I’ve been giving plays somewhat short shrift in this calendar so far. The only ones I’ve mentioned so far were noted in yesterday’s post as not actually joining the public domain in January. So today I’ll discuss a play from 1923 that is joining the public domain, from a famous playwright of the time.
Many of us nowadays don’t usually think of A. A. Milne as a playwright, but up until 1923, he was largely known for his plays, and for his writing for Punch. Milne started contributing to that British humour magazine in 1903, and joined the staff as an assistant editor in 1906. Before 1923 he had also published a few light novels (including the detective story The Red House Mystery and the satirical fairy tale Once on a Time). He also wrote well over a dozen plays and screenplays, the main focus of his writing for several years after World War I ended.
Milne’s play Success, first published in 1923, was a more serious piece than some of his earlier work. There’s a good summary of the play (in its 1926 version) in a 2012 Captive Reader blog post on his collection Four Plays. The main character is a man who has followed the urgings of people around him into a career that is increasingly successful in the eyes of the world. But when he meets a friend and a former love from his distant past, he regrets the path he’s taken, and dreams of the life he could have had if he hadn’t pursued the “success” the world recognizes. The play’s retitling when it opened in New York, Give Me Yesterday, is an apt summation of its emotional focus. So are lines like this one the main character delivers: “Success! It closes in on you […] I tried to get free – I did try, Sally – but I couldn’t. It had got me. It closes in on you.”
I suspect that Milne in 1923 had no idea that the same thing was about to happen to him and his family, on a much larger scale and more suddenly. The following year, he published in Punch some poems about his young son Christopher Robin and his stuffed animals. A book of those poems, titled When We Were Very Young, was published the same year and became an international best-seller, with 50,000 copies sold in its first two months on the market. Two years later, another book made those stuffed animals the main characters, and that book, Winnie-the-Pooh, quickly became an even bigger best-seller, and remains one of the best-known and best-selling children’s books more than 90 years later.
Like his protagonist in Success, Milne felt like that the success of his children’s books had closed him in, and that he could not escape. In 2017, Danuta Kean wrote an article in the Guardian on a reissue of Milne’s 1939 memoir, which had been aptly titled It’s Too Late Now. Kean quotes Milne as saying “I wanted to escape from [children’s books]… as I have always wanted to escape. In vain. England expects the writer, like the cobbler, to stick to his last.” Milne’s ironic fate also affected his son Christopher Robin. Kean quotes him as saying that his father “had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.”
Personally, I’ll be glad to see Milne’s children’s books join the US public domain over the next few years. But in the public domain now, readers of Milne will have the chance to focus on the kinds of works that he wanted to be known for, before his wildly successful children’s books overwhelmed him (and his son). And once Success joins those works in the public domain three days from now, readers may get from it a better sense of the emotional price paid for those later books.
PS: Alexandra Alter has an informative new article in The New York Times on the impending new arrivals to the American public domain, and their significance. It’s good to read yourself, or to share with other people who might not be aware of what all the fuss is about. (And I’m not just saying that because I’m one of the people mentioned in the article.) Alter’s article mentions a number of works and authors that are also featured in this calendar, as well as some I won’t have time to discuss this month that you might be interested in as well.
2019 update: Link to full text of Success, now in the US public domain, courtesy of HathiTrust.