Mary Rose, the 1920 stage play by J.M. Barrie was a story which Alfred Hitchcock always wanted to adapt. It was the Master of Suspense’s favourite and he wanted to make it into a film. He thought about the challenges of creating Mary Rose as a ghost with neon lights, but unfortunately was never able to realize his passion project.
The story is about a woman who disappears on a Scottish island and reappears many years later in a ghostly form, while all her loved ones and those around her have grown old. Barrie is best known for writing Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in 1904, about a boy who has an overwhelming desire to remain young forever.
Taking this premise, Hitchcock thought wouldn’t it be fascinating and sad if the ghost never grew old, while those around him had died? When writing a thriller it is important to distinguish between mystery and suspense. Many readers become confused by the two terms, but they are actually two very different processes. Mystery is an intellectual process like a riddle or a whodunit.
Suspense on the other hand, is an emotional process, rather like a rollercoaster ride, or a trip to the haunted fun house. Good suspense should actively involve the audience in the storytelling. All suspense comes out of giving the audience information. If you tell the reader that there’s a bomb in the room and that it’s going to go off in five minutes, that’s suspense. The suspense in a newly published novel “The Haunting of Alice May” which is inspired by “Mary Rose” is what will happen when Alice finds out who Henry really is. How will she react? What will she do? What will happen when the other sailors come looking for her? This suspense drives the narrative core of the book and invites readers to keep turning pages.
Hitch attended “Mary Rose” several times at the Haymarket Theatre Royal from April 1920.
A BBC radio production and TV play can be found on YouTube. Also a suite of Norman O’Brien”s music for the stage play from a 78rpm recording which Hitch asked Bernard Herrmann to listen to.
Themes from the play seem to be an influence on “While I Live / The Dream of Olwen” and Selznick’s “Portrait of Jennie” which is in turn relevant to “Vertigo”.
Hitch and Alma were, of course, deeply fascinated by psychoanalysis and the dualist distinction between mind/psyche and body. The titles above may all be regarded as explorations of the ‘timeless’ psyche and the temporal, aging body.
I would suggest the devotion of Hitch and Alma stems from their perceiving each other as ‘beautiful minds’ while not being unduly distracted by accidents of bodily form.
I hope these brief notes offer some food for thought.