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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Sunday, November 01, 2009

Peter Pan and JM Barrie

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Peter Pan and JM Barrie

PETER Pan might be the boy who wouldn't grow up, but he has no trouble proliferating. As we approach the 150th anniversary of the birth of JM Barrie, our appetite for the Kirriemuir writer's most famous creation appears to be insatiable. The boy from Neverland is everywhere.
In a year when Scottish audiences have enjoyed productions of Peter Pan by Glasgow theatre company Visible Fictions and New York's Mabou Mines, Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum is about to stage it again as a Christmas show. "Every man wants to be Peter Pan," says director Jemima Levick, who wants to explore new dimensions to the story, "but I'm interested in Wendy and Hook." Meanwhile, the second best-selling show in London this summer was a high-tech staging of Peter Pan in Barrie's old stomping ground of Kensington Gardens directed by Ben Harrison, famed for his work with Edinburgh's Grid Iron theatre company. So successful was this multimedia spectacular that it is about to open for a pre-Christmas run at London's vast O2 arena and plans are under way for productions in San Francisco and Australia.

All this is before the National Theatre of Scotland takes on Peter Pan for a UK tour to coincide with the Barrie anniversary on 9 May next year. Staged by four of the team who brought us Black Watch, it is being relocated to Victorian Edinburgh by playwright David Greig. Director John Tiffany calls it "the most influential story ever written by a Scottish writer".

So what is it about this story, first staged in 1904 and put on the cinema screen by Walt Disney in 1953, that continues to capture our imagination? In the year when Michael Jackson, the self-styled Peter Pan of pop, tragically proved himself a boy who really couldn't grow up, what does our obsession with this myth tell us about our own times? And in an era when no-one can get near a child without the approval of the Independent Safeguarding Authority, what are we to make of Barrie himself, a man who openly revelled in the company of little boys?

As far as Barrie biographer Lisa Chaney is concerned, Peter Pan is a play of timeless genius. "It is one of the great – and profoundly underestimated – works of art of the 20th century," says the author, whose Hide-And-Seek With Angels: A Life of JM Barrie was published in 2005. "His contribution is enormous."

Chaney's enthusiasm is echoed by Ben Harrison. "It's up there with Waiting For Godot – and there's more flying," says the director. "It's an endlessly fascinating myth and, just like Peter himself, it is always slightly beyond your grasp."

If Peter Pan has been underrated, it is because of the patronising assumption that the story is for children and therefore lacks seriousness, an assumption bolstered by pantomime versions that pile on the swashbuckling action and cut out the profundity. At it's best, however, the play talks to people of all ages not simply about battles with ticking crocodiles and pirates with hooks, but about creativity, the passage of time and the elusive nature of childhood.

"It's about unfulfilled desires of all sorts," says Liza Lorwin, writer and producer of the heartbreaking Mabou Mines production in this year's Edinburgh International Festival. "When I read it as a teenager, it was the atmosphere of the book that got me, its adolescent yearning and unfulfilled desire. As I looked at it again as the mother of a five-year-old, it was more about that moment when you re-experience your childhood through your child and then they start to fly away."

For Chaney, Peter Pan plays on the tension between having to grow up and the fear that adulthood will steal our imagination. Barrie relished the creative spirit, but knew we deny adulthood at our peril. "Michael Jackson is an example of how, when you don't listen to that message, terrible things happen to you," she says. "Jackson tried to deny time and when you do that, you become a tragic monster. Peter Pan doesn't become physically monstrous, but the tragedy for him is that, when he flies back, the bars are up and he can't get in the room. He is condemned to be youthful for ever."

What it says about today, suggests Chaney, is that ours is a society reluctant to face the responsibilities of adulthood. "Intuitively, Barrie was trying to understand the West becoming an industrial society," she says. "Nineteenth-century man began to dislike adulthood because adulthood meant accepting the age that he lived in. You escape that subconsciously by becoming a child. Today there are many Peter Pans and there are many different ways in our society of people not accepting what it means to be a true adult. It's just too painful. Peter Pan becomes more relevant every day."

But Barrie's insight came at a price. Haunted by the death of his 13-year-old brother, yearning for his mother's affection and forced to grow up quickly when he was sent away to school, he developed a fixation with childhood that, to modern eyes, seems unhealthy. He was not alone in this. As author Philip Pullman sees it, Barrie was one of a generation of turn-of-the-century male writers with a highly romanticised view of childhood.

