Mary Poppins Returns after Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks

Mary Poppins Returns, the sequel to the 1964 movie Mary Poppins will be in movie theaters this Christmas, which makes me think that now is the right time to start the discussion about the film adaptations of Pamela L. Travers’s Mary Poppins stories. In my opinion, the best way to start this discussion is with a review of Disney’s movie Saving Mr. Banks (2013) starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as Pamela L. Travers.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) dramatizes the making of the movie Mary Poppins. The screenplay is based on the tape recordings of the meetings between Walt Disney’s team and Pamela L. Travers in 1961, and because we see these tapes and we hear Pamela L. Travers’s voice at the very beginning of the movie, we are led to believe that everything that happens on the screen is factually accurate. However, most of what goes on is fictional. And that, even if Robert Sherman tells us in the official movie interview that everything we see is a replica of what happened in the studio.

What are the fictional elements in this movie and what difference does it make anyway?

Let’s start from the beginning. How did Saving Mr. Banks come to be?

It all began when Australian producer Ian Collie read Valerie Lawson’s biography of Pamela L. Travers, Mary Poppins She Wrote. He decided to make a documentary about the life of Pamela L. Travers and, while working on the documentary, The Shadow of Mary Poppins, he realized that there was “a good seed for a feature biopic”. His focus then shifted to the period of Pamela L. Travers’s life during which Walt Disney pursued the movie rights to the Mary Poppins stories (which by the way spanned over almost 20 years). The screenplay finally zoomed in on the meeting between Disney’s team and Pamela L. Travers which took place in California in 1961. At that time Pamela L. Travers had agreed to sell the rights to Mary Poppins, however her consent was conditional upon her approving the screenplay.

The Shadow of Mary Poppins

When Walt Disney Pictures were approached for the rights to use the tape recordings of these meetings, the negotiations ended up with Walt Disney Pictures purchasing the rights to the screenplay of Saving Mr. Banks and this is how Saving Mr. Banks became a tribute to Walt Disney. Ian Collie concedes that Saving Mr. Banks is not factually correct in all aspects but he believes that there is truth about the essence of Walt Disney and Pamela L. Travers.

It’s about that battle of wills between two polarising, contrasting figures, and that wonderful cultural battle between English literary high art and the king of populism, and her mistrust that he was going to sentimentalise it and make lots of money for his empire.

The cultural clash was real. However, nothing in the movie suggests that Pamela L. Travers’s views had any artistic/literary value. No scene in the movie acquaints the viewers with Pamela L. Travers’s literary background and her connections with literary giants such as George W. Russell, Yeats, T.S. Eliot and George Bernard Shaw just to name a few. The only allusion (although unexplained to the uninformed viewer) to Pamela L. Travers’s literary mentor, George W. Russell, is in the scene where Pamela L. Travers (Emma Thomson), alone in her hotel room, is talking on the telephone with Mr. Russell. Only at that time Mr. Russell had long been dead. He died in 1935.

Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t explore either Pamela L. Travers’s lifelong love and extensive knowledge of fairy-tales and myths. Moreover, the movie remains silent about her spiritual beliefs, except maybe for the picture of a book on Gurdjieff’s teachings on Pamela L. Travers’s desk at the beginning of the movie, and a little Buddhist statuette that she unpacks in her hotel room in California. However, all these elements are of the utmost importance if one is truly interested in understanding the nature of the conflict between Pamela L. Travers and Walt Disney.

Sadly, Saving Mr. Banks presents the disagreement between Pamela L. Travers and Walt Disney in an extremely simplistic way which prompts the viewers to pick a side: Creative Genius Walt Disney versus this delightfully malevolent character loaded with benign kind of vitriol, this nutty old lady who lives down the street, as, to my bitter disappointment, my all-time favorite actor Tom Hanks, described Pamela L. Travers.

But what if both opponents had their justifiable reasons? What if their differences were simply irreconcilable?

conflict

One thing is certain, it was not Walt Disney’s understanding of Pamela L. Travers’s psychic pain caused by traumatic childhood experiences that solved the conflict. Nothing was known about her childhood at that time and the idea that Mary Poppins comes to save Mr. Banks, and by that meaning that Mary Poppins comes to save Pamela L. Travers’s father, was not Walt Disney’s either. It was the interpretation of Jenny Koralek, a friend of Pamela L. Travers. According to Jenny Koralek, Pamela L. Travers agreed with that interpretation but even if that was so, the reasons for writing the Mary Poppins stories do not explain the reasons for which Pamela L. Travers finally agreed to approve the screenplay of the Mary Poppins movie.  In any event, Pamela L. Travers’s difficult childhood could explain, at least partially, the creation of the Mary Poppins character but it does not explain the inner conflicts that fueled her resistance to allow Walt Disney to translate the Mary Poppins stories to the screen.  

