October 21, 2017
J. M. Barrie, Lost Boys, Peter PanThe first Lost Boy of J. M. Barrie's life was his brother David. At the age of thirteen, David died in a skating accident and Barrie, though only six, was overwhelmed not by the death, but by his mother's grief. He later wrote about his desire to "become so like [David] that even my mother should not know the difference." For a week, Barrie practiced David's way of whistling to her, and then one morning stepped into his mother's darkened bedroom dressed in his dead brother's clothing and did his best to bring him back to life.
The second Lost Boys entered Barrie's life when he was in his late thirties, already a famous novelist. They were the sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, Barrie's London neighbours. Barrie first met the boys in Kensington Gardens, they walking with their nanny, Barrie walking with -- or perhaps, being slight and barely five feet tall, walked by -- his St. Bernard. This was 1897; over the next few years, Barrie became a constant companion to the boys, and a close friend to their mother. When the families vacationed together one summer, Barrie organized a two-week game of shipwrecks, pirates, fairies and gangplank rescues. He took photographs of these theatrics, wrote chapter headings, and published a cloth-bound, two-copy edition of their Never Never Land, entitled The Boy Castaways. Over the next four years, this would become the basis of Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, one of the most produced plays in theatrical history.
Arthur Davies did not like Barrie's obsession with his sons, or Barrie's constant presence in his house. When Barrie gave him the Davies copy of The Boy Castaways, he immediately lost it on the train; when Barrie moved to an even closer Kensington address, he moved his family twenty-five miles out of town. Some of Barrie's contemporaries also viewed his attentions with suspicion; several modern biographers and psychiatrists go further, seeing evidence of paedophilia. The youngest boy, Nico, has described Barrie as an asexual "innocent." He married in his mid-thirties, but his dispassion for his wife -- and for adult sexuality -- seems to have been immediate and profound. They led separate lives, and she eventually divorced him.
The second-oldest boy, Peter, wrote in the 1950s that he viewed Barrie as a "strange little creature [who] in the end brought more sorrow than happiness" into their family. Throughout their lives, all the boys were regarded in light of their association with Barrie. Peter said that his namesake made his schoolboy years a torment; when he committed suicide in 1960, though a respected middle-aged publisher the newspapers headlined, "Peter Pan Killed By London Subway Train."
Many involved in the first production expected a disaster. Technical problems were so severe that the scheduled opening had to be delayed a week. To the last Barrie was writing material for the front-of-curtain improvisations that were needed to cover the interminable set changes.
A larger worry was the script. The problem plays of Shaw and Ibsen dominated turn-of-the-century theatre -- even Barrie's last play, Ibsen's Ghost, had been of this sort. And the Peter Pan rehearsals had been conducted in strict secrecy. What would an unsuspecting and sophisticated first-night audience make of a girl-boy flying across the stage to ask them, "Do you believe in fairies? If you believe, wave your handkerchiefs and clap your hands!" Barrie told the orchestra to be ready to down their instruments and clap their loudest.
When that moment came, on December 27th, 1904, the audience burst into such overwhelming applause that the actress playing Peter Pan burst into tears. "The elite of London society," wrote one reviewer, "succumbed as one to Barrie's spell." Shaw dismissed the play as artificial, something "foisted on children by grown-ups," but Mark Twain called it "an uplifting benefaction to this sordid and money-mad age." The annual Christmas productions and Disney immortality might seem to argue for Twain over Shaw.
The Davies family itself proved all too mortal. Arthur Davies died of cancer while the boys were still young, and Sylvia Davies died just a few years later. Barrie was wealthy and devoted, the obvious choice for Guardian, and in 1910 his Lost Boys became Found Sons -- though some were less happy about it than others. And then the two boys to whom Barrie was most closely attached died: George was killed in action in WWI, at the age of 23; and Michael was killed in a drowning accident, perhaps suicide, at the age of 21.
Peter Pan was not published until 1928, seven years after Michael's death. It was prefaced by Barrie's ten-page dedication, a eulogy of his Lost Boys and their lives together -- of which remained, he wrote, only "broken fragments of immortality."
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