J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan:
Portrait of a Play
“In this world there are no second chances.”
– Solomon Caw’s warning to Peter Pan
The Little White Bird – J.M. Barrie
“Some disquieting confessions must be made in printing at last the play of Peter Pan; among them this, that I have
no recollection of having written it.” – J.M. Barrie, from the dedication to Peter Pan (1928)
It is a rare occurrence in the literary world when a dramatic creation so
profoundly impacts society that it becomes an indisputable part of cultural mythology; yet that is precisely what J.M. Barrie’s most
famous work has done. Peter Pan (subtitled The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up), is not even a century old, but it is as
ingrained in the minds of many children (and their parents) as are the stories of Hans Christian Anderson, the Grimm brothers, or
even ancient Greco-Roman myths. So popular and widespread is Barrie’s story of Lost Boys, pirates, mermaids, fairies, and a
ticking crocodile, that it is difficult to believe that the very idea of them has not existed for hundreds of years, passed down from one
generation to the next in the oral tradition of age-old legends and tales. Barrie’s own “admission,” about his inability to recall the facts
of the play’s authorship, only lends itself to the suspicion that somehow the story existed before the playwright himself set it down
It’s true that much of Peter Pan was, in fact, created long before the play
was ever staged for an audience. The story grew out of a love affair of sorts, and indeed, authorship could arguably be claimed by
any or all of five young boys to whom Barrie considered himself a surrogate father, playmate, mentor, and friend. To these boys,
Barrie said in his dedication of the play, “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.”
Those five boys were the sons of Sylvia and Arthur Llewlyn Davies, with
whom Barrie became acquainted in 1897. At that time, three of their sons had been born, George (1893), Jack (1894), and Peter
(1897) (Birkin, J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys, p. 54). During the following year, Barrie frequently saw George and Jack, who
took daily walks in Kensington Gardens with their nurse. But it was with the elder boy that Barrie most closely developed a
father/son relationship. Barrie used George as the basis for a character, David, in his novel The Little White Bird, which
wasn’t completed and published until 1902. It was in this book that the glimmerings of Peter Pan first began to appear. Later, after the
success of Peter Pan in 1904, Barrie extracted all of the chapters surrounding the story of Peter and published them as
Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) (Birkin, 147).
All of the boys worked their way into the Peter Pan stories. It was actually
George who Peter Pan quoted when, faced with certain death, he declared, “To die will be an awfully big adventure!” (Birkin, 69). In
1900, Sylvia Davies gave birth to her fourth boy, Michael. For Barrie, this was a great event, as he had not yet been acquainted with
the family when the other three children were born. Although he had been married for over three years, Barrie and his wife, Mary,
had remained childless. Barrie’s yearning for a son of his own was evident both in his adoration of the Davies boys and in his
writing, particularly The Little White Bird (Birkin, 72).
In August 1901, the three oldest Davies boys and Barrie produced a book with
photographs of their adventures that summer: The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island. Barrie later referred to this in his
dedication of Peter Pan as “the best and rarest of this author’s works” (Birkin, 86). The Boy Castaways was an even
more clearly-defined precursor to Peter Pan than The Little White Bird. Here, the Davies boys played with and “hunted”
the Barries’ dog Porthos, who was the basis for the Darling family’s canine nursemaid, Nana. Captain Hook made his first
appearance as well, although in a different name and guise (Birkin, 86).
That December, Barrie took the boys to see a musical play, Bluebell in
Fairyland. Astonishingly, the production ran almost 300 performances, due largely to its attraction to children who saw it
repeatedly. Bluebell strongly influenced Barrie, who began making notes for a fairy play of his own (Birkin, 92). The seed was
planted, and it would eventually grow into the basis for making the Peter Pan story into a play.
The following summer, Barrie finally completed The Little White Bird, and
published it around the same time that his play The Admirable Crichton debuted at the Duke of York’s Theatre, under the
direction of Dion Boucicault. The two works were such a contrast to each other, that it was hard to believe they were conceived by
the same author. But that author was leaving an indelible impression in the minds of the literati. Barrie’s success brought recognition
and financial gain, and young George encouraged him to again think about his fairy play (Birkin, 95).