Saving Mr. Banks does not give a fair rendition of Pamela L. Traver’s inner battle. Viewers needed to understand that Disney’s interpretation of her fictional character shook Pamela L. Travers’s core beliefs about fairy tales and myths which were intertwined with her spiritual beliefs. Fairy tales were an important part of Pamela L. Travers’s inner world; she apprehended life through the metaphors and symbols of the myths and fairytales. Unfortunately, her mythical language was totally foreign to most people and that included Walt Disney and his team. Pamela L. Travers valued fairy-tales for their wisdom, and she simply couldn’t conceive of them as vessels for mere entertainment.

Fairy-tale is at once the pattern of man and then chart for his journey. (…) The fairy-tales are like water flowers; they lie so lightly on the surface, but their roots go down deep into a dark and ancient past. They are, in fact, a remnant of that Orphic art whose function it was to instruct the generations in the inner meanings of things. (…) Again, like flowers, the same fairy-tales spring up in different countries, always with the lineaments of first cousins and always alongside the parables of truth that make the religions of man. Like village school masters, they instruct the simple, while the high priests deal with the scholars. But essentially both are concerned with the same teaching. How to live and how to die is the subject of the Orphic art, no matter what guises it wears.

The Fairy-Tale as Teacher, Pamela L. Travers, 1950

Walt Disney had a different approach. He used fairy tales as means to escape reality, to just kick back and relax. But his tendency to remove all darkness from the fairy tales irritated Pamela L. Travers profoundly and that long before he approached her for the movie rights to Mary Poppins. She wrote reviews about his cartoon creations in The New English Weekly in the 1930’s and they were not flattering. Patricia Demers summarizes Pamela L. Travers opinion of Disney’s work in her book P.L. Travers: “At the heart of Disney’s ‘enlargement of the animal world’, Travers discovers a corresponding ‘deflation of all human values’ and ‘a profound cynicism at the root’.”

Pamela L. Travers believed, and with reason, that without darkness the fairy tales are unable to ignite in the child’s mind the questions which can only be answered by truth.

It is worth asking, I think, why we grown-ups have become so timid that we bowdlerize, blot out, retell and gut the real stories for fear that truth, with its terrible beauty, should burst upon the children.

I Never Wrote for Children, Pamela L. Travers, 1978

It is relevant here to mention that G.W. Russell, Pamela L. Travers’s literary mentor, taught her about poverty and the artistic integrity of the poets. She herself wrote poems and was convinced that Mary Poppins came out of the same well that poetry comes out of.

Yes he said that one should take the vow of poverty, especially poets. It didn’t mean that if you were offered a 100,000$ you would refuse it. But it meant that you would not be attached to it. You didn’t even need to give it away but you wouldn’t live by it.

Interview with Brian Sibley, The Womand Behind Mary Poppins

When one understands how important fairy tales and their meanings were for Pamela L. Travers and her artistic vow of integrity towards her art, her inner conflict becomes much more interesting and multisided. Only then can one appreciate the greatness of the gap separating Pamela L. Travers and Walt Disney.

Why did Pamela L. Travers give up her Mary Poppins? Saving Mr. Banks suggests that Disney’s understanding of her psyche established between them a special connection based on  both their childhood sufferings. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In 1968 British author Brian Sibley, while researching a biography of Walt Disney, reached out to Pamela L. Travers. This is what she wrote back (the quote below is from an essay by Brian Sibley published in A Lively Oracle, a centennial celebration of P.L. Travers Creator of Mary Poppins)

I am afraid there is very little I can say to you about Walt Disney. I did not care very much for the film he made of my books. Generally because, although it was a colorful entertainment, it was not true to their meaning. Nor do I like what he does with Fairy Tales, so I don’t think I am very useful person for your study.

Patricia Feltham, a close friend of Pamela L. Travers, said in an interview that what Pamela L. Travers told her during the filming of Mary Poppins was “almost unprintable”. And still, Pamela L. Travers gave up the movie rights to the Mary Poppins stories? Why? Can financial worries be the only reason? Or is there something else? More about this in the next post on this blog. 

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P.L Travers and G.I. Gurdjieff or the Masters of Mystification

Pamela L. Travers Gurdjieff

During her lifetime Pamela L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, was deliberately secretive about her personal affairs. “Although warm and open, in interviews she declined answering any questions relating to her private life, or her age. Her official date of birth was 1906; in fact she was born in 1897” wrote a journalist from The Independent, a British newspaper. But, she was born on August 9, 1899.

And she did not believe in truth based on facts. 

He (Galileo) is famous for – ‘Nevertheless, it moves’. The story is known to everyone; but the recantation of his recantation has nowhere been recorded. How could it have been? The only people near enough to hear it were his inquisitors, and had they heard it, his fat would have been in the fire. He never said it- except of course in his accurate heart. But in his unconscious shaping of the hero, the folk required that it be said, the story required that it be said; the truth had somehow to be told that Galileo was not a liar. So, mythologically, Galileo was required to say it. IT IS A TRUTH, BUT IT IS NOT A FACT…So you see how the mythmaking mind works, balancing, clarifying, adjusting, making events somehow correspond to the inner necessity of things. It is tension, the uncompromising insistence on both ends of the stick – black and white, good and evil, positive and negative, active and passive – that gives the myth their ambivalent power.

