WHO WAS THE REAL PETER PAN
WHEN RUMORS had spread through London about the play, a lollapalooza of five sets, actors playing a dog, a crocodile, pirates and Indians and a slew of other characters, some Of whom flew in and out of windows by means Of an unreliable mechanical contraption.
Spectators, including many professional critics, packed the Duke of York's Theatre on opening night. The theater's lights dimmed. Behind the last row of seats, a small figure paced nervously. At first glance, he appeared to be a boy in an oversized greatcoat. But the face was that of a man---J. M. Barrie, the 44-year4 old Scottish playwright whose Peter Pan was being performed for the first time.
Although one of London’s most celebrated playwrights, Barrie was sick with worry. The improbable story of a boy who refused to grow up was a risky and expensive theatrical venture. Barrie had rewritten the script a dozen times and was aware of talk that he had gone mad. But now the playwright knew that one element he could neither rehearse nor control would determine whether the criticism was founded.
The play reached its dramatic climax: Peter Pan's mercurial sidekick, Tinker Bell. had just swallowed poison to save her beloved Peter. Now, Peter was poised to deliver the line that would revive Tink ~ and determine the success or failure of the play.. “Do you believe in fairies? If you believe, clap your hands!"
Unless the audience of staid Victorians responded to Peter's plea, Barrie would be a laughingstock.
As all the world now knows, the playwright need not have worried. Since that December night 90 years ago, Peter Pan has been in continual production (save for two years during ~WorId War I!), seen by millions of people every year. It has been translated into dozens of languages and interpreted by hundreds of artists, from Mary Martin and Steven Spielberg to the animators of The Disney Studio.
Even today, it remains a story of enchantment that can transport the most world-weary adult or the most skeptical 11 year old to a land where children can fly and dreams really do come true. Hut few people know the story behind the story of the boy who would not grow up.
Born in 1860 James Matthew Barrie grew up to the clackety-clack sound of the hand looms that filled the simple weavers' cottages in The Tenements of Kirriemuir. Young James was the ninth of ten children. His puritanical mother; Margaret Ogilvy, doled on her handsome older son David, telling everyone that he would one day fulfill her ambitions by becoming a Doctor of Divinity.
Unlike David, who was athletic and smart, James was the family runt. He was neither good-looking nor showed any academic promise. Jamie was largely entrusted to his older sister Jane Ann. But when Jane Ann was preoccupied, Jamie sneaked out to watch traveling minstrel shows, which his mother considered tawdry and wicked. Soon James was acting out his own boyish dramas, exacting toys from the local children as admission.
Jamie’s carefree existence came to an end on the eve of David's r4th birthday. Margaret had consented to let David go to a boarding school run by his older brother in Bothwell, about 70 miles away. At a skating party one January afternoon, he lent his skates to a schoolmate. The friend crashed into David, who fell head first on the ice.
Back in Kirriermuir, James, just six years old, searched his mother's face as his father read the telegram that said David was dead. Margaret was overwhelmed with grief. Her dreams of prominence dashed, she took to her led and lay despondent in the darkened room for many months. Jane Ann, who now shouldered all the household duties, had little time to comfort James when he sat weeping n the stairs leading to his mother's room. Finally, Jane Ann told the crying child, "Go in and make her realize she still has another boy."
James crept timidly into his mother's dark room. When Margaret heard the child in her doorway, she gasped, "Is that you" Unnerved, James replied in a shaking voice, "No, it's no' him, it's just me." Margaret cried out,~ and through the dark James could sense her outstretched arms.
From that moment, Margaret began to recover. Each day, James spent most of his waking hours at her bedside as she told him stories from her childhood. Years later, James merged these with his memories of Jane Ann to create Peter Pan's beloved Wendy.
But Margaret's grief had exacted a heavy toll on the small boy. It seemed that-the only way to win his mother's love ~~ and prevent her from wasting away was to turn himself into the boy who could never be replaced. Once, before one of his daily visits with his mother, James put on a suit of his lost brother's clothes, adopting David's cheery whistle and hands-in-pockets way of standing.
Oddly, James Barrie grew older, kit he never grew up. By age 17, just five fret tall, he had stopped growing. He apparently did not start shaving until he was 22. Some think he might have suffered from a glandular deficiency. It is also possible that, in an unconscious display of willpower, he arrested his own development soon after the age at which David had died.
Barrie persisted in his single-minded mission to achieve the success for which his mother yearned in the only way he knew how: by writing. He produced his first play at Dumfries Academy, where he was studying. He went on to study at Edinburgh University, supplementing his meager finances by writing critiques of plays for the Edinburgh Courant. Upon graduation, he wrote for the Nottingham Journal. By age 24 Barrie had set his sights on the big city. With only 12 pounds and all his belongings in a tiny brown trunk, he took the train to London.
