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A brief introduction to J M Barrie and Peter Pan


Andrew Birkin

“Peter Pan, who and what art thou?” demands an exasperated Captain Hook as he duels with Peter on The Jolly Roger pirate ship, to which Peter rapturously replies, “I'm the sun rising, I'm the poet dreaming, I'm joy, I'm youth, I'm eternal youth!” Such an enigmatic answer does little to satisfy those, like Hook, who would pluck out the heart of the boy’s mystery. His creator J M Barrie was always reluctant to elaborate on Peter’s true identity, but when the play was performed in Paris in English in 1908, he was obliged to give his bemused French audience a few clues: 

"Of Peter himself, you must make what you will. Perhaps he was a boy who died young, and this is how the author conceived his subsequent adventures. Perhaps he was a boy who was never born at all, a boy whom some people longed for, but who never came. It could be that those people hear him at the window more clearly than children do."

So, is Peter then a ghost? A dream child? Both?

In April 1960, a 63-year-old publisher named Peter Llewelyn Davies walked into a London tube station and threw himself under a train. “Barrie’s Peter Pan killed by London Subway Train” announced the New York Times; “Peter Pan Commits Suicide,” echoed Fleet Street — “The Boy Who Never Grew Up Is Dead”.

It was the final indignity for a man who had been branded ‘the real Peter Pan’ all his life, and came to loathe his association with what he called “that terrible masterpiece”. But was Peter Davies the “real” Peter Pan? Certainly Peter and his five brothers had a profound influence on Peter Pan’s creation, but the play’s real genesis lay in Barrie’s own childhood.

James Matthew Barrie was born in 1860 in the Scottish mill town of Kirriemuir, the seventh child of a local weaver. For the first six years of his life, he lived in the shadow of his mother’s love for his elder brother David. But on the eve of his fourteenth birthday, David was killed in a skating accident. Such was his mother’s grief that Barrie determined to replace him, becoming so like him “that even my mother should not know the difference. But in those nine-and-twenty years she lived after his death he was not removed one day farther from her, for when I became a man . . . he was still a boy of 13”. If his mother derived consolation from the notion that David, in dying a boy, would remain a boy forever, Barrie drew inspiration: “Perhaps Peter Pan was just a boy who died young, and this is how the author conceived his subsequent adventures”. But in his pathetic attempt to replace David in his mother’s life, Barrie virtually became David, arresting his own development at the age at which his brother had died. At 14 — and 5ft — he stopped growing; he did not start shaving until 24. He later wrote in his notebook, “long after writing Peter Pan its true meaning came to me — desperate attempt to grow up, but can’t”. It was a physical and psychological mutation that placed him in a no-man’s land between childhood and maturity. When put to creative use it gave him his unique perspective on life and enabled him to conceive such plays as Quality Street, The Admirable Crichton, Dear Brutus and Mary Rose. But in his private life it brought him loneliness and frustration: “Six foot three inches . . . If I had really grown to this, I would not have bothered turning out reels of printed matter. Read that with a bitter cry . . . ”

By 1897, Barrie’s reputation as an author and playwright was firmly established on both sides of the Atlantic. He had married the actress Mary Ansell in 1894, and their London home was only a short distance from Kensington Gardens, where Barrie was in the habit of walking his enormous St Bernard dog, Porthos. It was here that he first met George Llewelyn Davies — a spectacularly attractive five-year-old boy who strolled in the company of his younger brother Jack, their nurse Mary Hodgson, and their baby brother Peter. The attraction was mutual, for Barrie could wiggle his ears, perform magic feats with his eyebrows, and seemed to be remarkably well-informed on the subject of fairies, murders, cricket, pirates and desert islands. At a dinner party later that year, Barrie found himself sitting next to “the most beautiful creature I had ever seen”. She was Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, daughter of the novelist George du Maurier, and sister of the actor Gerald du Maurier, who was to become the first Captain Hook. Barrie learned that she was married to a young barrister, Arthur Llewelyn Davies, and had three sons: George, Jack, and a baby, Peter. Gradually the penny dropped.

Barrie’s relationship with the Davies family, hitherto restricted to brief encounters with George and Jack in the park, now became the focal point of his deepest emotions. The meetings moved into the children’s nursery, where Barrie treated the boys to a diet of deadpan humour and fairy stories with a distinctly amoral flavour. One of these stories began to focus on their baby brother, Peter. According to Barrie, Peter would one day fly away to Kensington Gardens so that he might remain a boy forever. Slowly Peter Davies became Peter Pan, a poor little half-and-half outcast, part mortal, part immortal, who lived with the fairies by day and roamed the Gardens after Lock-out Time, digging graves for unfortunates who had fallen out of their prams. When children died, Peter accompanied them on their journey to a place that was to become the Never Never Land — a child’s paradise, haven of the Lost Boys, abounding in pleasures designed to gratify a boy’s appetite for blood. Such visions prompted George to observe that “to die must be an awfully big adventure!” Barrie jotted down such remarks in his ubiquitous notebook and began to weave them into a novel, The Little White Bird, in which a lonely bachelor meets a boy in Kensington Gardens. Together they invent the story of Peter Pan — not the Peter of the play, but a baby boy who flies away from his nursery when he hears his parents discussing what he is to become when he grows up, and lives on the island in the Serpentine. (These Peter Pan chapters were later republished in 1906 as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and dedicated to ‘Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and Their Boys (My Boys)’.)