The World of the Hero, Parabola, 1976

Not surprisingly then, when it came to questions about her interest in writing an autobiography, Pamela L. Travers held that mere statements of facts prove insufficient for the deeper purpose of understanding the inner development of an individual.

Oh, no. Being born, going to school, having measles or not, being married or not, wouldn’t really be an autobiography for me – it would be more of an inner statement, how one grew within, the hopes, the difficulties, the aim. But as I never do want to write anything about myself, no autobiography.

And to complicate matters further for those who would have been interested in the details of her personal life, she did not hesitate to distort facts. One example is her made-up story about her early childhood in Australia. She repeatedly told interviewers that she had spent the first years of her life playing in the sugar cane fields in her father’s sugar plantation. One example of this distorted childhood memory can be found in Patricia Demers’s book, P.L. Travers, and another one in a recorded conversation with British writer Brian Sibley, P.L. Travers, the Woman Behind Mary Poppins. 

This embellished childhood memory was so well spread by Pamela L. Travers that it appeared at the time of her passing in many obituaries published in various newspapers. Here is what one journalist from the New York Times wrote: “Her father was a sugar planter, and Miss Travers recalled growing up near the Great Barrier Reef in a tropical world of sugar cane, shells and mangoes.” 

The truth was much less luxuriant. Her father, Travers Goff, worked in a bank and struggled with his alcohol addiction which in all probabilities contributed to his early death. Pamela L. Travers was seven years old at the time of his passing.

Why did Pamela L. Travers change the facts of her early childhood? Was she trying to escape from a painful past or was she protecting the memory of her father? Or, could it be that her mind was so imbued with myth and fairy tales that she ended up perceiving her own reality as myth and thus malleable to fit her inner needs? 

It is interesting to note that her spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff also displayed tendencies towards mystification and anyone who has read his book “Meetings with Remarkable Men”, will agree that the adventures recounted in that book are remarkably fairy tale-like and probably not at all factually accurate.

This mythical aspect of Gurdjieff’s personality was described by Pamela L. Travers in her article George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1877–1949) 

GEORGE IVANOVITCH GURDJIEFF (1877–1949). These brackets enclose seventy-two years of a life that, in spite of all that has been written about it, is incapable of exact documentation. It is a fact that Gurdjieff died in 1949, but since he gave his age differently at different times, the date of birth given here can only be approximate. This was all part of his enigma, of the sense he gave of deliberately playing a role, or, as P. D. Ouspensky wrote, after their first meeting, of being a man “poorly disguised.” His whole life, for the biographers, has the air of an authentic myth, in the sense of something heroic and significant but not to be apprehended except in so far as he could, by these very disguises, mediate it to the general understanding.”

It is worth asking, although there will be no certain answers, was Pamela L. Travers’s elusiveness a conscious imitation of the ways of her spiritual teacher? Was she attempting to give a heroic and significant overtone to her own life?  Or was she, in part, attracted to Gurdjieff and his teachings precisely because they both shared this tendency for mystification and love of myth?

It is an interestingly paradoxical fact that Pamela L. Travers, although often in the public eye due to the nature of her craft, wished to remain anonymous and “go down in myth”. This wish was stated many times to interviewers at different periods in her life. What is then the truth behind this fact? Was she, by being vague and elusive, hoping to ascertain the meaning and significance of her life? Was she trying to attain some sort of immortality? Or was she simply trying to protect herself from the praying eyes of the outside world. Maybe she craved the freedom to explore life as she intended without risking rejection. Maybe she didn’t believe people could understand her. This seems to be a plausible suggestion. She did not exactly live a conventional life: she never married, she had romantic relationships with both men and women, and her relationship with her adopted son Camillus was in constant turmoil.  But all this will be the subject of future posts.

Gurdjieff and the Symbolism of the Carpet

Mary Poppins Gurdjieff

Lately I have been listening to a recording of a conversation between British author Brian Sibley and Pamela L. Travers, which was recorded in the late 1980: P.L. Travers, The Woman Behind Mary Poppins.  And, conversation is truly the right word to describe this recording because of the fluidity of the exchanges. Brain Sibley successfully follows the rhythm of Pamela L. Traver’s answers and it feels almost like a dance, an exquisite waltz of words swirling into the forms of the memories, personal beliefs, and opinions of Pamela L. Travers.

When I listened to the recording for the first time, I was already aware that Pamela L. Travers believed that one should not force the meaning out of a story; that it is sufficient to ponder on the story, love it for itself, and hold the questions inside and let the story unravel:

The myths never have a single meaning, once and for all and finished. They have something greater; They have meaning itself. If you hang a crystal in the window it will give off light from all parts of itself. That is how the myths are; they have meaning for me, for you and everyone else. A true symbol has always this multisidedness. It has something to say to all who approach it.

