Peter Pan Turns 100

But the boy who never grew up shows no signs of getting old

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Since his debut a century ago, he has graced the stage in innumerable productions around the world and the screen in a classic animated Disney feature and live-action movies. His image is used to sell peanut butter and cross-country bus trips. He even entered the ranks of Greek tragedy when he joined Oedipus and Electra in having his name linked with a psychological syndrome. Peter Pan may remain forever young, but he has evolved over the course of a turbulent century, journeying far from the dark imaginings of author James Matthew Barrie.

It was two days after Christmas 1904 that Peter Pan first flew onto the stage of the Duke of York’s Theatre in London in the play that bore his name. There, for the first time, an enchanted public met the three Darling children, their canine nurse, Nana, the Lost Boys and an evil Captain Hook fleeing a crocodile that had swallowed a clock. When Tinker Bell lay dying and Peter asked the audience to clap their hands to save her life, members of the orchestra were ready to oblige if the public declined. It proved an unnecessary precaution.

After pre-opening rumors of imminent disaster, the play became a surprise hit of the Christmas season, and it would make an annual holiday return for years to come. Its origins lay in the influence of five little boys on Barrie’s complex imagination. Over the years, as Peter Pan has become both a classic tale and a cultural touchstone, scholars and artists have studied Barrie’s creative relationship with the sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies. Their friendship is the subject of the new movie Finding Neverland, starring Johnny Depp as Barrie in a Hollywood version of the often tragic story behind one of the century’s most popular works of children’s literature.

Barrie was born at the foot of the Scottish Highlands in 1860 in Kirriemuir, a town of weavers. Resting above the placid slopes that stretch to the North Sea, Kirrie, as it is known by the locals, lies between two wilderness glens that reach into the very heart of the mountains. Barrie was deeply influenced by his mother’s stories of the region’s past. He was exceptionally ambitious. When he was a boy, a Kirrie neighbor taught him a poem with the lines, “What can I do to be for ever known, / And make the age to come my own?” Years later, Barrie admitted it was an apt description of his own youthful striving. He received his degree from EdinburghUniversity in 1882, landed his first job as a writer with the Nottingham Journal in 1883, and arrived in London two years later, ready to risk all as a freelance writer. His tales of Scotland, inspired by his mother’s memories, caught on. Kirriemuir, rechristened as Thrums, was soon beloved by readers of prestigious British publications such as the National Observer and St.James’s Gazette.

Two collections of the Kirriemuir stories, Auld Licht Idylls and A Window in Thrums, brought Barrie modest literary recognition, but the publication in 1891 of The Little Minister, about a gypsy lass and the diminutive minister who loves her, placed him in the top ranks of British novelists. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to Barrie from Samoa in 1892: “I am a capable artist; but it begins to look to me as if you are a man of genius. Take care of yourself for my sake. It’s a devilish hard thing for a man who writes so many novels as I do, that I should get so few to read. And I can read yours, and I love them.”

By 1892, Barrie was also becoming a popular playwright. A young actress named Mary Ansell took a leading role in his Walker, London, and in 1894 she married its author. Adapting The Little Minister for the stage in 1897 cemented Barrie’s reputation as a playwright, both in London and on Broadway.

That year, on a stroll through KensingtonGardens, Barrie made the acquaintance of 5-year-old George and 4-year-old Jack Llewelyn Davies. The fascination was mutual. The boys found a childlike adult in the midst of stodgy Victorian England, and Barrie—who lived with his wife and a Saint Bernard named Porthos in London’s fashionable Gloucester Road— found a rapt audience for his fanciful tales, which transformed the vast London park into a fairyland. His audience grew over the following decade as George and Jack were joined by three younger brothers.

