Peter Pan at 100: one of the great destructive myths of our time.
Peter Pan premiered a few years after the death of Queen Victoria, but the society which so rapturously received the play was still largely distinguished by that unnatural combination of tight-lipped circumspection and slobbering sentimentality which we recognize as Victorianism at its unexamined worst. 'The Victorians' slightly hysterical exaltation of innocence as the greatest of all possible human states didn't pass away until the 1960% being replaced by a social ethos that is, if anything, even more fantastically life-denying and infantile. I allude to the aging boomers and hippies with their Botox and hair dye and round-the-clock oldies stations, their pathetic conviction that Forever Young is not an oxymoron but a slogan we should all try to live by.
Peter Pan's poisonous undertones of willful inversion went almost completely unremarked by those first audiences who saw the new play. Novelist and playwright, Anthony Hope (of Prisoner of Zenda fame) was quite alone at the December 1904 premiere in reactively longing to invoke a little slaughter of the innocents, commenting with a shudder after sitting through three hours of fairies, baby-talk and cloying make-believe, "Oh, for an hour of Herod."
Despite all the sappy accretions that one longs to scrape off the tale with a blunt knife, Peter Pan retains a near mythological power because of the truth at its heart. Some time around or before the onset of puberty, any reasonably sensitive children raised in a halfway nurturing home undergo a usually momentary failure of nerve when they begin to discern just how hard and demanding and thankless life seems to be for adults. They see that this passive, paradisal world they've occupied for lo, these past 10 or 12 years (all pressing needs tended to by others, the security net firmly in place should they ever slip), is eventually going to be drawn away. With great trepidation, they recognize that someday they will have to start earning their own way forward.
This is the insecure moment when kids sometimes announce to their parents that they've decided they're never going to move out. And they can be disappointed by morn or dad's tepid response to this plan, which usually runs something along the lines of, "That's nice dear. Now let's wait and see how you feel about that when you're a little older, shall we.?"
It was J.M. Barrie's particular genius in Peter Pan that he took that childish hesitation about growing up to the next level, whimsically pretending that there could ever be any choice in the matter at all. He created a deathless, sexless, moneyless Neverland. A place where thinking happy thoughts could make you fly, where fervent wishing could revive an expiring fairy; where well-mannered children ran around in the skins of animals that they couldn't remember killing, and sat down to imaginary feasts that were just as sustaining as real dinners.
In addition to imagining this childish land of self-centred wish fulfillment, Barrie also poked gentle fun at its utter impracticality. And he even managed to wring a few drops of pathos out of his title character's plight, affording us occasional glimpses of just how shallow and tedious life would quickly become without adult commitments and consequences. So where did this haunted vision of an adult-free universe come from?
When Barrie was six, his older brother died, plunging his mother into hysterical grief which, try as he might, the budding writer could never assuage. In death the brother had attained a maternal approval which the still-living Barrie soon realized he'd never be able to match. Hauling around a mother complex as big as a Winnebago trailer, the always diminutive author quickly came to see growing up as a kind of inevitable corruption, an unavoidable state of original sin. He recorded in his notebook as a young man: "Greatest horror--dream I am married--wake up shrieking."
Not too surprisingly, the man who wrote, "Nothing that happens after we are 12 matters very much," made a perfectly useless husband in one of the most under-attended marriages on record, eventually driving his neglected and childless wife to adultery, divorce and remarriage. Part of his ex-wife's grievance against him was that Barrie had become so unwholesomely fixated on the Llewelyn-Davies family who lived just next door--or at least, their children.
After both parents were carried off by cancer within three years of each other, Barrie, incredibly, became the sole legal guardian of the five young Llewelyn-Davies boys to whom he dedicated Peter Pan. One child was killed in the First World War, two others eventually killed themselves, while one of the surviving pair who made old bones would later remember their surrogate father as, "Far, far the most pathetic figure in all the world."
A hundred years after Peter Pan's premiere, the idea of 'the boy who would not grow up' is still in the cultural atmosphere as much as ever. Just lately, mention of Pan or Barrie makes it hard not to think of that other not very convincing father-figure who regularly haunts our entertainment news reports ... used to be black and quite magnificently talented ... seems to have a thing for young boys ... lives in a home that's laid out like an amusement park ... what does he call the place?
Herman Goodden is a full-time Journalist. He writes from London, Ontario
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|Date:||Dec 1, 2004|
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