1878 | Grez-Sur-Long

Child’s Play

Robert Louis Stevenson locates the wellspring of romance.

We grown people can tell ourselves a story, give and take strokes until the bucklers ring, ride far and fast, marry, fall, and die—all the while sitting quietly by the fire or lying prone in bed. This is exactly what a child cannot do, or does not do, at least, when he can find anything else. He works all with lay figures and stage properties. When his story comes to the fighting, he must rise, get something by way of a sword, and have a set-to with a piece of furniture, until he is out of breath.

When he comes to ride with the king’s pardon, he must bestride a chair, which he will so hurry and belabor and on which he will so furiously demean himself that the messenger will arrive, if not bloody with spurring, at least fiery red with haste. If his romance involves an accident upon a cliff, he must clamber in person about the chest of drawers and fall bodily upon the carpet, before his imagination is satisfied. Lead soldiers, dolls, all toys, in short, are in the same category and answer the same end. Nothing can stagger a child’s faith; he accepts the clumsiest substitutes and can swallow the most staring incongruities. The chair he has just been besieging as a castle, or valiantly cutting to the ground as a dragon, is taken away for the accommodation of a morning visitor, and he is nothing abashed; he can skirmish by the hour with a stationary coal scuttle; in the midst of the enchanted pleasance, he can see, without sensible shock, the gardener soberly digging potatoes for the day’s dinner. He can make abstraction of whatever does not fit into his fable, and he puts his eyes into his pocket, just as we hold our noses in an unsavory lane. And so it is that although the ways of children cross with those of their elders in a hundred places daily, they never go in the same direction nor so much as lie in the same element. So may the telegraph wires intersect the line of the high road, or so might a landscape painter and a bagman visit the same country and yet move in different worlds.

People struck with these spectacles cry aloud about the power of imagination in the young. Indeed there may be two words to that. It is, in some ways, but a pedestrian fancy that the child exhibits. It is the grown people who make the nursery stories; all the children do is jealously preserve the text. One out of a dozen reasons why Robinson Crusoe should be so popular with youth is that it hits their level in this matter to a nicety; Crusoe was always at makeshifts and had, in so many words, to play at a great variety of professions; and then the book is all about tools, and there is nothing that delights a child so much. Hammers and saws belong to a province of life that positively calls for imitation. The juvenile lyrical drama, surely of the most ancient thespian model, wherein the trades of mankind are successively simulated to the running burden “on a cold and frosty morning,” gives a good instance of the artistic taste in children. And this need for overt action and lay figures testifies to a defect in the child’s imagination which prevents him from carrying out his novels in the privacy of his own heart. He does not yet know enough of the world and men. His experience is incomplete. That stage wardrobe and scene room that we call the memory is so ill provided that he can overtake few combinations and body out few stories to his own content without some external aid. He is at the experimental stage; he is not sure how one would feel in certain circumstances; to make sure, he must come as near trying it as his means permit. And so here is young heroism with a wooden sword, and mothers practice their kind vocation over a bit of jointed stick. It may be laughable enough just now, but it is these same people and these same thoughts that not long hence, when they are on the theater of life, will make you weep and tremble. For children think very much the same thoughts and dream the same dreams as bearded men and marriageable women. No one is more romantic. Fame and honor, the love of young men and the love of mothers, the businessman’s pleasure in method, all these and others they anticipate and rehearse in their play hours. Upon us, who are further advanced and fairly dealing with the threads of destiny, they only glance from time to time to glean a hint for their own mimetic reproduction. Two children playing at soldiers are far more interesting to each other than one of the scarlet beings whom both are busy imitating. This is perhaps the greatest oddity of all. “Art for art” is their motto, and the doings of grown folk are only interesting as the raw material for play. 

The distinction between children and adults, while probably useful for some purposes, is at bottom a specious one, I feel. There are only individual egos, crazy for love.

—Donald Barthelme, 1964

The true parallel for play is not to be found, of course, in conscious art, which, though it be derived from play, is itself an abstract, impersonal thing, and depends largely upon philosophical interests beyond the scope of childhood. It is when we make castles in the air and personate the leading character in our own romances that we return to the spirit of our first years. Only, there are several reasons why the spirit is no longer so agreeable to indulge. Nowadays, when we admit this personal element into our divagations we are apt to stir up uncomfortable and sorrowful memories, and remind ourselves sharply of old wounds. Our daydreams can no longer lie all in the air like a story in the Arabian Nights; they read to us rather like the history of a period in which we ourselves had taken part, where we come across many unfortunate passages and find our own conduct smartly reprimanded. And then the child, mind you, acts his parts. He does not merely repeat them to himself; he leaps, he runs, and sets the blood agog over all his body. And so his play breathes him, and he no sooner assumes a passion than he gives it vent. Alas! When we betake ourselves to our intellectual form of play, sitting quietly by the fire or lying prone in bed, we rouse many hot feelings for which we can find no outlet. Substitutes are not acceptable to the mature mind, which desires the thing itself; and even to rehearse a triumphant dialog with one’s enemy, although it is perhaps the most satisfactory piece of play still left within our reach, is not entirely satisfying, and is even apt to lead to a visit and an interview which may be the reverse of triumphant after all.