Peter Pan made his first appearance in Barrie’s 1902 novel, The Little White Bird, which centers on a wealthy older man who befriends a young couple and their growing son. The elderly gentleman tells the boy of an infant named Peter Pan, just 7 days old, who roams the paths of KensingtonGardens and has the ability to fly. Like the Pan of Greek mythology, this Peter is a happy-go-lucky child, playing on his pipes and enjoying life. But the Peter of the novel is a mere precursor of the character in the play. As Peter evolved in Barrie’s mind, he became the central character of a new drama, that of a boy who lives out his adventures in Never Land, where childish imaginings are made real in the person of pirates, Indians and mermaids—and no one grows old. There the Darling children— Wendy, Michael and John—must decide whether to remain forever young or face the responsibilities of maturity. When they finally say goodbye to Peter, they also say goodbye to childhood itself.

Barrie credited the Davies boys as his inspiration. “I suppose I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame,” Barrie wrote in a preface to the published play in 1928. “That is all he is, the spark I got from you.”

Barrie’s relationship with the entire family was a close one. When the boys’ father, Arthur, was diagnosed with cancer in June 1906, Barrie helped him through the illness until he succumbed in 1907. Focusing his attention on the boys and their widowed mother, Barrie neglected his own marriage, ultimately sending his wife into the arms of another man. When the adulterous affair became known, Mary Barrie insisted on divorce rather than reconciliation. Two days after the marriage was dissolved, in 1909, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies was herself diagnosed with cancer. Less than a year later she left her sons— now ranging in age from 6 to 17—orphaned and Barrie bereft.

Named their legal guardian, “Uncle Jim” became provider and mentor. He had taken a flat, high above the Thames, after his divorce, and it now became a second home for the boys. Barrie led them on fishing vacations in Scotland and sojourns to the Continent, and he saw them enrolled at Eton, Oxford and other leading schools. (I have found no evidence to support the speculation that his attraction to the boys was unhealthy or inappropriate. Nicholas, the youngest of the five, wrote in his 70s that “I’m glad I lived with that odd little man rather than living in poverty, or, for that matter, with virtually any other person I have ever known.”)

The Davies boys’ saga was far from charmed. George, the eldest, was killed in France during World War I. Michael, a budding poet particularly close to Barrie, drowned near Oxford in 1921 while still an undergraduate. In 1960, a long-depressed Peter Llewelyn Davies, the third oldest of the boys, threw himself before a London subway train. “ ‘Peter Pan’ Ruled a Suicide,” one headline put it. (Jack had died of emphysema a year earlier, and Nicholas, the youngest, succumbed to the same disease in 1980.) In a notebook entry just after Michael’s death, Barrie wrote, “It is as if long after writing ‘P. Pan’ its true meaning came to me—Desperate attempt to grow up but can’t.”

Barrie’s literary output lessened significantly after Michael Davies’ death. His last work for the stage, The Boy David (1936), tells the biblical story of David, Jonathan and King Saul. It closed after only 55 performances. Four months later, Barrie, a longtime smoker (an early work was titled My Lady Nicotine), died of pneumonia in London at the age of 77.

Though he had drawn parallels between Peter Pan and himself, Barrie was in at least one important way Peter’s opposite. He sought out responsibility, taking on the cares of others. He’d met explorer Robert Scott at a dinner party and formed a close friendship, becoming godfather to Scott’s son. Two and a half years later, when Scott lay freezing to death in the Antarctic, it was to Barrie whom he wrote, asking him to watch over his wife and son. Lady Cynthia Asquith, Barrie’s personal secretary and one of his closest friends in later life, wrote in her Portrait of Barrie, “His face continued to impress me as the most adult, the most experienced, I had ever seen, and each glance at the photograph of that six-years-old boy in braided and frogged velveteens . . . confirmed my suspicion that the creator of Peter Pan had been a case, not of arrested, but of precipitated development.”

Peter Pan has traveled a long way in 100 years. Barrie’s official biographer, Denis Mackail, wrote in The Story of J.M.B. that Nina Boucicault, the first actress to play Peter, was “[n]ot beautiful. Or you don’t think so for a minute or two. But then her voice and movements do rather more than the trick. If Barrie writes something that raises a slight shudder in print, Miss Boucicault only has to say it and your heart turns over three times while tears trickle from your eyes.”

