J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan opened on this day in 1904 — a resounding hit, though many had expected a disaster. Apart from the demanding sets and recurring technical problems, the entire script was seen as a gamble. The problem plays of Shaw and Ibsen dominated turn-of-the-century theater, and the worried producers wondered what an unsuspecting and sophisticated first-night audience would 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. But when that moment came on opening night 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.”
Most biographies of Barrie explore the connections between his most famous play and his personal life, most notably through his own Lost Boys, the five sons of his friends Arthur and Sylvia Davies. Barrie first met the boys in 1897 when walking his dog in Kensington Gardens. Over the next few years, Barrie became their constant companion, his devotion so elaborate that one summer vacation he organized a two-week game of shipwrecks, pirates, fairies, and gangplank rescues. He took photographs of these theatrics, wrote chapter headings, and published a clothbound, two-copy edition of the boys’ exploits, entitled The Boy Castaways.
The Davieses had always been suspicious of Barrie’s involvement with their family — several biographers and psychiatrists find evidence of pedophilia — but when both parents died early, the childless and wealthy author became the boys’ guardian, and in 1910 his Lost Boys became Found Sons. Barrie’s personal writing over the next decades shows his continuing devotion and his overwhelming grief when two boys were truly lost — George killed in WWI, Michael a suicide while at Oxford.
In 1960, the second-oldest boy, Peter, also committed suicide. Peter viewed Barrie as a “strange little creature [who] in the end brought more sorrow than happiness” to the family, or just to him. Peter said that his namesake made his school years a torment and cast a boyhood shadow over his entire adult life. Though Davies was a war veteran and a respected middle-aged publisher when he jumped to his death, one newspaper announced, “Peter Pan Killed by London Subway Train.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.