There are a few stories of childhood in our literature that are universally recommended for their charm and wholesomeness. Winnie-the-Pooh is one, so are Heidi, Pippi Longstocking, The Wind in the Willows, and a few others. Peter Pan is another, and perhaps right at the top of the list. This is remarkable, because when you think about it, Peter Pan is really quite peculiar. It’s the story of a gang of boys on a fantasy island fighting pirates and redskins all day, living underground all night, led by a boy fiercely determined to never grow up, and all of them yearning only for one thing—a mother. That’s not a storyline likely to get a miniseries these days, but there it is, and the more closely you look, the stranger it gets.
My own first exposure to Peter Pan, like most everyone’s, was the not very strange Disney animated film of 1953, now a classic of its kind, and one of the movies that established the Disney brand. A year later came the delightful Mary Martin musical, filmed and broadcast for television, and then revived often with stars like Sandy Duncan and Cathy Rigby. After that came the many spinoffs in film—The Lost Boys, Hook, and Finding Neverland, along with the very successful prequel novels beginning with Peter and the Starcatchers. It’s fair to say that Peter Pan has had a richer and more varied history than any other hero of a children’s novel. He is not only a star of page, stage, and screen, he also has given his name to an entire syndrome that to one degree or another has afflicted many of the guys I know.
Peter, in other words, is quite a boy—except when he’s a girl, as he has almost always been in stage versions beginning with the first production in 1904. He’s a little hard to pin down. He first appeared as a seven day old boy in James Barrie’s novel, The Little White Bird, but he quickly put on a few years before becoming the title character in Barrie’s play. The stage version was derived from the British pantomimes, still seen across the pond during the Christmas holidays. The pantomimes are not silent mine plays, they are children’s musical comedies loosely based on stories like Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Ali Baba, filled with color, spectacle, magic, and special effects, including explosions, smoke, and air travel. In the English pantos, the leading young man is always played by a girl, who must overcome an extravagant, lavishly costumed villain— a wicked stepmother, an ogre, a demon king, or better yet, a pirate with a nasty hook for a right hand. So Peter Pan from the outset belonged to a well established tradition, and yet it was entirely original, being more personal, more inventive, more deeply imaginative and resonant than any of its forebearers. Barrie kept on revising his play; the stage version wasn’t published until 1928 after extensive changes, additions, and subtractions. The author himself kept on discovering what his story was about— its resonant chords of innocence, childhood, motherhood, and incipient sexuality, were at different times heightened or toned down, rejected, and then re-introduced.
There is no single definitive version of Peter Pan— it’s a work with a more complex textual history than any Shakespeare play. My own re-acquaintance with the story came with Barrie’s novel, first published seven years after the play’s debut, exactly 100 years ago. It quickly became my favorite version, and if not definitive it is certainly the most complete and amplified Peter Pan that we have. It has all the incidents and most of the dialogue of the stage play, but it also has a narrative voice which is certainly the author’s own. In the novel we have not just the story, but the author’s take on it—sometimes playful, sometimes slyly ironic, sometimes partisan to the point of taking sides. The narrator tells a story in a way that engages children and grown-ups alike but differently, and he brings an entirely new dimension to this most marvelous, funny and charming of adventures. In the novel we are simultaneously plunged into the world of pure child’s play and also made fully aware of how we all must leave childhood behind—the clock in the croc tolls for Captain Hook, and it also tolls for thee. In considering a new adaption of Peter Pan for the stage, I began with a desire to keep this narrative voice, and in keeping with the theatrical traditions associated with the play, the narrator is now a she, and she will be with you all the way to Neverland and back. Like you, she will be re-discovering the story. You will be glad of her.
Wendy is still a girl, just as she always has been, quite a young girl who is poised and well prepared to be both a grown up and a mother in her next decade or so. Peter, however, will be a boy, an actual boy—or rather a man who is still a boy, like most of the men you know. He’s everything you remember from your watered down versions of the story, and also something more: volatile, sometimes cruel, often dangerous, fickle, and oblivious. The lost boys themselves are now very old boys, so old and infirm they are now living in a veteran’s nursing home. Here they all are: Tootles, Curly, Nibs, Slightly, and the Twins, joined by Wendy, Michael, and John. How this came to pass I cannot perfectly explain. Perhaps it’s partly because we know the older we get the more we return to a mental state of childhood. Let Barrie explain: “I don’t know if you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become extremely interesting, but catch them drawing a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island; for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of color here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose.”
It occurred to me that as a zigzagging old boy myself, that I knew a few other not quite so old boys who I’ve been playing with for much of my grown up life. And since I would quite like to keep on playing with them, I gathered them up and invited them into a room. Then we opened the book and the window, and let in this wonderful magic story which entirely inhabits our nursing home for one magic night, the Night of Nights we might call it.
Peter Pan begins as easily as a dream; before we know it we are in the Darling living room, with a father, a mother, one girl, two boys, and a dog who is also a nurse. From there we effortlessly fly to the Neverland, where the lost boys are looking for Peter, the pirates, are looking for the lost boys, the redskins are looking for the pirates and the crocodile is looking for Hook. Barrie’s Neverland is a delightful place, but a little more threatening at bedtime: “then, unexplored patches arose in it, and spread; black shadows moved about in them; the roar of the beasts was quite different now, and above all you lost the certainty you would win.” Our production like the novel will tell Barrie’s story—-every word spoken is his. It’s a story that feels like a dream, a child’s dream, for sure, but also the dream of grown-ups who have been children once and at times, still might be. There is an elusive kiss in the corner of Mrs. Darling’s mouth, and there is a smile in the corner of Barrie’s wonderful narrative, and we hope to finally get the kiss and give the smile. But as you have just heard, there are also some shadows in the nursing home, so you will be grateful for the night-lights and miss them when they go out. The book is a masterpiece, and we hope it will come alive for you again in a remote land not all that far away.