“Jane Annie” by J M Barrie and Arthur Conan Doyle

Giv­en the peo­ple behind it, it should have been a success.

It wasn’t.

“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.

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’.



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