'Houdinizing' Peter Pan: The Magical Exploits of J.M. Barrie & Harry Houdini

Karen McGavock (English Literature: University of Glasgow)


Adam McLean once wrote that, "Magical thinking is the ability to see ideas as part of a whole, to see the interconnections, the correspondences between seemingly diverse events, things and ideas" (McLean, 1995, p7). In this paper, I will attempt to engage in magical thinking by considering connections between the enigmatic illusionist and escapologist, Harry Houdini and the equally enigmatic novelist and playwright extraordinaire, Sir James Matthew Barrie. In so doing, I hope to suggest that the connection between the two is much more than mere illusion.
I also heed the advice of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a significant player in this paper as will soon become clear. In A Scandal in Bohemia he writes, "It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts" (Conan Doyle, 1891, p3). To unmask Houdini and reveal the truth is tricky. Although the data is somewhat hard to find and the information scattered, I believe there is sufficient evidence to factually base this theory.
Barrie and Houdini shared a mutual friend in Doyle. Doyle and Barrie studied together at Edinburgh University but only really became friends in London. They collaborated to produce the opera Jane Annie in 1893 and were also keen cricketers, playing for the 'Allahakbarries'.
Barrie and Houdini's performances were extremely successful. After his London stage debut in 1900, Houdini returned in 1904 and then again every year from 1908 to 1914 before performing for the last time in 1920. He was already in London when Peter Pan was staged for the first time in December 1904. Clearly magical things were happening in London in the early 1900s. It is widely held that Houdini became first president to the Magic Circle in 1905, however, according to Dawes, he actually took office from 1911.
Gresham asserts, "Conan Doyle was famous as a historical novelist when Houdini was still a lining cutter". Their friendship began when Houdini sent Doyle one of his books, The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin. After corresponding by letter they met on, "April 14th 1919, when Houdini was playing at Brighton, not far from Doyle's home in Sussex" (Brandon, 1993, p232 and Polidoro, 2001, p3). According to Houdini's biographers, this rather unlikely friendship between the "Magician and the Knight" lasted from 14 April 1919 to 25 August 1924. Despite subsequent meetings between the two in America, when Houdini left Britain for the last time, relations broke down between them. Houdini offended Doyle, a staunch believer in spiritualism, by publishing a damning article, which exposed spiritual mediums as fraudulent. The death knell of the friendship was sounded in 1924 when Houdini further questioned the validity of spiritual practice in his publication, Magician Among the Spirits. Dawes and Polidoro document that, "Houdini and Doyle's last letters were exchanged in February 1924" (Dawes, 1979, p198). As with many occurrences in Houdini's life, however, all was not as it seemed, and the illusionist appears to have continued correspondence with the Doyles after August 1924. Houdini's wife, Bess, certainly wrote a letter to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on 16 December 1926, concerning "Harry's restless nights" (Lead and Woods, 1987, p252). However, the letter may have been written without Houdini's knowledge or approval. It seems that in defiance of her husband, she shared Doyle's belief that Harry was a genuine psychic and even attempted to contact her husband through spiritual mediums after his death.
6  Possible overlaps in the lives of Houdini, Doyle and Barrie may have occurred between 4 April 1919 and 3 July 1920. So Doyle was already friendly with Barrie before Houdini's first visit to the UK in 1900. Doyle initially met Houdini on 4 April 1920 and Houdini's last visit to the UK ended on 3 July 1920 when he sailed for New York on RMS Imperator. Barrie travelled to America in 1896, 1897 and finally in 1914. Barrie possibly encountered Houdini in America in 1914 but the chance of them meeting in Britain was reduced after Houdini's last performance in 1920 which is where the possibility of Barrie and Houdini meeting ends. We know that Houdini arranged performance tickets for Doyle's friends and family, so there is a high chance that Doyle invited Barrie along to at least one of Houdini's performances. Houdini has been described as "the Elusive American" (Polidoro, 1997, p1). In the next section of this paper therefore, I will explore this elusivity by considering the application of the term, 'houdinize', in the lives and works of Houdini and Barrie.

