An Awfully Big Adventure

DEC 12, 1997

The history behind Barrie’s classic.

On the morning of April 6, 1960, The New York Times announced: “BARRIE’S PETER PAN KILLED BY A LONDON SUBWAY TRAIN.” Newspapers around the English-speaking world played with the idea that an “immortal”–a publishing executive by the name of Peter Davies–had ended his life. Shocking notices like, “PETER PAN STOOD ALONE TO DIE” and “PETER PAN’S DEATH LEAP” silenced other important news of the day. An article in the Daily Express of London read:

“Until he died at 68 [he was actually 63] Peter Davies was Peter Pan. He was the Little Boy Who Never Grew Up; the boy who believed in fairies. The name was a gift to him from playwright Sir James Barrie, and Peter Davies hated it all his life. But he was never allowed to forget it until, as a shy, retiring publisher, he fell to his death on Tuesday night.”

The Daily Express informed its readers not of Mr. Davies’ publishing accomplishments but of the loathing he felt about being associated with Peter Pan. Davies’ life was an unhappy one; despite many attempts to distance himself, he felt the Never Never Land pirate-killer overshadowed him. The coroner pronounced Davies’ death a suicide, remarking that “the balance of [his] mind was disturbed.” We will never understand why Davies detested his connection to the character that thrills so many.

But despite the public’s beliefs, Peter Davies was not the only model for Peter Pan. J.M. Barrie’s character is an artful gathering of Sir James’s own childhood experiences in Scotland and the precious time he shared with the Davies family of London. Barrie masterfully sculpted his Peter Pan play and novel from a mass of facts and fantasy that is difficult to untangle. Nevertheless, Barrie’s adventure story was the consequence of his untold search for love; Peter Pan served as a consolation for the lack of affection he received from the two most important women in his life–his mother Margaret Ogilvy and his actress-wife, Mary Ansell.

James Matthew Barrie, born in the small Scottish town of Kirriemuir on May 9, 1860, inherited his mother’s passion for storytelling. From the time James was three, his mother charmed him with fantastic tales of her childhood spent in Kirriemuir–a weaving community that represented a quaint Scotland long vanished. Many of Margaret’s stories came from the Auld Licht [Old Lights], a religious sect to which Margaret had belonged before her marriage. These tales, or Idylls, fired young Barrie’s imagination, and later provided him with ample source material for his articles and novels. In his mother’s biography, Margaret Ogilvy, Barrie tells how much the stories about his mother–the little girl who sold water-cress–occupied his thoughts.

“This romantic little creature took such hold of my imagination that I cannot eat water-cress even now without emotion. I lay in bed wondering what she would be up to in the next number; I have lost trout because when they nibbled my mind was wandering with her; my early life was embittered by her not arriving regularly.”

In awe of his mother, and perhaps jealous that his own experiences paled in comparison, James decided at a young age that he, too, would have stories to tell.

Barrie braved a trying childhood. When he was only six, tragedy befell the family. While away at school, James’s thirteen-year- old brother David, a talented boy and Margaret’s favorite child, died in a skating accident. James would always struggle for his mother’s love and respect; he felt he had to fill the shoes of his late brother. Perhaps by becoming a successful writer he could finally win his mother’s affection. Despite his efforts, Margaret’s grief over David death intensified as the years passed. Unwittingly, she alienated her other children. James, an impressionable boy, yearned for his mother’s love and suffered in her absence. In Margaret Ogilvy Barrie writes, “She [Margaret] lived twenty-nine years after his [David] death . . . But I had not made her forget the bit of her that was dead; in those nine-and-twenty years [David] was not removed one day farther from her.” Even on her death-bed, Margaret struggled with the pain of losing her pride and joy–a struggle that unintentionally shut James from her heart.

As a result of his mother’s neglect, Barrie grew emotionally distant. At Dumfries Academy, he quickly immersed himself in school life, playing football, taking part in the debating society, and frequently visiting the local theater. “The theatre in Dumfries [was] the first I ever entered” Barrie writes in a journal, “so it is the one I like best. I entered many times in my school days, and always tried to get the end seat in the front row of the pit. . . . I sat there to get rid of stage illusion and watch what the performers were doing in the wings. Such doings led inevitably to the forming of a dramatic club at school for which I wrote my first play, Bandelero the Bandit. . . . [Bandelero] had one character who was a combination of [my] favorite characters in fiction.”

