Peter Pan(ic): is it a paedophile nightmare, or an innocent tale?
Richard Morrison, The Times (UK), December 29, 2004
One hundred years after the play Peter Pan opened in London, some of the proscriptive passions that it now excites in our modern era are deeply disturbing
VINTAGE year, 1904. Londoners saw the beginnings of three institutions that have graced the capital’s cultural life ever since. The first to appear, improbably forged out of a monumental bust-up, was the London Symphony Orchestra. Then Oswald Stoll unveiled his magnificent London Coliseum, the most lavish playhouse the West End (or indeed the Western world) had ever seen.
And then, 100 years ago this week, a strange play opened over the road from the Coliseum, at the Duke of York’s Theatre. It was a whimsical, weird fairytale from the pen of Sir James Barrie, a once-celebrated Scottish author whose powers were generally thought to be in decline. Yet the play not only eclipsed all else that Barrie wrote. It also transcended the very limits of theatre and the Edwardian age. For Barrie had conceived not just a memorable drama. He had created a brand, an archetype — a myth for all time. He had invented Peter Pan, the “boy who couldn’t grow up”.
As has since been strenuously chronicled (most recently, though with blithe disregard for fact, in the film Finding Neverland) the “boy who couldn’t grow up” proved both a blessing and curse to those most closely associated with him. On the plus side, Barrie’s play became a meal-ticket not just for himself but for thousands of actors in the century that followed: everyone from the 14-year-old Noël Coward to Julia Roberts. It has also, of course, provided a unique and continuing source of funds for the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.
But on the minus side there is much that is odd, disturbing and dark about the play — not least the irony that the family which inspired this tale of childhood infinitely prolonged was later to be so horribly hit by multiple tragedy. The story (superbly told in Andrew Birkin’s 1977 BBC dramatisation The Lost Boys) is unbearably poignant. Barrie befriended five little brothers while they were playing in Kensington Gardens, and subsequently got to know their parents, an unsuccessful barrister called Arthur Llewelyn-Davies and his wife Sylvia.
Despite their father’s resentment, the married but childless (and, it was said, impotent) author showered the boys with affection, holidays and Eton educations. And when father and mother died of cancer within three years of each other, “Uncle Jim” insidiously installed himself as guardian of the (by now famous) five.
But the boys continued to be hit by tragedy. George, the eldest, was killed in Flanders in 1915. Michael, the brother on whom Barrie most doted (2,000 letters between them were later burnt by the family) drowned in Oxford in 1921, the evidence suggesting a suicide pact with a male friend. And a third brother, Peter, despite becoming a successful publisher, threw himself under a Tube train at Sloane Square in 1960, a month before the centenary of Barrie’s birth — an event that he knew would refuel his unwanted association with what he called “that terrible masterpiece”.
And what of the terrible masterpiece itself?
For a work inspired by (and ostensibly written to amuse) children, it is astonishingly full of lurid Oedipal overtones, even if they were frequently obscured by candyfloss sanitisation (as in Disney’s 1953 cartoon) until the groundbreaking 1982 RSC staging by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. For instance, Peter professes to hate his own mother, yet desires to turn the virginal Wendy into a mother-figure; while Captain Hook, whom he destroys, is specifically associated with the abducted boys’ father by the play’s simple expedient of casting the same actor in both roles. As for the persona of Peter himself, only the tradition of casting an adult actress in the role cloaked Barrie’s audacity in creating a stage-hero who was both a pubescent child and also dangerously charismatic, even sexy.
To modern eyes, in short, the whole play reads like the work of a man determined to cram into one seemingly innocent night in the theatre every titillating fixation and fetish to be found in Sigmund Freud’s casebook. Yet in 1904 Barrie could not have known Freud’s work. And that makes Peter Pan even more disturbing. For if Barrie was not tapping into an external source to create this peculiar dramatic world — one that deliberately teases away the distinctions between adulthood and childhood — then there is only one other place from which he can have drawn his inspiration: his own fractured psyche.
We know that Barrie had a traumatic childhood. His revered older brother met with a fatal accident at 13 (thus becoming, like Peter Pan, forever fixed in boyhood). Barrie felt that he could never replace his dead brother in his mother’s affections, try as he might — and he did try, dressing up in the older boy’s clothes. And somehow this experience seems to have frozen his emotional growth in perpetuity. Right through his adulthood he struck all who came into contact with him as (in Max Beerbohm’s phrase) “a child absolutely”.