Even before Boucicault was cast in the role, Barrie had his eye on American actress Maude Adams, who had already made a success of The Little Minister on Broadway. Initially he pictured her in the part of Wendy, but producer Charles Frohman convinced him to give her the title role. “I have written a play for children, which I don’t suppose would be much use in America,” Barrie wrote to Adams in 1904. Wendy “is rather a dear girl with ever so many children long before her hair is up and the boy is Peter Pan in a new world. I should like you to be the boy and the girl and most of the children and the pirate captain.” Casting Adams as Peter meant that a woman also had to be cast in the London première— and so a tradition was established that would continue for the better part of the century.

Barrie’s trust in Adams turned out to be well placed. “All New York may not believe in fairies,” the New York Times reported of the November 1905 opening of Peter Pan on Broadway, “but there was no doubt last night, when Tinker Bell was dying, that the audience . . . irrespective of age or condition, had gotten back very near to second childhood.”

No less an authority than Mark Twain added his two cents. “It is my belief that Peter Pan is a great and refining and uplifting benefaction to this sordid and money-mad age,” he wrote in a letter to Adams: “The next best play on the boards is a long way behind it as long as you play Peter.”

Adams returned regularly to the role for more than a decade, touring with near-missionary zeal. “How splendid all the accounts of your Peter are,” wrote Barrie, who never saw her in the role himself. “I feel sure you are the most entrancing little boy that ever was by sea or shore, and I hear things you do in the part which are so absolutely what Peter did that it makes me gay. There never was such a girl as you for finding out what her author was up to.”

Adams returned the compliment. “My childhood and girlhood had been spent with older people, and children had always been rather terrifying to me,” she wrote in a series of reminiscences gathered in Phyllis Robbin’s Maude Adams: An Intimate Portrait. “When one met the eyes of the little things, it was like facing the Day of Judgment. Children remained an enigma to me until, when I was a woman grown, Peter gave me open sesame; for whether I understood children or not, they understood Peter.”

In fact, Barrie had aimed the play—and his novelization of it, Peter and Wendy, published in 1911—at adults as well as children, and the original theatrical presentation contained a range of emotional experience that was often missing over the passing decades. Both the Disney film, released in 1953, and the Broadway musical that opened in 1954 omit a line central to Barrie’s vision. Peter, faced with the prospect of drowning in Mermaid’s Lagoon, declares: “To die will be an awfully big adventure.” Sandy Duncan, who starred in a 1979 revival of the musical, said that the death-as-adventure line was briefly reinstated during a pre-Broadway tour. “We were coming into New York with the show,” Duncan recalled, “and our producers came to see it and they said, No. The line was too dark for family audiences. That line, though, is the heart of the play.”

Cathy Rigby, the former Olympic gymnast, recalls that in the 1990 revival in which she starred on Broadway, Peter’s seemingly eager acceptance of death was included. “Back then it was a little bit much, but certainly nowadays the children don’t have a problem with that,” she said in an interview from her home in Southern California. In Rigby’s interpretation, it’s not a fascination with death that Peter experiences, but a “way of making something good out of something tragic,” she explained. “ ‘I’m going to make this an adventure,’ he says.”

The musical version of Barrie’s play, which became a vehicle for both Duncan and Rigby, also gave new life to Peter Pan himself when it opened on Broadway back in 1954. It redefined the character and enshrined him in the memories of American audiences. The production, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, owed much to a score that included lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Jule Styne. But it was Mary Martin’s legendary performance opposite Cyril Ritchard’s foppish Captain Hook that made this Peter Pan a pleasure. Indeed, the show was tailored for her. The operatic “Oh, My Mysterious Lady” was inserted to highlight the star’s coloratura range. The part of Liza, maid to the Darling family, was enhanced for Martin’s daughter, Heller Halliday. The pivotal reference to death was removed, and the loneliness of a boy trapped in youth was altogether forgotten in the star’s simple embodiment of Peter’s blissful persona.

In her autobiography, My Heart Belongs, Martin wrote: “Peter Pan is perhaps the most important thing, to me, that I have ever done in the theater. I cannot even remember a day when I didn’t want to be Peter. When I was a child I was sure I could fly. In my dreams I often did, and it was always the same: I ran, raised my arms like a great bird, soared into the sky, flew.”

