The Strange Story Behind Peter Pan

J.M. Barrie

J.M. Barrie

“All children except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up …this is the beginning of the end.” The first paragraph of James Barrie’s classic story, Peter Pan, introduced its central theme. It sounds innocent, but a look at Barrie’s life gives it a more sinister twist.

“All of James Barrie’s life led up to the creation of Peter Pan,” wrote one of his biographers.

In 1866 when Barrie, the youngest in a Scottish family of ten children, was six, his brother David, the pride of the family, died in a skating accident. Barrie’s mother was devastated. To comfort her, little James began imitating David’s mannerisms and mimicking his speech. This bizarre charade went on for years, and only got weirder. When James reached 13, the age at which David had died, he literally stopped growing. He never stood taller than 5′, and didn’t shave until he was 24, and always had a thin, high-pitched voice.

From childhood, Barrie’s main interest had been creating stories and plays. After graduating from college, he moved to London to pursue a career as a writer, and soon his work was being published.

In the 1880s, his novels about a “wandering little girl”, based on his mother, put him on the road to fame and wealth. He soon became one of England’s most famous writers.

Barrie was painfully shy with women, and the thought of marriage terrified him. After a nightmare, he wrote in his journal: “Greatest horror, dream I am married, wake up screaming.” But that didn’t stop him from putting lovely actresses on a pedestal. Barrie became enamored of leading lady Mary Ansell, who appeared in his early plays. Motherlike, she nursed him through a life-threatening bout of pneumonia. And when he recovered, they decided to marry.

It was a disaster. Barrie was stuck, physically and emotionally in a state of perpetual boyhood. Eventually, Mary fell in love with a young writer named Gilbert Cannan and demanded a divorce. Barrie refused, because his marriage had provided him the appearance being normal. But when Mary threatened to tell the world that the was impotent, Barrie gave in.

In 1899, while still unhappily married, Barrie befriended young George, John, and Peter Davies and their mother, Sylvia. The boys’ father, Arthur Davies, was too busy tending to his struggling career as a lawyer to spend much time with the family, so childless Barrie was only too happy to play with the Davies boys. He became a frequent caller at their home, and even rented a cottage nearby when they went on vacations in Surrey.

Barrie idolized the children’s beautiful mother. But it was with the children that he seemed to really be himself. He met with them daily in the park or at their home. They played Indians together, or pretended to be pirates, forcing each other to “walk the plank.” Barrie made up stories for the boys, featuring talking birds and fairies, and even acted them out.

In 1901 Barrie ordered a printing of only two copies of a photo essay book of his adventures with the Davies boys. He entitled it The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island. The next year, Barrie published these adventures in a novel called The Little White Bird. In a story- within-a-story, the narrator tells “David” (George Davies) about Peter Pan, a seven-day-old boy who flies away from his parents to live with fairies. All children start out as birds, the story goes, but soon forget how to fly.

Peter eventually flies home, and tearfully sees through his nursery window that his mother is holding a new baby and has forgotten him. Now Peter Pan can never go home and will never grow up.

The Little White Bird was popular, and readers begged Barrie to give them more of that new character, Peter Pan.

Barrie knew exactly how to bring Peter Pan back. He had often taken the Davies boys to pantomimes -dazzling Christmastime musical dramas put on for children. The plays always featured a young hero and heroine, a Good Fairy, a Demon King, fight scenes, characters flying, and a “transformation” scene, in which the ordinary world became a fairyland. During the performance, Barrie carefully observed the boys’ reactions. They seemed to love every moment.

So Barrie thought why not put Peter Pan in a similar children’s play for the London stage?

Barrie always acknowledged that the Davies boys’ free-spirited youth was the inspiration for Peter Pan. “I made Peter by rubbing the five of you together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame,” he wrote on the dedication page of the printed version of the play. More than that, the Davies family, loving mother, impatient father, and adorable sons, served as Barrie’s model for the Darlings in the play. He even used their names:

* Mr. Darling was named after the eldest boy, George Davies.
* Jack Davies became John Darling.

* Michael and Nicholas became Michael Nicholas Darling.

* Peter Davies’ name went to Peter pan.

As for the author, he appears as Captain James Hook, whose right hand is gone. Barrie suffered paralysis of his right hand from tendonitis. Hook is relentlessly pursued by a crocodile who has swallowed a ticking clock, which biographers say was “a metaphor of Barrie stalked by cruel time.” Porthos, his St. Bernard, became nurse-dog Nana, who exasperated the stuffy father.

Barrie added a sister, Wendy, modeled after Margaret Henley, the deceased daughter of Barrie’s friend, W.E. Henley. The six-year-old girl had called Barrie her “fwendy” (friend) and from that child-word, Barrie invented the name Wendy. It rapidly became one of England’s most popular girls names.

Peter Pan posed a radical departure for adult theater. Barrie had an agreement with producer Charles Frohman to deliver a play manuscript. He offered Frohman another play for free if he would only produce his “dream child,” Peter Pan. “I’m sure it will not be a commercial success,” Barrie said of Peter.

But Frohman, a wealthy American who liked risky ventures, said he would produce both plays. After reading the manuscript of Peter Pan, Frohman was so excited, he would stop friends on the street and force them to listen to passages from it. With an American staging now secured, it was easier for Barrie to find backing for a London opening.

The play was first performed at the Duke of York’s Theatre on December 27, 1904, with an actress, Nina Boucicault, as Peter Pan. Having an actress play the boy, a tradition that continues to this day, began as a practical matter. The role was too demanding for a child; only an adult could handle all the lines. And only an adult female could pass for a boy.

Peter Pan was an immediate hit, quelling Barrie’s misgivings that an audience of adults wouldn’t go for a play he’d originally written for children. One review compared Barrie’s genius with that of George Bernard Shaw. Later, Barrie would cash in on the play’s popularity by writing the novels Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) and Peter Pan and Wendy (1911).

But this story has no happy ending. Arthur Davies died of cancer, which left Barrie and Sylvia free to marry. Barrie went so far as to give her an engagement ring, but then she, too, died of cancer. Suddenly Barrie was the legal guardian of five boys, ages 7 to 17.

He devoted his life to them, imagining them as his own, but the boys felt he was overbearing in his possessiveness. Some biographers claim that the Davies brothers grew uncomfortable with their lives because they were always badgered about their relationship with the famous James Barrie.

George, the eldest Davies child and Barrie’s favorite, died in World War I in 1915. Michael drowned in a pool at Oxford while being taught to swim by a close friend; there were rumors of a suicide pact. John married and distanced himself from Barrie. Peter Davies committed suicide as an adult in an attempt to escape, some say, from forever being called “Peter Pan.”

Barrie ended up famous and rich, but a sad and lonely man. He was described as looking prematurely old and withered. Just before he died in 1937, he willed all proceeds from the copyright of Peter Pan to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. Millions of dollars were realized from the bequest. Under British law, copyrights may extend no longer than 50 years before becoming public property. In this special case, Parliament made an exception and allowed the hospital to continue offering the world’s best pediatric care because of the boy who never grew up.

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