Barrie and his friend Wellwood Anderson wrote to Sir Henry Irving, the celebrated actor, to enlist his support of the Dumfries Dramatic Club. Despite his passion for theater, Barrie’s shyness worsened, due in part to his small, frail stature. As he neared his fifteenth birthday, Barrie jotted down his sense of insecurity in one of his school notebooks. “The boys write on walls, [a] name of boy and girl, coupling them together. As they never did it to me, I wrote my own with girl’s name. . . . [I] am ashamed at being small enough to travel half ticket by rail.” At seventeen Barrie barely reached five feet and began to avoid social gatherings.

J.M. Barrie’s first writing success came in 1882 as a journalist for the Nottingham Journal with a series called Auld Licht Idylls. These articles, inspired by his mother’s anecdotes, featured the colorful, gossipy characters of Kurriemuir. The articles touched numerous readers. The Auld Licht tales charmed people with their witty yet cynical depiction of different types of Scots. In Andrew Birkin’s biography of Barrie, he describes the appeal of the Auld Licht series. “Barrie’s approach was to enter the mind of another for the space of a column, adopt the standpoint least expected by the reader, then proceed to inject into the affair as much cynicism and laconic humor as his spirits could muster.” Barrie injected sentiment into his more acerbic caricatures to make his characters lively and entertaining. He had found his niche in the literary world. His articles quickly drew large audiences, and with this encouragement he turned his attention to his first love–playwriting.

The years following the Auld Licht articles brought Barrie enormous success in both prose and playwriting. Long before the creation of Peter Pan, he enjoyed fame with Better Dead (his first novel), The Admirable Crichton, A Window in Thrums, What Every Woman Knows, My Lady Nicotine (extolling the joys of smoking), and Ibsen’s Ghost. Ibsen’s Ghost, a parody on Hedda Gabler, provided him with his first stage hit; one reviewer noted that “Barrie is the most kindly and pungent satirist.” Although The Times observed that Barrie could be “as hard as nails, as cruel as the grave [and] as cynical as the Fiend,” he balanced his hard edge with raillery–and this, along with kind reviews by authors Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson–gained him a worldwide readership. As a result of Barrie’s popularity, famous actors and actresses–Minnie Palmer, Irene Vanburgh, Maude Adams–welcomed the chance to act in his productions.

In July 1894, Barrie married Mary Ansell, a stunning actress who played opposite Irene Vanburgh in Barrie’s second play, Walker, London. He fell in love with the young starlet who had run her own touring company. Despite their mutual attraction, the marriage floundered. Barrie the writer expressed some of the most delicate emotions one person could have for another, but Barrie the husband was rigid and unemotional. This malaise, together with the couple’s inability to have children–both Mary and James desperately longed for a family and lavished love on Porthos, their dog–ultimately led Barrie to seek affection from other people’s children and created an unbreachable chasm between him and his wife.

Barrie’s personal failures did not affect his triumph in the literary world. By the end of 1897, Barrie’s name as a playwright was established on both sides of the Atlantic, due mostly to the success of his play The Little Minister, which premiered in New York at Frohman’s Empire Theater on September 27, 1897. The play, starring Maude Adams, went on to give over three hundred performances, breaking all Broadway records. To celebrate New Year’s Eve, Barrie accepted an invitation to Sir George and Lady Lewis’s dinner party–an event that would change the course of his life and ultimately give birth to Peter Pan.

The dinner party consisted mainly of prestigious lawyers–Sir George’s clientele included such notables as the Prince of Wales–fashionable actors, artists, politicians, musicians, and writers. Barrie was seated next to “the most beautiful creature he had ever seen,” a lady named Mrs. Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the wife of a young barrister. Intrigued by this beauty with “a tip-tilted nose, wide, grey eyes. . . . and a crooked smile,” Barrie watched as Sylvia concealed a few small desserts under her coat. When she noticed his stare, she said calmly, “It’s for Peter [my] youngest.” Struck by her honesty, the two engaged in a lively conversation. She was the former Miss Sylvia Jocelyn du Maurier, the daughter of George du Maurier, author of Peter Ibbetson and someone with whom Barrie was well acquainted. As the discussion ensued, a strange parallelism in their lives became clear; Barrie had met her eldest son George several times during his walks in Kensington Gardens, his favorite park. Sylvia told Barrie that her son would come home with their nurse, Mary, who told her about a man who entertained the Davies boy by “wiggling his ears and perform[ing] magic tricks with his eyebrows” and telling him stories about fairies, murders, pirates, and treasure. Barrie confirmed that he was the mysterious earwiggler and that her son George, known fondly to Barrie only as “the boy in the bright red tam-o’-shanter,” had influenced the development of a character in his new play The Little Minister. Thrilled, Sylvia invited Barrie to the Davies’ London home–a meeting that sparked the genesis of Peter Pan.

