May 9, 1860– J.M. Barrie:
“When the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.”
Peter Pan has been a favorite story of mine since early childhood. A free spirited and mischievous young boy who can fly and never grows up, Peter Pan spends his never-ending childhood having adventures on the mythical island of Neverland as the leader of the Lost Boys, interacting with fairies, pirates, mermaids, Indians, and occasionally ordinary children from the world outside Neverland. The book and one of several musical versions have played an important role in my life. The annual television viewing of the 1954 musical version starring Mary Martin was an event that I looked forward to as a child. I was simply mesmerized by this production.
While there was never an incident during the flying sequences, provided by the famous Foy Family, I was dropped, with the counter weights adding to the descent, during a picture taking session between the matinee and evening performance of Peter Pan, when I played John in the 1965. I broke my nose during the fall, but I still went on for that evening’s performance. 55-years later, the break is still evident as part of the character of my rather large proboscis.
Peter Pan, the modern era musical is mostly by Moose Charlap, with additional music by Jule Styne, and most of the lyrics were written by Carolyn Leigh, with additional lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The original 1954 Broadway production, with Martin as Peter and Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook, earned Tony Awards for both stars. It was followed by NBC telecasts of it in 1955, 1956, and 1960 with the same stars, plus several rebroadcasts of the 1960 telecast. In 2014, the musical was broadcast on NBC featuring several unnecessary new numbers. It starred Allison Williams and Christopher Walken. I refused to watch it.
The 1954 version has enjoyed many revivals, including 1979 on Broadway starring Sandy Duncan and George Rose, running for 554 performances. Another revival was mounted in 1990, starring Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby and J. K. Simmons. Rigby was quite good in the role and toured in it for the next thousand years.
I am a fan of the charming film Finding Neverland (2004) with Johnny Depp doing a bang-up job of portraying Barrie as a charming hero, devoted to large dogs and small children. No one pooped on any bed in the making of this film. In the film, Barrie is seen as a quirky little man who was celebrated by his contemporaries as a genius with a great heart. The film seems to have gotten the story right. In 2015, it was presented as an unnecessary big Broadway musical starring Matthew Morrison and featuring Kelsey Grammer, with a noisy rock infused score. It received middling reviews, zero Tony Award nominations but enjoyed boffo box-office.
The character of Peter Pan first appeared in the Barrie novel The Little White Bird in 1902. Peter Pan was first presented onstage in London in December 1904. A 37-year-old female played Peter, a tradition that has endured. The mother of the real Peter, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies had a brother, matinee idol Gerald du Maurier, who played both Captain Hook and Mr. Darling.
Fearing that the sophisticated London opening night audience would be unresponsive, Barrie told the orchestra in the pit to put down their instruments and clap their hands at the moment where Peter turns to the audience and says:
“If you believe in fairies, wave your handkerchiefs and clap your hands.”
When the woman playing Peter begged to save the life of mischievous fairy Tinkerbell, the audience response was so overwhelming she burst into tears.
The handsome barrister, Arthur Llewelyn Davies, Sylvia’s husband, was still very much alive when Barrie entered the lives of the Llewelyn Davies family shortly after moving to London. Barrie:
“There never was a simpler and happier family until the coming of Peter Pan.”
Barrie first met George and Jack, the two oldest of the five Llewelyn Davies boys, as they played in Kensington Gardens, close to their parents’ house. Barrie had a wife, a pretty young actor named Mary Ansell, but after four years of marriage, they were still childless, instead lavishing their affections on Porthos, their St. Bernard.
Arthur Llewelyn Davies died of cancer in 1907. Sylvia died three years later of lung cancer, leaving behind their five children who Barrie adored. He unofficially adopted the boys after the parents were gone.
Many rumors through the past century have suggested that Barrie had more than a fatherly interest in the Llewelyn Davies boys. But my own research shows that Barrie was essentially asexual and probably impotent. He was a lover of children, but he was not a pedophile, unlike Alice In Wonderland (1865) author Lewis Carroll (real name, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), who was almost certainly a heavily repressed pedophile. Barrie was a lover of childhood, but not in any sexual sense. Barrie’s desire seemed to be not to corrupt boys into adult desire, but to join them in eternal boyhood.
Still, the more than 2,000 letters between Barrie and his favorite Llewelyn Davies boy, Michael, were burned by his brother, Peter, in 1952.
I don’t believe that a writer in this century could never publish Peter Pan without accusations of pedophilia. Yet Barrie, unlike the manner of Lewis Carroll and his nude photographs of little girls, was consciously and curiously innocent. Barrie’s snapshots of the Llewelyn Davies boys frolicking naked on the beach and the cowboy and pirate games he made up for them were a way to enjoy the pleasures of fatherhood without having to actually have sex with a woman. The boys gave Barrie a way to deal with the frustrations that obsessed him.
This story on the background of Peter Pan does not end happily: George, the oldest Llewelyn Davies boy, died in Flanders in 1915, one of the millions of young men killed in World War I. Michael, the model for Peter Pan, drowned with his male lover while a student at Oxford in 1921. Their deaths are believed to have been the result of a suicide pact. The bodies were found clinging to each other in an embrace. Although Peter Pan was a composite of all the Llewelyn Davies brothers, Michael is supposed to have been the closest to Barrie’s vision of the boy who would never grow old.
Ironically, the real Peter, who hated to have his name associated with “that terrible masterpiece”, became a publisher. He committed suicide by throwing himself under a train in a London subway station. He was 63 years old. Newspaper headlines read: “Peter Pan’s Death Leap” and “The Boy Who Never Grew Up Is Dead”.
In Barrie’s play, at the end of Act III, Peter Pan says:
“To die will be an awfully big adventure.”
Peter Pan is a cultural icon. In addition to two distinct works by Barrie, the character has been featured in a variety of media and merchandise, both adapting and expanding on Barrie’s works. These include two Broadway musicals, a 1953 animated film, a 2003 live-action film, a television series and many, many other works.
Barrie gave the rights to Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Orphaned Children, which continues to benefit from the royalties generated from them, ensuring that the fairy dust of his writing would be sprinkled over kids in need forever.
Barrie left this world for Neverland in 1937, gone from pneumonia. He was 77 years old.
Before I gave up acting as a profession, Captain Hook remained my most coveted role. I never got to play him. In the 1980s, I found an autographed copy of Peter Pan in a locked case at a used bookstore in University District of Seattle. I couldn’t justify the $175 price tag, but I was not able shake off the feeling that it was meant to be mine. I would check on the book through the years, but when I finally and passionately decided to own it, it was gone from the case. The bookstore owner denied that it had ever been in the store.