Launching the Scottish Literature Reading Challenge, I predicted that I would be sick of the whole thing in August, which was pretty much spot on. I’ve kept on, though, with Margaret Oliphant and Thomas Carlyle and, now, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Please don’t let my waning enthusiasm stop anyone – my commitment to read along is good until the end of the year, three and a half month from now. Three and a half long, long months.
I’m a little surprised no one has jumped on Peter Pan yet. It’s popular, isn’t it? Maybe everyone thought they basically knew what was in it, so why bother. I’ll admit I read it partly out of a sense of – not duty, exactly – but completeness. Well, I was wrong. I mean, I knew a lot of what was in the play. But I've never seen a play like this:
WENDY He is chaining Nana up.
(This unfortunately is what he is doing, though we cannot see him. Let us hope that he then retires to his study, looks up the word ‘temper’ in his Thesaurus, and under the influence of those benign pages becomes a better man. In the meantime the children have been put to bed in unwonted silence, and Mrs Darling lights the night-lights over the beds) (I.300)
Now, I see how some of that can be made visible on the stage, but I have doubts about other parts.
Here, Peter Pan and Wendy are trying to catch a mermaid:
WENDY (preserving her scales as carefully as if they were rare postage stamps) I did so want to catch a mermaid.
PETER (getting rid of his) It is awfully difficult to catch a mermaid.
(The mermaids at times find it just as difficult to catch him, though he sometimes joins them in their one game, which consists in lazily blowing bubbles into the air and seeing who can catch them. The number of bubbles Peter has flown away with! When the weather grows cold mermaids migrate to the other side of the world, and he once went with a great shoal of them half the way)
They are such cruel creatures, Wendy, that they try to pull boys and girls like you into the water and drown them.
WENDY (too guarded by this time to ask what he means precisely by ‘like you,’ though she is very desirous of knowing) How hateful! (III.20-5)
Barrie certainly packs a lot of whatever he is doing into those stage notes. Whatever influence that last one has on the actor playing Wendy, it must be pretty subtle.
One more, just because they’re so much fun. Tinker Bell, who is just a light, is in her little home, where:
She is probably wasting valuable time just now wondering whether to put on the smoky blue or the apple-blossom. (IV.30-2)
“Probably” is one of Barrie’s favorite words in Peter Pan, despite, or because of, the utter improbability of the whole thing.
Peter Pan has a baffling textual history. The first performance was in 1904, but Barrie was a tinkerer, so the versions proliferated. I’m using the 1928 edition, as published in Peter Pan and Other Plays, Oxford World’s Classics, 1995. The book cover is from Barrie's novelization of his own play.