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.