His early plays-satires and comedies brought success, and by the turn of the century J. M. Barrie, as he was known, was one of London's most eminent playwrights. But he remained moody, and insecure about his boyish physical appearance. indeed, in photos taken in his 30’s, Barrie looks like a 13-year-old wearing a false mustache, He married Mary Ansell, one of his leading ladies; but their marriage quickly became a Victorian model of distance, reserve and loneliness.
Shortly after their first anniversary, Barrie’s mother died. She was honed in the same grave that held David's body. And in the end, Barrie conceded that his efforts to replace his mother's lost son had failed. "She lived 19 years after his death," he said. "But I had not made her forget the bit of her that was dead." A melancholy Barrie returned to London after his mother's funeral, cheering up only when he was inventing stories and games for the young children of his writer friends.
One day in the late 1890’s, the writer was walking with his dog through Kensington Gardens, where nannies often took their charges. Barrie loved to amuse the small children by performing tricks with Porthos, his St. Bernard, who would later form the basis for Nana, the nursery watchdog of Peter Pan.
On this day, a boy in a blue shirt and a bright red tam-ot-shanter decided to get to know the strange little man. Four-year-old George Davies introduced Barrie and Porthos to his brothers, Jack, three, and baby Peter. And just as Barrie had done all his life, he began to tell the boys a story.
In an era when disease brought early death to many children, Victorians were fascinated with elves and fairies, and cast them as the embodiment of lost childhood. Thereafter, when Barrie met the boys in the park, he would tell them stories about the sprites and runaway boys who roamed Kensington Gar4jns after dark. When their nanny announced it was time to leave, the boys would beg Barrie to return to continue his storytelling.
Over the ensuing years, Barrie forged a deep friendship with the Davies boys and their parents. He told the boys many stories, hot their favorite was the one that would bring Barrie lasting fame.
One summer Barrie spent six weeks with the Davies family at a cottage on Black Lake. He and the boys filled enchanted afternoons inventing games of pirates, Indians and fairies, while the parents looked on in amusement. Barrie took notes and photographs for a scrapbook account of their summer. That book, The Roy Castaways of Black Lake Island, became an Inspiration for Peter Pan.
In 1903 Barrie began work on a play based in part on the summer games at Black Lake. An important new character appeared in the script.' Tinker Hell, the boys' loyal sidekick. (Tink, Barrie would later say, was inspired by the twinkling light given off one evening by a lantern at the lake.) Barrie eventually turned out a script of 84 pages in his tiny, cramped handwriting. He called it Peter and Wendy.
Barrie had never tried a children's play, and he worried his backers would think it was folly. When he summoned the courage to show it to the producer, Beerbohm Tree, Tree practically laughed Barrie out of his office
In 1904, Barrie hit on a scheme. He waited for the annual London visit of the American impresario Charles Froliman, who had produced other Barrie plays, and went to him with a second script in hand. Barrie sheepishly offered Frohman the rights to the second play A1iceSit -By4he-Fire- if he would produce Peter and Wendy too. He told Frohman he feared Peter would not be a financial success, but that Alice, a sentimental adult play would make up for any loss.
Frohman snapped up both plays and set about spending generously on Barnes bizarre production. He instinctively knew it would be a hit.
Meanwhile, in late October 1904, a cast was assembled to rehearse the play, now called Peter Pan, in secret. Rut things did not go smoothly. Crude efforts to create Tinker Bell's flickering image by using cutout figures and by fastening a spotlight to a silhouette were unsuccessful. And the danger of the flying machine was considered so great that the actress playing Wendy had to vouch she had life insurance. Some feared that the strange new production would not last much past opening night.
Finally, by December 27, the premiere could be postponed no longer. A last-minute special effect had been devised to produce Tinker Bell - positioning a hand-held mirror to reflect an overhead light. It was simple, hut it just might work.
Barrie paced through much of the evening's performance, then stopped and held his breath as Peter implored, "Do you believe in fairies? If you believe, clap your hands!" Barrie waited. Then after what seemed an eternity of silence, the audience clapped wildly as audiences have ever since.
PETER PAN brought J. M. Barrie a life of acclaim-but little real happiness. He and his wife divorced, and his friends Arthur and Sylvia Davies died early deaths, leaving Barrie to take care of their five sons. George, the eldest, was killed in World War I. Michael, Barrie’s favorite, drowned a few years later. Barrie sank into a dark, impenetrable grief..
But he continued to write and to charm friends' children with his imaginative storytelling.
Then, in 1929, Barrie made a decision that would benefit countless children. He turned over the rights of his most beloved work-Peter Pan-to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children.
To this day, the play in its many incarnations - book, video and film - supports the hospital's children. And each Christmas for the past 65 years, scenes from the play have been performed on the hospital ward.
The playwright's gift has helped hundreds of children to grow to maturity. That is fitting because their benefactor, J. M. Barrie, stranded at the crossroads of maturity, with the innocent perspective of a child and the creative genius of an adult, was the real Peter Pan.
READERS DIGEST Nov. 1994