Peter Pan


Sir J. M. Barrie’s play "Peter Pan" was first staged in London in 1904, but it wasn’t printed until 1928 as Barrie thought that plays should be seen, not read. He kept making changes to the play, so the printed version that we know today is very different from the scripts that were used in the original staging of the play in England and America. Furthermore, today’s staging of the play often include Barrie’s epilogue "An Afterthought", which he wrote in 1905. In Barrie's lifetime, this was only staged once though, in London on 22 February 1908.


The play consists of five acts not including the epilogue. It tells the now classic story of Peter Pan who teaches the Darling children Wendy, John and Michael to fly and brings them to his make believe island Neverland in order to stop Wendy from growing up. At the island, they live in a cave under the ground with Peter’s companions The Lost Boys and they have all kinds of adventures with Peter’s fairy Tinker Bell, the red Indians lead by the Indian Princess Tiger Lily, the evil mermaids, the ticking crocodile and the pirates including the sinister Captain Hook and his helper Smee. Eventually the children return to London where Mr. and Mrs. Darling have missed their children dreadfully and they adopt the Lost Boys. Peter returns to Neverland on his own, but promises to come back for Wendy each spring for her to do his spring-cleaning. When Peter comes for her the next year, Wendy has almost forgotten how to fly and Peter has totally forgotten about the Lost Boys, Captain Hook and Tinker Bell. Wendy realises that she is growing into adulthood and thereby losing Peter, but that Peter is never going to mourn this loss because he will forget her just as quickly as he forgot everyone else.


In the epilogue, "An Afterthought", Wendy is a grown woman, married to one of the Lost Boys and the mother of a daughter named Jane. She hasn’t seen Peter for years, but one night he turns up, not realising that so many years have passed. Wendy is too old to go with Peter, but Peter likes Jane, so she comes with him instead. Wendy hopes that in time Jane will have a daughter, who can follow Peter to Neverland too.


The way Barrie wrote "Peter Pan" separates it from the way other scripts are written because of his stage directions. Barrie's stage directions are short pieces of prose that has the same function as the narrator in a novel. They are not merely practical directions, but Barrie’s thoughts about the play and its characters. Reading the charming mix of the play itself and the elaborate stage directions, you do indeed feel that you are reading a novel.


Both the lines and the stage directions in "Peter Pan" are very ironic and they often refer to the real world, the world of grown-ups. This is because the play was not originally meant for children, but for grown-ups. All in all, the notion that "Peter Pan" is a play for children doesn't seem to have emerged until the 1950s or 1960s and it probably has to do with the fact that not until then did an interest in the life and literature of children start to grow. Before that and certainly when first the play was staged in 1904, there seemed no doubt about the play being written for adults.


Not only were the stage directions inventive, Barrie also invented the girls name “Wendy” for “Peter Pan”. In fact, it was a little girl, Margaret Henley (the daughter of one of Barrie’s friends), who used to call Barrie "Friendy" which soon became "Wendy" or "Friendy-wendy". Barrie used the name in the play, in this way creating a new girl’s name.


When staging the play one should notice that Mr. Darling and Captain Hook are to be played by the same actor and that Barrie insisted that Peter Pan should always be played by a woman. Barrie saw Mr. Darling/Captain Hook as two sides of the (same) male, but he didn’t imagine Peter Pan to be typical male. Barrie found women a lot more heroic and imaginative than men and as he wasn’t able to find the bravery and imagination in men, that he wanted Peter Pan to have, Peter had to become a woman.


The most controversial thing in the play is, however, Peter Pam’s address to the audience in act four, where he tries to save Tinker Bell’s life. This direct address breaks the action of the play and some critics find that the audience loses the mental distance to the play and have the illusion ruined. They never bother to wonder why Barrie decided to keep this address despite it being so controversial. Personally, I think that Barrie kept it in the attempt of making the story "real". In "The Little White Bird”, the story took place in the real world, in Kensington Gardens, where the readers were able to go in the hope of getting a glimpse of Peter Pan, but in the play the story takes place in Neverland, where no real person is able to go. By letting Peter talk to the audience, I think Barrie tried to create the illusion that Peter is real; if he weren't real you wouldn't be able to talk to him, would you? He is not just a character in a play anymore and this way Barrie tries to place Peter of the play in the real world just as he did when he placed him in the real Kensington Gardens in "The Little White Bird".


“Peter Pan” is an amazing play and the stage directions make it quite unique. The play deserves 4 out of 5 stars: ****


© Lise Lyng Falkenberg, 1991