Peter Pan is coming! The Creative and Performing Arts Department will present the classic musical September 24 - October 3. Rehearsals are now into their second week, there are upward of forty theatre majors and children from the community involved, and yes, they will fly. The production is being directed by Professor Michael Musial, Chair of the department.
Hearing the music and the excitement around the department got me thinking about the Peter Pan phenomenon. The story celebrated it's centennial several years ago and with a major new 360 video production now touring the West Coast and aiming for ours, it only seems to be gaining in popularity.
To get at the "why", I spoke with Dr. Tonya Moutray, who is an Assistant Professor of English at Sage. Dr. Moutray did her doctoral work in English Literature, studying all-female communities in eighteen- and nineteen-century British literature. She has also pursued scholarship on J.M. Barrie and Peter Pan.
DB: What interests you personally about Peter Pan?
TM: I became personally interested in the story once I started analyzing gender roles. As a boy’s adventure tale, I did not find it appealing as a child or a young adult. Peter is fascinating because he is a bit evil, I think. His naiveté is a front that allows him to do what he wants. Cocksure and narcissistic, Peter is primarily focused on his own pleasures, whether dueling with Captain Hook or creating imaginary adventures with his animal friends and the lost boys. I have written about the Freudian subtext implicit in Peter’s psychosexual developmental history which indicates that he is incapable of forming strong attachments to other people. That part of him is broken. While Peter never has to assume adult responsibilities, Wendy grows up. I find her narrative tragic. The Disney film and, indeed, Barrie’s text, relegates Wendy to the role of housekeeper and mother in Neverland, struggling to keep Peter’s interest from Tiger Lily and the Mermaids. I find Wendy’s struggle indicative of the roles many women continued to inhabit into the 1950s. Wendy’s decision to go home, to grow up, and to create another life is laudable; however, that she allows her daughter and then grand-daughter to “spring-clean” Peter’s home in Neverland only furthers a cycle of abandonment and loss.
DB: What should I know about Pan/Barrie that I can't find in Wikipedia?
TM: Wikipedia doesn’t address “why” Barrie’s play (and later, novel) became such a cultural phenomenon in the first half of the twentieth-century. Peter Pan is not merely a magical character whose wily adventures entertain audiences; his story is also about loss and abandonment. Peter reports that he left home as an infant. When he tried to return, his mother had put bars on the window and a new baby had replaced him. In the end, Peter decides to forgo the Darlings’ invitation to live with them, leaving Wendy behind. British audiences in the teens and twenties were drawn to the idea that literature can preserve childhood. They likely took this tale to heart after the atrocities of WWI. Thousands of young men lost their lives, never to return home again. If he is one of these “lost boys,” Peter can’t return really, because he is dead.
Another historical backdrop to this story involves colonial expansion. In spite of signs that Great Britain’s colonial endeavors were failing in the interwar years, plenty of sons, husbands and fathers took off for the colonies, many of them leaving families behind. Neverland is a kind of colonial outpost with its own native population. One chapter of the book is entitled “The Great White Father,” a reference to Peter’s role in Neverland.
The other major reason, I think, that Peter Pan has had an impact culturally, is that his sexual orientation is ambiguous. Traditionally, women and girls have played the character of Peter in stage productions, furthering this ambiguity. While he performs boys’ roles, he prefers, ultimately, to be in the male company of the Lost Boys rather than in a nuclear family. While his sexual orientation may be in question, the fact that he never grows up means that his representation can suggest all sorts of cultural anxieties about deviant sexuality without giving anything away. Certainly in the wake of the Oscar Wilde trials, the public found a “safe” receptacle for these anxieties in the figure of Peter, a boy saved from the tragedy of having to face the afflictions of the adult world. Indeed, as I argue, the figure of Peter Pan pops up in a variety of other fictions by writers such as W. Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh, both of whom were homosexual and, like Barrie, made boyhood into a kind of fetish.
DB: How has the message of the story changed over the century? Has that been influenced by the different mediums of storytelling?
TM: I think the multiple film spin-offs have kept the tale alive for many American children while watering down some of the central concerns of the narrative: What normative roles are young men supposed to take on in contemporary society? Remember, Peter does not want to go to school or take on a profession. Why isn’t Wendy as free to choose a life of adventure? What is she sacrificing and gaining? The question now is how to make the tale “new”; how to keep it relevant in contemporary society. I think that current readers may forget about its historical backdrop and the array of cultural anxieties that made the play and novel resonate so powerfully.
My thanks to Dr. Moutray for her insights. I will continue to blog about Peter Pan as our Sage production approaches.