In November of 1903, just before the Davies added one more boy, Nicholas,
Barrie began to work on his play, which would eventually become Peter Pan (Birkin, 100). The first draft was completed in
March, 1904, and tentatively titled “Peter and Wendy.” It is interesting to note that before Barrie, the name “Wendy” had not existed.
Yet it is somewhat of a misconception that he created the name. In actuality, Margaret Henley, the young daughter of one of Barrie’s
associates, W.E. Henley, was largely responsible for inventing the name. Margaret, who died at the age of six, called Barrie “my
Friendy,” but she couldn’t pronounce the 'r' sound, so it came out as “my Wendy.” The cloak the little girl often wore was also copied
later for Wendy’s character (Birkin, 19).
As to finding an actress to play Wendy, Barrie had set his sights on Maude
Adams, who had already portrayed roles in Barrie’s plays when they were staged in the U.S. While travelling with his wife on their
first trip to America in 1896, Barrie had become acquainted with the legendary Broadway producer Charles Frohman (Birkin, 38).
Now, in April 1904, Frohman was again looking for a new vehicle for Adams, and Barrie wrote to her, expressing his desire that the
play should be ready by the end of the month. However, Barrie knew that Frohman might not accept the play for a number of
reasons, including the need for a huge cast, tremendous sets, flying apparatus for the actors, and of course the cost associated
with staging such a massive undertaking (Birkin, 104).
Barrie took his play to actor-manager Beerbohm Tree to get an opinion of it. But
Tree did not have a favorable reaction, which understandably made Barrie nervous when the time came to meet with Frohman at the
end of April (Birkin, 104). However, the American producer loved Barrie’s play, and suggested that he keep the title simply as
Peter Pan. He also told Barrie that Maude Adams should not play Wendy, as the playwright had initially thought, but Peter, the
part which Frohman perceived to be the starring role of the play. Although having a boy character played by a young woman may
have seemed odd, it was actually a wise decision. English law at the time did not permit minors (children under fourteen) to appear
on stage after nine p.m., and if Peter were played by a boy, the ages of the other children would have to be lowered
proportionately. As it turned out, Adams was not available for the rest of that year, so Frohman, impatient to produce the play, went
ahead with a production in the West End set to open for Christmas time (Birkin, 105).
With the decision to cast a female in the role of Peter, Nina Boucicault was cast
as the lead, and her brother Dion was chosen to direct. Barrie’s first choice for Wendy was the actress Ellaline Terriss, who had
caught Barrie’s eye as the star of Bluebell in Fairyland three years before, but she was pregnant at the time, and in her place,
Hilda Trevelyan was chosen. Trevelyan had taken over Nina Boucicault’s role in a production of Barrie’s most recent play Little
Mary, and her performance impressed the playwright enough to recommend her to the director (Birkin, 109). Sylvia Davies’
brother, actor Gerald du Maurier, was cast in the roles of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. Nearly all of the Lost Boys, as well as young
Michael Darling, were played by women or girls, and Nana, whose coat had been copied from the Barries’ new dog Luath, was
played by Arthur Lupino (Birkin, 116).
The play went into rehearsal in late October of 1904, at the Duke of York’s, and
was immediately enveloped in secrecy. The actors were only given the pages of the script that were relevant to their parts, and
were instructed to keep all knowledge of the play from the public (Birkin, 109). Because four of the characters (Peter, Wendy, John,
and Michael) were required to do extensive flying in the play, and because flying apparatus at the time were primitive and restricting,
Barrie challenged George Kirby, who operated a flying ballet company, to come up with a system of flying that allowed for greater
motion and complexity of flight. Kirby revolutionized the business by inventing a harness that overcame those previous restrictions,
and instructed the actors for the first two weeks of rehearsal in its use (Birkin, 109).
The play rehearsed for six weeks, undergoing numerous changes and
constant revisions all the while. The opening was set for December 22nd, but the weeks leading up to the premiere were plagued
with difficulties, not the least of which involved problems with the scenery and special effects. Dion Boucicault “had worked himself
almost to death,” and had to postpone the opening until the 27th (Birkin, 112). Barrie himself, also overworked, spent much of the
Christmas holiday rewriting the ending, making it the fifth revision thus far (Birkin, 114).