Pamela L. Travers, The World of the Hero (1976) 

Knowing that Pamela L. Travers was a true lover and connoisseur of myths and fairy tales, it was interesting to listen to her discussion with Brian Sibley about whether fairy tales could be considered as a form of wishful thinking or not. Not surprisingly, Pamela L. Travers refuses to give a lecture on the subject but advises Brian Sibley to read the stories and to discover for himself the true nature of the wishes made in these stories. And then, she remembers how once she refused to read a typescript of a seminar on the interpretation of fairy tales:

There is a famous Jungian analyst who writes about fairy tales and I imagine very well indeed. But I was shown the typescript of a seminar she gave to her pupils and she said: ‘The first thing you must to with a fairy tale is analyze it.’ and I thought, here I will read no more. Because the first thing you must do with a fairy tale is to love it! And keep it inside yourself as you do what you love, and it will send up its meaning to you eventually. To analyze it seems to me profanity.

Pamela L. Travers was probably referring to Dr. Marie-Louise von Franz who was a student, then colleague and collaborator to C.G. Jung and eventually his successor at the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich, and who was famous for her many books on the psychological interpretation of fairy tales.

Apparently, Pamela L. Travers’s point of view on the hidden meaning in fairy tales was shared by others in the field of mythology, and Dr. von Franz was not ignorant of their criticism:

Again and again investigators and specialists on mythology attack Jungians on the grounds that myth speaks for itself; that you have only to unravel what it says, and you don’t need psychological interpretation; the psychological interpretation is only reading something into it which is not in it; and that the myth with all its details and amplifications is quite clear in itself.

Although an interesting debate, the purpose of this blogpost is not to discuss whether psychological interpretations of fairy tales are relevant or not. The purpose is to discuss an idea that crossed my mind while I was reading Dr. von Franz’s book, The Interpretation of Fairy TalesI came across the symbol of the carpet and Dr. Franz’s exposition about its possible meanings, and a connection to Pamela L. Travers and her spiritual teacher, George I. Gurdjieff formed itself in my mind. Let’s begin with the symbolism of the carpet as explained by Dr. von Franz:

In European civilisation the carpet was not known until we came into contact with the East. The nomadic Arab tribes, who are still famous for their carpet weaving, say that the carpets they use in their tents represent the continuity of earth which they need to prevent them from feeling that they have no soil under their feet. […] It also protects them from the evil influences of foreign soil.  […] The symbol of the carpet with its designs is often used as a symbol for the complex symbolic patterns of life and the secret designs of fate. It represents the greater pattern of our life, which we do not know as long as we live it.  The purposiveness of an individual life pattern, which gives one a feeling of meaningfulness, is very often symbolized in the carpet. Generally, carpets, especially Oriental ones, have those complicated meandering patterns such as you follow up when in a dreamy mood, when you feel that life goes up and down and along and changes around. Only if you look from afar, from a certain objective distance, do you realize that there is a pattern of wholeness in it. The secret design woven into a human life is much more intelligent than human consciousness.

Now, interesting fact, Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual teacher George I. Gurdjieff was also a merchant of carpets. His carpet trade was witnessed by P.D. Ouspensky and described in his book In Search of the Miraculous:

The sale of these carpets was in itself remarkable. G. put an advertisement in the papers and all kinds of people came to buy carpets. […] A Persian used to come to him to mend carpets. One day I noticed that G. was very attentively watching how the Persian was doing his work. […] Next day I came in earlier than usual. G. was sitting on the floor mending a carpet exactly as the Persian had done. Wools of various colors were strewn around him and in his hand was the same kind of hook I had seen with the Persian.

And then, Ouspensky writes about Gurdjieff’s description of the making of carpets in certain parts of Asia where entire villages participated in the weaving process:

… all the work is done to the accompaniment of music and singing. The women spinners with spindles in their hands dance a special dance as they work, and all the movements of all the people engaged in different work are like one movement in one and the same rhythm.

Apparently, inspired by this memory Gurdjieff composed the Carpet Weaving as one of his exercises known as the Movements. You can listen to the music here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kbls2wJEsI

During his lifetime Gurdjieff composed (with the help of Thomas de Hartmann) numerous dance exercises for his pupils, the purpose of which was to work simultaneously with the intellectual, emotional and moving centers in each person and to open up higher parts of these centers. (For a brief summary of Gurdjieff’s system read Pamela L. Travers, Gurdjieff, and the Father Figure Connection). Gurdjieff’s Movements were composed of different groups of exercises with different purposes. Those known as the Occupational Movements such as the Carpet Weaving were mean to reflect the essence of a particular craft or activity and were performed in a group to give the dancers the sense of working as a unified whole.

And, not only did Gurdjieff sell, mend and included carpets in his Movements, but he also incorporated them in his immediate environment (probably with the intent to produce particular effects in the perceptions of his pupils). Here is an account of one of the early pupils who met Gurdjieff in his living quarters outside of Moscow:

There was no area not covered, either by carpets or hangings of some sort. A single enormous rug covered the floor of this spacious room. Even its walls were hung with carpets which also draped the doors and the windows; the ceiling was covered with ancient silk shawls of resplendent colours, astonishingly beautiful in their combination.

