all across the universe
Would you like to react to this message? Create an account in a few clicks or log in to continue.

The strangeness of JM Barrie's Peter Pan

Go down

The strangeness of JM Barrie's Peter Pan Empty The strangeness of JM Barrie's Peter Pan

Post  eddie Fri Oct 07, 2011 11:26 pm

Loitering in Neverland: the strangeness of Peter Pan

JM Barrie's character has inspired plenty of plays, books and films. For all the story's fun, though, it is rather sinister

Michael Newton, Friday 7 October 2011 10.00 BST

The strangeness of JM Barrie's Peter Pan Illustration-of-Peter-Pan-007
Perpetual boyhood: illustration for Peter Pan by Kathleen Atkins. Illustration: Courtesy of Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity

Last summer, I was walking on the beach in Brighton. Men of a certain age sped by on scooters or skateboards; one bloke just the near side of 60 pluckily bounced down the prom on a pogo stick. In the shelters, old-age pensioners compared piercings. "What's going on?" I wondered. "Didn't you know?" said my brother-in-law. "You're back in Neverland."

The strangeness of JM Barrie's Peter Pan The-Annotated-Peter-Pan-Cent
The Annotated Peter Pan: Centennial Edition
by JM Barrie, edited by Maria Tatar

Deterred by the probability of Mabel Lucie Attwell-style fairies, I never read Peter Pan as a child, but there was a cobwebby Wendy house in our back garden, and the boy who wouldn't grow up flew through seasonal editions of Disney Time, a feisty American teenager from the days of James Dean. From teaching experience, I know that the Disney versions of the "kiddie lit" classics have long usurped the books themselves. Yet Peter Pan has been doubly ousted, replaced not just by the movies, but by behind-the-scenes knowledge of how it came to be written.

The story begins in James Matthew Barrie's childhood in Kirriemuir. When he was seven, his older brother David died in a skating accident. His mother took to her bed, too depressed to engage with her remaining children. Young Barrie did his best to claim her distracted attention, calling her back by amusing her and consciously impersonating his dead brother. But David would always win, destined as he was to remain forever 12 years old, while Barrie was condemned to grow up.

It can be no surprise that this upbringing scarred him. His quirk is the knowing zest with which he exploited his past in books. His eyes saw what his hands did. Barrie presents a portrait of the Author as such, a paper man whose life passes between the event and the notebook that records it. There was little he did not know about the guilt of authorship.

In watching or reading about Barrie's life, one discovers improbable strangeness. There's a sense that back then people were uninhibited by knowledge of inhibition. Already a highly successful writer, in 1897, while walking in London's Kensington Gardens, Barrie befriended the young Llewelyn Davies boys (five-year-old George, and his younger brothers Jack and Peter; later came Michael and "Nico"). Barrie was not so happily married to the actress Mary Ansell; they themselves had no children. It is possible their marriage was never consummated.

He soon got to know the boys' beautiful mother Sylvia, and also her unfortunate husband, Arthur. Barrie became indispensable to the boys, a playful companion and teller of tales. George seemed his favourite. To the mother, he was at least a very good friend and confidant; what the father made of him is a little more opaque. When Arthur died of cancer of the jaw, Barrie helped the family financially, sending the boys to Eton. As the sons grew older, his interest wandered from George to young Michael. Ansell left Barrie for a younger writer, Gilbert Cannan. When Sylvia herself succumbed to cancer, Barrie became the boys' guardian. Then George Llewelyn Davies died on the western front during the first world war; and after the war, Michael killed himself, drowning in the arms of a friend at Oxford. Barrie never recovered from the loss.

What motivated Barrie will always remain uncertain. Was he "in love" with George and then Michael? Was he attempting to return to his own boyhood through theirs? Did he love or lust after Sylvia? No one knows. What facilitated the friendships was Barrie's zest for fantasy combined with a sense of self-enclosure about the man. That his remoteness involved a possessing hunger for company was his – and the boys' – tragedy.

Yet out of his friendship with the Llewelyn Davies family emerged Barrie's various versions of the Peter Pan story. The tales long for a lost and heartless innocence, and are key texts in what has been perceived to be the golden age of children's literature, that series of great works running from The Water Babies to Winnie the Pooh. Though complex, out-of-kilter and puzzling, such books also evoke an enchanted quietness.

