarres traductions !

Atticus said...

Ooh la la! Tout ces commentaires en français! Personne parle l'anglais? Mais merci beaucoup, Lamousmé, Holly, Muse et Marie pour tous. Je regrette que je n'écrit pas le bon français.

Marie, je sais que la rimant poésie ne fait pas traduire littéralement avec satisfaction - elle perd tous en traduction - mais quand je présente des poésies anglaises dans mon blog j'aimerais que tu comprends au moins leur sens en prose.