"Barrie is the extreme case (of arrested development] but that sort of feeling was very strong in a number of British writers of around that period," says Pullman, citing also Kenneth Grahame and AA Milne. "I've got a complete set of Punch from the 1920s when Milne was an assistant editor and the cartoons, which are beautifully illustrated, have a feeble joke and some half-dressed little nymphet standing there looking appealing and saying something winsome to a fondly adoring mother. You think, this isn't a joke – there's something weird going on here."

Exactly how weird, in Barrie's case, we can only speculate. Was his friendship with the Llewelyn Davies family – as played out in the 2004 film Finding Neverland with Kate Winslet and Johnny Depp – merely the act of an avuncular thirtysomething? Or was there some more troubling motivation behind his affection for Sylvia's five sons? When his wife, Mary Ansell, said he was impotent, did she mean he was asexual or that his passions were directed elsewhere?

And when we read The Little White Bird, a precursor to Peter Pan, with its descriptions of a man undressing a little boy before bathing him and sleeping with him, is it really only our post-Freudian sensibility that causes us to raise an eyebrow? "I placed him on my knee and removed his blouse," Barrie writes with unsuppressed excitement. "This was a wonderful experience."

Psychologist Lorraine O'Sullivan says it is impossible to know if Barrie loved childhood or children, but his behaviour – like that of Jackson, who named his ranch Neverland, invited boys to play and once declared "I am Peter Pan" – would alarm any child protection expert today.

"The question people ask about Barrie is was he trying to corrupt children with an adult desire or was he trying to rejoin them in the innocence of childhood?" she says. "But you can't join children in the innocence of childhood when the power balance is not equal. He was a wealthier man than the family he was involved with, so he was able to buy them gifts and had financial influence as well."

We would call that grooming, but Chaney argues it is wrong to project our values onto another era. After all, Nico Llewelyn Davies, the youngest brother, saw nothing underhand in the behaviour of "Uncle Jim", saying Barrie "was the least interested in sex... he was an innocent".

"I think he was non-sexual," says Chaney. "I put Michael Jackson in the same category. I think he probably did have kids in bed with him and I do not believe he did anything more than cuddle them, just as I don't believe Barrie did anything more. I don't think either of them was capable of it. Barrie couldn't be normal, but that doesn't mean he was a sexual freak. He loved the children with a smothering love because he didn't understand emotionally how to be a proper adult."

That, says O'Sullivan, could be just how sexual predators would like us to think of them. What better disguise than to write openly about your desires? "People who behave in a predatory way towards children create their own norms. As far as they can push it, they get society to accept their norms. By saying things in a matter-of-fact way, you're saying, 'This is normal and it's innocent.' People get away with an awful lot when the inveigle their way into families. That's what grooming is about: you think, 'Am I over-reacting if I think this is wrong, because everybody else seems to think it's OK?' I could never say one way or the other about Barrie, but when you have a male in a position where he's wanting to play in an innocent way with children, it's either incredibly naive or it's manipulative because the power balance is so different."

What all this should mean for our enjoyment of his work is debatable. Like the music of Michael Jackson – at least before he turned messianic – Barrie's Peter Pan remains a towering achievement whatever his sexuality. It has endured because it affects us on the deepest level. "At its heart is the idea that growing up is the most exciting and most terrifying thing," says Tiffany. "And that makes Peter Pan the ultimate tragic figure."

A literary life

BORN in Kirriemuir, 20 miles north of Dundee, on 9 May, 1860, James Matthew Barrie was the son of a weaver and the second youngest of ten children.

At an early age he was packed off to Glasgow Academy, where two of his siblings taught, and continued his education in Forfar and Dumfries. While studying at Edinburgh University, he began writing theatre reviews and went on to spend 18 months as a journalist on the Nottingham Daily Journal before returning to Kirriemuir and turning his mother's stories into publishable works of fiction.

These kick-started a literary career that began with his debut novel, Auld Licht Idylls, in 1888. He developed a parallel career as a dramatist, enjoying his biggest successes in the early-1900s with Quality Street, The Admirable Crichton and Peter Pan. The theme of the boy who wouldn't grow up continued to haunt him and, in 1911, he published Peter And Wendy, a more sophisticated reworking of the play in novel form. He married actor Mary Ansell in 1891, a childless marriage that ended 18 years later after she had an affair. He died of pneumonia on 19 June, 1937.

© Mark Fisher 2009

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