In an early draft of Peter Pan, Barrie writes, “There never was a simpler, happier family until the coming of Peter Pan.” Indeed, he refers to his own intrusion into the Davies’ lives. For Barrie, the blithe, close-knit family represented the life that he could never experience with his wife–Barrie’s relationship with Mary grew steadily worse as every year failed to produce children. To compensate for his feeling of sterility, Barrie took to walking with the Davies’ children every afternoon in the park, entertaining them with comic bits he was developing for his next drama. The bold cockiness of the Davies’ children, George in particular, reminded Barrie of his own childhood when he, too, looked at the world in a carefree way. The antics of the Davies’ boys transported Barrie backwards to the age of six. In a letter to his sister, he remembers how the theme of “a lost childhood” first occurred to him while he observed his mother console herself with the notion that David–who died as a boy–would remain a child forever. In Margaret Ogilvy, he sadly notes the ending of his childhood:

“The horror of my boyhood was that I knew a time would come when I must give up the games [cricket and football] and how it was to be done I saw not. This agony still returns to me in dreams, when I catch myself playing marbles, and look on with cold displeasure; I felt that I must continue playing in secret.”

Barrie combined his recollections of the past with his daily adventures with the Davies’ kids, and eventually the theme of “eternal childhood” became his main focus. Rediscovering these memories not only brought Barrie great joy but also rekindled feelings of tremendous loss.

From January until July 1900, Barrie explored the theme of a “lost childhood” in stories he traded back and forth with young George. In the fall of 1900, he formulated a complete anecdote that two years later gave birth to Peter Pan. The highlight of Barrie’s after-school walks with George in Kensington Park were, in their early stage, stories of an infant, George’s baby brother Peter, who could fly. In the beginning, this tale was meant to answer George’s question regarding babies and perambulators. Barrie spun the tale to entertain George with the notion that before baby buggies, infants could fly. The story reasons that “all children were once birds” and could lift off whenever they pleased. He used this idea to explain certain mundane phenomena: “[T]he reason there are bars on the windows and a tall fender by the fire is because [children] sometimes forget that they have no longer wings, and try to fly through the window or up the chimney. Peter, however, was still able to fly [because] his mother had forgotten to weigh him at birth. He therefore escaped through the unbarred window and flew back to Kensington Gardens.”

Then, Barrie created a twist in the story and presented the young listener with a challenge of truth. “If you think he was the only baby who ever wanted to escape, it shows how completely you have forgotten your own young days.” He instructed George, “think back hard, and pressing [your] hands to temples, think even harder.” Once this was done, Barrie suggested to the lad that now he could recollect a youthful desire to the tree-tops, a yearning when he lay in bed to flee as soon as his mother was asleep.

As time passed, the story developed, yet an inherent inconsistency in the narrative became clear. If Peter could fly, why would he be content to stay in his perambulator? Ultimately, this is the query that gave birth to the second Peter; this second Peter was Peter Pan, a boy half-bird, half-earthbound, named for the Greek god that symbolized natural forces. Pan was the ancient god of forests, flocks, and shepherds, represented with the head, chest, and arms of a man and the legs, horns, and ears of a goat. Pan belongs to the pastoral world and evokes unbridled sexuality. Barrie’s inclusion of Pan–influenced by Maurice Hewlett’s newly published play, Pan and the Young Shepherd, which opened with the line, “Boy, boy wilt thou be a boy forever?”–enabled Barrie’s mind to explode with possibilities. By fusing Peter with Pan the supernatural dryad, Peter could embody both innocent and magical qualities: Peter could simultaneously yearn for his mother’s love and be capable of conquering a murderous villain. Peter’s enchanted Pan-side granted him the power to remain a child forever.

