Recently, I went to see a breathtaking production of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan at the recently reopened Bristol Old Vic Theatre. I was quite surprised when talking to people about seeing the play, that so few that I knew people have actually read the book yet so many think they know it. Much like the Grimm stories, or Hans Christian Andersen, or Lewis Carroll, I think the culture of Pantomime and Disney have eroded some of the most powerful children’s literature into flaccid “he’s behind you!” caricatures of itself.
Anyway, needless to say, this play was different: I don’t need to hark on for too long about the absolute superlativeness of the production, because nearly every major review has already documented how dazzling the show was. The director (a former tutor of mine from my Bristol Old Vic youth theatre days), Sally Cookson, transforms the mundane into the fantastical using her imaginative verve and creativity in a way Barrie would have been proud. The onstage special effects seem on the more budgeted side of theatrical production, but are extraordinary effective in evoking high end effect—the pirate ship is made out of an old skip and the characters fly around on a pulley system attached to scaffolding; this is not to the productions discredit, in fact it makes it better. After all, fantasy always takes its roots from the mundane but sprinkles it with fairy dust. There is a true sense of the incandescence of childhood imagination; or, as Wordsworth’s Imitations to Immortality describes:
There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem,
Apparell’d in celestial light,
Wordsworth’s celestial light is saying that children’s experience of life in nature as being closer to that of some ethereal heavenly sense, because they had been closer to incorporeality: i.e. not alive on the earth, not worn down until insurance becomes an interesting topic around a dinner table, until Boxing Day sales become an attractive outing, or getting mail becomes unexciting…I want to go on, but you get the point. Wordsworth goes on:
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn whosoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things that I have seen I now can see no more
Age. It corrodes the imagination, makes us dull and uninteresting. The childlike way of receiving the world fades into the darkness of time until we “see no more”. Wendy knows this. After all, “Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.”
From the day we are born, time promises ageing, loss of beauty and death. Shakespeare, one of the most morbid blokes your ever likely to encounter put it blissfully well when he said:
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake,
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Of course Shakespeare is talking about his man-love to the mysterious boy, but the sentiment is the same. There is a luminous sense which pervades through youth which age, experience and “Time’s scythe” corrupts. In relation to Wendy and the boys, their effervescent youth dissipates and melts into air on returning from Neverland, and their control over imagination and flight too: “In time they could not even fly after their hats. Want of practice, they called it; but what it really meant was that they no longer believed.”
It is youth, imagination, fun and thinking beyond phenomena as it is which allows the boys to fly. Peter’s instructions on how to think promises eternal youth and adventure in running away from time. They abscond to Neverland, which is “not large and sprawly, you know, with tedious distances between one adventure and another, but nicely crammed.” The space is a playground, fit for adventures and escapades. Effectively, the characters are running from time, attempting to thwart the existential nihilism that existence in the real world incites. There is no reason to stay in the real realm of tedium when this place exists.
However, in Neverland, Time becomes an even bolder theme than in the real world. In a way Captain Hook and Peter Pan are inspired by the same motivations: they both are desperately trying to avoid the “tick-tock” of time. Hook is pursued by his inevitable death at the hands of the crocodile with a clock in its stomach, evoking his perennial fear of death, and Peter is despised and pursued by adulthood in the form of Hook. Barrie says, “I suppose it’s like the ticking crocodile, isn’t it? Time is chasing us all.” The difference in Neverland is that there is no end. In running from it, one only gets trapped in a cycle of denying the arrow of time. The Lost Boys are desperate to hear stories, one suspects not because they want a sense of adventure, but have lost a sense of beginning, middle and end. Getting trapped in the Act 1 of life has left them exactly what their collective name signifies: lost. The quixotic lifestyle of Wendy, the boys and The Lost Boys cannot be sustained, because without time there is no meaning or arc. And, after all, “Never is a really long time!”
Wendy’s acceptance, at the end of the book or play, Pan returns to find Wendy, old and grown up.
“Hullo, Wendy,” he said [...]
“Hullo, Peter,”she replied faintly, squeezing herself as small as possible. [...]
“Are you expecting me to fly away with you?”
“Of course, that is why I have come” [...]
“I can’t come,” she said apologetically, “I have forgotten how to fly.”
She accepts her corporeal body, subject to time, and tries to show her older face to Peter, to which he recoils. Although she is happy in her family life, this moment is desperately melancholic. Peter as a memory of freedom and liberation elicits powerfully nostalgic sentiments, even for the reader of audience member, and her aged body only embodies for him a loss of these very values that he stands for. Her yearning to return is clear: “something inside her was crying “Woman, woman, let go of me”. Time has cast its course. For Peter, the arrow of time has a downward trajectory, and life is a constant striving towards boringness, pain and insipidity. If life isn’t an adventure, why bother?
As you might have noticed, my nihilism has crept in to this written piece on a children’s story. This is probably an error on my behalf. However, I’ll guard these ideas. Time corrodes youth and imagination and strangulates the incandescent experience of life and nature. Beauty and youth will go, and these are facts. The god-like figure of Peter Pan promises the characters a future where real life characters are free from the cares of everyday existence by avoiding time, escaping reality.
However, in doing so, as ever, living avoiding an aspect of synchronic existence only intensifies its hold upon one’s being. Peter Pan and Captain Hook are far from being away from time, in fact they are stuck in a never ending cycle of trying to run away. The children who have run to this place find that life is meaningless without generational cycles and the movement of narrative around life, beginning, middle and end.
So accepting “Time’s scythe” doesn’t have to be as depressing as I might like to make out, because we can still try and remember. Remember what it meant, remember what this story means, how it can transform a skip into a ship. Live creatively and fruitfully, avoiding cliches, denying the mundane, breaking barriers in thought. Peter Pan, for me, is a story about excess and enjoyment, and about enjoying that excess and enjoyment whilst accepting the limits of time, age and responsibility. So, let me end with a quote from Nietzsche, in what I reckon is probably one of the rarer written pieces where he sits alongside Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Peter Pan:
And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at
least once. And we should call every truth false which was not
accompanied by at least one laugh.
Thanks for reading. If you want me I’ll be dancing and laughing, “second to the right” and “straight to morning” (Whatever the hell that means).