Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, became known to the world in the play of the same name by Sir James Barrie, which was first acted in 1904 and has since been put on in London virtually every year, excluding wartime, at Christmas. One of Barrie’s friends had five small sons, and the story of Peter Pan’s adventures grew out of the long series of make-believe games that the author and the boys played together. There is a well-known statue in Kensington Gardens in London of Peter Pan playing a pipe, standing on a pedestal around which are carved figures of children and animals. Barrie himself arranged for this to be put up and gave the profits from all performances of the play, and from the book made of it, to the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. Barrie’s own life was touched by tragedy as well as genius, while the figure of Peter Pan has been endlessly reinterpreted through drama, film and fiction. There is the popular image of Disney’s laughing, jovial character from the animated film, the ‘grown-up’ Peter from the live action Hook, and the ‘re-imagining’ of the character in the more recent Neverland TV mini-series. What these modern conceptions of the character seem to miss, however, is that the original Peter Pan was a far darker, more ambiguous character than his more recent portrayals would seem to suggest – as perhaps befits his tragic origins.
James Matthew Barrie was born in Scotland in 1860, the son of a hand loom weaver who went on to be educated at the prestigious University of Edinburgh. Although he was a respected journalist who was made a baronet and received several honorary degrees, it was his internationally and abidingly famous children’s play Peter Pan which really shot him to superstardom. Few who watched the play realised, however, that the notion of a boy who would never grow up was, tragically, based on Barrie’s older brother, who died in an ice-skating accident the day before he turned 14, and thus always stayed a young boy in his mother’s mind. Barrie never described Peter’s appearance in detail, even in the novel Peter and Wendy, leaving much of it to the imagination of the reader and the interpretation of anyone adapting the character. Barrie mentions in Peter and Wendy that Peter Pan still had all of his baby teeth. He describes him as a beautiful boy with a beautiful smile, ‘clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that flow from trees’. In the play, Peter’s outfit is vaguely described as made of autumn leaves and cobwebs. Barrie is, however, far more forthcoming with regard to Peter’s personality, describing him as having a nonchalant, devil-may-care attitude, being fearlessly cocky when it comes to putting himself in danger. Peter’s name, attire, playing of the flute and mercurial character thus strongly suggest the character of the trickster god Pan from Classical mythology.
According to Barrie’s story, all children, when they are little, would like never to have to grow up, but to be children forever in a wonderful, imaginary land of adventure. This was just what Peter Pan was able to do, for he had escaped from ordinary life and lived in the Never Never Land, a country of fairies and other story-book creatures. There Peter had endless adventures with redskins and wild beasts, as well as battles with the pirates commanded by the terrifying Captain Hook. Sometimes Peter would come to the real world and take real children back with him to the Never Never Land, and in the play it was the Darling family – Wendy, John and Michael – who went with him and shared his adventures. With Peter too were a number of Lost Boys who had no mothers and could not get back to the ordinary world. During her visit Wendy Darling looked after them and became a mother to them. Peter was very sure of himself and very brave (or foolhardy) when it came to danger. In one adventure, when he thought that he was going to be drowned, he memorably said “To die will be an awfully big adventure”. Notably, at the end of the play, when the Darling family (including Wendy) go back to their home and their parents, Peter returns to the Never Never Land to live as a boy forever. Perhaps in common with his fictional hero, Barrie seemed to demonstrate a predilection for fantasy over the often harsh reality of his own life. His marriage to the actress Mary Ansell in 1894 was followed by divorce in 1909. In his own lifetime his whimsy was deemed unfashionable and came to obscure his best work, at least in the eyes of the critics.
The legacy of Peter Pan, however, has remained undimmed and the character is as popular and well known now as he was when Barrie was alive. In addition to the two distinct works of prose and drama by Barrie, the character has been featured in a variety of media and merchandise, both adapting and expanding on Barrie’s works. Barrie’s story has also influenced a number of other writers. J R R Tolkien’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter once speculated that Tolkien’s impressions of a production of Barrie’s Peter Pan in Birmingham in 1910 “may have had a little to do with” his original conception of the Elves of Middle Earth. The character of Peter Pan has been embraced internationally, not just in the English-speaking world. Six other statues cast from the same mould as the original in Kensington Gardens have been erected around the world in locations as diverse as Liverpool, Brussels, New Jersey, Perth, Toronto and Newfoundland, while the character is just as well known in Japan and India as it is in the UK or the USA. Barrie passed away in 1937 but his most famous creation has, much as he intended, never changed, aged or died.