“You have the secret of making us grownup people feel like the children for whom you wrote Peter Pan or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. . . . My advice to everyone who has children is to take them to the Duke of York’s Theatre without delay. Those who have no children should immediately borrow some for the afternoon” (Bruce K. Hanson, The Peter Pan Chronicles [New York: Birch Lane Press, 1993], 49).
This critic’s review from The King (January 14, 1904), heralded the early success of one of the theatre’s most beloved plays. It also reinforces the message that, although written as a children’s play, Peter Pan provides a vehicle for adults to time travel to the Neverland of their youth.
Peter Pan began not as a play or a book, but by the spontaneous combustion of imaginary adventures invented and played out by Sir James M. Barrie and a young family of boys who adopted him as a surrogate uncle. Barrie met the young Davies family while walking his St. Bernard in Kensington Park. He told the boys, Jack, George, Peter, and Michael, of a young boy who fell out of his pram as an infant and now lived in the park and was friends with fairies and animals. When Peter Pan evolved to become a play, Barrie explained to his young friends about the modeling of the hero of the play “I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame. . . .That is all he is, the spark I got from you.”
Peter Pan first appeared in print in a book written by Barrie entitled The Little White Bird. Peter is a combination of classic characters and popular heroes of the day. Barrie’s genius was taking the bits and pieces of what already existed in the public psyche and marketing Peter Pan as an existing legend. Barrie wrote in The Little White Bird: “If you ask your mother whether she knew about Peter Pan when she was a little girl, she will say, ‘Why of course, I did, child.’ . . . Then if you ask your grandmother whether she knew about Peter Pan when she was a girl, she also says, ‘Why of course, I did, child’” (Hanson, 10). Peter Pan was familiar because he contained so many elements of childhood fantasy that were universal whether you were a child in 1904 or 1994. Who hasn’t experienced larger than life bullies, real or imaginary, and fantasized about vanquishing them with cocky assurance, as Peter does Captain Hook and his pirates? Who would not cheer the hero-child who is wise enough to know you can banish wolves by looking at them through your legs?
Peter Pan entered the theatre as a perennial Christmas pantomime. Though steeped in tradition, British pantomime may be new to many American audiences. Traditionally, the pantomime is based on familiar stories with stock characters woven loosely together with music, magic, clowns, and spectacular effects. A young actress typically portrays the young male hero. [Editor’s Note: In the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production, Peter Pan is played by a male actor.]
Though Peter Pan began as a Christmas pantomime, it found its way through the years to London and Broadway stages, silent film, television, and movie adaptations. Barrie created an essence in Peter Pan that molds itself to the stamp of individual performers without losing its universal chord. Indeed, Peter Pan was often adapted to showcase an individual performer’s unique abilities. Dozens of actresses have acted the role of Peter. In London, legends such as Elsa Lanchester, Glynis Johns, Hayley Mills, and Maggie Smith and, in America, Maude Adams, Eva Le Gallienne, Jean Arthur, Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan, Cathy Rigby, and Mia Farrow have given their distinctive interpretations. Reviews of the many actresses’ performances ranged with adjectives like, “tomboy,” “fairy-like,” “athletic,” “boyish,” “ephemeral,” and “puckish.”
From it’s beginnings, although the essence of Peter Pan is the same, the play itself changed, evolved, and returned to the original, only to change again. In the original play, all the lost boys return to their mothers and Wendy is shown returning to the treetops to do Peter’s spring cleaning.
For the American premiere in 1906, a scene with Peter singing “Sally in Our Alley” and a new act entitled “Marooner’s Rock or the Mermaid Lagoon” were added. The material highlighted the musical talents of Maude Adams, and gave Peter a touching moment as he faces destruction, to say, “It must be a great adventure to die.” This act has been added and deleted from the play many times through the years.
In 1913-14, audiences began to question what happened to Wendy and Peter as Wendy grew older. A final scene was added at this time featuring a grown up Wendy with her hair piled on top of her head. We are introduced to Jane, Wendy’s daughter who poignantly takes Wendy’s place in Peter Pan’s life.
Just as Maude Adams created a Peter Pan to highlight her talents, Jean Forbes-Robertson also added her touch to Peter Pan by introducing the lines, “You mustn’t touch me. You must never touch me,” as Wendy rushes to comfort a saddened Peter. She felt this line punctuated Peter’s fairy-like status and alienation from the rest of us mere mortals.
In 1924, Peter Pan became a silent movie.
Eva Le Gallienne revolutionized Peter Pan in the 1930s with her Civic Repertory Theater production. She was the first to add a touch of athleticism to Peter Pan and spearheaded the development of a better flying system so she could soar out over the audience
In the 1950s, Peter Pan became a vehicle to showcase another major talent, Mary Martin. Thus, Peter Pan changed again and became a highly successful Broadway musical.
Peter Pan is nearing a century old now. The boy who wouldn’t grow up has aged very well. Perhaps it’s because even as adults, we still succumb to the invitation of Barrie: “If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape, and the colours become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire. But just before they go on fire you see the lagoon. This is the closest you ever get to it on the mainland. Just one heavenly moment; if there could be two moments you might see the surf and hear the mermaids singing” (Peter Pan [New York: Signet Classics, 1987], 86).