Much like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, and the Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan has long since overshadowed his creator, ascending to the realm of popular modern myth. It is a phenomenon that occurs frequently in Shakespeare. The witty Beatrice, the searching, philosophical Hamlet, the inimitable Falstaff all somehow seem to boast life-forces that extend beyond their limited dramatic frames. In fact, for as long as human beings have been telling stories, certain characters have embarked on similar odysseys, transcending their fictional origins as they come to embody truths that are too profound to be understood without a local habitation and a name. With these exceptional characters, the more interesting question to ask is not why, but how.
James Matthew Barrie was born in 1860, ninth of ten children in the Scottish market town of Kirriemuir. Multiple biographical explanations have been offered for his creation of Peter Pan, all equally plausible, none entirely convincing. Barrie’s older brother David, the favorite child of the Barrie family, died when he was only six, and young James developed playacting and storytelling gifts, imitating the dead David to help his grieving mother cope with the loss. Barrie, a fan of adventure stories by literary Scotsmen such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, used to “play pirates” at the Dumfries Academy as a young teen. The preternaturally childlike Barrie also seems to have been a bit of a lost boy himself, growing to an adult height of only 5’3 ½”. Near the end of his life, he would grant the rights to Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, an indication of where his sympathies continued to lie.
Most famously, the adult Barrie met and befriended the Llewelyn Davies family and their five sons in 1897, one of whom was named Peter. Barrie developed close friendships with the Llewelyn Davies boys, meeting them for tea and taking them for walks in Kensington Gardens. The statue of Peter Pan that stands there today is based on a picture of Michael Llewelyn Davies, given by Barrie to sculptor Sir George Frampton in 1911. Michael would die 10 years later in a mysterious drowning accident. The heartbroken Barrie lived for 16 more years, unable to finish another piece of writing.
Less emphasized, however, in these tales of muse-like inspiration, are the practical theatrical skills that Barrie drew upon to bring his story to life. By the time he met the Llewelyn Davies boys, he was eminently a man of the theatre, already a successful playwright and international literary celebrity. He had just opened his third play in London and New York, having first come to the attention of William Archer with Ibsen’s Ghost in 1891, an up-to-the-minute parody of highbrow modernism. By 1904, when Peter Pan premiered, Barrie had worked with such powerhouse producers as the British Richard D’oyly Carte (Gilbert & Sullivan, the Savoy hotel) and the American Charles Frohman (the man who brought Barrie, Oscar Wilde, and Edmond Rostand to Broadway). His plays featured in salon conversations alongside Wilde, Harley Granville Barker, and George Bernard Shaw, and often dwarfed them in commercial popularity.
While most of Barrie’s other works for the stage have been forgotten—with the possible exception of The Admirable Crichton—Peter Pan has only grown in popularity. At the time, the play’s unusual blend of pictorial realism, theatrical fantasia, slapstick farce, swashbuckling action set pieces, and bathetic sentiment confused and scared producers. Barrie initially thought the play’s five-act dramaturgy—elaborate scenic effects, a dog, a fairy, a crocodile, and a cast of more than fifty—was perfect for actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the reigning maestro of spectacular proscenium-style staging. But Tree thought Barrie had “gone mad.” Frohman and Barrie pushed on, even when disaster seemed imminent. After inventing revolutionary new flying technology with the help of George Kirby’s Flying Ballet Company, the set for the production collapsed at the final dress rehearsal, delaying opening by a week and forcing Barrie to rewrite much of act five.
Barrie need not have worried. With his Neverland, he had created an Edwardian update to Shakespeare’s forest from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a realm of the imagination made manifest, where theatrical magic is made possible by the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Outfitting this dreamworld in his trademark parodic yet syncretic style, Barrie created a nonsense world of delightfully postmodern juxtapositions, craftily combining Stevenson’s Treasure Island setting, complete with pirates and secret passageways, with troubling, exoticizing depictions of Native Americans drawn from James Fenimore Cooper, as well as a quasi-Shakespearean fairy cosmology, from Tinkerbell to the Puckish Pan himself. Seen in historical perspective, it is a play that could only have been written at the height of the British Empire, with its implied fantasies of colony and adventure.
On a thematic level, meanwhile, Barrie’s conception of the runaway child, the boy who never grows up, strikes a deeper chord, adding a quiet sense of tragedy to the otherwise bubbly proceedings. This is likely what George Bernard Shaw meant when he wrote that Peter Pan is “ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people.” None of us may want to grow up, Barrie understood, and yet all of us do. The only place, in fact, where we can be young again, if only for a few hours, and vicariously so, is the theatre, a place where stories can be told and told again, always in a different form and yet somehow still elementally the same. Hence the pathos in Wendy’s recognition that she must leave Neverland. Ditto Captain Hook’s oddly sympathetic desire to conquer Peter Pan and this dreamworld, a grown-up in child-land, desperate to be young again.
This is laid bare in the most famous scene in the play, the one Barrie was so sure wouldn’t work that he demanded his musicians put down their instruments and clap, the one that is not dependent whatsoever on spectacular scenery or flying or, for that matter, the actors themselves. It is the moment in the play where form and content come into very deep alignment, when the profundity of the theatrical experience is reaffirmed every time the play is performed. The audience, young and old, are confronted with the specter of mortality and asked to believe in magic.
Ultimately, Peter Pan is not a play. It’s a time machine. And we are the thieves of time.