The pain behind Peter Pan
On Dec. 27, 1904, the curtain rose at the Duke of York's Theatre in London, and out popped a man in a dog costume, scrabbling about the stage with an occasional "Woof!" As the tale turned from a canine nanny to flying kiddies and dastardly pirates, the audience chortled and squealed and even clapped when they were asked to believe in fairies (although the orchestra was prepped to applaud should the theater fall silent).
Thus began the public career of the little boy who refused to grow up. Since then, Peter Pan has captured the imagination of generations, spawning feminist critiques, psychological treatises (who in the early '80s wasn't afflicted with "the Peter Pan syndrome" ?), and even lawsuits: Last month, Peter and the Starcatchers , a prequel co-penned by humorist Dave Barry, set off a copyright dispute. And of course, there are the innumerable cinematic retellings, from Disney's animated 1953 classic to last year's live-action version. Now the story of Peter's creator, J. M. Barrie, is also the subject of a film, Finding Neverland , opening November 12 and starring Johnny Depp. "There are so many themes to explore--mortality, immortality, the transition from childhood to adulthood," says director Marc Forster.
Ghost child. But the drama does not shy away from the darker side of its creation. Barrie's life "has all the elements of a Greek tragedy," says Andrew Birkin, author of J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Love Story That Gave Birth to Peter Pan . When he was just 6, his older brother, David, died in a skating accident. Attempts to cheer his grieving mother failed; the only thing that seemed to console her was that her dead son would be 13 forever. This concept of a ghost child, Birkin believes, was the root of Peter Pan. And although it was David who would always be a boy, Barrie took on the appearance of one, topping out by 17 at barely 5 feet tall. He was shy among classmates and even more so around women, but after leaving his home in Scotland to pursue a writing career in London, he soon found himself married--if unhappily--to Mary Ansell, an actress.
It was in London that Barrie first encountered two charming little boys and their nanny, walking in Kensington Gardens. George and Jack were the sons of Sylvia and Arthur Llewelyn Davies, and after meeting Sylvia at a dinner party in 1897, Barrie became a de facto member of the family, which also included baby Peter. "In Peter Pan ," says Birkin, "Barrie writes that the Darlings could not have been a simpler family before the coming of Peter, and the same could be said of the Davies family and Barrie." To entertain George, a favorite, Barrie concocted tales about little Peter flying out the window; the hero soon took on a new name, inspired by the lusty Greek god: Peter Pan. Two more boys, Michael and Nico, were born later. "I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together," Barrie wrote, "as savages with two sticks produce a flame. That is all he is, the spark I got from you."
His adulation for young boys has certainly raised an eyebrow or two, but Birkin, who became friendly with Nico in the 1970s, says the youngest Davies son was certain Barrie's love was perfectly innocent. "Anyone less sexual would have been hard to imagine," Birkin says. Still, the simple years of make-believe games and fishing trips would come to an end soon after Peter Pan 's debut. Two years later, Arthur died of cancer. The Barries divorced two years after that. A few months later, Sylvia also died of cancer, leaving the five boys in Barrie's care. The boys were mocked by other children because of the play; Peter began referring to it only as "that terrible masterpiece." Before long, World War I broke out, claiming George's life on the battlefields of France; Michael drowned at Oxford a few years later, in what was possibly a suicide.
Barrie's life was not exactly the stuff of fairy tales, but then neither is Peter Pan : J. T. Barbarese, Rutgers University assistant professor, assigns Barrie's novel as part of his children's literature course, and every year his students are shocked by the original text. "Disney wrung out all of the danger," he says. "We don't see that Peter kills pirates and then forgets about it or that when the island gets too crowded with lost boys, he thins them out." Barbarese's favorite adaptation is a 1987 vampire flick starring the two Coreys (Haim and Feldman). " The Lost Boys is a dead-on read of what Peter Pan represents. This kind of character is parasitic."
This story appears in the November 8, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.