Views from the Real World, Glimpses of Truth 

(collection of early meetings with Gurdjieff)

It would have been lovely to have had the opportunity to discuss with Pamela L. Travers the symbolic meaning of Gurdjieff’s carpet business and his metaphysical weaving of the lives of his pupils. It would have been interesting to hear her thoughts on this subject. Or maybe she would have simply told us that there is nothing surprising about that and that we all have these sorts of symbolic patterns in our own lives and the fact that we cannot recognize them does not make their existence less real.

Conversation with Olga Mäoets, the Russian Translator of P.L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion

Moscow Excursion Pamela L. Travers

Do you know Mary Poppins? Not the Disney character, but the magical nanny originally created by the Australian born author Pamela L. Travers? Probably not. And, most of you probably don’t know much about the life of Pamela L. Travers and her literary work unless, of course, you have seen Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks; and in that case, your perception of Pamela L. Travers has been, for entertaining purposes, distorted.

The publication of Pamela L. Travers’s first biography, Mary Poppins, She Wrote, by Valerie Lawson (first published in Australia in 1999) rekindled the interest in both Mary Poppins and Pamela L. Travers. It inspired the screen writers of Saving Mr. Banks, and the making of two documentaries: The Secret Life of Mary Poppins and The Shadow of Mary Poppins. And, Mary Poppins, She Wrote still continues to make ripples in the awareness of its readers. One such recent ripple is the rediscovery of Pamela L. Travers’s first book, Moscow Excursion, by the Russian librarian and translator Olga Mäeots.

Moscow Excursion was first published in 1934, a few months prior to Pamela L. Travers’s first Mary Poppins book, and it consisted of a collection of letters recording the author’s visit to Stalin’s Russia in the autumn of 1932. However, in her letters Pamela L. Travers obscured the identities of the people she met during her travel and only designated them by the letters A, M, T, Z, V. Olga Mäeots, a true fan of Mary Poppins and Pamela L. Travers succeeded, after many years of research, to identify some of these characters and to shed light on some important historical data. The translated and annotated Russian edition of Moscow Excursion was published in Russia in 2016 and was very well received by the public. 

Olga Mäeots agreed to answer a few questions about her experience of translating and commenting Moscow Excursion for the benefit of the English-speaking readership.  

LS: Not many people know about Pamela L. Travers’s first book Moscow Excursion. How did you discover it? 

OM: Many years ago, I was writing an article about Pamela L. Travers and saw this title in her bibliography. Of course, I got curious: it was PLT’s first book and she wrote about Moscow! I kept this fact in mind for some years and finally found the book, read it, and realized that it is full of enigmas.

LS: Indeed, at the very beginning of the book, Pamela L. Travers tells the reader that all the characters are “synthesized personages” and that she had given them fictitious initials for names throughout the book.” What made you doubt her statement?

OM: To translate a book, a translator needs to understand what the author has been writing about. Very often I had to stop and check myself to see whether I understand the text adequately or not. There are so many strange details and remarks that could be considered as exaggeration or a caricature, but finally it became obvious that PLT was very precise in her descriptions; one just has to find the facts that matched them. It was so with the description of a film British tourists were shown on their way to Russia. And with horseshoes in a palace, in the office of Tsar Nikolai, and with a cemetery in Leningrad. If these details were real, the people should be real, too. Historical facts I have learned helped me to check my translation and proved its adequacy.

LS: What motivated your decision to translate the book in Russian and did you decide to investigate these hidden identities right from the start?

OM: Moscow Excursion is an interesting well-written book and I wanted other people to read it  as historical evidence, and as talented fiction. I was not going to make any research at first. Research starts as a part of the translation process and the evidence I had found made me understand how little I knew – about PLT, about that period in history. (Cultural relations between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world in the 1930-ies still needs research. In Soviet Union, there are only friendly, positive memoirs, for example, G.B. Shaw’s or Romain Rolland’s which were published during Soviet times when books got official approval – critics were never mentioned.) 

LS: How much time did it take you to complete your investigations? And are they really completed? 

OM: The project is not completed as new data appears from time to time. It took me about 5-6 years to translate and make commentary. 

LS: I understand that your translation of Pamela L. Travers’s book was very well received by the Russian readers. To what do you attribute this success? 

OM: In the post-Soviet times, we have become aware that we know not all, we do not know enough about our history, and that new evidence is important. Also, a foreign view is always intriguing. I was afraid that PLT’s critical position would arise indignation of Russian readers but it never happened. First of all, she is protected by her popularity as a famous and beloved children’s author. Secondly, the book brings new interesting facts about our nearest past. And finally, what is more important for me, the reception of the book proves that Russian society is not any more unanimous in its opinions as it was in Soviet times. So, every reader could find something positive in PLT’s book to balance the blow on one’s patriotic feelings. Religious people approve of her remarks on the neglected state of churches; theater goers are interested in her theatrical impressions; anti-communists are happy with her critics of Bolshevism, and so on. Anyhow, my task in the commentary was to help readers realize that PLT was an interested traveler, though she was disappointed to a considerable extent. 

LS: What do you think is the value for the Western world of all the information you have uncovered? 