In the summer of 1901, Barrie invited the Davies family down to his wife’s country retreat: Black Lake Cottage. Here they acted out pirate adventures on the lake, which Barrie photographed and had made into a book which he limited to two copies: The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island, one of which he gave to the boys’ father, who promptly left it on a train. As his son Peter laconically observed later, it was “doubtless Arthur’s comment on the whole fantastic affair.”

Although all the essential elements of Peter Pan were now in Barrie’s mind, he did not start writing the play until October 1903. He had recently been given his own private key to Kensington Gardens, in recognition for the fame he had brought the Gardens through the pages of The Little White Bird. All he had to do was cross the road from his home on the Bayswater Road, let himself in, settle down on a park bench and let the ideas flow – which they did, in over 400 scrawled notes simply headed “Fairy”. The very first note sets the tone for all that follows:

    - No one has grown up ideas (not parents or anyone)

What makes these notes so remarkable is the realisation that Barrie wrote his first draft of the play without any mention of Captain Hook at all. He didn't need a villain because he already had one:

    - P[eter] a demon boy (villain of story).

It was only due to the prosaic necessity of a "front-cloth scene" to give the stagehands time to change the scenery from the Never Never Land back to the Darling Nursery that Hook was conceived at all:

    - The Homeward Journey.

    - The Flight by flying, the Homeward Journey by water (P[eter] with oar defending W[endy] from great birds — also attack by pirates?)

    - P takes command of Pirate Ship.

The front-cloth soon became a new Act V – The Pirate Ship – and the stagehands found their work had increased exponentially. Even with Hook firmly entrenched, Barrie's first instinct was to have him played by a woman:

    - Pirate Captain — Miss Dorothea Baird.

Dorothea Baird had been cast to play Mrs Darling, and the idea of the mother-figure doubling as the ostensible villain would have been a gratifying touch, echoing one of Barrie's original titles: 'The Boy Who Hated Mothers'. Indeed the whole play can be read as Peter’s revenge on his mother for barring the nursery window. In the event, Gerald du Maurier – already cast as Mr Darling – persuaded Barrie to let him play Hook as well, thus initiating a tradition that has no real thematic justification. Had Barrie conceived the play with Hook as the villain all along, perhaps Peter Pan would never have become the "terrible masterpiece" that so haunted his namesake, Peter Davies.

In his 1928 Dedication to the Five, Barrie wrote: “I clutch my brows in vain to remember whether the writing of the play was a last desperate throw to retain you five boys for a little longer, or merely a cold decision to turn you into bread and butter”. The bread and butter were not a foregone conclusion, however. Even the play’s producer, the American impresario Charles Frohman, doubted its success and for the opening night took the precaution of instructing the orchestra to down instruments and clap in response to Peter’s “Do you believe in fairies?” The audience needed no prompting and by the end of its run The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up had entered the realms of mythology.

“There never was a simpler happier family until the coming of Peter Pan,” wrote Barrie in his 1911 novelisation, Peter & Wendy. Two years after the play opened, Arthur Llewelyn Davies died of cancer at the age of 43. Sylvia died in 1910, also of cancer, also aged 43. The five boys were now indeed “my boys”, and Barrie — who had been divorced in 1909 — took on the joint role of mother and father. But his happiness was short-lived. In March 1915, George — “the most gallant of you all” — was killed on Flanders fields. Two days before his death Barrie had written to him, “I do seem to be sadder today than ever, and more and more wishing you were a girl of 21 instead of a boy, so that I could say the things to you that are now always in my heart… I don’t have any iota of desire for you to get military glory. I just want yourself . . .”

Barrie’s love now focused on Michael, who had engaged his heart almost from birth. Although he is represented in Peter Pan as Michael Darling, the play’s annual revivals gave Barrie the chance to incorporate elements of the boy’s personality into Peter’s character. Michael suffered from nightmares; by 1910, Peter Pan was also experiencing dreams “more painful than the dreams of other boys”. Indeed, Barrie so identified Michael with the role that he photographed him in Pan’s costume as a model for Sir George Frampton’s statue in Kensington Gardens. But Barrie disliked the finished statue: “It doesn’t show the Devil in Peter”.

Michael excelled in every field except one. He could not swim. In May 1921, a few weeks before his 21st birthday, Michael’s body was recovered from the Thames at Oxford. For Barrie it was a catastrophe as devastating as David’s death had been for his mother. “Forever and ever I am thinking about him,” he wrote to Boothby. “We know that because such have been there will be such again, though not for us”. Michael’s death altered and darkened the remaining years of Barrie’s life. Yet there remained for him, as for his mother, one consolation. When he delivered his celebrated address on Courage to the students of St Andrew’s University, he read them a sonnet that Michael had written a few months before his death. Barrie did not mention Michael by name. He spoke of him simply as “the lad that will never be old”.

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[This piece first appeared in the National Theatre's programme for Sally Cook's award-winning 2016 production of Peter Pan.]

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