Wednesday, September 15, 2010

She is probably wasting valuable time - surprised by Peter Pan

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.


  1. You know, for as many billion times as I read the book of Peter Pan as a kid, I've never read the play. How weird! I need to get on that!

  2. Now I wonder what it was that I read as a child. Was it even Barrie's novel, or an abridgement or retelling? Whatever it was, the play is so different.

  3. Ha! I just read it (in novel format) to my toddler son. It took about three months. But I haven't posted about it (not sure when I"ll get a chance).

    I read the novel about six times when I was in sixth grade. I loved it. As an adult, I found it incredibly wordy. My son loved it because I would only read about a page at a time and then we'd talk about the story. And he loved the story. Especially the crocodile.

    I've always had a special place for the play. I was one of the lost boys in a high school production. I should find a copy of the script and see how it compares to the novel.

  4. After seeing the Disney version when I was a kid I never wanted to read the book or the play because Captain Hook and the crocodile scared me too much. I was also terrified by the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz and the Oompa Loompas in Willy Wonka. I was a sensitive child ;-)

  5. Is it because I'm a Texan writer than somehow I never knew that Barrie was Scottish?

    Shame on me!

  6. Early in his career, Barrie specialized in goopy Scottish novels - his first one is titled Auld Licht Idylls, for example. The genre was the "kailyard novel". They sound deadly. Soon, if my library can find it, I will report back on the Scottish novel that destroyed the Scottish novel.

    There must be so many versions of the play, now. Yes, that would be fun, to see what's there and what isn't.

    For one thing - Stefanie, in the play, Captain Hook is not even scary. It's Peter Pan who's scary.

  7. Um, the flying monkeys and Oompa Loompas were definitely scary!

    Soon, if my library can find it, I will report back on the Scottish novel that destroyed the Scottish novel.

    I'm looking forward to this. I think I need to read at least one kailyard novel.

    And this play sounds much more awesome than I would have imagined.

  8. I never know how to react to plays that seem more like stories set to a script. I mean, how would you even produce something like this?

    Peter sounds delightfully creepy from this account (and if he is indeed more frightening than the hilarious Disney Capt. Hook, I must tip my hat to Barrie), but this only leads me to wonder how a story like this became a children's classic... I don't think I've ever read a novelization, leading me to believe that eventually I should take a stab at the original play. Sounds like a sufficiently weird read.

  9. Peter Pan was a hit in part because it was a special effects marvel. So it's even funnier that the script has even more wild things that can't be seen. Barrie's imagination was unfettered.

    Children are well aware that they have to grow up some day, too. I think that's why this works so well with children. They want to be like Peter Pan, but they, too, know that something isn't right about him.