From this point onwards, Peter Pan became the major topic of discussion between Barrie and young George, as Barrie remarks in The Little White Bird:

“The following is the way with [our] story. First I tell [George] and then he tells it to me, the understanding being that it is quite a different story; then I retell it with additions. . . . the bald narrative and most of the moral reflections are mine, though not all, for this boy can be a stern moralist; but the interesting bits about the ways and customs of babies in the bird-stage are mostly reminiscences of [his], recalled by pressing his hands to his temples and thinking hard.”

With the theme and the main character further established, the story went through two major developments before becoming the play with which so many are familiar today.

The first expansion occurred in the summer of 1901, when Barrie accompanied the Davies’ family on their vacation to a retreat on Black Lake Island. He spent all of his time with the boys, taking their pictures and recording the various skits and games they played–mostly pirates versus island Indians. When the vacation ended, Barrie published a book The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island, which told its story through a series of photos and captions, for example, “George and Jack outside their marooner’s hut,” and “George, Jack, and Peter at Black Lake, a coral island glistening in the sun.” The exquisite location of Barrie’s vacation with the Davies ultimately inspired the creation of Peter Pan’s home, Never Never Land.

Barrie drew enormous inspiration for the tailoring of the Peter Pan characters from each member of the Davies family. There are unmistakable similarities between Mr. Darling and Mr. Davies, the young lawyer; Mrs. Darling and the refined, nurturing mother Sylvia; the Davies boys and the pirate gang; the Indians and The Lost Boys; and the Davies’ doting nurse Mary Hodgson and Nana the dog (Barrie combined the idea of his dog Porthos with the Davies’ nurse Mary to insult the “priggish” woman who disliked Barrie’s “meddling” in the Davies’ affairs).

The second and final development of the tale took the form of a one-hundred-page chapter of Barrie’s novel The Little White Bird, which bears obvious relation to the early narratives told to George in Kensington Park. In this version, Peter is a baby who flies out the nursery window every day. One time, he is absent too long and his mother has forgotten him–Peter returns after one year and sees his mother quietly rocking a new infant son in the nursery. This chapter in White Bird brings to light Peter’s longing for his mother. Unable to let Pan rest, Barrie began working on a play version of the fable in 1903, completing the first draft on March 1, 1904. The curtain finally rose on his dream-play, Peter Pan, on Tuesday, December 27, at 8:30 p.m. in London under the direction of Dion Boucicault, the famous Irish director and playwright. The play met with immediate success. Barrie was elated when he read that audiences had remarked that he had created a “spell” that had the power to “fling off the years and whistle childhood back.” The endearing subject of Peter Pan had a similar effect to that of the Auld Licht articles in the past. Yet, unlike the Auld Licht tales, the magic of Peter Pan lies in Barrie’s artful combination of the real world of the Darling nursery with the surreal world of Never Never Land.

The special appeal of Peter Pan is best expressed by Barrie in a letter he wrote to the Davies children in 1905. He writes: “I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame. That is all he is, the spark I got from you.” Peter is a special character, not only because he is an amalgam of the mischievous antics of all five of the Davies children, but because Peter represents the little part of each of us–Barrie included–that escaped our grasp.

Despite the fact that the final creation of Peter Pan was served by Barrie’s observation of the Davies family, it is profoundly his own story. Barrie remarks in his notes that he–not Peter Davies–is “the boy who wouldn’t grow up,” giving Peter Pan a more tragic yet everlasting quality. Barrie wrote the play in an attempt to define his regret of losing his childhood and never having a son or daughter like the make-believe Peter and Wendy. In a letter to Peter Davies in 1904 after the play’s debut, Barrie writes, “Sometimes when I am walking in the Gardens, I see a vision and I cry, Hurray, there’s Peter, and then Luath [his dog] barks joyously, and we run to the vision, and then, it turns out to be not Peter but just another boy. . . . ” This statement reveals the sensitivity of the author who received the distinction “Sir” for his contributions to English literature.

People of all ages love Peter Pan because of its fantasy. But the play is more than just a frolic through a magic world; it revisits a time in everyone’s childhood when danger and adventure lured us into the possibilities of the imagination. It reminds us of when anything could be believed and make-believe was real.

Is it not ironic, then, that a story that ignites such joy was generated from such personal sorrow? Irony, perhaps, is the magical key to the mystery that draws audiences to Barrie’s Peter time and time again. Ironic or not, one cannot dispute the power the tale wields over its audiences almost one hundred years after its creation. The fantasy’s power lies in the fact that human beings all tend to search for that which we can no longer have.

Michelle Powell is a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training.

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