The children's drama Peter Pan, by J. M. (James Matthew) Barrie, first presented on the London stage in 1904 and then in the form of a novel in 1911, created a literary character who has potently played upon children's imaginations through the entire twentieth century and into the early twenty-first century. Barrie offered to the adult public a particular vision of childhood from the Edwardian threshold of the twentieth century: Peter Pan, the child hero who never grows up and therefore must remain radically elusive and inassimilable to the adult world.
The story tells of Peter's visit to the nursery of the Darling children–Wendy, Michael, and John–and his seductive invitation to them to escape from home and parents by flying to the magical island of the Neverland, where a colony of lost boys pursue boyish adventures involving fairies and pirates. In particular they do battle against Peter Pan's archenemy, the pirate Captain Hook, whom Peter heroically vanquishes before returning the Darling children to their home in London so that they may eventually grow up. The part of Peter Pan onstage has been traditionally assigned to an adult actress impersonating a young boy.
If the nineteenth century fostered a Victorian cult of childhood's innocence, preserved according to rigorous forms of domestic propriety, the drama of Peter Pan in 1904 represented a literal escape from Victorian childhood as the Darling children flew right out the window. It was reenacted every year at Christmas time. Though the character of Peter evolved from Victorian fairy stories, and he was always accompanied by the fairy Tinker Bell, the drama reached the stage in an age of early modernism, and its vision of children's minds is in many ways curiously modern. The novel of 1911 presents Mrs. Darling, the children's mother, sorting through their minds like chests of drawers while they sleep: "When you wake up in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind; and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on." Barrie goes so far as to suggest that one might try to make a "map" of a child's mind, a "rather confusing" map, on which one might find the Neverland (pp. 5–7). Such whimsy was not altogether remote from the contemporary spirit of SIGMUND FREUD, who was also making maps of the mind, who also recognized that the mind had folded elements at the bottom, and who, especially, discerned "evil passions" or amoral impulses in children. Barrie was whimsical but not necessarily sentimental about children. The aptness of his insight was confirmed by the returning troops of children who came to the play every Christmas season to watch the Darling children cheerfully abandon home and parents.
Indeed, with the recurrence of the Christmas theater seasons, new generations of children attended the drama while the children of past seasons did what all children (except Peter Pan) do: grow up. The sentiment of the drama and the novel were peculiarly pitched at adults: reminding them that the insides of their children's minds would always be alien, and at the same time that their children would inevitably grow up and cease to be children. Rather than carrying on the Victorian cult of childhood, Peter Pan played to a new breed of ambivalent nostalgia for childhood. At the conclusion of the story, Wendy is an adult and Peter Pan returns to carry off her child to the Neverland. "And thus it will go on," comments Barrie, with his concluding flourish, "so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless" (p. 192). The joint attribution of innocence and heartlessness gave PeterPan its own peculiar post-Victorian twist before a public of ever-aging, and always renewed, generations of children.
After Barrie's death in 1937, the rights to Peter Pan passed, by the author's beneficent bequest, to the children's hospital of Great Ormond Street in London, further enhancing the already mythological quality of the story. There was a silent film of 1924, still in Barrie's lifetime. Walt DISNEY put his own animated American mark on the legend with the movie Peter Pan in 1953, and a Peter Pan ride for children, aloft, remains part of the experience of Disney World in the twenty-first century. Broadway weighed in with Peter Pan in 1954, starring Mary Martin, singing and flying, as the boy who never grew up. Steven Spielberg, the cinematic master of American fantasy, created his own version of the story in 1991, with a slight shift in emphasis, under the title Hook. In the meantime, scholarship and biography also made important contributions to interpreting Peter Pan. The biographer Andrew Birkin's J. M. Barrie andthe Lost Boys, published in 1979, explored Barrie's close personal relationship with the five little boys of the Llewellyn Davies family and suggested the possibility of pedophile fantasy as one of the ingredients that went into the making of the children's classic. In 1984 the literary critic Jacqueline Rose published The Case of Peter Pan, or, The Impossibility of Children's Fiction, arguing that the work's cultural sway came from its bundling of the sexual and political contradictions inherent in the adult enterprise of representing children.
A crucial aspect of the history of childhood ever since the Renaissance has been an increasing cultural attention to the fundamental differences between children and adults. The literary legend of Peter Pan, still potent a century after its creation, finds its sentimental force in the aching consciousness of that difference. When Peter returns for Wendy, years later, she confesses what he is too childishly self-absorbed to recognize: "I am old, Peter. I am ever so much more than twenty. I grew up long ago." When he offers to teach her to fly again, with a sprinkling of fairy dust, she replies, "O Peter, don't waste the fairy dust on me" (p. 189). Invoking the Victorian theatrical nonsense of fairy dust, Barrie conjured with remarkable modernity the abyss that separates adults from children.
Barrie, J. M. 1987. Peter Pan, Signet Classic Edition. Afterword by Alison Lurie. New York: New American Library.
Birkin, Andrew. 1979. J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Love Story that Gave Birth to Peter Pan. New York: C. N. Potter.
Green, Roger Lancelyn. 1954. Fifty Years of Peter Pan. London: P. Davies.
Rose, Jacqueline. 1984. The Case of Peter Pan, or, The Impossibility of Children's Fiction. London: Macmillan.