Another bad assumption: that the hodgepodge of elements in Peter Pan – fairies and mermaids, Caribbean Pirates and vaguely Iroquois Indians, all on a South Seas island – were just kitsch, more larkiness. Now, I see that Barrie is parodying boy’s adventure books. Treasure Island, by the time of the first performance a twenty year old classic, is referenced a couple of times, and I have no doubt that there are many other nods to books and plays unknown to me.
The key is, the hodgepodge is Peter’s, his private amusement park. If he had preferred The Arabian Nights to James Fennimore Cooper, the island would contain genies and flying carpets rather than Indians. Perhaps it once did, or someday will. Wendy first comes to Peter’s attention as a source of the one thing he can’t seem to create himself – stories. Peter’s imagination is somehow ideally suited for creating scenes within stories, but he needs help with the frame and the plot. Thus, like most boys his age, he borrows.
The imagination is borrowed, too, of course, borrowed from J. M. Barrie. I’ll say farewell to Peter Pan with an example of Barrie’s proto-Surrealism, a bit I had to read twice just to make sure it was really on the page. The scene (end of Act 3): Peter has been battling the pirates in a lagoon. He is stranded on a rock. The tide is rising. Peter can fly, yes? No, because he is pretending to be wounded. A bit earlier, the Never Bird has drifted by on its floating nest (?).
(Peter is afraid at last, and a tremor runs through him, like a shudder passing over the lagoon; but on the lagoon one shudder follows another till there are hundreds of them, and he feels just the one)
PETER (with a drum beating in his breast as if he were a real boy at last) To die will be an awfully big adventure.
( [time passes] The nest is borne nearer, and the bird, after cooing a message to him, leaves it and wings her way upwards. Peter, who knows the bird language, slips into the nest, first removing the two eggs and placing them in [a pirate’s] hat, which has been left on the stave. The hat drifts away from the rock, but he uses the stave as a mast. The wind is driving him toward the open sea. He takes off his shirt, which he had forgotten to remove while bathing, and unfurls it as a sail. His vessel tacks, and he passes from sight, naked and victorious. The bird returns and sits on the hat)
And curtain. That one line of dialogue supplies the title of the 1989 Beryl Bainbridge novel which is partly about a performance of the play. A footnote in the Oxford edition informs me that Peter originally had to fight the bird for the nest, but “[t]his upset the reviewers” (318). Theater reviewers are so delicate and sensitive, poor little orchids.
Anyone who has acted in the play, or seen it performed – did the bird return and sit on the hat? I’d love to see it myself.