When I was a kid, I was a big fan of J.M. Barrie’s novel version of Peter Pan. Not the musical show nor the Disney movie. The novel, it seemed to me, was pretty dark and not whimsical, and it didn’t sugar-coat childhood. Was it a good thing to remain a child forever? It certainly didn’t seem this way. While other fantasy novels, like the Narnia books, sent the kids back from their adventures at the precise moment they left (sparing their parents the anguish of their disappearance), the Darling children of Peter Pan are more than happy to abandon their parents, as Peter believes his mother abandoned and forgot him, because children are “innocent and heartless,” the three words that end the book.
What would power and magic really be like in a child’s hands? What would happen if a child could indeed refuse to grow up? He would turn into a cold-blooded killer, perhaps, who cares for no one and nothing but himself.
“Who is Captain Hook?” he asked with interest [when Wendy returned to Neverland the following year.]
“Don’t you remember,” [Wendy] asked, amazed, “how you killed him …?”
“I forget them after I kill them,” he replied carelessly.
Does he remember an old friend like Tinkerbell, someone who drank poison to save his life?
“Who is Tinkerbell?”
… [E]ven when she explained, he could not remember.
“There are such a lot of them,” he said. “I expect she is no more.”
I expect he was right [explained the author], for fairies don’t live long[.]
Peter Pan bears more resemblance to the Billy Mummy episode of the Twilight Zone than to the candy-colored Pan imagined by Walt Disney.
This book I have loved so much for so many years, from childhood through my mid-life, is so downright strange that I probably avoided learning anything about its author, fearing that he would turn out to be equally strange. When Finding Neverland, the movie biography, came out, I stayed away. My wife finally convinced me that I would be reassured if I watched it.
And so I did, and I was. Indeed, James Barrie was a fine fellow, I discovered.
When he met a tragic young widow, Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies, and her four sons (George, Jack, Peter and Michael) in the park, he became her generous and utterly platonic friend and their role model. This was especially the case for young Peter, a particularly traumatized boy and a budding author, who bloomed under Barrie’s tutelage. When Sylvia, in turn, grew sick and died, Barrie promised Sylvia that he would care for her children, and he consoled them through this second bout of tragedy. Indeed, his play was something of a tribute to his time with the boys. When he named the main character after Peter, the lad declared it “the best gift” anyone could ever have given him.
The play, which my wife and I saw this past week, was the same, only more so, and less so. Boy band power pop ballads and whatnot. The platonic friendship with Sylvia is only slightly less platonic; a crowd-pleasing kiss is added, and the audience cheers.
After we returned from the play, my wife wondered what had become of the boys. I assumed that Peter had become a writer. I assumed they had all turned out all right.
Reality, unfortunately, was less rosy that I’d expected.
Barrie did not meet Sylvia after the death of her husband, Arthur. He met her during her husband’s illness. He began hanging inappropriately about the home, much to the dying husband’s anger, who resented a strange man insinuating himself into the household, replacing Arthur before the body was even cold. (Barrie did not actually meet Sylva at the same time as he met the boys – he began playing with the boys in the park a few months before any other adult entered the picture, a behavior that modern audiences would have found odd.) A few months after her husband’s death (or perhaps near the end of the illness), Sylvia gave birth to a child, Nico, who is conveniently absent from both the film and Broadway show. As an adult. Nico insisted that Barrie was asexual, and therefore not his father. “I don’t believe that Uncle Jim ever experienced what one might call ‘a stirring in the undergrowth’ for anyone,” he insisted. (I guess one MIGHT call it that, but I’d prefer one not.) On this, Barrie’s wife agrees: “Love in its fullest sense could never be felt by him or experienced.”
Surely he must have had a wonderful way with the boys! Otherwise, why would Sylvia have granted him custody? Sylvia did not grant Barrie custody, as shown in the film and the play. In fact, he forged her will. Said Peter: “The whole business, as I look back on it, was almost unbelievably queer and pathetic and ludicrous and even macabre in a kind of way.”
Did Barrie remain loyal to the boys, as he promised Sylvia in the play? Although a foster father to them after Sylvia’s death, he devastated and betrayed Peter when he left his entire estate to his secretary.
And how did Peter feel about his foster father’s famous creation, that great gift? Said Peter’s son: “[T]he notoriety he had experienced since being linked with Peter Pan [was] something he hated.”
But surely their time as boys with Barrie was like a wonderful dream? According to a childhood friend of Michael’s, Michael’s relationship with Barrie at that time was “morbid” and “unhealthy,” the stuff of naked photographs and unfulfilled yearnings. As Barrie wrote to Michael on his 8th birthday: “Dear Michael, I am very fond of you, but don’t tell anybody.”
But Barrie’s tutelage helped the boys grow up into happy adults, certainly? George was killed in action in 1915 in the Great War, Michael committed suicide by drowning in 1921 (a double suicide with another boy, possibly a lover), Peter, teased throughout childhood over his connection with Peter Pan, became an alcoholic adult and threw himself under a train.
Barrie was something of a predator, it seems, although perhaps not a sexual one (naked photographs notwithstanding). He does seem to have pilfered the lives of the Llewelyn-Davies family, enriching himself, and leaving them nothing.
* * *
So there are a couple of things to think about here.
First, why take an awful story, about a creepy childish guy who torments a dying man and ruins a family’s life, and turn it into a heartwarming musical about a wonderful, impish and childlike saint who teaches a family wonderful lessons about life and love? One can argue that it’s a better story (although I would dispute that), but even if that were true, so what? Both the movie and Broadway musical are sick and terrible and wretched lies, through and through, alternative reality speculative fiction of the worst sort.
Giving J.M. Barrie’s life a hagiographic Disneyfied Broadway musical is particularly inappropriate, because the story of Peter Pan, the “demon boy” as Barrie described him, is a story of the darkness and heartlessness of childhood, not the burst of candy and sunshine the world would insist that it is. And neither was Barrie.
Does the sordid life of a beloved public figure undercut the art that the beloved public figure created? Many (and many more) of our authors were not particularly lovely people, or even bearable. In the past, authors were names on the covers of books, and no one cared. It’s only in today’s world, where authors are expected to tweet daily and to friend their fans, that we expect them to be nice folks, and our pals, in addition to great talents.
If that’s the standard for lasting art, we will either find ourselves depriving ourselves of books we ought to read, or lying to ourselves. In the case of J.M. Barrie, it’s the latter, seven days a week, and twice on Wednesday.