Given the people behind it, it should have been a success.
“Jane Annie, or The Good Conduct Award” was an opera written by J M Barrie (of “Peter Pan” fame) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame) with music by Ernest Ford, for the Savoy Theatre by Richard D'Oyly Carte. Four of the biggest names (Doyle, Barrie, D'Oyly Carte and the Savoy Theater) in the London literary and theatrical circles couldn't save what would turn out to be the theater's first true flop.
Description: The main character, Jane Annie, is a brat in adult form in school. Her goal in the first act is to win the Good Conduct Award by informing on the plans of her friend Bab to elope. Then, at the beginning of the second act, she explains herself: as a small child, she discovered that she could make people do whatever she willed by hypnotizing them.
SONG. JANE ANNIE.
When I was a little piccaninny,
Only about _so_ high,
I’d a baby’s bib and a baby’s pinny
And a queer little gimlet eye.
They couldn’t tell why that tiny eye
Would make them writhe and twist,
They found it so, but how could they know
That the babe was a hypnotist?
Now think of that! this tiny bray
Was a bit of a hypnotist!
And as I grew my power grew too,
For we were one, you see,
And what I willed the folk would do
At a wave or a glance from me.
I could “suggest” what pleased me best,
And still can, when I list,
And Madam Card will find it hard
To beat this hypnotist!
Oh, think of it! This little chit
Is a mighty mesmerist!
This very stereotypical use of hypnosis is accomplished through her almost instantaneous ‛inductions’ and are accomplished by hypnotic gestures and passes (such stereotypical actions are very much in line with Victorian times.)
She uses her abilities to command the affections of the man she fancies, as well as being matchmaker when her best friend Bab is conflicted between two possible suitors, Jack the military officer or Tom the press student: Jane Annie takes the practical course and hypnotically takes Jack for herself and hypnotizes Bab and Tom into accepting each other. Any possible obstruction by the members of the faculty at the school are quickly dismissed with a hypnotic wave of her hand, and the two couples exit to a rousing chorus exclaiming her hypnotic prowess.
History: J M Barrie was contracted to write the libretto (the speaking parts) for an opera. Unfortunately, however, in 1893, Barrie suffered the first of his series of nervous breakdowns and was unable to complete the project. Barrie asked Doyle to help, which was a good idea insofar as Doyle was the hottest literary property of the time since creating Sherlock Holmes only six years previously. By the time Doyle began work on the libretto, the shape of the play had already been determined and he was unable to correct what he saw as serious problems. He completed the work apparently using Barrie's scenarios. Just what was written by whom is unknown, but I have some guesses.
The production ran from from May 13 to July 1, 1893 for 50 performances, producing 4 revisions of the libretto, an unlikely number given the relatively short run. George Bernard Shaw reviewed it and said it was, "the most unblushing outburst of tomfoolery that two responsible citizens could conceivably indulge in publicly." Other reviewers were equally as unkind. “Jane Annie” has been rarely performed since and is largely forgotten to this day, remembered only for its Barrie and Doyle connections, as well as its collateral connection with Gilbert & Sullivan.
Commentary: Its hard to believe that the lead character was supposed to have this hypnotic power: it doesn’t appear at all in the first act yet is the main focus of the character in the second act. The reason, I think, is because of Doyle’s involvement. Barrie, as far as I can tell, had no interest in hypnotism, nor are there any appearances of such in his writings, whereas Doyle was actively involved in Spiritualism and mediums and so it is not a far stretch to believe hypnotism was also one of his interests, as hypnosis is mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes story ‛The Case of the Illustrious Client’ in conjunction with the way a sinister individual has taken control of a young heiress but it is never shown or demonstrated, and is more explicitly used in two other non-Holmes short stories. However, one of Barrie's biographers surmises that while the hypnosis scenes sprung from Doyle's mind, hypnotism is such a major moving force of the second act that Barrie must have conceived it and made it part of the scenario available to Doyle that he apparently couldn't correct. (I think Doyle was stuck with a scenario where he had to explain the way the lead character was able to get away with what she did and decided to use hypnosis as the rationale.)
It is, however, safe to assume that both writers were at least conscious about hypnosis as more than just a literary device. Hypnosis was a very popular topic of research and demonstration among the upper-class of Victorian England of the period, of which both authors were members. Among its practitioners were such fellow authors as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins (author of “The Moonstone”: one of the earliest mystery writers, creator of the final exposition scene by the investigating detective and a writer who made use of hypnotic elements in his stories.) Demonstrations of a wide range of hypnotic phenomena, including mediumship, were common. (These demonstrations, I believe, also strongly influenced the origin of the practice of stage hypnosis.)
However, such demonstrations were typically and probably exclusively in terms of the Victorian culture, with a dominant upper-class man hypnotizing a lower-class woman, usually a servant, using her as the object (or perhaps the term “subject” would be more appropriate) for the demonstration. Some of these women became well-known and achieved a certain level of fame in their own right, but the class boundaries were always present. That’s what makes “Jane Anne” so striking: the lead character is so completely at odds not only with the pattern described above, she is so completely at odds with the accepted role for women in Victorian society, being a self-centered dominant woman hypnotist of rather uncertain social standing and a social climber of the most aggressive sort. This could only happen because this was intended as a comic opera. (It would be an interesting investigation to see whether this was a common theme in Victorian productions.)
One thing that I would like to investigate is whether someone ever wrote a Sherlock Holmes pastiche involving Jane Annie. One might expect the mighty lady mesmerist would meet her match in the World's Greatest Detective.
Addenda: Portions of the article were originally published in "The Transparent Hypnotist", 'Esoteric Saturday — Jane Annie'.
- "Jane Annie" at Wikipedia
- "Jane Annie" references at the Gilbert & Sullivan website
- "The Chronicles of Arthur Conan Doyle" website article on his friendship with Barrie.
- "When Arthur Conan Doyle Met J M Barrie" by Miles Kington