Wednesday, December 29, 2004

'Peter' principle: Innocent story or harrowing tale?

The Times of London revisits longtime questions about J.M. Barrie's relationship with the Llewelyn-Davies children, and wonders how the darker elements of the author's "fractured" psyche may have tinted his "terrible masterpiece," Peter Pan:
For a work inspired by (and ostensibly written to amuse) children, it is astonishingly full of lurid Oedipal overtones, even if they were frequently obscured by candyfloss sanitisation (as in Disney’s 1953 cartoon) until the groundbreaking 1982 RSC staging by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. For instance, Peter professes to hate his own mother, yet desires to turn the virginal Wendy into a mother-figure; while Captain Hook, whom he destroys, is specifically associated with the abducted boys’ father by the play’s simple expedient of casting the same actor in both roles. As for the persona of Peter himself, only the tradition of casting an adult actress in the role cloaked Barrie’s audacity in creating a stage-hero who was both a pubescent child and also dangerously charismatic, even sexy.

To modern eyes, in short, the whole play reads like the work of a man determined to cram into one seemingly innocent night in the theatre every titillating fixation and fetish to be found in Sigmund Freud’s casebook. Yet in 1904 Barrie could not have known Freud’s work. And that makes Peter Pan even more disturbing. For if Barrie was not tapping into an external source to create this peculiar dramatic world — one that deliberately teases away the distinctions between adulthood and childhood — then there is only one other place from which he can have drawn his inspiration: his own fractured psyche.