Peter Pan by J.M Barrie: darkness beneath the gaiety
With its pirates and fairies, fights and flights, it’s not surprising that Peter Pan has long been a popular play to mark the Christmas season. The playful and adventurous spirit of the title character have captured the imagination since the play was first performed in 1904. The various film versions, particularly the Disney version from 1953 have added considerably to the play’s popularity. Perhaps part of its enduring appeal rests in the feeling that there could be a little bit of Peter in all of us. Maybe we, like Peter, want “always to be a little boy and have fun.” Film directors and stage directors have consequently tended to present Peter Pan as a celebration of childhood and the power of imagination. How else to explain why audiences enthusiastically respond when they hear Peter’s appeal:
“Do you believe in fairies? Say quick that you believe! If you believe, clap your hands!”
It wasn’t until I read the text of the play that I realised how much it undercuts and disturbs the idea of carefree childhood. In fact it raises some disturbing questions which are never totally resolved.
Let’s take the character of Peter himself as an example. This is a boy who has boundless energy and enthusiasm for adventure. He wages constant war against his arch enemy Captain Hook, enjoys mock fights with the Indians, and leads the Lost Boys on hunting expeditions. Yet beneath his bravado he is rather a sad figure. He is essentially an orphan, a boy who severed his familial connections when he overheard his parents discussing what he would be when he grew up – growing up is of course the last thing Peter wants to happen. Taking Wendy to Neverland as a ‘mother figure’ who looks after the home and tells stories, is an attempt to fill that gap in his life. Wendy of course wants to be something other than a mother to Peter but the emotional side of his character is so deficient he is confused by her overtures. She is looking to be kissed. He doesn’t understand the concept of ‘a kiss’ – so when asked for one all he can do is present her with an acorn.
It’s not surprising – this is a boy who doesn’t comprehend emotions and in fact has built a protective shield against such sensations. The warning signs are there in his first encounter with Wendy:
Peter: “You mustn’t touch me.”
Peter: “No-one must ever touch me.”
He means ‘touched’ in a physical sense but the play makes evident that his emotions are equally impenetrable. Which leaves us with a problem: if Peter cannot feel anything for another human being, cannot indeed even recognise other people have emotions (he is totally baffled by Tinker Bell’s jealousy of Wendy) he can never fully mature. On that basis, his desire to always want to be a child is a denial of his own humanity. He will forever be stuck as a child, not because this is the most attractive of states but because he cannot be anything else. He cannot move on but remains stuck in an endlessly-repeating cycle of adventures and mistakes and so becomes a tragic figure. It’s a long way from the idea in the popular imagination of Peter as a loveable imp.
Even more disturbing is that Peter also wants to deny other children the possibility of maturity. He is the leader of the Lost Boys, the youngsters who supposedly fell out of their prams as babies, but he doesn’t act as a responsible parent, guiding them through life. Instead he manipulates them so they think his world, the world of invention, is the real world. They exist in a state of complete make believe, eating pretend meals and wearing the skins of animals they imagine they have killed. Of real life, their life before Neverland, they have only a vague recollection. Wendy proves to be their saviour. Through her influence they begin to remember their past and to long for more than a world of invention. They are not so far steeped in the cult of Neverland that they cannot leave and join the real world as adopted sons of Mr and Mrs Darling. But Peter is destined always to remain the outsider.
His isolation is an example of a feeling of sadness that I saw running through the play. Yes it celebrates the exuberance of childhood but Barrie shows that there is also a price to be paid by those who choose to remain in childhood. Though Peter Pan is in so many ways a celebration of immaturity, it also contains a warning to those who refuse to grow up.
The book: Peter Pan or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up was first performed in London in 1904. The script however was not published until 1928 – by then Barrie had made some significant changes including the addition of a scene containing an alternative ending. The original play ends with the Darling children back home and Peter promising to return for Wendy every spring. The revised ending – entitled When Wendy Grew Up. An Afterthought – came four years after the play premiered. In this newer version Peter returns for Wendy years later to find that she is now grown up with a daughter of her own named Jane. Wendy is too old to return to Neverland herself but allows her daughter to go as Peter’s new ‘mother’.
The author: J.M Barrie was a Scottish novelist and playwright. He was inspired to create the character of Peter Pan through his involvement with the Llewelyn Davies boys who became his adopted sons when their parents (his friends) died. Barrie first brought Peter Pan to life in a 1902 novel The Little White Bird.
Why I read this book: Peter Pan is a set text for a module on children’s literature I have been taking.
The text of the play including J. M Barrie’s copious stage directions is available via Project Gutenburg.