That we now know so much about the story behind Peter Pan is mostly down to one writer. It can be hard to forgo any myth of departed splendour, and for me, watching Andrew Birkin's The Lost Boys (1978) itself fostered nostalgia for the hallowed decades of British television drama. The programme's brilliance arises both from Birkin's commitment to accuracy and from the knowledge that truth must be something concealed from us, somewhere playing hide and seek among the manuscripts and letters. The acting is note-perfect too, especially Ian Holm's performance as Barrie. The attentiveness and patience of the piece, its combining the richness of a novel and the virtues of theatre with the resources of television (the voice-over, the use of landscape) are qualities that it would be hard to find now on British TV.

Holm has played both Barrie and Lewis Carroll; more recently, and more implausibly, Johnny Depp has nearly followed in his footsteps by acting both The Mad Hatter and, in Marc Foster's Finding Neverland (2004), the author of Peter Pan. Finding Neverland tenders the same story as The Lost Boys, but this time as a sweet romantic fable. Everything odd and intriguing about the real story is smoothed away – no inconvenient Arthur Llewelyn Davies, no thought of blaming Barrie for the failure of his marriage, no marked interest in the boys as boys, no insight into Barrie's glum and fantastical complexities. Instead there's just a summer-soaked hymn to the imagination and a subdued, unspoken love affair, Brief Encounter with Billy Liar dream-escapades thrown in. There is plenty of boyish romping, but no scene that lingers long enough to give room to complexity. And so all the power of Barrie's strangeness slips away, leaving only an immense pity for a young mother dying and leaving her sons.

Just as we return over to Barrie's personal life, versions of the Peter Pan story itself proliferate (we hurry past Steven Spielberg's Hook (1991), averting our eyes in silence); the play still on occasion holds the stage. But these multiple reimaginings only perpetuate a process that Barrie himself began. The first problem faced by Maria Tatar, the editor of The Annotated Peter Pan, is what version of the story one would choose to annotate. There are least six possible contenders: The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island, purportedly by Peter Llewelyn Davies, a photo book of the Llewelyn Davies boys playing out the adventures of shipwrecked sailors, of which two copies were made in 1901; The Little White Bird (1902), a novel for adults with some chapters devoted to Peter Pan; the original stage play (1904); the Peter Pan chapters from The Little White Bird reissued, with Arthur Rackham's wonderful illustrations, as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906); Peter and Wendy (1911), "the book of the play", and the closest thing to a standard children's book; and finally the printed, much revised play text of Peter Pan published in 1928. It's a bibliographer's dream, and an editor's nightmare. Understandably Tatar plumped for Peter and Wendy, though in my view, the play is the thing, the finest and most interesting expression of Barrie's personal myth.

Nonetheless, Tatar makes up for her choice with four separate introductions, plus Barrie's introduction to the play, FD Bedford's original illustrations to the children's novel, Rackham's illustrations, an essay on Rackham, a facsimile printing of The Boy Castaways, Barrie's scenario for a proposed silent movie version of Peter Pan, an essay on adaptations, prequels, sequels and spinoffs, and a collection of quotes and responses by people as diverse as George Bernard Shaw, George Orwell and Patti Smith. As will be obvious, it's a sumptuous and copiously illustrated book that anyone who loves Peter Pan would love.

Barrie is the most ironical of children's writers. He stands always at a winking distance from words, making faces behind the phrases. This is why the play remains the classic version. For here Barrie bases his story of a child given over to perpetual playing in the fact that theatre anyway consists of adults seriously playing the childhood game of "let's pretend". Here there are only pretend mothers and fathers, pretend food, pretend deaths. The play's stage directions call for an infected realism, precise and literal, and yet utterly fantastic. The play's preposterous demands, with its flying children, swimming mermaids, pirate ship and hungry crocodile, dance around the limits of theatrical illusion. And then the horrible appeal to the audience comes, that they should play "let's pretend" too and assert their belief in fairies, to clap their hands and save Tinkerbell's life. They must pretend really to believe in the pretence, and act as though they are more childlike than they are. No wonder that when he saw the play as a child, Graham Greene sat on his hands.

