[The ghost] is the sign of something missing, something omitted, something undone. It is itself at once a question, and the sign of putting things in question.... a cultural marker of absence, a reminder of loss.1
I've only to pick up a news paper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines.2
Written between August 1919 and April 1920, Mary Rose, J. M. Barrie's last great success in the theater, depicts the supernatural abduction of a young mother. At its beginning, a Great War veteran's return visit to his abandoned childhood home is interrupted by what Barrie calls "crafty work," through which the soldier "becomes indistinct and fades from sight" and is replaced by flashback visions chronicling three significant moments in the life of his mother, Mary Rose: her engagement to seaman Simon Blake, her mid-1890s disappearance from an island in the Outer Hebrides, and her return to her family a quarter century later.3 The final act returns to where it began for her ghostly reunion with her estranged son, after which she vanishes mysteriously through the window and out of the stage picture altogether. In his 1922 book entitled J. M. Barrie and the Theatre, H. M. Walbrook described the sensation Mary Rose created during its initial run of more than a year at the Haymarket Theatre:
Discussion raged round it in the correspondence columns of newspapers; the theories of its meaning were as numerous as they were strange, and people wrote impassioned letters to the author, begging him to "explain himself." For months the purport of the play was as lively and as general a theme of controversy round the dinner tables of London as the policy of Mr. Lloyd George; and when the play toured the United States it left a similar trail of heated speculation in its wake.4
Considering the general bewilderment that greeted Mary Rose, its extraordinary popularity is surprising as is the frenzied scramble of [End Page 205] cogitation Barrie's elusive eponymous figure engendered. Soon after the play's spring premiere, the Bookman was flooded with entries to its fall prize competition that encouraged readers to submit brief essays outlining their interpretations of Mary Rose. "Have you seen Mary Rose?" one begins: "What does he mean by it? One hears the question on all sides. And what does he mean by it?" Another shares that "many of us have seen it several times, and most of us come away still more puzzled, feeling we cannot rest till we have discovered the author's inner meaning."5 Alexander Woollcott cautioned that people make Mary Rose "even more [baffling] when they try, with earnestness and profundity, to detect medicinal values in what is negligible sugar coating."6 Nonetheless, a large majority of Bookman finalists moralized, supplying tired aphorisms about eternity, mortality, and the possibilities of human connection. Ultimately, though, Mary Rose remained a perpetually receding lure as none of these prospective maxims sufficed, and the anxious compulsion to explain persisted. As one entrant describes it: "Meanings and lessons are still being attributed to Mary Rose, and the British public ... congratulates itself with each fresh discovery. [Yet] the echo of the author's laugh mocks them as the wail 'Mary Rose' haunts them, and they know they have not convinced themselves."7 The play was puckishly mesmerizing, tantalizing its patrons with what scholar Patrick Braybrooke called in 1924 "indefinite longing."8
Just as the Bookman finalists were being announced, the Times correspondent reported on the American premiere of Mary Rose, writing that the December 1920 performance "left the dramatic world of New York moved but mystified [and that] there is much speculation among [the critics] as to what it was all about. Enigmatical, inexplicable, a fantasy stretched thin, are some of the descriptions applied by the critics writing a few moments after the fall of the curtain. One delicately suggests that the distinguished author himself is not certain of his own purpose."9 In essence, it was a rerun of the reaction of reviewers to the English production six months earlier. While praising Fay Compton...