Martin’s portrayal was joyous—and pervasive. She swept into American living rooms through live television broadcasts in 1955 and 1956 and a taped production, which debuted in 1960 and was rebroadcast sporadically into the early 1970s. Her performance reigned supreme until Sandy Duncan’s phenomenal success in the role. Duncan holds the record for portraying Peter on Broadway, with no fewer than 551 performances. “The director and I really committed to doing it as a boy,” Duncan says today. “Before that it was always a woman playing the part. Mary did it as a leading lady.” Duncan, the mother of two sons, says, “There’s a great vulnerability in young males, more than in young women. . . . They have such an innocence that you know is going to be lost and you can’t do anything about it.”

Rigby, who returned to the role this October, taking the show to 29 cities in what is billed as the 100th Anniversary Tour, says her performance has changed over the years. “I’m trying to continually make the character more an authentic child,” she said. “Alittle boy came up to me at the St. Louis Muny, which is this enormous theater. ‘You were great,’ he said, ‘and I really like what you did, but now that I’m close I can see you have wrinkles.’ No adult would do that. . . . ”

The play’s other characters have made their own mark over the century. Gerald du Maurier was the first actor to assay the role of Hook. His daughter, Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, remembered a sinister villain very different from the caricature portrayed in the Disney film or the Broadway musical. “Children were carried screaming from the stalls,” she wrote in Gerald: A Portrait. “And even big boys of twelve were known to reach for their mother’s hand in the friendly shelter of the boxes.”

Wendy, with more spunk and courage than brothers Michael and John, also stands in the ranks of classic characters. (Some critics have speculated that Barrie based the character on his mother.) Even her name broke new ground. It originated as Barrie’s transcription of a young admirer’s lisping, mispronounced nickname for him, “Friendy,” and became a fad. In 1954, Roger Lancelyn Green, author of the encyclopedic Fifty Years of Peter Pan, noted that out of “all the thousands of Wendys alive today, not one is more than fifty years old.”

Lately, Peter Pan’s metamorphosis seems only to have accelerated. In Steven Spielberg’s 1991 movie Hook, Robin Williams played a grown-up, fumbling Peter to Dustin Hoffman’s title villain. An animated Disney production, Return to Never Land, appeared in 2002. Last year, director P. J. Hogan conjured a live-action feature film actually titled Peter Pan starring Jeremy Sumpter as Peter. It returned in a large degree to Barrie’s original vision, depicting a self-involved and sometimes lonely boy, isolated from the world by his gift of eternal youth.

The new movie about Barrie, Finding Neverland, distorts some key facts—it kills off Arthur LlewelynDavies before Barrie even meets the family—but it will probably reignite interest in the writer and his work. (For an insightful exploration of Barrie and the boys who inspired him, nothing rivals Andrew Birkin’s J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys, recently reissued by Yale University Press.)

Most of Barrie’s writings have faded into the shadows. In the play Dear Brutus, written in 1917, strangers gathered at a country house are offered a second chance at life, but each tragically repeats his or her critical mistake. Mary Rose (1920) is a haunting play about a mother lost in the Scottish Hebrides. She returns home, un-aged, to find her infant son grown into a swaggering soldier.

Only Peter Pan has stood the test of time. It is Peter who will forever soar through the windows of the Darling nursery, creating himself anew for each generation. Perhaps it is flight that makes him so appealing; certainly it is flight that so elated his interpreters. “I wish I could express in words the joy I felt in flying,” Mary Martin wrote. “I loved it so. The freedom of spirit—the thing Peter always felt—was suddenly there for me. I discovered I was happier in the air than on the ground.” Cathy Rigby described the experience in words that Barrie would surely appreciate. “You have to remember to bring your harness,” she said, “because when you’re up there you don’t even know you have it on, or that there’s a wire on you. It feels like a giggle that starts at your toes and becomes a complete feeling of freedom and joy and danger.”

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