I’ve never seen Peter Pan on stage. Not sure if I’ve ever seen the Disney movie, either. I’ve picked up bits and pieces – Peter and Wendy fly around on wires, and I knew that the audience had to clap its hands to save the poisoned Tinker Bell. I guess I had assumed that the scene was cutesy, or insipid. Maybe most of the time it is. Not in the play I read, though. Not so much. Nana, by the way, is the Darling children’s nanny, and also, in a bit of Surrealism, a dog:
PETER She says – she says she thinks she could get well again if children believed in fairies! (He rises and throws out his arms he knows not to whom, perhaps to the boys and girls of whom he is not one) Do you believe in fairies? Say quick that you believe! If you believe, clap your hands! (4.275-81)
So far, so insipid, although, as usual, there is something odd in that stage direction. What happens?
(Many clap, some don’t, a few hiss. Then perhaps there is a rush of Nanas to the nurseries to see what on earth is happening. But Tink is saved) Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you! And now to rescue Wendy!
(Tink is already as merry and impudent as a grig [grasshopper], with not a thought for those who have saved her. Peter ascends his tree as if he were shot up it. What he is feeling is ‘Hook or me this time!’ He is frightfully happy) (4.281-7)
A few hiss! Tinker Bell is heartless, but is a fairy, so perhaps we excuse her. What Barrie deftly avoids saying here, is that it is not just the inhuman fairy who has not a thought for her saviors, but Peter Pan, too. He is not one of the boys and girls. He’s not human, either.
The Peter Pan of the play is cruel – a bully, frankly. His interest in other people can be intense but is fleeting. He plays a game until he tires of it, and then drops it for the next one. You still wanted to play the other one? Too bad. And for Peter Pan, everything is a game. The story of the play, taken this way, is actually the chronicle of the specific moment when Peter tires of the game of “Pirates.” “Hook or me this time!” The next visitors will get to see Peter fight Fu Manchu or Darth Vader or whatever has taken his fancy. He’s tired of pirates.
Poor Captain Hook. Hook is an amusing blend of boy’s book cliché and anxious Everyman, “[a] man of indomitable courage, the only thing at which he flinches is the sight of his own blood, which is thick and of unusual color.” If Wendy reminds us of one side of growing up, sex and motherhood, Hook is the walking memento mori. To grow up is to die. Is Hook a tragic figure, or a heroic one? Well, mock-tragic, mock-heroic, just as he begins Act 5 with a mock-Shakespearean soliloquy (“No little children love me” and so on). His end, mock-sublime:
Lifting a blunderbuss he strikes forlornly not at the boy but at the barrel, which is hurled across the deck. Peter remains sitting in the air still playing upon his pipes. At this sight the great heart of Hook breaks. That not wholly unheroic figure climbs the bulwarks murmuring ‘Floreat Etona,’ and prostrates himself into the water, where the crocodile is waiting for him open-mouthed. Hook knows the purpose of this yawning cavity, but after what he has gone through he enters it like one greeting a friend. (end of 5.1)
Oh, yes, Hook was an Eton lad. And Peter, larky Peter?
The curtain rises to show Peter a very Napoleon on his ship. It must not rise again lest we see him on the poop in Hook’s hat and cigars, and with a small iron claw.