there is no second chance for most of us -- 5/26/16

Today's encore selection -- from Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture by Jon Savage. In the ominous and tumultuous years before World War I, playwright J.M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan, which he based on the Llewelyn Davies family and their young son Peter. Unlike the benign Walt Disney version of 1953, in the original heartbreaking work, the Darling children are separated from their parents for years, and Pan himself can never return home:

"The first few years of the twentieth century were far from being the perennial golden summer of folk memory, as the imperial European countries expanded their global influence to the point of irreversible conflict. In Britain, Victorian certainties were undermined by the Boer War and presentiments of the greater war to come, while at the same time challenged by the movements for women's suffrage, trade union rights, and the domestic response to European modernism. ...

Michael Llewelyn Davis dressed as Peter Pan wrestling with J M Barrie as Hook in August 1906

"War and death lay beneath the ordered Edwardian surface, if only in a quickening, irrational impulse. Nowhere is this clearer than in Peter Pan, which, first staged in December 1904, has become a twentieth-century archetype. Like its American contemporary, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan was a story aimed at children, but adults were hooked in by its deep psychological complexity. It continues to speak so effectively across the generations that it is easy to forget its origins in a particular time, place, and biography. ...

"When [J. M. Barrie] met the Llewelyn Davies family in 1897, Barrie was already well established, but, beneath the successful facade, he was tormented by doubts and morbid fears. Undersized, haunted by the childhood loss of his brother David, locked into a marriage that he referred to as a 'horrid nightmare,' Barrie had lost his mother and sister in 1896. During the long walks that he took in Kensington Gardens, he began to turn to other people's children for solace. This was not only a substitute for parenthood but a reflection of his own self-diagnosed dilemma: 'He was a boy who could not grow up.' ...

"Within a year of first meeting, the Llewelyn Davies family, he began working on a children's story about the birdlike attributes of babies in general and younger brother Peter in particular. Taking an idea from a contemporary play, he conceived of a character named Peter Pan who escapes from the nursery and attempts to live as a bird. Having cut himself off from human society -- 'a Betwixt-and-Between' -- he becomes an outlaw. When he tries to return to his bedroom, the windows are barred: 'There is no second chance, not for most of us.'

"The idea was further developed in the 1902 novel The Little White Bird, where Peter Pan appears as a major subplot. After its success, Barrie set about expanding the character into a full 'fairy play': a hasty first draft was finished by April 1904, and rehearsals began six months later. When it opened on December 27, Peter Pan was an immediate success with both adults and children. Daphne du Maurier later wrote about her father Gerald's performance as the male lead, 'When Hook first paced his quarterdeck in the year of 1904, children were carried screaming from the stalls.'

"Only one critic, Max Beerbohm, noticed the all-too-complete conflation of the adult with the child: 'Mr. Barrie has never grown up. He is still a child absolutely.' On the surface, Peter Pan is a play for children: like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it demands a suspension of adult skepticism and linear thinking, and plays upon the archetypal fears of being lost and orphaned. But if Oz is benign and forward-looking-full of the optimism of a new continent -- Peter Pan is haunted and haunting: if, for Dorothy and the Darling children, there is no place like home, then for Peter there is no home."


Jon Savage


Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture


Viking Adult


Copyright 2007 by Jon Savage


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