Peter Pan has been a favorite story since early childhood & the book & one of several musical versions have played an important role in my life. The annual viewing of the 1954 musical version starring Mary Martin was something I looked forward to as a child. I was seriously mesmirised by this production.
While there was never an incident during the flying sequences, provided by the famous Foy Family, I was dropped, with the counter weights adding to the descent, during a picture taking session between the matinee & evening performance of Peter Pan, when I played John in the late 1960s. I broke my nose during the fall, but still went on that evening. 50 years later, the break is still evident as part of the character of my rather large proboscis.
I am a fan of the charming film-Finding Neverland, in which Johnny Depp portrayed the author- J.M.Barrie as a charming hero, devoted to large dogs & small children. He is portrayed as a quirky little man who had already been celebrated by his contemporaries as a genius with a great heart, not least for his bequest of the copyright of Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, ensuring that the golden fairy dust of his writing was liberally sprinkled over those in need.
The character of Peter Pan first appeared in the Barrie novel The Little White Bird in 1902. Peter Pan was first presented onstage in London in December 1904. A 37 year old actress played Peter, a tradition that endured & matinee idol Gerald du Maurier, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies' brother, played Captain Hook & Mr. Darling.
Fearing that the sophisticated opening night audience would be unresponsive, J. M. Barrie told the orchestra to put down their instruments & clap their hands at the moment where Peter turns to the audience & says, "If you believe in fairies, wave your handkerchiefs & clap your hands." As the story goes, when the actress playing Peter begged for the life of Tinkerbell, the audience response was so overwhelming the actress burst into tears.
Arthur Llewelyn Davies, Sylvia's husband, was very much alive when J. M. Barrie entered the lives of the Llewelyn Davies family shortly after moving to London. Barrie: "There never was a simpler & happier family until the coming of Peter Pan.” Arthur Llewelyn Davies died in 1907 of cancer of the jaw. Sylvia died 3 years later of lung cancer, leaving behind 5 children. Barrie unofficially adopted the boys.
Many rumors through the past century have suggested that J. M. Barrie had more than a fatherly interest in the Llewelyn Davies boys. But Barrie was essentially asexual, & clearly impotent. He was a lover of children, but not sexually. Still, the more than 2,000 letters between Barrie & his favorite Llewelyn Davies boy, Michael, were burned by the real life Peter in 1952.
A writer in our age could never publish Peter Pan without inviting accusations of paedophilia. Yet Barrie, in the manner of Lewis Carroll & his nude photographs of little girls, was consciously & curiously innocent. His snapshots of the Llewelyn Davies boys frolicking naked on the beach, the cowboy & Indian adventures he made up for them were probable a means to enjoy the pleasures of fatherhood with none of the pains. In the children he discovered the ideal outlet for the frustrations which obsessed him.
This story on the background of Peter Pan does not end happily: George, the oldest Llewelyn Davies boy, died in Flanders in 1915, one of the millions of victims of WW1.
Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan, Photo by Barrie
Michael, Barrie's favorite & the model for the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens, drowned with his lover while at Oxford in 1921. Their deaths were believed to have been the result of a suicide pact. The bodies, when recovered, were found clinging to each other in an embrace. Although Peter Pan was an amalgam of all the Llewelyn Davies brothers, Michael is supposed to have been the closest to Barrie's vision of the boy who would never grow old.
Peter, who hated to have his name associated with "that terrible masterpiece," became a publisher. In 1960, at the age of 63, he committed suicide by throwing himself under a train at London's Sloane Square station. His depression was drawn on his association with his namesake. Newspaper headlines read: "Peter Pan's Death Leap" & "The Boy Who Never Grew Up Is Dead."
In Barrie's play at the end of Act III, Peter Pan says: "To die would be an awfully big adventure."
Before his death, he gave the rights to the Peter Pan works to Great Ormond Street Hospital for orphaned children, which continues to benefit from them. J. M. Barrie died of pneumonia in 1937. He was 77.
In the 1980s, I found an autographed copy of Peter Pan in a locked case at a used bookstore in Seattle. I couldn’t justify the $175 price tag, but I was not able shake off the feeling that it was meant to be mine. I would check on the book through the years, but when I finally & passionately decided to own it, it was gone from the case. The bookstore owner denied that it had ever been in the store.
Before I left the world of acting, Captain Hook remained my most coveted role. I never got to play him.
J.M. Barrie was born on this day- May 9th, in 1860.