John Singer Sargent painting of small Italian boys on a beach.

Neapolitan Children Bathing, by John Singer Sargent, 1879. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

In the child’s world of dim sensation, play is all in all. “Making believe” is the gist of his whole life, and he cannot so much as take a walk except in character. I could not learn my alphabet without some suitable mise en scène, and had to act a businessman in an office before I could sit down to my book. Will you kindly question your memory and find out how much you did, work or pleasure, in good faith and soberness, and for how much you had to cheat yourself with some invention? I remember, as though it were yesterday, the expansion of spirit, the dignity and self-reliance, that came with a pair of mustaches in burned cork, even when there was none to see. Children are even content to forgo what we call the realities, and prefer the shadow to the substance. When they might be speaking intelligibly together, they chatter senseless gibberish by the hour and are quite happy because they are making believe to speak French. I have said already how even the imperious appetite of hunger suffers itself to be gulled and led by the nose with the fag end of an old song. And it goes deeper than this: when children are together even a meal is felt as an interruption in the business of life; and they must find some imaginative sanction and tell themselves some sort of story to account for, to color, to render entertaining the simple processes of eating and drinking. What wonderful fancies I have heard evolved out of the pattern upon teacups!—from which there followed a code of rules and a whole world of excitement, until tea drinking began to take rank as a game. When my cousin and I took our porridge of a morning, we had a device to enliven the course of the meal. He ate his with sugar and explained it to be a country continually buried under snow. I took mine with milk and explained it to be a country suffering gradual inundation. You can imagine us exchanging bulletins: how here was an island still unsubmerged, here a valley not yet covered with snow; what inventions were made; how his population lived in cabins on perches and traveled on stilts, and how mine was always in boats; how the interest grew furious as the last corner of safe ground was cut off on all sides and grew smaller every moment; and how, in the end, the food was of altogether secondary importance, and might even have been nauseous, so long as we seasoned it with these dreams. But perhaps the most exciting moments I ever had over a meal were in the case of calves’-feet jelly. It was hardly possible not to believe—and you may be sure, so far from trying, I did all I could to savor the illusion—that some part of it was hollow, and that sooner or later my spoon would lay open the secret tabernacle of the golden rock. There might some miniature Red Beard await his hour; there might one find the treasures of the forty thieves. And so I quarried on slowly, with bated breath, savoring the interest. Believe me, I had little palate left for the jelly, and though I preferred the taste when I took cream with it, I used often to go without, because the cream dimmed the transparent fractures.

Even with games, this spirit is authoritative with right-minded children. It is thus that hide-and-seek has so preeminent a sovereignty, for it is the wellspring of romance, and the actions and the excitement to which it gives rise lend themselves to almost any sort of fable. And thus cricket, which is a mere matter of dexterity, palpably about nothing and for no end, often fails to satisfy infantile craving. It is a game, if you like, but not a game of play. You cannot tell yourself a story about cricket, and the activity it calls forth can be justified on no rational theory. Even football, although it admirably simulates the tug and the ebb and flow of battle, has presented difficulties to the mind of young sticklers after verisimilitude; and I knew at least one little boy who was mightily exercised about the presence of the ball, and had to spirit himself up whenever he came to play with an elaborate story of enchantment, and take the missile as a sort of talisman bandied about in conflict between two Arabian nations.

There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure.

—Mark Twain, 1876

To think of such a frame of mind is to become disquieted about the bringing up of children. Surely they dwell in a mythological epoch and are not the contemporaries of their parents. What can they think of them? What can they make of these bearded or petticoated giants who look down upon their games? Who move upon a cloudy Olympus, following unknown designs apart from rational enjoyment. Who profess the tenderest solicitude for children and yet every now and again reach down out of their altitude and terribly vindicate the prerogatives of age. Off goes the child, corporally smarting but morally rebellious. Were there ever such unthinkable deities as parents? I would give a great deal to know what, in nine cases out of ten, is the child’s unvarnished feeling. A sense of past cajolery, a sense of personal attraction, at best very feeble—above all, I should imagine, a sense of terror for the untried residue of mankind—go to make up the attraction that he feels. No wonder, poor little heart, with such a weltering world in front of him, if he clings to the hand he knows! The dread irrationality of the whole affair, as it seems to children, is a thing we are all too ready to forget. “Oh, why,” I remember passionately wondering, “why can we not all be happy and devote ourselves to play?”

From “Child’s Play.” Once recalling that his childhood was “full of fever, nightmare, insomnia, painful days, and interminable nights,” Stevenson as an adult did not fare much better, suffering from a lung disease that led him to seek out healthful environments. He spent two winters in Davos, Switzerland, where he completed Treasure Island in 1881, and he sailed to Polynesia in 1888. He spent his final years in Samoa, where he became known as “Tusitala” (Teller of Tales), and died at the age of forty-four in 1894.