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.
15 thoughts on “Peter Pan by J.M Barrie: darkness beneath the gaiety”
I’v never read the play but I have always found something very sad about Peter Pan in spite of the adventure and fun. Enjoyed your review!
Its interesting how different productions dealt with this element over the years and also with Peter/Wendy’s sexuality. Not surprising that the early silent movie version just focused on the adventure, Walt Disney brought in a bit more darkness but it wasnt until Logan’s version in 2003 that it became evident
Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
Here is a fascinating analysis of some of the underlying messages in the classic, Peter Pan, from the Booker Talk blog.
I saw a play a while ago called Peter and Alice in which Alice Liddell Hargreaves aged 80 meets Peter Llewelyn Davies then in his thirties in a London bookshop in 1932.Apparently this did happen. It had Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw in it. It was beautifully acted and extremely sad.
There have been a few attempts to tell the ‘back story’ apparently Victoria, I hadnt heard that one though
I’ve long wanted to read Peter Pan and hope to read it this year. I’ve heard about the dark side of the original and that just makes me want to read it more. I think children quite like dark aspects in stories, I did at least, but they don’t see it in quite the same way as adults. That’s why it’s always a bit strange reading books we enjoyed as children again as adults.
For sure we do read differently as children/adults. Children tend to read outwardly in the sense that many of the experiences are ones they have never had so they are learning. Adults tend to read inwardly where they are thinking about the characters experience and how it relates to their own experience. Well worth being aware of how the book/play would seem to its intended reader versus the secondary reader
Peter is a sad character. It is of course thought that Barrie was influenced by the loss of his elder brother who was only 12 when he died after banging his head on ice whilst out ice skating, the original boy who never grew up. You can visit Barrie’s childhood home in Kirriemuir and the original Wendy house (wash house). You might be interested in my blogpost below.
I enjoyed seeing those photos on your site. He certainly moved up in the world from those humble beginnings.
I want to read the actual story of peter Pan one day and see how dark it is. The cartoon and movie versions have corrupted my mind.
its interesting to compare the different film versions – the Disney version plays down the idea of sexual attraction between Peter and Wendy whereas the 2003 version plays this up
An interesting discussion. I have never read the play only watched the Disney movie.
Well that was rather a sanitised version. It plays down the dangers involved in the adventures for example
I remember that dark undercurrent from childhood storybook versions – with the children banging on the window to be let back in. Far to scary for little ones!!
its pretty dark if you think about – this is a play where kids go on the rampage and murder several pirates but view it as a jolly jape