J. M. Barrie posits the contingency of flight upon children being “gay and innocent and heartless”. But all the best children’s stories, the ones that last and don’t involve suspect adult actors in colourful morph-suits reminiscent of deformity – though I’ll admit I excuse the Oompa-Loompas – aren’t really very ‘childish’ at all.
This resonated in the context of Logan’s play, which was complex and existential in spades, despite its storybook set design. It is the second in Michael Grandage’s season of plays, following the vibrant, colourful cabaret that was Privates on Parade. Privates constituted a catalogue of innuendo, naked boys’ bravado, fumbling artlessness, whimsical pranks and one man’s seriously good – if admittedly gender-bending – dressing up box. It’s no fairy story; people are shagging, dying and having babies all over the shop. But my old friend dictionary.com defines ‘childish’ as 1) of, like, or befitting a child, or 2) puerile, weak, silly. These big, brash, brave men display more of these so-called ‘childish’ components than Alice and Peter (both the characters and the individuals who inspired them) ever have the chance to.
In some ways, ‘childishness’ is just the reserve – and resistance – of those who fear being ‘adult’. Not so for those who wish to escape a warped or entangled childhood. The most responsible, articulate characters in tales such as Roald Dahl’s Matilda or Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Nesbit’s The Railway Children, Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth are the stories’ (often eponymous) mini-heroes and heroines, who become the voice of reason or the paradigm of moral maturation that the world around them can’t provide.
Likewise in A&P, the ‘child’ versions of the storybook characters are often the most severe. It falls to Peter Pan to read the achingly official announcements of the beloved dead, killed in the First World War, and to reenact the untimely death of a young gay man who couldn’t love his lover and keep on living. Alice’s lip curls as she passes a guiltless, little girl’s judgment on Judi Dench’s crinkled, gossamer-skinned age,
shrunken into pearls and a straight-backed chair. “She thinks about killing herself. She looks at the bottle of laudanum and wonders.” How can you understand the sickly-sweetness of suicide for a lonely old lady when your own life – your ‘real’ life, with your own crockery and tales of grown-up heartbreak and a driving licence and a job you hate…all the stuff you’ve always dreamt of – has not yet begun? Even Ben Whishaw’s Peter, the younger (though by no means youthful) of the two outgrown child-stars, turns out to be the more cynical adult, haggard and embittered as he recalls the truths he was forced to learn too young.
Perhaps children can disdain adult follies in this way because their moral and judgmental clarity is of a purer sort. There is nothing simpler or more natural to a child than trying to act grown up. We try to walk aged one, at three we take handbags and bangles to the swings, at six we play war games and blow up the world, at eleven we’re praying for breasts or low voices and, once puberty hits, we’re grappling with woes the size of our pimples. I could reel off a list of times when a child of eleven has dealt me a withering look for trying to be down-with-the-kids by asking their favourite colour. Equally, I remember complaining wanly of my parents’ ridiculousness when they kept us awake, throwing themselves around to David Bowie and spewing wine-soaked truisms as a holiday evening marched on. Even the seventeen-month-old I babysit looks at me like “Seriously?” when I pretend to sample and croon over his, frankly disgusting, pureed food. When you’re little, what’s important is to find out the truth, to know what’s ‘going on’ and then say “Look, I’m not stupid, I’ve figured it all out, you can stop hiding things from me.”
Alice is always trying to figure out what’s behind the nonsense in Wonderland and which direction is the right way to get to…where?
Alice came to a fork in the road. “Which road do I take?” she asked.“Where do you want to go?” responded the Cheshire Cat.“I don’t know,” Alice answered.“Then,” said the Cat, “it doesn’t matter.”
The no-nonsense child’s attitude, far from being “puerile, weak, silly”, is nevertheless childish in its very seriousness. Growing up means growing out of the simplistic, innocent acuity that tells us the right answer exists somewhere, waiting to be found. Alice, Peter, Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter: every storybook child is someday disabused of the notion of universal sense and well-meaning and discovers that the ‘Dark Lord’ is after them, be it in the form of fear of death, narrow mindedness, an inability to lose weight, a very long phone bill… Truth and discovery are what’s on the agenda for every determined child – despite all attempts by adults to keep them safely in the dark – and when they get there, they find out it’s nonsense.
This is a potentially depressing notion. The danger of seeing childhood as a time of clarity and hope for the future is that when you ‘grow up’ you click off fast-forward and switch to rewind, opening the floodgates to regret just as life is picking up its heels. The grown up Wendy pretty much freaks out when she encounters Peter once more:
He was a little boy, and she was grown up. She huddled by the fire not daring to move, helpless and guilty, a big woman.…“Hullo, Peter,” she replied faintly, squeezing herself as small as possible. Something inside her was crying “Woman, Woman, let go of me.”
Now Coleridge is not always a laugh a minute but in Frost at Midnight he inverts this negative tincture to nostalgia and acknowledges the playful side of adult reminiscence: “Echo or mirror seeking of itself, / And makes a toy of Thought.” This “echo” lets him re-experience “The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible” that he has already known and that his infant son will know, without wishing himself back into a state of innocence. Hope and nostalgia can work in harmony, to produce the Coleridgean “eternal language” of dreams and echoes across the generations.
Life becomes like looking into a flickering, tinted mirror image – like Harry Potter’s Mirror of Erised (I had to look that up, I promise). When you relinquish the mirage of possibility, like an image flirting on the surface of the mermaids’ lagoon, you gain the bittersweet thrill of much-loved memory.
And what about the inbetweeners – not the affable Channel 4 perma-virgins – I mean the chil-dults, the…a-ilds doesn’t really work, but you know what I’m getting at? Anyone of any age really, who doesn’t feel they could be safely termed ‘grown up’ (your ears keep growing forever actually, so…there), but would feel creepy/be prosecuted for defrauding the London Underground ticketing system if they called themselves a ‘child’.
Well, in my view the problem with saying ignorance is bliss is that it doesn’t account for the joy of nonsense. Once you’ve relinquished the childish hunt for truth, you can revel in the knowledge that things can, and often WILL, be ridiculous. The fact is Harry and Katniss are no one’s first choice for a mad night out. It may well be heaven to live in the ‘ignorance’ of simplistic moral clarity, but there is mischief and multiplicity in Wonderland, as Alice discovers:
“Do you think I’ve gone round the bend?”
“I’m afraid so. You’re mad, bonkers, completely off your head. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”