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens dishes up a potent local myth, one that even now endows that park with magic. To have permanently altered the way we imagine a part of London is a grand achievement. The later reworking of the plot, with Tinkerbell, pirates, Indians and the Darlings lost this specifically local beauty, but gained a great deal. Above all, it discovered Neverland, that map of Barrie's imagination. Other than its central myth of eternal youth, the life of Peter Pan itself now resides mostly in Captain Hook – a man hungry for admiration, flamboyant, maimed, vindictive, a passionate hater of the child and yet condemned to play for ever in a world of children. He's the bad parent waiting to be slain. In the story, fathers come in for a hard time, conceited and insubstantial Mr Darling being consigned to the kennel; mothers on the other hand have it even worse. Barrie contemplated naming the story "The Boy Who Hated Mothers", and tried to have the actress playing Mrs Darling double with Captain Hook (Barrie himself remarked, "There is the touch of the feminine in Hook, as in all the greatest pirates). In a remarkable moment in Peter and Wendy, the narrator declares that he despises Mrs Darling; a little later, he says that he likes her best of all. Out of such idiosyncratic, rapid switches of feeling, this classic draws its life.

Pan kills Hook; it's only "pretend", only a play, of course, but also an intimation of a darker world. It reminds us that RM Ballantyne's The Coral Island inspired both Barrie and William Golding's The Lord of the Flies. Peter is both the hero of the play and its true villain; there is something of the Hook in him too. The fact that children are learning to become moral agents and accept a place in the world failed to touch Barrie. Imaginatively he loved children's amorality, and wished that they could stay outside the world, before it or beyond it, inside the fenced-in territory of Kensington Gardens or marooned on a faraway island. He himself freely mixes sentimentality with heartlessness. The joke was to present emotional situations and then to refuse emotion for them, not to play "the crying game". Perhaps for Barrie feigning heartlessness rescued him from the pain of loving, whether an unwinnable mother or the lost boys themselves.

But what's oddest of all is that the public shared Barrie's private fantasy. In literature, success means finding a market for monomania. In order to resurrect Tinkerbell, adults as well as children applauded. They too, it seems, were attuned to Barrie's desire to remain a child. For us that desire has gone. Who now would really want to be a child and never grow up? Of course, in our wish to escape from work, responsibility, or money worries, I am sure that many on occasion would like to be a kid again. But a hankering for childhood – that now seems entirely lost. Very likely the long, protected "childhood" was anyway a myth, a middle-class prerogative, but then Peter Pan is a very middle-class tale. Still it is hard to imagine anyone now suggesting that childhood is holy, or that it represents the peak of life, with everything that comes after being merely a long descent. We are more likely to call someone a Dorian Gray than a Peter Pan.

These days it seems that the twilight zone of adolescence is the preferred place to be shipwrecked. "Youth" has advanced on two fronts, seizing the ground of "childhood" while occupying the place of maturity. As on that beach in Brighton, many look to loiter for ever in a state once considered ephemeral and transitional. In The Disappearance of Childhood (1982), Neil Postman persuasively argued that with childhood's disappearance, adulthood vanishes too. All that is left is one marketed expanse, where the consumers cling to the illusion of youth, a Botoxed utopia.

Maybe that's a preferable fate to Barrie's. While I was writing this piece, the news was full of Michael Jackson, and it proved difficult to ward off thoughts of the Neverland ranch, or of Jackson declaring that he was Peter Pan. It's curious, but hardly surprising that both Lewis Carroll and Barrie liked to photograph children. Ultimately, both men desired what only a photograph could offer, the possibility of retaining the transient moment of childhood for ever. Writing was a way of clinging on to his own boyhood and that of the Llewelyn Davies boys too. And for all the fun, the huge freedom promised by Peter Pan and Neverland, it is indeed somehow a sinister work, imbued with the subtle selfishness of wanting to possess another's family. Both Barrie and Peter Pan were strangers who came to steal the children away.
The Gap Minder

Posts : 7840
Join date : 2011-04-11
Age : 68
Location : Desert Island

Back to top Go down

Back to top

- Similar topics

Permissions in this forum:
You cannot reply to topics in this forum