Despite the circumstances, the curtain rose at 8:30 p.m. on the evening of
December 27th, 1904. While a bleary-eyed cast, exhausted from an all-night rehearsal the previous day, took the stage, Frohman
waited across the Atlantic in upstate New York for his London manager to wire him with news of the play’s reception. At midnight,
that news finally arrived, relayed by telephone from Frohman’s office (Birkin, 115):
“PETER PAN ALL RIGHT. LOOKS LIKE A BIG SUCCESS.”
That cable vastly understated the reaction of the elite London audience, who
had been taken unaware by the spell-binding performance. Barrie had feared that in the scene where Peter Pan speaks to the
audience, to beg them for help in bringing Tinker Bell back to life after she has drunk poison to save him, there would be only an
embarrassing silence in response. In fact, the author instructed the conductor to have the orchestra leaders put down their
instruments and clap as instructed by Peter:
PETER: Her light is growing faint, and if it goes out, that means she is dead! Her voice is so low I can scarcely tell what
she is saying. She says – she says she thinks she could get well again if children believed in fairies! (He rises and throws out his
arms he knows not to whom, perhaps to the boys and girls of whom he is not one) Do you believe in fairies? Say quick that you
believe! If you believe, clap your hands! (Barrie, Peter Pan and Other Plays, pp. 136-7)
But Barrie’s fears proved to be unfounded, and his precaution completely unnecessary. As Birkin writes, “When Nina Boucicault
turned to the distinguished gathering and begged their belief in fairies, the response was so overwhelming that she burst into tears”
Even eminent critics were caught up in the play’s magic. An American critic
from the Evening Telegram of New York, George Henry Payne, wrote of the audience’s reaction to Peter’s appeal for help in
saving Tink: “And from orchestra stall to gallery I doubt if there was one who did not respond. The demonstration lasted several
minutes, and as an insight into human nature was one of the finest scenes one could witness” (Hammerton, Barrie, The Story of
a Genius, pp. 358-9).
Denis Mackail, then only twelve years old, who later wrote The Story of
J.M.B. said of Nina Boucicault’s performance: “[She] was the Peter of all Peters . . . She was unearthly but she was
real. She obtruded neither sex nor sexlessness, which has so far beaten everyone else. Above all she had the touch of
heart-breaking tragedy that is there in the story or fable from beginning to end; yet she never seemed to know it. . . . Barrie, lucky in
so many of his actresses, was never luckier than here” (Birkin, 117). Of Barrie himself, Mackail observed, “Though he put his heart
and soul and all his thoughts into it, something deeper and still more individual had actually guided his pen.” Peter Pan was
“three hours of magic, utterly different from anything yet known” (Green, Fifty Years of Peter Pan, p. 89).
The Daily Telegraph called Peter Pan “so true, so natural, so
touching that it brought the audience to the writer’s feet and held them captives there” (Green, 85-6).
Max Beerbohm, half-brother of Beerbohm Tree, wrote not of the play, but of
Barrie: “Undoubtedly, Peter Pan is the best thing he has done – the thing most directly from within himself. Here, at last, we
see his talent in its full maturity; for here he has stripped off from himself the last flimsy remnants of a pretence to maturity. . . . Mr.
Barrie is not that rare creature, a man of genius. He is something even more rare – a child who, by some divine grace, can express
through an artistic medium the childishness that is in him” (Green, 88).
Peter Pan ran at the Duke of York’s until April, 1905, when Frohman
closed it to make way for Barrie’s next play, Alice-Sit-By-The-Fire, and for the American opening of Peter Pan (Dunbar,
J.M. Barrie: The Man Behind the Image, p. 142). But he announced that the show would be revived in December, and Peter
Pan played in London every December thereafter right up until WWII forced it to close in 1939.
Of course, Barrie’s masterpiece wasn’t loved by everyone. There were mixed
reactions from the press, and some critics simply panned the show. Of the latter, Bernard Shaw called Peter Pan “an artificial
freak which missed its mark completely, and was foisted on children by the grown-ups” (Birkin, 118). Ironically, Androcles and
the Lion, Shaw’s own attempt to “show Barrie how a play for children should be handled,” ran for only eight weeks and was
considered by some to be “one of the weakest and silliest of [Shaw’s] works” (Green, 89).
