Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Reading Peter Pan....For the First Time

I grew up in a theatre-going family. The first show I distinctly remember seeing is Peter Pan-Sandy Duncan was on tour with the show. I sat in the orchestra seats, and Peter Pan flew over my head.

We had a collection of original cast recordings; the Mary Martin cast recording was one of them (on LP, no less). The recording has some of the loveliest songs ever written for the stage ("Neverland," "Distant Melody") and some of the most infectious ensemble numbers ("I'm Flying," "I Won't Grow Up"). A video of the Broadway production was occasionally shown on PBS, and my mother taped it for us. I remember Martin's entrance into the nursery. Peter's nursery entrance ranks up there with Annie Oakley's shotgun entrance in Annie Get Your Gun and Rose's "Sing out, Louise!" aisle entrance in Gypsy. Of course, that was when Broadway stars were national (and sometimes international) phenomenons, for whom such shows (and entrances) were written.

I also grew up familiar with Disney's Peter Pan and counted the Peter Pan ride as among my favorite Disney rides.

Dave Barry (yes, that Dave Barry) and Ridley Pearson have written two prequels to Peter Pan, to tremendous success. At the recent Elementary School Battle of the Books competition at Liberty High, Peter and the Starcatchers was the most cited book when the participants were asked to name their favorite book from the Battle of the Books list.

However, I had never actually read the original story by J.M. Barrie until recently. I would wager that although many people are familiar with the story, not that many people have read the story. There could be several reasons for this: the storytelling is very old-fashioned, the depiction of the "Indians" is decidedly politically incorrect, a psychological syndrome has been named "The Peter Pan Syndrome," the relationship between Peter and Wendy is very weird for some and recent biographies of J.M. Barrie have highlighted several of Barrie's unorthodox lifestyle choices. It's probably not a coincidence that Steven Spielberg, who has been called a Peter Pan figure and actually directed a (poorly received) version of the Peter Pan story, chose Peter Pan as Gertie's bedtime story in E.T. There's even a Peter Pan peanut butter brand (I've tried to find the reasoning behind the brand name without success.).

Let's take this one by one:

The storytelling. Yes, decidedly old-fashioned. Does that doom the book? Of course not. Old-fashioned children's books are still read. They may take some coaxing by parents or librarians, but they are still read. Moving on....

The depiction of the "Indians." Truth be told...it's not like they are fighting with Captain Hook and his crew. The Indians are not the bad guys in the story-they fight with/for Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. However, the stereotype of the "savage" is very much in play here.

Relationship between Peter and Wendy. Yes, it does read a bit (bit?) strange between Peter and Wendy. However, keep in mind that the crux of the story was written during the Victorian era, as a play (the novel was published in 1911, at the end of the Edwardian era). Motherhood was at the height of idolatry during the Victorian era. Queen Victoria's predecessors were not paragons of family values. Mistresses, madness, and illegitimate children were the order of the day in the British monarchy.

Due to the lack of legitimate heirs to the throne, the British crown fell upon the head of a nineteen year old princess. The new queen was immediately idealized. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were not as flashy or as interesting as previous rulers, but the British public was ready for some calm in the royal family. All nine children survived childhood (at a time when it was still not uncommon for families, regardless of class, to lose a child or children) and family pictures were readily published in Britain and abroad.

Womanhood (which was equated with motherhood) was celebrated in flowery and sentimental writing that embarrasses or disturbs some modern-day sensibilities. Seeing the relationship through Victorian eyes, in an era in which young girls were brought up with the expectation that they would become mothers, helps the reader attempt to overcome the uneasiness with which he/she reads the Peter-Wendy relationship.

The unorthodox lifestyle of J.M. Barrie. There are plenty of books that emphasize or or downplay Barrie's choices and intentions. If you're interested, one of the better ones I have read is Andrew Birkin's J.M. Barrie & the Lost Boys.

At the end of the day, did I enjoy it?

For cultural reference reasons, I am glad I read it. It was fun to learn that the lyrics for "Hook's Tango" in the Broadway Peter Pan production came almost directly from Hook's plans to lure the Lost Boys with a (poisoned) cake. I was surprised to read that Mrs. Darling actually saw and talked with Peter Pan, which does not happen in the stage production.

As for enjoying it....I have to admit that I did force myself to finish it. I can't quite put my finger on it. As much as I tried to view the Peter Pan-Wendy relationship through Victorian sensibilities, it still struck me as very strange. The love-hate attitude toward mothers was also difficult to tolerate. Some of my favorite children's books were written during this era: The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

What do you think? Do I need to look at Peter Pan again? Am I missing something? Drop me an email.

Cathy Rigby (the former gymnast) has performed Peter Pan several times; you can borrow the video.

We also have the Mary Martin cast recording on CD.

An official sequel to Peter Pan was published in 2006.

We have a young adult novel about Captain Hook.

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