OM: First of all, the facts I have found contribute a lot to the portrait of the famous writer and present an almost unknown period in her biography; a period that was crucial for the shaping of her views, and her attitude to the contemporary world. But what is more important, PLT’s book proves to be an important evidence about the state of minds in the1930s. The book returns us (to a considerable extent due to my research and commentary) to many forgotten names (or supply new evidence about them) such as Hubert Butler or Herbert Marshall and cultural events which are important for our understanding of the epoch. The Russian-Soviet theme seems to be very inspiring at that time.

I hope that the book, with my commentary, will be published some day in some English-speaking countries. I don’t cherish any vanity hopes but am sure that it will be an interesting and important reading. 

Hopefully, Olga Mäoets’s dream will soon come true.

The Miraculous in Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Miraculous

As children, we readily believe in magic without any need for explanations. Then, as we grow older, we begin to question the world around us, and no matter how vast and mysterious this world may be, most of us fall into the trap of labeling, categorising, defining, and shrinking the infinite to our human and limited capacity of understanding. In a way, we can’t help it. The fact is that the day comes, for all of us, when we realize that wishful thinking does not solve our problems. Some of us lose the connection to the miraculous gradually, walking down the stairs of life’s small disappointments. For others, the loss is sudden and traumatic. 

Then, there are the few, who even after losing their childish understanding of magic, and despite all the surrounding madness, remain connected by some invisible thread to an inner belief; a particular combination of knowing and feeling all at once, that despite all the chaos of our outer world there still remains the possibility of encountering  the “miraculous.” Somehow, they can embrace the elusive, unpredictable and unexplainable phenomena that links us to a larger reality, to an expansive consciousness, which if we could connect to it, has the capacity to enhance our experience of life and maybe give it meaning. The question then becomes, what is this unknown reality and how can one find the miraculous in everyday life?  In which direction should one go? What path should one take? Or perhaps any road can lead to the miraculous? P.D. Ouspensky offered a beautiful definition of the miraculous:

The ‘miraculous’ is very difficult to define. But for me this word had a quite definite meaning. I had come to the conclusion a long time ago that there was no escape from the labyrinth of contradictions in which we live except by an entirely new road, unlike anything hitherto known or used by us. But where this new or forgotten road began I was unable to say. I already knew then as an undoubted fact that beyond the thin film of false reality there existed another reality from which, for some reason, something separated us. The ‘miraculous’ was a penetration into this unknown reality. (1)

However, beautiful as this definition may be, it remains a subjective attempt to define the indefinable. How can one define the unknown and inexplicable? Yet, if experienced, it needs to be shared with the rest of humanity.

Our ancestors realized the imperfections and the limitations of our ordinary language to convey inner insights. So, they demised a way in which to use language for the purposes of transmitting experientially acquired inner knowledge. Essentially, they found the language of the heart. They began to tell stories. They gave us myths and fairy tales.

Pamela L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, although she did not like being called her creator nor assuming that role, (she felt, very much as C. S. Lewis, that she was merely mixing the elements she was given by the one true creator from which we all emanate (2) )  walked on the road of myths and fairy tales. She lived and breathed myth. As Staffan Bergsten, who knew her personally and studied her work said, she experienced reality as a mixture of everyday realism and a form of mythical stylisation where the everyday occurrences blend with mythical allusions (3).   And this is probably why Pamela L. Travers succeeded in conjuring for us Mary Poppins, a fictional character who embodies the essence of the “miraculous,” and of its manifestation in our ordinary life. At the same time, the Mary Poppins stories illustrate our innate capacity as children to both rejoice in and accept the miraculous without the need for any logical explanations. 

Mary Poppins arrives unexpectedly into the Banks family at the exact moment when she is most needed. No one knows where she comes from although it is clear that she existed before the beginning of the adventures in the books. Her ways of being in the world defy all known natural laws: she slides up banisters, speaks with animals, dances with the Sun, glues stars with a brush on the night sky, is able to shrink her size at will and go into plasticine parks and pictures drawn with chalk, just to name a few of her magical abilities.

The strength of her magic resides precisely in the mysteriousness of these faculties. Truth is, if Mary Poppins explained, all magic would have disappeared. Once explained, the miraculous becomes mundane and mechanical. Its power to expand our consciousness consists in its mysterious nature and in its hints of infinite possibilities. Let’s hope that there is no other way, no end to expansion, no end to growth, no end to the mystery. One uncovered secret shows us the infinite vastness of what remains to be explored; it gives us breath and spaciousness.

When Walt Disney decided to make the Mary Poppins books into a movie, he entrusted the project into the hands of the Sherman Brothers (Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman) who were confronted with the contemplative, dreamlike states of the adventures in the Mary Poppins stories. They saw the books as “an incredible treasure trove of delightful characters and wonderful incidents” (4) that somehow needed to be weaved into a story line, which of course from a movie making perspective makes sense, but by doing so the power and meaning of these stories were reduced to mere entertainment. Mary Poppins was scaled down to fit the American pop-culture understanding of magic: entertainment and a temporary escape from mundane realities.

