Peter Pan is the imagination of abandoned street urchins. They are the real subjects of the story, which is more Dickins-esque than most people realize.
J. M. Barrie turned his instant 1904 theatrical hit, “Peter Pan,” into a best-selling novel called “Peter and Wendy” in 1911, including the addition of a poignant final chapter that would not have gone over well on the stage.
Although it was included in some stage renditions going forward, the last 50 years’ popular knowledge of story, as mediated through the Disney cartoon version and an underappreciated movie from 2003, omit it. The more popular “Finding Neverland” film, about Barrie’s life and how he got the idea for “Peter Pan,” adds nothing.
But it’s included in the incredibly creative and charming rendition of “Peter and Wendy,” now being performed by the renowned experimental theatre company, New York’s Mabou Mines, in the Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater through June 24. The production is performed using puppets, with only one live actor visible, the amazingly talented Karen Kandel as narrator, and a small band playing Celtic-style music.
The final chapter, entitled “When Wendy Grew Up,” tells of what happens when Wendy becomes an adult, and has a husband and children, while Peter never does, even as he returns intermittently, himself unchanged, as the years go by.
It is bittersweet, as much of the overall story is, in fact, and helps in a non-intrusive way in keeping with the book’s narrative style to confirm that the battles by Peter against Captain Hook are a metaphor for the struggle of youthful imagination against adult pragmatism and mediocrity.
The hero in the book is not Peter, but a child’s imagination, itself. The enemy is not Hook, but growing up. The allusion to “Peter and Wendy” is not to boyfriend-girlfriend, but to this: Peter is imagination, Wendy is growing up.
To a young imagination, a child can fly. To a young imagination, a fairy can be brought back to life by believing.
In particular, Peter Pan is the imagination of orphaned or abandoned street urchins.
The character of Peter represents the hopes and dreams as held by the lost boys. As their idealized selves, he, like them, was abandoned by his parents and left to the mean streets (or Neverland forest), but is their champion, their champion of hope against their own despair.
Thus, Peter is not the champion, the imagination, of the Darling kids, but of the lost boys. He brings Wendy and the boys in for a look at their world, in the hopes that Wendy can become their champion, too.
She becomes one, with Peter’s help bringing the children to her home to be adopted into a loving family.
But a poignant paragraph in the final chapter of the book version, and narrated in the Arena Stage production, reads: “All the boys were grown up and done for by this time; so it is scarcely worth while saying anything more about them. You may see the twins and Nibs and Curly any day going to an office, each carrying a little bag and an umbrella. Michael is an engine-driver. Slightly married a lady of title, and so he became a lord. You see that judge in a wig coming out the iron door? That used to be Tootles. The bearded man who doesn’t know any story to tell his children was once John.”
In other words, they all succumb, so to speak, to mediocrity, to unimaginative, unadventurous adult lives. It is against the backdrop of Peter’s staying young that the inevitability of growing up and old is set.
Much in great literature has spoken of the loss of youth, not of its energy or passion, but of the sheer power of its imagination in a world where anything is possible. In modern verse, it is caught in such as Roger Waters’ lyric in “Comfortably Numb:” “When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of my eye…I cannot put my finger on it now. The child is grown, the dream is gone.” Also, Train’s “Calling All Angels” has the line, “Football teams are kissing queens and losing sight of having dreams.”
It is interesting to note that in all the notable productions of “Peter Pan,” or “Peter and Wendy” to the present one included, Peter has been played by an actual boy only once. That was by young Jeremy Sumpter in the 2003 film version. He did a beautiful job representing Peter’s swagger and brashness, but also the emotions associated with the story’s pathos, especially in its closing scenes. (The film’s lack of box office success has been puzzling, perhaps due in part to the fact it was dedicated by its executive producer, Egyptian billionaire Mohammad Al Fayed, to his son, “the late Dodi Al Fayed.” Dodi was the boyfriend of Princess Diana who died with her in the 1997 car wreck, and had been an executive producer in the production of a Peter Pan-themed film, “Hook,” in 1991. But the dedication of the 2003 film to him may have, in light of his tragic relationship to Diana, unsettled a number of influential people in high places. Still, it will remain a classic for many years to come.)
Otherwise, stage productions, including the musical version, have had accomplished actresses in the lead, such as Marty Martin and Sandy Dennis, in the lead as Peter. Screen versions were the 1953 Disney cartoon and the 1991 “Hook” in which Peter is played by adult comedian Robin Williams. Now, at Arena Stage, we get a wooden puppet with a female voiceover.
But the combination of the irrepressible charm of Barrie’s story and the Mabou Miles’ creative puppetry, makes the production a truly smashing experience. Around since the 1970s, the Mabou Mines have utilized puppetry since 1978. In this very creative production, they use two forms, the Bunraku traditional Japanese theater using large puppets, and the Wayang kulit form of classic puppet drama from Java. Kandel continues in her role as narrator (deftly speaking all the voices) through May 27 and then is supplanted by Marsha Stephanie Blake through the end of the run.
Tickets are available and times are posted on the Arena Stage website, www.arenastage.org.