Analysis of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan

The secret of Peter Pan seems to be that it is not merely a children’s entertainment but a great play in its own right, a memorable theatrical experience, differing only in the nature of its appeal to the adult playgoer or to the child. And so it seems worth studying, not only for its remarkable stage history, but also as a piece of great literature: its background as a story as well as its foreground as a play. Like the other great stories of its kind, it was told first to a particular child or a group of children—but like them also it was invented to please the author and drew from the unsuspected depths of his memory and of his own deepest personality.

—Roger Lancelyn Green, Fifty Years of Peter Pan

James M. Barrie wrote several plays for adults, the best known of which are The Admirable Crichton (1902), Quality Street (1902), What Every Woman Knows (1908), and Dear Brutus (1917), as well as the theatrical version of his most celebrated novel, The Little Minister (1897). Barrie’s works for the stage were popular in their day, and some were later filmed (with varying degrees of success), but by the 1930s his plays had begun to seem less like the charming pastiches they were and more as quaint relics of middle-class Victorian and Edwardian sentimental sensibilities, lacking the intellectual and sociological heft of works by such contemporaries as George Bernard Shaw. Barrie’s plays are infrequently revived now. Only Peter Pan, the first important play written for children and in many ways the most sentimental of Barrie’s work, has continued to enchant both children and adults in numerous dramatic and musical stage, film, and television productions. Peter Pan has attained the status of what one critic has called a “legendary creation,” and the play and its central character have survived to confer upon Barrie and his “Boy Who Would Not Grow up” (the play’s subtitle) a reputation similar to that of Lewis Carroll and his Alice. Barrie’s particular Wonderland, which he called Neverland, with its pirates, Lost Boys, Indians, lagoons, and dueling captains, Hook and Peter Pan, has continued to work its magic on audiences not only because it is a world embodied in productions that are entertaining spectacles but also because this adventurous, storybook milieu is juxtaposed with a sweet idealization of family life and the tenderness and pain of parenthood to speak to a sense of childhood lost. In 1929 the Boston Transcript characterized Peter Pan’s appeal as an adult, as well as a children’s, play: “It is middle age’s own tragicomedy—the faint, far memories of boyhood and girlhood blown back in the bright breeze of Barrie’s imagination.”


Actress Betty Bronson (center) stars in the silent film Peter Pan (1924)

The inspiration for Peter Pan grew out of several singular experiences in Barrie’s life, as well as from his imagination. The ninth of 10 children in a family that lived in one small cottage, James Matthew Barrie was born on May 9, 1860, in Kirriemuir, Scotland. His father, David, was a handloom weaver; his mother, Margaret Ogilvy, the daughter of a stonemason, was known by her maiden name, according to Scottish tradition. She was the strongest influence on her third son, who would later produce a series of popular newspaper articles about her, as well as a titular biography, published in 1896, a year after her death. Although David Barrie had been poorly educated, he was hardworking, ambitious, and determined that his children should have every opportunity to receive an education. With careful planning the Barries were able to send their children to private schools and to college. Barrie’s eldest brother, Alexander, eventually became a bursar at Aberdeen University and one of the first of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools, and four of Barrie’s five sisters to survive childhood were schoolteachers before they married.

During his childhood Barrie played with a friend’s toy theater and acted out improvised dramas in the family’s little brick washhouse, a building he later identified as the original of the little house the Lost Boys build for Wendy in Peter Pan. He enjoyed Penny Dreadfuls—penny-a-number magazines featuring sensational fiction in serialized form—although when he later read a condemnation of this class of fiction in the morally conscientious children’s magazine Chatterbox, he buried his supply of them in a field. A turning point in Barrie’s life came at the age of seven, when his 14-year-old brother, David, a brilliant boy and his mother’s favorite, died in a skating accident while attending a private school run by Alexander Barrie. Margaret Ogilvy was inconsolable over the loss and became, in Barrie’s words, “delicate from that hour.” Young James attempted to take the place of his elder brother and spent much time in his mother’s room listening to her reminisce about her childhood. Margaret Ogilvy’s mother had died young, and the eight-year-old Margaret had been, as Barrie later wrote, “mistress of the house and mother to her little brother.” The young Margaret would become Barrie’s first model for Wendy Darling, the girl who mothered Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. At the same time, in Margaret Ogilvy’s memory, the dead son, David, was always the golden child who never grew up. The idea of youth frozen in time would inspire Barrie years later in the creation of Peter Pan. Mother and son also read together, beginning with Robinson Crusoe and continuing with other adventure stories, including the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, as well as R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, a tale of shipwrecked sailors and pirates. When the supply of books at the local library and bookshop was exhausted Barrie began writing his own adventure tales to entertain his mother.

