Peter Pan

“To die will be an awfully big adventure!”

J.M. Barrie

First, a bit of L-space fangirling: I’m listening to Oxford-based band The Mechanisms’ latest album High Noon Over Camelot, a sci-fi Western retelling of the Arthurian cycle, and if that sounds awesome that’s because it is. Go check it out.

And for my main post: I’m ploughing through my Children’s Literature reading list again, and today’s fare was Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie’s insanely famous play about the boy who never grows up and his villainous foe Captain Hook.

This is a story, one feels, in which it’s not so much the plot that matters but the general world, the setting, the enchanted wild timelessness of Neverland. Think about it. If you’ve read, or seen, any of the myriad versions of Peter Pan, do you remember the story? Do you remember the small skirmishes between the pirates and the Lost Boys, the petty arguments with Tiger Lily and her people? Do you remember those details, the games Wendy and her brothers play with Peter, the conversations they have?

No. No, because those are not important. “Second star to the right and straight on till morning,” that’s important. Peter’s fight with Hook on the deck of the pirate ship as the Lost Boys look on, that’s important. The children flying around the bedroom in the Darling house, that’s important. Those unquantifiable moments of strange childish magic, wonderful, yes, but also often tragic or terrifying or haunting, those are the moments that encapsulate what Peter Pan is.

It’s a tone captured perfectly by Barrie’s lyrical, fairy-tale prose, which manages to find its way even into the playtext that I read, through fiendishly long and richly detailed stage-directions and scene settings, some of them unactable, some of them offering deeper possibilities for character interpretation. It’s possible that Barrie is the only playwright who can make a stage-direction prick your heart:

I want always to be a little boy and to have fun.

(So perhaps he thinks, but it is only his greatest pretend.)

It’s not all magic and sparkle, of course; Barrie also has a wicked sense of humour, and there’s a darkly funny thread of satire or simple comedy underpinning most of his scenes, which is part of what saves Peter Pan from mere childish whimsy and redeems it as a story which adults can take pleasure in, too. I’m reminded a little of The Princess Bride, except Peter Pan is far, far more respectful of its fairytale plot. Also there are no ROUSs.

I’m not sure what more I can say about Peter Pan; it’s always difficult writing about a classic, because everyone else has. It’s no use telling you, for instance, that Peter is a masterpiece of characterisation, apparently cheerful and carefree and naive while a darkness of fear and tragedy lurks beneath. It’s no use telling you that, compared to him, Wendy is a colourless slip of a character, primly conventional and dutifully mainstream – yet she is real, and time-bound, and able to grow up, which makes her, in the end, the enviable character.

It’s no use telling you those things, because you already know them, of course. But I’ve written them anyway, because they need saying. Because they are so central to the music of Peter Pan, the ethereal yet familiar magic of it, that to omit them from a review would be not to review the play at all.

You know when you read classics, especially children’s ones, and you know they are good (being classics and all), but you don’t feel it? Well, that’s not the case with Peter Pan at all. I won’t say that reading the original (insofar as there was an original) was a surprise or anything, because subsequent productions have actually been remarkably faithful to the play, but Peter Pan is, certainly, viscerally good, a far-fetched and wonderful thing of adventure and eternal youth under strange stars.

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