'Houdinize' and Shirking Fixity

In 1920, a new entry appeared in Funk and Wagnall's dictionary, transforming Harry's surname into a verb. It read, " hou ' di-nize, To release or extricate oneself from (confinement, bounds, or the like), as by wriggling out" (Funk and Wagnall, 1920 in Gresham, 1960, p215). It appears that "Houdini was immensely proud of his immortalisation in language, even using a facsimile of the entry in, The Adventurous Life of a Versatile Artist (Gresham, 1960, p215). His name lives on generically in other terms and in the magician's own right. The actor as well as the act endured, being indelibly etched on the common consciousness.

Houdini and Barrie houdinized at every opportunity. According to Silverman, "Houdini was an enormous publicist.[...] He gave about 12 different versions on everything that happened to him" (Silverman in Doup, 1994, p5), so he was at least partly responsible for creating conditions where he could not be fixed. In fact, it is almost impossible to fix Houdini. As a keen self-publicist, Houdini often instigated conflicting stories to maintain intrigue and magically allure audiences. Indeed, in a newspaper report of Monday 21 June 1909 (Anonymous, 1909), which details Houdini's performance in the Tay, the writer did not even name Houdini, referring to him simply as 'the artiste' throughout. It appears, therefore, that Houdini was elusive to the extent that even his name escaped this reporter! Mulholland, endorses Harry's elusivity explaining that, "Every story you've heard about Harry is true" (Mulholland in Dawes, 1979, p202). The result of creating illusions about himself was perplexion at every turn.
Even "his death, from peritonitis brought on by a ruptured appendix, has more exotic versions. By the time he died he confounded the public by spinning so many tales that even today his birth, like his death is still being rehashed and revised" (Doup, 1994, pp2-5). Barrie once wrote that, "I have been merely a little flame that is soon to go out, and a very good thing for me too. Those are none less to be envied than those who live on after they are gone" (Barrie, 1935). [1] Houdini, whose reputation lived on after his death, would have contradicted Barrie's own desire. 
10  Houdini's mystery is further heightened by Doyle's belief that "Houdini was a medium who affected his escapes by dematerialising himself" (Dawes, 1979, p198). Indeed, Polidoro, a psychic investigator goes so far as to question "Who was the greatest medium-baiter of modern times? Undoubtedly Houdini. Who was the greatest medium of modern times? There are some who would be inclined to give the same answer" (Polidoro, 2001, p10). 
11  Houdini is famous not only for making himself disappear, but also for "making a 10, 000-pound elephant disappear" (Gibson and Young, 1977, p210). He "astonished audiences by his daring escapes, not only from handcuffs but from straitjackets, ropes, chains, cells, and trunks submerged in water" (United States Postal Service, 2001, p2). According to Lead and Woods (1987, p7), the main feature of his act during the period I have researched was 'The Chinese Water Torture Cell' illusion. The first film launched by Houdini in 1920 was entitled, The Man from Beyond. It was "a time-lapse tale where Houdini who was thawed into modern life" (Brandon, 1993, p198) after being frozen for a hundred years. Thus, it seems that even incarceration in ice could not 'fix' Houdini. Houdini became obsessed with going to the very brink of death and escaping it, a plight that was to preoccupy him for the rest of his career.
12  Barrie also dared to shirk fixity at a figurative level, ultimately creating in Peter Pan, a character who epitomises elusivity. In the play, we find Peter Pan saying, "No one must ever touch me" (Barrie, 1928a in Hollindale, (Ed.), 1995, p98). Barrie's Rectorial address at St Andrews in 1922, heralds the warning, "Don't copy me!" (Barrie, 1922, p8) which is ironic since he converted others into copy all his life. This journalistic trait, typified by a defiance of fixity, was established early on from his career as a reporter for the Nottingham Journal. Similar language is also used to describe Houdini. Houdini claimed that, "Nothing could hold him!" (Dawes, 1979, p197). He even offered the prize of "£100 to any person who succeed[ed] in fixing him" (Stanyon in Gibson and Young, 1977, p13), a sum which was never claimed. Gregory Smith also recounts the way in which Barrie shirked fixity: "Of him the creator of Peter Pan, there was a touch of the elf about him. A 'touch' hardly seemed quite right, because one could never touch him - he was too elusive for that" (Gregory Smith, 1919, pp39-40). In sidestepping entrapment, Barrie constantly looked backwards to complete moments of safety and not forwards to incomplete moments of risk. Houdini was a "technician of risk" (Phillips, 2001, p72) who carefully calculated risks. Both escapes made by Houdini and Barrie ultimately focussed on safety. 
13  Hollindale believes Barrie's:

plays can be seen as explorations of the tension between change and changelessness...in Barrie's thinking there was an unresolved contradiction between belief in the fixity of human personality and belief in the multiple possibilities opened up for every individual. (Hollindale, 1995, px)