At 13 Barrie was sent to Dumfries Academy, where he joined a make-believe pirate crew of boys and founded a school dramatic society. He wrote and produced an original drama, “Bandelero the Bandit” (1877), the style of which was based on the Penny Dreadfuls and Cooper stories he had read. The production caused a minor controversy when a local clergy-man denounced the piece as “grossly immoral,” a pronouncement that only served to bring welcome publicity to the drama society. At 17 Barrie left Dumfries Academy determined to become a writer, but his parents insisted he attend university and become a minister, as David would have done had he lived. With the help of his brother Alexander a family compromise was reached whereby James would study literature at Edinburgh University. Shy and self-conscious about his short stature of five feet, two inches, Barrie was unhappy during his first few terms at Edinburgh, but he eventually found a welcome niche as a freelance drama critic for a local newspaper. After graduating with an M.A. in 1883 Barrie wrote for the Nottingham Journal for a time and then went to London to try to earn a living as a freelance writer. His first popular success was with a series of semi-fictionalized articles of life in Kirriemuir, later collected in three volumes, Auld Licht Idylls (1888), A Window in Thrums (1889), and The Little Minister (1891). Barrie’s first commercially successful play was Walker, London, a comedy produced in 1892. In the cast was a young actress, Mary Ansell, whom Barrie married in 1894. The marriage was a childless and unhappy one, and the couple eventually divorced in 1909.

The spark that would result in the creation of Peter Pan was kindled by the friendships Barrie developed with various children, most notably the five sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, whom he had met while walking his St. Bernard (the prototype for the nursemaid character of Nana in the play) in Kensington Gardens. Barrie, with his flair for playacting and storytelling, became a great favorite of the boys, especially after the death of their father in 1907. Barrie’s close relationship with the Llewellyn Davies boys has led to questions of inappropriateness, but as his biographer Andrew Birkin has pointed out, Barrie was “a lover of childhood, but was not in any sexual sense the pedophile that some have claimed him to have been.” He was certainly, in his platonic way, in love with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the daughter of the writer George du Maurier and the sister of actor Gerald du Maurier, who would play the first Mr. Darling and Captain Hook in Peter Pan. When Sylvia died in 1910, Barrie became the boys’ guardian.

In 1902 Barrie published The Little White Bird, a novel that chronicles his growing friendship with the oldest Llewellyn Davies boy, George, in the character of David, the son of a penniless young couple. Barrie appears in the novel as Captain W, a lonely bachelor who plays the anonymous fairy godfather to the couple. Most important, the novel introduces the figure of Peter Pan, named for George’s baby brother, Peter. The character is featured in a story within the story and concerns a baby who flies out of its nursery to the island of the birds. When Peter returns home he finds the window barred against him and another baby in his place. Wendy also makes her first appearance in the novel, as Maisie, a little girl who stays in Kensington Gardens at night to watch Peter Pan and the fairies at play. Despite her temptation to live on the island with Peter she returns to her mother. At around this time the pirate games Barrie and the Llewellyn Davies boys played at the Barries’ country home, Black Lake Cottage, resulted in a self-published book, The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island, which featured photographs of the boys. Barrie, in his introduction to the first published version of Peter Pan in 1928, dedicates the play “To The Five,” and credits the Black Lake games he played with the boys for inspiring the work: “I suppose I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks producing a flame. That is all he is, the spark I got from you.”

