Thursday, September 16, 2010

No children love me - frightening Peter Pan, pathetic Captain Hook

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.


  1. Fascinating. I've never read the play, but I've seen a couple of different movie versions, and I remember thoroughly disliking Peter at times. I wondered if it was just my grouchy grown-up spirit that kept wanting to tell Peter to "grow up, already" but maybe Peter is written not just as a child, but as an obnoxious, annoying child.

  2. You're right, Peter Pan is a bully. I always found the sheepdog nanny a bit discomfiting too - always this big, solid presence lurking uspeakingly in the background - it seemed menacing rather than reassuring. And then that Mary Poppins - far, far more sinister than that saccharine Julie Andrews film made out (as much as I loved it.)

    Ugh - I feel chilled to the bone. Will have to read a nice adult crime novel or something....

  3. I think there was a film done (not Disney) which tried to capture the bully/nastiness of Peter and the tragic side of Captain Hook...cannot for the life of me remember the title. But maybe I've invented this?

  4. I've been thinking about reading Peter Pan (the novel) again. I'm curious to see what I think of it now. I've seen several movies and one play version, and I feel that none of them captured that sense of wrongness that even as a kid I felt threading through the story. I read the book when I was 12 I think - should be a very different experience this time round.

  5. I actually don't think Peter is especially, or maybe I want to say inherently, obnoxious or bullying. In fact, he is, as Captain Hook calls him, a "wonderful boy."

    But he's a ten year old boy with no constraints, no adults, and nearly unlimited power. Barrie finds the idea gleefully fun yet terrifying. Me, too. Peter Pan's island of boys is kin to William Golding's.

    I agree, The Baker's Daughter - kiddie lit is full of sinsister elements. A fantasy like Mary Poppins is marvelous, but also not quite right. My guess is that children find it satisfying to see rules broken, but also to see order restored, like in The Cat in the Hat (speaking of a bit sinsiter).

    I'd be interested in hearing about the novel. Interested in reading ot, too, someday.

    The story is rich enough that lots of variations would work - Hook's point of view, certainly. Has there been a girl's version? Toss out the pirates and Indians and replace them with - well, whatever the girl who won't grow up wants.

  6. "With all reverence for the author of that masterpiece I should say he had a wonderful and tender insight into the child mind and knew nothing whatever about boys. To make only one criticism on that particular work, can you imagine a lot of British boys, or boys of any country that one knows of, who would stay contentedly playing children's games in an underground cave when there were wolves and pirates and Red Indians to be had for the asking on the other side of the trap door?"

    The form-master laughed. "You evidently think that the 'Boy who would not grow up' must have been written by a 'grown-up who could never have been a boy.' Perhaps that is the meaning of the 'Never- never Land.'"

    A contemporary sidelight on Peter Pan- snd J.M. Barrie- from The Unbearable Bassington by Saki

  7. Thanks, Roger, for that excerpt. My one defense of Barrie here is that in the scene with the Lost Boys playing around underground, playing house, they're under the malignant and \ or civilizing influence of Wendy. Barrie describes them doing more boyish things, but only in one of those unstageable stage directions!

  8. I wonder if I when I acted in this in high school we had a simplified stage version -- because I don't remember those stage notes! It does sound very much like the novel (which I recently finished) in tone, though.

    Although I loved reading the novel when I was in junior high, I hadn't recalled Peter Pan being so mean as he was on this reread -- I do have to agree on that.

  9. Some of the stage notes - not necessarily the ones I quoted - were actually taken directly from the novel. Barrie was always rearranging his own work.