Childhood Revisited

Classic Arts Features   Childhood Revisited
As Houston Ballet readies the world premiere of Trey McIntyre's Peter Pan on March 14, Margaret Putnam takes a look at J.M. Barrie, the Scottishauthor who gave the world the beloved story of the boy who refuses to grow up.

Many works of James M. Barrie have hit the dust‹plays, novels, novellas. But Peter Pan lives on.

From its first success in London in 1904, the play hit a responsive chord with the public. The subject‹the boy who never grew up‹appealed to children and adults alike. The play became a perennial favorite that ran every Christmas, replaced only years later with that other child fantasy, The Nutcracker.

The original cast had Peter and all the castaway boys played by women. English law prohibited children under age 14 from performing on stage after 9 p.m. With that dictate, Barrie had no choice but to cast women (not men, who are too big) in the roles of Peter and the lost boys.

That decision carried over to the U.S. As late as 1979, women still took over the star role. Mary Martin became the most famous Peter Pan of the era, in the first musical version of the play in 1954. When Broadway revived the musical in 1979, Sandy Duncan took over the role.

The play eventually metamorphosed into a movie‹Walt Disney's animate version in 1953, then into televised, again starring Ms. Martin.

Houston Ballet's new Peter Pan, however, keeps true to the original story by casting a male dancer in the title role.

Peter Pan was an expensive production. Barrie's first request to a producer was rejected. Too imaginative. But Barrie, who had started out his writing career with dozens of rejections, was not one to be discouraged. He sent his scrip to the rich American impresario Charles Frohman, who immediately recognized its potential.

As for Barrie, the play was far more than a new work: it represented a deep, private world of fantasy that had shaped his life. Barrie had more than a little of Peter Pan in his own character.

One of 8 children, he was born in Kirriemuir, Scotland in 1860. When he was 6, his brother David, his mother's favorite, died in an ice skating accident. It was David's 14th birthday. His mother plunged into despair, locking herself into her bedroom. Jamie, as he was called, was afraid to enter the room, but his older sister insisted. When he came into the dark, he heard his mother's listless voice say, "Is that you." He thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to, and he said, in a little lonely voice, "No, it's not him, it's just me."

In order to gain his mother's love, he tried to replace his brother by becoming like him. He learned how his brother whistled, put on his clothes, played stunts. He began telling her stories and listened to her stories about her childhood. A bond grew. He would do anything to bring her back to happiness.

This pivotal event sparked his interest in writing, and he took to it with abandon.

By the time he was in high school, he was writing stories and plays, and with a friend went to the theater at every opportunity. After college, he worked as a leader-writer for the Nottingham Journal, but that lasted a year when the publisher found syndicated pieces more economical.

He sent out dozens of articles to London papers; many were rejected. That didn't deter him from striking out for London. Soon, his works started being accepted.

Like Tchaikovsky in music, Barrie was indefatigable. His brain flowed with ideas. He wrote an article a day on any number of subjects. Soon the money was pouring in.

The articles turned into novels, and novels into plays. Long before Peter Pan came to life, he had become one of the most popular fiction writers of the day, and was just making a name for himself as a playwright.

The idea for Peter Pan germinated a long time, and was inspired by a series of events.

Shortly after marring actress Mary Ansell (a marriage that turned out quite unhappy as his sexual libido was nil and he ignored her), the pair bought a dog, Porthos, a St. Bernard, in Switzerland on their honeymoon.

Back in London, he and Porthos played boisterously, both at home and at the park across the street, Kensington Gardens. There he caught sight of three little boys, the youngest in a perambulator pushed by a nanny. He quickly engaged George and Jack in imaginative games. Peter entered the picture later.

Those outings, which became more elaborate and fanciful, stirred up the old, lost boyhood he never had.

He met the boys' mother, Sylvia Davies, at a dinner party, and from then on the family became an inseparable part of his life. He became obsessed with the boys. He'd walk back from the park with the boys and his dog, and stay there, playing games, until their bedtime.

Arthur Davies (who became the Darling father in the play) was not happy about this arrangement.

Two more boys were born: Michael and Nicholas.

Those years with the five were halcyon years for Barrie. He loved "his boys." He himself was playful, outgoing, theatrical. Adults sometimes found his overwhelming and demanding. He arranged for summer outings with the children and insisted that all come, even though the parents had other plans.

In the summer of 1901, the Barries and Davieses were inseparable. Barrie spun story after story.

The stories came alive. "The Black Lake" became a South Seas lagoon. The pinewoods became tropical forests in which enemies lurked. Jack, George and Peter were transformed into pirates and Redskins. Those were magical days in the sunshine.

They inspired first a children's novel, The Little White Bird, which introduced for the first time the character of Peter Pan, and soon after, the famous Peter Pan.

Porthos had died, and was replaced by a shaggy Newfoundland dog, Luath. Luath also became immortal in Peter Pan, as the nanny. (An actor learned Luath's tricks, and a very expensive fake, furry coat was devised to look exactly like the dog.)

Those idyllic days could not last. In 1915, 18-year-old George was killed in World War I in France. Six years later Michael, his favorite, drowned at age 18 at Oxford. Like his mother, Barrie fell into a state of despair over Michael's death.

Other boys came into his life later, but none spent the days and days of playing in Black Lake.

He had become rich and famous. But his beloved Sylvia had died. His wife divorced him, good friends died and the boys that he loved so much grew up or died.

He lived to be 72. Always generous, long before he died he gave the rights of Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children.

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