Loved by adults as much as by children, Peter Pan portrays the joys of perpetual childhood. Even in a realistic age, few can resist the mischievous Peter and his followers, for through them adults can live again those carefree childhood days filled with dreams and play. The special magic of Sir James Barrie’s writing is in its ability to make dreams seem real, and for that reason this charming, whimsical play marks a high point of pure fantasy in the modern theater.
Barrie insisted that he did not recall having written Peter Pan, his most famous work and probably the greatest of all children’s plays. In fact, the final stage version grew over a number of years in a haphazard fashion. It began as a six-chapter segment in a novel for adults, The Little White Bird (1902), then became, in turn, a three-act stage play (1904); a novel based on the earlier prose version (1906); a longer novel, titled Peter and Wendy (1911), taken from the play and with an extra chapter, “When Wendy Grew Up”; and finally the well-known stage version in 1928. In spite of all these versions and revisions, Barrie may have been right in saying that he was not the primary author of Peter Pan. As he explains in his dedication, the real genesis of Peter Pan was a series of stories he made up and told to five young brothers, the sons of close friends, in the late 1890’s and the summer of 1901: “I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a fire. That is all he is, the spark I got from you.”
One of the primary reasons for the popularity of Peter Pan is that in this work Barrie, one of the shrewdest judges of public taste ever to write drama, takes the two most basic elements of popular children’s literature—the fairy tale and the adventure tale—and synthesizes them. Utilizing an extraordinary theatrical sense, he compresses an enormous amount of vivid detail into the temporal and spatial limitations of the stage. Nearly as much happens in the play as in the full-length novel Peter and Wendy. Almost every fantasy adventure imaginable is presented in Peter Pan—including encounters with Indians, pirates, and wild beasts—and each scene climaxes with a cliff-hanger: Wendy is accidentally shot with an arrow, Peter is abandoned on a rock surrounded by rising water, the children are captured by pirates, Tinker Bell is poisoned and near death (to be rescued by the audience), and Captain Hook threatens the boys with walking the plank.
At the same time, the play offers the safety of an ideal children’s dream. The beasts look ferocious but are easily tamed (the boys foil the wild animals by looking between their legs at them). Benevolent magic pervades the atmosphere and is always available when needed (to save Wendy from the arrow and Peter from the rock), and for all of his demoniac appearance, Captain Hook is no match for Peter, who, in fact, toys with the pirate leader in their final clash.
In addition to providing excitement on the level of plot, Peter Pan evokes basic emotional and psychological responses. The primary struggle in the play is over possession of Wendy—as a mother. The play thus explores the ambivalent attitudes of children toward parents and, by extension, the human conflict of the desire for freedom versus the need to be part of a family or a society. The authoritarian father figure, Captain Hook, is villainous (traditionally, the same actor plays both Hook and Mr. Darling), but the “mother,” Wendy, is idealized. While all the children are having adventures, they play at being siblings in a family, and, when offered adoption into a real family, they desert Neverland to join the Darling household.
Only Peter refuses to grow up, and even his rejection is based on disappointment at having been abandoned. (Once, in his absence from home, his mother had forgotten about him, and when he returned, there was another boy sleeping in his bed.) So only Peter remains in Neverland. At the end of the play, he has forgotten most of the adventures he had with Wendy and the others. For Peter there can be neither past nor future, only the joyous immediate moment. It is a state of being that all, children and adults alike, can enjoy for a few delightful hours in the theater—before returning to the real world, where children grow up and parents grow older.