The movie industry is dabbling now more than ever in the making of modern myths, exploring a mixture of science and magic, and using today’s technologies for visual feasts.  Sadly, our modern myths appear to be quite one dimensional. Maybe that is because few of us today are interested in symbols, paradoxes, and multiple layers of meaning. Who has time for contemplation? Serious matters need to be attended to, but what are these matters that we chose to label as “serious?”

Endnotes:

  1. P.D. Ouspensky. In Search of the Miraculous. Harcourt Inc., 2001, p.3
  2. Brian Sibley, P.L. Travers: The Woman behind Mary Poppins, a recoding of P.L. Travers in conversation with Brian Sibley.
  3. Staffan Bergsten. Mary Poppins and Myth. Almqvist & Wiksell International Stockholm – Sweden, 1978, p.32.
  4. Brian Sibley and Michael Lassell, Mary Poppins: Anything Can Happen If You Let It. Disney Editions, New York, 2007, First Edition, p.33

 

Reviewing Mary Poppins and Myth by Staffan Bergsten

Mary Poppins and Myth 1Mary Poppins and Myth was written some forty years ago by Staffan Bergsten, a Swedish scholar who after reading the Mary Poppins books* to his young daughter became aware of certain connections which appeared to him to be pointing in the direction of the possible inspirational sources for the adventures in the Mary Poppins stories. Bergsten decided to explore these connections. With that purpose in mind, he initiated a correspondence with Pamela L. Travers which lasted for a period of three years until the publication of his thesis in 1978 by the Swedish Institute for Children’s Books.  Bergsten tells the reader right from the start that his book is a comparative and analytical study and that some of his ideas “were knocked on the head by Pamela Travers, but others were confirmed”.

So, where did Pamela L. Travers find the material for her stories? Bergsten did not provide a definite answer to the question.  He concluded that it was:

highly doubtful that she had any clear conception of what sources she was drawing upon. Her comprehensive reading had sunk into the depths of her mind and the ideas, forms and happenings rose into her consciousness in the shape of spontaneous imaginative creations.  

This reminded me of a comment made by Pamela L. Travers herself in a recorded conversation with British author Brian Sibley that took place many years later. In that recording Brian Sibley commented that in the Mary Poppins stories “there is also a number of very serious adult concepts and thoughts” to which Pamela L. Travers responded:

They are underlined, I find those afterwards. I don’t put them in. Not long ago I was reading for the first time since it was published Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane and I was overcome, how did this writer know my inmost thoughts, they are not said, they are not spoken, but they underlie the texts. And then with surprise I realised it was me. Well, I suppose it was me.

                                                                           P.L. Travers: The Woman behind Mary Poppins

I enjoyed reading Mary Poppins and Myth, the writing style is fluid and without any scholarly stuffiness. Bergsten had a genuine interest in the subject of his thesis and he wished to share his understanding of Pamela L. Travers’s literary work. He examined the Mary Poppins stories from three different perspectives: psychobiographical, literary and mythological.

Psychobiographical perspective

Bergsten perceived Pamela L. Travers as someone who looked at everyday life in the light of myths and fairy tales, a habit he speculated, she acquired early in childhood through her extensive reading of fairy tales.

So, in Pamela Travers’s childhood memories we find everyday figures and objects together with literary and mythical allusions, and this is the blend we find in all her books. Everyday realism and mythical stylization infuse each other not according to some worked out scheme but simply because this is the author’s own way of experiencing reality.

The accuracy of Bergsten’s remark is confirmed by Pamela L. Travers’s childhood recollections written in some of her essays published in Parabola years after the publication of Bergsten’s Mary Poppins and Myth. The descriptions of Pamela L. Travers’s childhood experiences are original and appear to have happened in some borderline reality between the world as we know it and the world of the fairy tales. Now, of course one can question the authenticity of theses memories and argue that Pamela L. Travers romanticized the facts and retold them many years later, after she had acquired vast knowledge about myths and fairy tales.  That may be, but the sensitivity and love for the fairy tales was in her blood and that explains the longevity of her Mary Poppins.

Staffan Bergsten also sensed that Mary Poppins encapsulated a “whole series of projections of more or less unconscious, sometimes contradictory, tendencies and ideals in the author herself.” But then he admitted that to speculate in that direction it will “lead into psychological and biographical questions and in the meantime at least there is not enough material of the kind that would let us discuss them further.” Pamela L. Travers was notoriously secretive, and the personal details of her life became public only after her death with the publication of her first biography, Mary Poppins She Wrote by Valerie Lawson. Consequently, the psychobiographical examination is quite brief in Bergsten’s book. However, it is clear that Bergsten regretted the lack of available biographical material.

Literary perspective

Bergsten classified the Mary Poppins books in the category of the fantastic tale because the adventures take place in the everyday reality which exists alongside a supernatural reality. And, although the natural laws do not apply in this parallel reality, logic remains present in all the adventures.  Bergsten also explored the possible links between other children’s books which were popular during Pamela L. Travers’s childhood such as Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan but the connections, he concluded, were quite thin.