Yet Barrie tells us in his autobiography, "I think one remains the same person throughout" (Barrie, 1928b in Hollindale (Ed.), 1995, p78). By confirming his belief in the fixity of human personality, he ironically fixes himself in this statement; probably something he would have striven to avoid in hindsight. Barrie's stagecraft skills meant that he could physically suspend his performers on wires. The significance of 'suspended animation' deeply penetrates his life and work. In Latin, 'anima' means 'life' or 'soul'. By creating this tension between fixity on the one hand and freedom on the other, Barrie as writer and creator seems to have suspended life itself; putting his own life 'on hold'. This is a symptom of the Peter Pan complex, which I will discuss later on. Indeed, this tendency is exemplified in The Little White Bird (1902) where Peter Pan could not return to the nursery because the window had been closed. Consequently, he was caught between two realms, not fully part of either one, and so he remained suspended, perpetually in transit between them both. 

14  Barrie was reluctant to 'fix' his Peter Pan text in print because it was constantly evolving. He was a perfectionist, even unwilling to give his actors a Christmas holiday in 1904, a time which he spent editing, revising and redrafting his play (Birkin, 1979, p114). It was not till 1928 that the dramatic version was finally published. He thought that the publication of Peter Pan would, in the words of Gillian Ferguson, "spoil the nature of the play to pin it down forever: static" (Ferguson, 1994, p11). This unwillingness, or inability to fix ideas in print, also reflects something of Barrie who found it difficult to reconcile tensions within his own personality and in his writing.
15 Barrie and Houdini shared a love of photography. Houdini "worked as a photographer" (Houdini in Gibson and Young, 1977, p197) and Barrie compiled photographic records of the adventures of the Llewellyn-Davies brothers in The Boy Castaways (1901). The metaphor of photography is an interesting one when applied to the houdinizing impulse of Barrie and Houdini, since in photography; development can only take place when an image has been 'fixed'. Neither Barrie nor his creations could be fixed and Houdini could not be fixed in his escape acts. It seems that aspects of their personalities could not develop, once again typifying Peter Pan complex traits. Like Barrie, Houdini's "act also constantly evolved" (McLean, 1995, p7). They both realised the trick was to keep moving by adapting one's performance and position to avoid being fixed.
16   Doyle once said that Houdini was "far and away the most curious and intriguing character whom I have ever encountered. I have never met a man who had such strange contrasts in his nature, and whose actions and motives it was more difficult to foresee or to reconcile" (Doyle, 1927, reprinted in Doyle, 1930, Brandon, 1993, pp233-234 and Polidoro, 2001, p10). Barrie's personality also contained strange contrasts, some of which are remarkably synthesised in his work and are representative of the Caledonian antisyzygy that is characteristic of Scottish writers and writing. Jackson believes, "Peter Pan is a symbol of that complete, unchangeable spirit of the world" (Jackson, 1928, p113) but I would suggest that neither Peter Pan nor Barrie is unchangeable; rather, they constantly changed in order to avoid being fixed. It is uncertain whether Houdini and Barrie's actions were conducted out of a reluctance to fix or as a result of an inability to control being fixed by others. Either way, it is apparent that both felt a desperate compulsion to shirk entrapment in their lives and work. I will now consider the implications of this in greater depth. 

Peter Pan Complex


There is no unitary definition of the Peter Pan complex or syndrome and references to it are somewhat disparate, but as I understand it, there are several aspects to the complex that afflicted Barrie and Houdini. They are: a fear of death and being fixed, a desire to escape or flee confining situations or situations to which they are unable to cope, childishness, the Oedipus complex and obsessional behaviour.