W.A. Darlington wrote, “It is thus that great plays are written, and Peter
Pan, even though it looks backwards rather than forwards, is a great play” (Green, 89).
Peter Pan was, and still remains, a great play. Even regardless of the
general laudatory critical reaction to it, or of its reception among the “distinguished elite” of London society, its sociopsychological
standpoint and profound impact on cultural mythology were, and are, remarkable in and of themselves. Freudians have attempted to
psychoanalyze it for decades; it has been called Oedipal in its nature; it has been viewed as the courageous baring of the author’s
soul to the public, in his attempt to justify his own desire to remain a little boy for ever and ever; and by children, it has been seen or
heard in various forms all over the world as one of the greatest gifts anyone could ever have given to them. Yet Peter Pan
defies definition – as noted by R.D.S. Jack: “[The] refusal clearly to define [the play] has been an unconscious
leitmotiv in many studies of the playwright. . . . That this play is unique, most thinking people agree, but what – precisely – is it?”
(Jack, The Road to the Never Land, p. 159).
Studies can be made of the parallels to the pagan god Pan, or to the Greek
definition of the word as “everything” (Jack, 160). So too can a myriad of images be examined and re-examined in a search for
symbolism. Among them, female sexuality, sexlessness, and the Oedipal complex. It is this last that has most often struck a chord in
those who’ve chosen to study the story in depth. If one were to lend any credence to Freud’s theories of psychosexuality – mainly
(in summary) that little boys love their mothers and hate their fathers, whom they fear will castrate them; and that little girls are the
opposite, they love their fathers and hate their mothers – if one were to give weight to these hypotheses, then one could argue an
intriguing case concerning Peter Pan: clearly, the play revolves around Barrie’s own Oedipal complex, and his not entirely
unique desire to refuse to grow up.
Through examining some of Barrie’s earlier writings, specifically the novels
Sentimental Tommy and its sequel, Tommy and Gizel, it is apparent that Barrie was writing about his own failing
marriage, and his inability to grow up. It’s entirely possible that he expounded upon these themes in the writing of Peter Pan.
After all, Peter and the Lost Boys look to Wendy to be their mother, and while it is made perfectly clear that not only she but also
Tiger Lily and Tinker Bell are beginning to express their burgeoning sexuality, the boys are completely unaware of this, especially
Peter, who remains naïve and blind to the entire issue. The girls/young women are not looking for the platonic love that exists
between mother and son, the love for which the boys are searching, but rather for the sexual love that exists between adult men
and women, and which leads to marriage.
The twin figures of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook further reinforce the Oedipal
themes. Here, the father figure is portrayed as either stupid or evil, and in any case, entirely capable of doing children harm. It is only
after Hook has been destroyed that Peter can murder his own Oedipal complex, and allow Wendy and her brothers to return
Keeping these not-unlikely themes in mind, it is clear that while Peter Pan
may have been aimed at an audience of children, Barrie was also imbibing his work with serious adult content, which did not go
unnoticed by the British and American theatre-going public of the early 20th century. Although he created a fairy land of delightful
imaginings to amuse and bewitch children for ages to come, he also illustrated the darker side of that childhood land of
“Peter Pan, by highlighting the cruelty of children, the power-worship of adults, the impossibility of eternal youth,
the inadequacy of narcissistic and bisexual solutions, presents a very harsh view of the world made palatable by humour and held
at an emotional distance by wit and the dream” (Jack, 167).
Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan and Other Plays. Peter Hollindale, ed. Clarendon Press. Oxford:
Barrie, J.M. The Plays of J.M. Barrie. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York: 1948.
Birkin, Andrew. J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Love Story that Gave Birth to Peter
Pan. Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. New York: 1979.
Dunbar, Janet. J.M. Barrie: The Man Behind the Image. Houghton Mifflin. Boston:
Green, Roger Lancelyn. Fifty Years of Peter Pan. Peter Davies. London: 1954.
Hammerton, J.A. Barrie, The Story of a Genius. Dodd, Mead and Co. New York:
Jack, R.D.S. The Road to the Never Land. Aberdeen University Press. 1991.
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