The story of Barrie’s childhood certainly illuminates much that is odd about Peter Pan, from the protagonist’s claim that his mother locked him out of the nursery to the obsession with cheating death. But it’s not the whole story. And here we come to what, for modern sensibilities, is the play’s most jarring aspect: the fact that its creation was triggered by Barrie’s attraction to five beautiful boys.
Five boys, what’s more, whom he went on to photograph, clothed and unclothed, taking part in elaborate pirate games that he had devised for their amusement. There is no evidence that Barrie had a physical relationship with any of the brothers he so adored. In fact the youngest, Nico, interviewed near the end of his life, dismissed the notion with the memorable line:
“I don ’t think Uncle Jim experienced a stirring in the undergrowth for anyone.”
That, however, hasn’t stopped some modern commentators from declaring Barrie to be a paedophile — with the additional implication that we are somehow legitimising paedophilia if we continue to enjoy Peter Pan. And it’s certainly true that if a grown man today exhibited such a desire for intimacy with children to whom he was not related (or even to whom he was), he would attract cries of “pervert” at the very least.
Such a stance, however, raises three large questions
|First, should we let our judgment of art be coloured (or, rather, discoloured) by what we know of its creator’s conduct?
|Secondly, should we be suspicious of any art that glorifies childhood to satisfy the emotional needs of middle-aged men who wish they were still boys?
|And thirdly, if Barrie’s friendship with the boys disturbs our sensibilities so much today, when it seems to have been acceptable both to the boys’ mother and Edwardian society generally, doesn’t that say something about our own age’s paedophile phobia — a collective obsession that makes it near impossible for a male adult to develop any friendship with children?
The first question
… became horribly relevant earlier this year, when William Mayne, a popular children’s author once described by the Times Literary Supplement as “the most original writer for young people in our time”, was convicted of a string of indecent assaults carried out 40 years ago on young girls. So do you stop your children reading his books, which have not a whiff of anything improper about them? And if the answer to that seems clear-cut, then what about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written by an unmarried loner obsessed with a ten-year-old girl?
The second question
... is even more complicated. There’s no doubt that a huge amount of 19th and early 20th-century literature was written by men (it’s mostly men) yearning to relive their own childhoods, but in idealised form. It ranges from Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons to Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, and from the Biggles yarns of Captain W. E. Johns to the nursery tales of A. A. Milne.
All of these books, one way or another, project the notion of a bunch of chums emotionally frozen in pre-adolescence (even if they are toads, teddy bears or fighter pilots). Condemn such writing for its “infantile” tendencies, its denial of adulthood’s complexities (particularly sex), and you also find yourself decrying many of the greatest comic writers in the English language, from Lear and W. S. Gilbert to Wodehouse.
But it’s the third question
… which strikes me as most urgent for our own age. We may shake our heads in disbelief at what Barrie or Charles Dodgson “got away with” in their relationships with young children. It seems redolent of an age that was carefree to the point of negligence about the potential corruption of their young. To me, however, it suggests the opposite. At the start of Victoria’s reign, most British children lived in abject terror, unmitigated squalor or both. Writers such as Dickens, Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes (of Tom Brown’s Schooldays fame) played a huge role in pricking adult consciences through their vivid, angry descriptions of the inhumanities inflicted on children.
So much so, in fact, that by the end of the century society’s attitude to children had been transformed. A general callousness towards the young had been replaced by a doting idealisation of childhood “innocence” and a corresponding desire to postpone adulthood, with its attendant cares and woes, as long as possible (and preferably indefinitely). As Rupert Brooke put it, in words that Barrie and many other Edwardians might have endorsed:
“Is there a greater tragedy than for a boy to die, except for him to grow old, to live?”
Today this desire for an infinitely prolonged golden childhood (a powerful concern of English culture right through to the 1950s) may strike us as creepy. But as I look round Britain today I wonder whether we have any right to feel superior to our predecessors. They may have carried the idealisation of childhood to a risible extreme. But now we have a society that has swung so far the other way that virtually nothing is “off limits” to the average 13-year-old.
We have turned “child protection” into a vast state bureaucracy. Yet we mysteriously find ourselves imprisoning more children than almost any other country in the Western world (more than 2,800 at any one time), and spending billions on remedial social work — mostly because we regard the notion of parents sticking together “for the kids’ sake” as “hopelessly Victorian”.
Perhaps, in the end, that is why Peter Pan remains such a powerful play. It has always appealed to that most English of collective emotions — nostalgia. But for Barrie’s Edwardian audiences, the nostalgia it triggered was for the joys of their own childhoods. For us, by contrast, it evokes a long disappeared and apparently unrenewable era — when the very concept of childhood itself had real meaning.