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Peter Pan: Myth and Fantasy

By Angel M. Pilkington
From Midsummer Magazine, 2000

 

Some stories are so powerful that they become myths. “Peter Pan, whose horned cap, rural attire, . . . and pan pipes are the only remnants of his descent from the Greek centaur, . . . could not have come about without the cultural obsession with Pan” (Jackie Wullschlager, Inventing Wonderland [New York: The Free Press, 1995], 112). As an Edwardian god, Pan is a hero who never ages and has a wild and playful spirit similar to a child; Peter Pan, who in many ways was modeled after the mythical god, has been entrancing audiences for nearly one hundred years with magical creatures such as fairies and mermaids. “Peter Pan is a wish-fulfillment story about the triumph of youth over age which caught the mood of the new young century” (Wullschlager 126 ). It is a child's fantasy of war where the evil Captain Hook and his pirates are defeated by Peter Pan and the Lost Boys.

Peter Pan was based on a novel written by Sir James Matthew Barrie called The Little White Bird; Barrie liked the character Peter so much that he developed him into the play Peter Pan. Unexpectedly, Peter Pan or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up was a tremendous success when it first premiered in 1904. “Peter Pan has broken into the fourth dimension of imagination” (Bruce K. Hanson, The Peter Pan Chronicles [New York: Birch Lane Press, 1993], 9). Barrie is one of the writers from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century who transformed children’s literature with their stories of childhood fantasy. He has been grouped with Lewis Carroll, who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows; and A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner. Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and Barrie's Peter Pan were both about the hedonistic lives of little boys. Barrie and the other writers developed their work by telling fantasy stories about children, to the children who were closest to them.

The Darling family in Peter Pan is based on a friend of Barrie's, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, and her family. Barrie not only invented Peter Pan by making up stories for the Davies children, but he also named the boys in Peter Pan after them. Also, the name Wendy was invented by a little girl named Margaret who called Barrie what sounded like Wendy, but in reality was “my friendy.” Barrie became friends with the Davies children and would play with them in Kensington Park; he never had children of his own, so he tried desperately to join the Davies family. “Now Barrie could be part of a whole family, a surrogate father to the boys and confidant to Sylvia without any fear of intimacy. He knew she was very much in love with her husband” (Hanson 24). Barrie's fear of growing up kept him from wanting a complete relationship with a woman. “He. . . could still barely talk to a girl without twisting his tongue into knots. He always described himself as a ‘man’s man,’ and his happiest pleasures continued to be boyish” (Wullschlager 120). In 1912 Barrie hired Sir George Frampton to make a statue of Peter Pan. Barrie gave Frampton a photograph of Michael, who was Barrie's favorite Davies boy, as a guide to make the statue. As a sample of Barrie's boyish behavior, he put the statue out in the middle of the night because he wanted people to believe it was magic; the statue is still located in the Kensington Gardens in London where it was originally placed.

Indeed, Barrie was sometimes criticized as the man who would not grow up. In a biography of his mother, Margaret Ogilvy, Barrie said, “Nothing that happens after we are twelve matters very much” (cited in Wullschlager 107). Peter Pan is considered, in some ways, a self-portrait of Barrie; he was a man who didn't want to grow up. Since he was not able to stay a boy forever, he invented Peter Pan, who will be eternally young. It is believed by some that the death of his older brother, David, caused Barrie to wish he could remain a child forever. When Barrie was a child, his brother David died in an accident, and, to console his mother, the young James tried to become just like David by wearing his clothes and mimicking his whistle. Barrie once said of his brother David: “’When I became a man, he was still a boy of thirteen.’ But he, too, in a different way failed to grow up” (Wullschlager 119).

Women are often cast in the role of Peter Pan, and it may be because of Barrie’s love for children. He used to take the Davies children to English pantomimes: “For Christmas of 1901, Barrie treated the Davies boys to another pantomime, Bluebell in Fairyland. . . . The English pantomimes were presented as a holiday treat for children. They included songs, comedy, a harlequin clown, magic, flying and spectacular effects. . . . The principal boy was played by a woman rather than a male child as she would be able to handle the many lines and also appear convincingly as a young male” (Hanson 25-–26). Seeing how amused the children were with the pantomime, Barrie thought he could certainly write one—and there has certainly never been another pantomime like Peter Pan.

The first actress to play Peter was Nina Boucicault in 1904; Pauline Chase played Peter from the 1906–07 season to the 1914–15 season. Barrie did not forget these early actresses; in fact, Pauline Chase was his favorite actress, and he used Chase and Boucicault as examples for the new actresses. Barrie told new actresses “that Peter should be a lovable tomboy, as . . . Pauline Chase portrayed him . . . or . . . he must be the whimsical, fairy creature that Nina Boucicault made him” (Hanson 31). Some people have objected to the pantomime tradition, and Peter Pan has been criticized because the leading male role often goes to a woman. Giles Gordan said, “Let us never see a gal as Peter again” (Hanson 239). After Sandy Duncan played Peter Pan, she said: “When I was doing it there was a lot of encouragement to be Sandy Duncan doing Peter Pan. I said if I'm going to do it I'd like to do it as much as possible like a boy” (Hanson 229). Another legacy from pantomimes is that there has always been music in Peter Pan even though Barrie did not write Peter Pan as a musical. The first musical version of Peter Pan starred Maude Adams in 1905, and other adaptations followed.

In the words of Bruce K. Hanson, “With the exception of Hamlet, no other role has been as coveted by so many actors as has Peter.” He also says, “There are at least three reasons why people of all ages enjoy Peter Pan--the play, the flying, and Peter Pan himself” (Hanson 17). J.M. Barrie created a masterpiece with Peter Pan, the magical, imaginary world of the Neverland, where people don't grow old, where mythical creatures exist, and where in a world of good versus evil, good always triumphs.

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