The Olympic Games opened last Friday in London with a celebration of British children’s literature, one of the nation’s indelible lasting contributions to our global culture, a tradition that includes Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and now Harry Potter. Closer to home, the young New York writer Patrick Barrett’s new play Telemachus, Darling opened the same evening, a vital demonstration of just how integral that legacy continues to be to us even as grown-ups today. Pulling inspiration from the works of J.M. Barrie and—reaching even further back in time—the story of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son in The Odyssey, Barrett offers a wondrous reminder of the intoxicating rush of youthful adventure and the transporting power of literature as a salve for our wounds.
Barrett, a recent Columbia graduate, spent the early part of this year immersed in the children’s literature he skipped over in his youthful journey “from Goodnight Moon to The Sun Also Rises.” “I was reading things that everyone has read, but for some reason I just missed,” he explains of childhood classics like Peter Pan and The Little Prince. And just as in those early missives of young wanderlust, there’s a sense of yearning and unfulfillment in Telemachus, Darling, which centers on a young boy’s struggle to come to terms with the death of his father in World War I through the story of Telemachus’ search for his own long-lost father centuries before.
Told mostly through a lyrical and cheeky Edwardian-style narration, Telemachus, Darling is a tale of seeking refuge in fiction, of using books as a way to escape but also to seek out answers. “The young Darling and his mother just live together in this house, so he has no model to go off of,” Barrett explains. “With Telemachus, it’s similar, but he has other things to deal with, like having a hero for a father. It’s about how you forge your identity in the shadow of something rather than in the absence of something.” Director Carly Hoogendyk brings together projections of the boy’s impassioned doodles and an alternate shadow performance of Telemachus’ tale, evoking a homespun, childlike creativity in its storytelling. For Barrett, that grown-up innocence is exactly what he believes is missing in children’s literature today. “Telemachus, Darling isn’t a children’s play, but I think the idea of trusting in simplicity is behind it,” he explains. “You don’t see that anymore, that darkness, that simplicity, or adults just trusting children to get it.”
Telemachus, Darling runs through Sunday at the Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, New York.