19 Houdini's fear of death began after his mother died in 1913 (Dawes, 1979, p198). The impact of this event deeply affected Houdini who subsequently tried "to symbolically re-create her by making women appear on stage. He seemed to defy death constantly in his performances" (McLean, 1995, p6). Barrie also harboured this fear of death. Having confronted so many difficult issues in the course of his writing, Barrie breaks from this in the way that he 'writes out' characters like Hook rather than having to deal with their problems. Their ultimate fears are losing control and losing life. Death and the consuming nature of Time are feared most in Barrie's work. Although Barrie creates a character who is symbolic of perpetual youth, ironically, he realises that the only way for humans to be preserved as 'for ever young' is to die young, and that is paradoxical in the sense that control is destructive. Barrie, like Houdini equates fixity with death. Fixity for Houdini actually resulted in death; if he failed to release himself from the chains that bound him underwater, he died.
19 Another manifestation of the complex they experienced is the desire to escape confining situations with which they were unable to cope. Phillips explains that:

For Houdini the whole notion of identity, of who one prefers to be seen as, was something one escaped into from the past. If you are defined by what you can escape from - your country, your language, your poverty, your name - then you may forever need to seek out situations to release yourself from. To defy people's descriptions of you...he liked taking flight. (Phillips, 2001, p11)

Barrie, like Houdini, was exiled from his native country; Houdini, like Barrie, also relished the opportunity to take flight. In Houdini's case, becoming a pioneer aviator and in Barrie's suspending his actors on wires and propelling his characters on night flights to Neverland.

20 A third facet of the Peter Pan complex is that sufferers retain childhood characteristics. Books such as The Peter Pan Syndrome by Dan Kiley (1999) outline the quest of many men who essentially remain boys forever. Barrie and Houdini shared physical characteristics. Both were small in frame, but big in fame. "Photographs show that[Houdini] was boyishly good-looking he was only five feet three inches tall" (Brandreth and Morley, 1978, p13, my emphasis) and "Barrie stopped growing when he reached five feet in height" (Anonymous, 2000, p2). [2] They were also emotionally immature. For Barrie, this stilted emotional development may be explained by his inability to reconcile difficulties. It appears that Barrie became trapped in the very situation that he created. The story of Peter Pan is unique in being the only book other than the Bible to have been given a special parliamentary dispensation so that copyright will never expire. [3] Reality therefore mirrors fantasy: the book, like the boy, will never mature. Max Beerbohm believed that a special dispensation was also granted to the author. He wrote: "Mr Barrie can by some divine grace express through an artistic medium the childishness that is in him ... Mr Barrie has never grown up" (Beerbohm, circa 1904 in Ferguson, 1994, p11). Barrie also had a tendency to behave childishly, "Once he said to H.G. Wells that 'It is all very well to be able to write books, but can you waggle your ears?'" (Anonymous, 2000, p1). [4] Similarly, Doyle noted, "a prevailing feature of Houdini's character was a vanity which was so childish that it became more amusing than offensive" (Polidoro, 2001, p10 and Brandreth and Morley, 1978, p22).
21 Barrie married the actress, Mary Ansell in 1894, but the marriage failed and they eventually divorced in 1909. Their marriage produced no children. Some believe that Barrie suffered from impotence as a result of his inability to commit to an adult relationship. Houdini also married, however, this marriage seems to have been more successful. The Houdinis did not produce any children either. From several biographical accounts, Harry's marriage to Bess appeared to be perfect, yet somehow this perfection was incomplete. Combined with an inability to commit, was a childishly romantic love for one another.
22  I described Houdini's marriage as being an 'apparent success' advisedly, since evidence has come to light which suggests that he had extra-marital affairs. This reduces the romantic love of his marriage, to the level of an illusion, yet it could also be that their ideal love for each other was, in reality, too difficult to fulfil. Bess and Harry both seemed to lead secret lives. It may well be that Bess's correspondence with Doyle was conducted behind Harry's back. She continued to send letters to him after the friendship between Doyle and Houdini had reputedly ended. As with other tales associated with Houdini, the truth is questioned. Indeed, Houdini seemed to follow the philosophy whereby for every action, there was an equal but opposite reaction. 
23  The fourth aspect to the Peter Pan complex shares characteristics with the Oedipus complex whereby the son falls in love with his mother and despises his father. Barrie "seems to have had a lifelong difficulty in sustaining an adult relationship with women - a difficulty often ascribed to the intensity of his emotional dependence on his mother". [5] "Barrie himself was considered by Freudians a suitable target for analysis. Peter Pan has also been seen as an Oedipal tale" (Anonymous, 2000, p1). Houdini's life has similarly been scrutinised by, "Freudians who suggest that his career of escapology was an idealized escape from the mother who controlled his life" (Brandreth and Morley, 1978, p19). Houdini's almost pathological devotion to his mother began in 1892 after his father died. Dawes believes that "This caused certain conflicts when he subsequently married, a facet of his personality which has recently attracted psychiatric analysis" (Dawes, 1979, p194). 
24  The counter-point of the exultation of the mother in the Oedipus complex is the denunciation of the father. Kramer indicates, "Houdini never spoke about his past especially concerning his father, the often unemployed Rabbi Weiss" (Kramer, 1997, p2). It could be that the young Ehrich Weiss adopted a pseudonym as an attempt to break away from the nominal associations he had with him, or an attempt to escape from the clutches of a domineering father. The adoption of pseudonyms by both Barrie and Houdini may represent divided aspects of themselves that were never satisfactorily reconciled. Houdini may also have been ashamed of his unemployed father. Perhaps, like Barrie, Houdini avoided dealing with difficulties with his father by dismissing memories of him, thereby writing out unpleasant aspects of his formative experience manifested by this psychological conflict.
25  The final aspect of the complex, which Houdini and Barrie shared, was obsessional preparation. Barrie, as a perfectionist, perpetually redrafted his texts. Houdini was also "utterly dedicated to his work - often to the detriment of Bess" (Brandreth and Morley, 1978, p26). Hamilton describes Houdini's rigorous regime of preparation as literally one of mind over matter. According to Hamilton:

Every day Houdini worked with weights and took ice-cold baths to ensure absolute safety for his escapes from crates flung into cold harbours and rivers. Sometimes the ice had to be broken before the escapes could proceed. (Hamilton, 1982, p10)

Kellock also documents that "For hours at a time he would practise slow-breathing exercises, accustoming himself to get along with a minimum of oxygen, so that he could feed his lungs sparingly" (Kellock, 1928, p4). These were physical rather than psychical feats. This obsession was driven by a basic survival instinct. There is a close paradoxical relation between his compulsion to confront difficulties but also in his desire to escape situations with which he felt unable to deal. His pursuit to defraud psychics was also obsessional, attending over a hundred séances and often two per day (Kellock, 1928, pp303-304).  



Dawes comments:

Houdini the personality thus defies categorization, as surely as he defied all his challengers when they brought their handcuffs, leg irons and other restraints. But he will remain for all time 'The Great Houdini - the man who made the impossible possible'. (Dawes, 1979, p202)

Through being men "who made the impossible possible" (Dawes, 1979, p202), Houdini and Barrie share a final connection. One of Barrie's critics, Jacqueline Rose (1992) wrote a book entitled, The Case of Peter Pan or The Impossibility of Children's Fiction. Rose's argument is that impossibility typifies the genre to which Barrie is central. It would therefore seem that Barrie and Houdini share a common ability to make the impossible possible by refusing to be bound by externally imposed constraints. Stanyon even claimed that, "Houdini succeeded in liberating himself in less time than it took to 'fix' him" (Stanyon in Gibson and Young, 1977, pp12-13). In contrast to Rose, I would suggest that the construction and simultaneous deconstruction of categories that occurred throughout Barrie's work also enabled him to 'liberate himself in less time than it took to 'fix' him'. Houdenization thus connects the escapologist with literary leanings and the writer with magical capabilities since they both expertly shirked fixity. 

27  In conclusion, regardless of whether Barrie and Houdini actually met, they both shared the magical ability to make the impossible possible: an illusion, which to my mind is ultimately, the most impressive trick of their careers.


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[1] From a previously unpublished letter stored in Kirriemuir Library dated 18 December 1935 from Barrie to a Kirriemuir resident by the name of Mr Fairlie.

[2] http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/jmbarrie.htm visited on 11 June 2002.

[3] Lord Callaghan introduced this Bill in Parliament in 1987, in order to ensure that Great Ormond Street Hospital continued to receive royalties from Peter Pan as stipulated in Barrie's will. The move followed a campaign in The Bookseller, sparked by a letter from a Wendy Rogers.

[4] http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/jmbarrie.htm visited on 11 June 2002.

[5] http://www.canongate.net/people/pep.taf?_p=2218 visited on 11 June 2002. Accounts of the devotion of Barrie to his mother are contained in Margaret Ogilvy (1896a) and in Sentimental Tommy (1896b) and Tommy and Grizel (1900) which draw on the difficulties of his childhood and early married life.

eSharp issue: autumn 2003. © Karen McGavock 2003. All rights reserved. ISSN 1742-4542.