Barrie was inspired to work on a fairy play of his own after taking the boys to see Bluebell in Fairyland, a work written and performed by Seymour Hicks (another future Mr. Darling/Hook). Although not very successful as art, the piece was an innovation in that it was an original play for children rather than an adaptation of a book or a pantomime (a comic spectacle with songs and speeches taken from fairy tales and nursery rhymes). In November 1903 Barrie began the first draft of what he initially titled “Anon, A Play.” After several changes and refinements (which continued up to the play’s opening and even in subsequent productions while Barrie was alive), Barrie took Peter Pan to actor-producer Herbert Beerbohm Tree, whom he visualized as Captain Hook. Tree disliked the play and told Barrie’s manager and backer, the American impresario Charles Frohman: “Barrie must be mad. He’s written four acts all about fairies, children, and Indians running through the most incoherent story you ever listened to; and what do you suppose? The last act is to be set on top of trees!” Tree would later say ruefully that he would probably be known to posterity as the producer who had refused Peter Pan. Certainly when the play opened on December 27, 1904, it was a spectacle of theatrical trickery, with stage flight attempted for the first time, as well as a variety of other special effects and elaborate scenery and staging. Peter Pan was an instant success in London and in New York, where it was produced in 1905 with Maude Adams in the title role.

The story of Peter Pan: Or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up concerns the titular motherless, half-magical boy, who, the audience learns, has frequently peered into the night nursery of the Darlings in Bloomsbury to watch the family life within. During one visit he has left his shadow behind; when Mr. and Mrs. Darling go out for the evening he comes back with his fairy friend, Tinker Bell, to retrieve it. The Darling daughter, Wendy, awakens and sews the shadow on for him. Despite the warning barks of the dog nursemaid, Nana (whom Mr. Darling had sent to the doghouse over the protestations of his wife), who fears the influence of the boy at the window, Peter teaches Wendy and her brothers, Michael and John, to fly and takes them to the Neverland, where Wendy becomes the mother of the Lost Boys who live underground and in the hollow trunks of trees. (Peter: “They are the children who fall out of their prams when the nurse is looking the other way. If they are not claimed in seven days they are sent far away to the Neverland. I’m captain.”) The children have adventures with Indians and pirates, the latter of which is led by dastardly Captain Hook, named for the steel hook he wears in place of the right hand that was bitten off by a crocodile, who, as Hook explains, “liked my arm so much . . . that he has followed me ever since . . . licking his lips for the rest of me.” There is a war between the pirates and the children, during which Hook and his men capture Wendy and the boys and imprison them on the pirate ship. Hook tries to poison Peter, but Tinker Bell drinks the draught and nearly dies. To save her Peter appeals to the audience to clap their hands if they believe in fairies. As the audience applauds, Tinker Bell’s light grows bright again, and Peter rushes off to save Wendy and the boys. The pirates walk the plank, the crocodile dispatches Hook, and the Darling children return home to their sorrowing parents. Mr. and Mrs. Darling adopt the Lost Boys, but Peter refuses to stay: “I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things. No one is going to catch me, lady, and make me a man. I want always to be a little boy and to have fun.” Realizing that Peter “does so need a mother,” Wendy convinces her mother to allow her to go to Peter each year for spring-cleaning at the little house the Lost Boys built for her that now nestles in the treetops. In a coda to Peter Pan, titled “An Afterthought,” first presented in 1908 and featured as an extra chapter, “When Wendy Grew Up,” in the 1911 novel, Peter and Wendy, the adult Wendy sadly realizes she can no longer go with Peter and instead sends her daughter Jane with him to do the spring-cleaning. For his part Peter has forgotten the adventures he has had with Wendy: for him there is neither a past nor a future, only the joy of the present moment.

Barrie’s genius in creating Peter Pan was to synthesize the fairy tale and the adventure tale—the two basic elements of popular children’s literature— into a single work that uses the entire space of the stage to create an exciting, but ultimately benevolent, fantasy world juxtaposed with the safe and secure world of the family. The emotional and psychological conflicts within the play, sensed by children and understood by adults, concern the struggle for possession of Wendy as a mother, a daughter, and a spouse (Wendy and Peter play mother and father to the boys) and the contradictory human desire to be both free from responsibility and part of a family and society. Peter Pan speaks to these truths, even as it joyously captures the elemental child in each of us.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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