Bergsten also noticed the poetic influences of Yeats, Blake and Wordsworth (Pamela L. Travers’s favourite poets) in the Mary Poppins stories in the themes of the “the glorification of the child” and its “innocence and imaginative power”. This probably motivated his interpretation of the main purpose of Pamela L. Travers as a writer, namely, to awaken and stimulate the inner child of the reader. Now I wonder if this was one of his ideas that was knocked on the head by Pamela L. Travers. 

Mythological perspective

Bergsten underlied the fact that Mary Poppins was articulated clearly around mythical elements. She comes down from the heavens and then at the end of each book she ascends up into the upper realms. She is eternal, her home is everywhere and nowhere. She can fly and be free from any confinements. Her magic is inexplicable, and above all, intrinsic. Mary Poppins doesn’t need a wand to perform her magic. The adventures also have mythical notes expressed in cosmic dances and celebrations of the whole of creation. Bergsten linked these to Pamela L. Travers’s Christian sympathies, to Gnostic traditions and to theosophical teachings and Hinduism. This mixture of inspirational sources explains Bergsten’s description of Pamela L. Travers as “a genuine and convinced syncretist who enthusiastically borrows from the most disparate cultures, religions and mythologies”.

In my opinion, Mary Poppins and Myth should be reprinted and made available to the public. It is of course possible for the fans of Pamela L. Travers and the Mary Poppins stories to find this book in a library or to purchase an old copy online.

* Mary Poppins (1934), Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1944), Mary Poppins in the Park (1952)

 

 

Pamela L. Travers and The Avant-Garde Hamlet

Hamlet 2

During her stay in Moscow in 1932, Pamela L. Travers met a Director (identity and details about that Director are omitted in her book) who gave her a card to a theatrical presentation of Hamlet. Leaving the ranks of her fellow tourists and the prescribed by the tourist guide route, Pamela L. Travers ventured out alone into the streets of Moscow in search of Hamlet. After going into the wrong theater, she managed to get into the right one by the end of act one. And the Hamlet (or Gamlet) she met that night left a strong impression on her, so much, that it could be said that her evening out in the theater became the highlight of her visit to Russia.

Hamlet 3

I learned from Olga Maëots’s comments (in the Russian edition of Moscow Excursion) that the play in question was directed by the experimental theater director Nikolai Pavlovich Akimov and was played at the Vakhtangov Theater. At that time in Russia there was an unofficial prohibition (but known by all) of Shakespeare, and the play needed to be adapted to Soviet Principles because Stalin was suspicious of Shakespeare’s plays. He considered Hamlet to be a reactionary and mystical character, unsuitable for presentation to the workers and peasants audiences. Back then, caricatures of this theatrical production appeared in satirical magazines in Moscow and according to Olga Maëots’s comments this “scandalous production” is to this day a nightmare for Shakespeareans.

Hamlet 4

So how can a grotesque and bilious Hamlet leave such a positive impression on Pamela L. Travers?  She loved Shakespeare and she was well versed in drama having been herself an actress for a brief time.

Pamela L. Travers first found Shakespeare’s writings in her father’s library and she read them as a child simply because they were books to be read, and books were few and difficult to find in the Australian countryside. Later, while writing as a drama critic for The New English Weekly, Pamela L. Travers wrote essays on seventeen Shakespearean plays, five out of which were on Hamlet. So, I assumed that she would have been a fervent admirer of the original plays. Well, my assumption was wrong. (And her essays in The New English Weekly were actually written after her trip to Russia.) Anyway, it is a fact that young Pamela L. Travers loved the Russian adaptation of Hamlet, and that even though it had been distorted beyond recognition:

Well, they’ve turned their backs on Hamlet as we know him, but he shone forth more brightly than I’ve ever seen him. Every possible rule was broken, the text was murderously cut about and great wads of Erasmus and anonymous buffoonery interpolated. The characters too were altered.”

Not Hamlet, perhaps, but Hamlet enough for me, and I can’t help feeling that Shakespeare would have preferred it to highbrow productions that can get a new kick out of Hamlet only by putting him into plus-fours and to those other horrors where Hamlet is only a peg to hang scenery on – a Mr. Cochran’s Young Gentleman, perhaps.”

Pamela L. Travers, Moscow Excursion

 I can’t help but notice a paradox here!

When talking about a largely distorted adaptation of another writer’s creation Pamela L. Travers considered it to be a refreshing avant-garde art. Then, some thirty years later, when the same fate fell upon her Mary Poppins she did not see it as avant-garde art. And yet, it could be argued that Disney’s Mary Poppins was, for its time, avant-gardist cinematography combining human actors and animated characters, and stretching the boundaries of what was known to be possible in the sphere of special effects.

Of course, changing perspectives in the course of one’ s life is not that surprising. We all have all sorts of opinions about all sorts of things, but when thrown into a situation where we are emotionally invested all previous thought-based opinions and judgements go up in smoke.

And I wonder, would it have been easier for Pamela L. Travers to accept the Disney’s adaptation of her Mary Poppins if someone reminded her of her opinion about the Russian Hamlet?  

Maybe, or maybe she would have dismissed this paradox at once…she was a paradoxical character herself. Unfortunately, we will never know what Pamela L. Travers’s reaction would have been.