Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 705

When Peter Pan was first produced in London in 1904, it was an immediate success. Though it broke box-office records, its producers were unsure if the play would be successful at all because it was so unlike anything that had been staged before. Barrie was regarded as a genius in his day, not just for the childlike insights that inform Peter Pan but also for a number of the other plays the prolific author wrote. Max Beerbohm, writing in the Saturday Review, said: ‘‘I know not anyone who remains, like Mr. Barrie, a child. It is this unparalleled achievement that informs so much of Mr. Barrie’s later work, making it unique. This, too, surely is what makes Mr. Barrie the most fashionable playwright of his time. Undoubtedly, Peter Pan is the best thing he has done—the thing most directly from within himself. Here, at last, we see his talent in its full maturity.’’

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Contemporary critics noted that the play has appeal for both children and adults. A reviewer from the Illustrated London News wrote: ‘‘There has always been much in Mr. Barrie’s work, of the child for whom romance is the true reality and that which children of a larger growth called knowledge. Insofar as the play deals with real life, we think it a bit cruel.’’

Many critics praised Barrie for not condescending to children, for dealing frankly with the cruelties of real life. In his book The Road to Never Land: A Reassessment of J. M. Barrie’s Dramatic Art, R. D. S. Jack argued, ’’Peter Pan, by highlighting the cruelty of children, the power-worship of adults, the impossibility of eternal youth, the inadequacy of narcissistic and bisexual solutions, presents a very harsh view of the world made palatable by humour and held at an emotional distance by wit and the dream.’’ Jack concluded, ‘‘Peter Pan addresses children but it treats childhood neither sentimentally nor as a condition divorced from adulthood.’’

Other critics have found that some aspects of Peter Pan are overly sentimental, especially those scenes taking place in the Darling household. Defensive of such accusations, Roger Lancelyn Green, in his Fifty Years of Peter Pan, wrote: ‘‘Sometimes, be it admitted, he [Barrie] approached perilously near the borderlands of sentimentality: such moments are seized upon with uncritical zeal as examples of typical Barrie, and the whole condemned for the occasional blemish.’’

Peter Pan has also been examined by critics more closely from other angles. In The Road to Never Land, Jack explored Peter Pan in terms of a Barrie-created mythology. He wrote: ‘‘Barrie was intent on devising a structure which combined the demands of an artificial, perspectivist creation-myth with those of a drama addressing both adults and children.’’

Others have used psychological approaches to understand Peter Pan and what the play says about its author. Many critics believed that Barrie himself did not want to grow up and that the play is an extension of his own experiences. Green wrote in J. M. Barrie: A Walck Monograph, that ‘‘all of Barrie’s life led up to the creation of Peter Pan, and everything that he had written so far contained hints or foreshadowings of what was to come.’’ Critics have explored Barrie’s complex relationship with the Davies family and his own mother, seeking to understand his motivations in the creation of Peter Pan.

Several critics have focused specifically on the themes of motherhood that pervade the play, arguing that Barrie idealizes mothers to a fault while fathers are portrayed as unloving. John D. Shout in Modern Drama, believed that Barrie used Peter Pan to further an agenda. He wrote, ‘‘Peter Pan may have come to life as a bunch of tales to beguile Barrie’s young friends the Davies boys, but it ended up much more a sequence of object lessons for young women, and a far more artful set of lessons than the old manuals since the women are paying attention and can hardly suspect that they’re being preached to.’’ In the same essay, Shout added, ‘‘adult males in this play are simply cowards or cads which only serves further to elevate the women.’’ This dichotomy continues to be a source of critical debate regarding Peter Pan.

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