Last month, says Nicolette Jones, I was in conversation at the National Theatre with analytical (Jungian) psychologist Ann Yeoman about Peter Pan and The Myth of Eternal Youth (which is also the subtitle of her book, Now or Neverland). J M Barrie’s play was then on stage at the Olivier, in a production directed by Sally Cookson that transferred from the Bristol Old Vic. Here are some of the insights that emerged from our discussion.
Early performances of the play (first staged in 1904) emphasised Peter’s connection with the god Pan, who is half goat. Peter carried Pan pipes and there was a live goat on stage. Later, the goat was dispensed with but the Pan pipes remained. As Yeoman’s book reveals, Pan has his antecedents in Greek mythology, particularly in the figures of Bacchus/Dionysus – who is ‘uninhibited and irresponsible yet also the bringer of renewal and change’ – and Hermes, ‘the beautiful youth with winged sandals who is the messenger of the gods’. Hermes is also a trickster, as is Peter, especially in his dealings with Captain Hook – imitating Hook’s voice to free Tiger Lily, for instance. Barrie was steeped in classical and Celtic mythology, and Jung also used mythological archetypes as metaphors for aspects of the human psyche, so to draw out the connections between Barrie, mythology and Jungian psychology is not, in Yeoman’s view, to read too much into the play.
The idea of a boy who never grows up also had its origins in experiences of Barrie’s own, notably the death of his elder brother David in a skating accident on the eve of his 14th birthday. And it germinated as well in the pretend play of the five Llewellyn Davies boys, befriended by Barrie in Kensington Gardens, and of whom he later became guardian after the deaths of their parents. In his dedication of the play ‘To the Five’, Barrie wrote that ‘I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame. That is all he is, the spark I got from you.’
The trauma of the loss of his brother and the failure of his relationship with his bereaved mother have been blamed for a kind of arrested development in Barrie himself. (His own boyishness as an adult is manifest in his escaping into a world of play and make-believe with the Llewellyn Davies boys and in the inadequacies of his adult relationships.) As Yeoman said, ‘Certainly many who have been rejected or emotionally abandoned in youth, and have not experienced a positive reflection of themselves from those closest to them, are at risk of failing to become well-balanced, fully realised adults.’ So, understandably, mothers and abandonment are central to the play. Barrie’s Lost Boys became lost when they ‘fell out of their prams’ as babies because they were neglected by their nannies. Peter’s own rejection is still more brutal. He tells Wendy that just after he was born he ‘flew out of the window and went to play with the fairies in Kensington Gardens’, but when he returned to his nursery he found the window shut and another baby in his cot.
Barrie’s own ‘shut window’ took another form. After David died, his mother grieved terribly, and a neglected James longed for her attention. On one occasion, thinking that if he imitated his lost brother he would be loved, he learnt a tune that David used to whistle, dressed in his brother’s clothes and went whistling into his mother’s bedroom. For a moment, his mother, mistaking him for her lost son, exclaimed in delight, but then said ‘Oh, it’s you,’ and turned her face back to the wall. Attitudes to mothers in the play are consequently ambivalent. Mothers are both longed for and hated. The Lost Boys idealise mothers but Peter refuses to return to his, and one of the reasons why he cannot grow up is because he feels mothers - and therefore the adult world - cannot be trusted.
Famously the novel Peter Pan and Wendy (written in 1911 after both the play and an interim 1906 work, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens), begins with the line: ‘All boys, except one, grow up’. And the subtitle of the play is The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Yet Yeoman sees the eternal boy in the story not only as Peter but also as Mr Darling. In the opening scenes, Mr Darling is petulant, self-absorbed and cruel, refusing to take medicine, complaining when his power is thwarted, and fatefully relegating Nanna, the Newfoundland dog nursemaid, to the kennel outside (where she is unable to protect the children from their ‘kidnap’ by Peter). In Neverland (which is land of make-believe, an extension of the children’s imaginative play), Peter Pan and Captain Hook express the two sides of Mr Darling’s fragmented character: the petulant, self-absorbed narcissism as well as imagination and spontaneity of Peter and Hook’s cruel, controlling bitterness. Yeoman explained: ‘In terms of Jungian psychology, if the child in you, your creative, imaginative, life-enhancing potential is not embraced and realised, its opposite may take hold and turn you into an embittered Captain Hook. Mr Darling, who is obliged to be serious all day at work, never properly accommodates his childlike side—his creative potential and capacity for play—which then becomes distorted and effectively turns him into a childish Hook.’
The role of Mr Darling is often taken by the same actor who plays Captain Hook, consolidating this connection between the father and the villain. Barrie originally wished, however, for Captain Hook to be played by an actress (as, traditionally, is Peter), which suggests he saw a relationship between the mother and the villain. And indeed the evidence of psychic fragmentation in Mr Darling might also be seen in Mrs Darling, 'bound as she is', according to Yeoman, 'by the exacting conventions of Edwardian motherhood, with little opportunity for creative self-realisation'. Arguably, Hook may embody her unexpressed rage.
The Bristol Old Vic/National production recognised gender as an underlying theme of the play, and took things beyond the conventional pantomime gender-swapping. In Cookson’s interpretation, Peter (played by Paul Hilton) was, unusually, cast as a man – as too were Tinkerbell, Nanna and the Mermaids. And the same actor (Anna Francolini) played Mrs Darling and a female Captain Hook, adding complexity to the ideas about motherhood and male/female roles. Barrie’s play is, after all, as Yeoman put it, ‘so much about the dynamics between masculine and feminine, youth and adulthood, and the dysfunctional relationships that tend to persist between these opposing pairs’. An emotionally stunted Peter, the object of rivalry between Wendy and Tinkerbell, cannot cope with a romantic attachment to either. When he plays at mothers and fathers with Wendy, he needs to be constantly reassured that it is only a game.
Fluidity of gender is an idea picked up in the novel, Peter Pan and Wendy, when Barrie writes, of fairies, ‘the mauve ones are boys and the white ones are girls and the blue ones are just little sillies who don’t know what they are’. And, Yeoman pointed out, ‘gender ambiguity is also characteristic of Dionysus/Bacchus and other beautiful youthful Greek gods to whom Barrie links Peter Pan (Hermes, Adonis, Attis, Narcissus)’.
According to Yeoman, another critical aspect of the normal development of an adult is memory, ‘through which we relate to our ‘history’ and understand our lives in terms of our life’s ‘story’.’ Peter Pan has precious little memory. He forgets Wendy, and all stories, and hardly remembers his adventures from one to the next, let alone the details of his infancy. So, as Yeoman put it, ‘Peter has no sense of history, of past or future, and therefore no desire whatsoever to enter adulthood and become a man with a beard, business suit and briefcase.’
When the question of Peter Pan’s narcissism was raised (his cockiness, his need to be the undisputed leader of the Lost Boys, his perpetual delight in his own cleverness) the discussion inevitably led to Donald Trump – who also experienced childhood rejection. He was sent away by his father to military academy at 13 as a punishment for his misbehaviour and lack of success at school. He was beaten at the academy, where the regime was harsh, though his own account now is that it was the making of him. It may indeed have been the making of an eternal-boy-turned-Hook, who lacks (unlike his presidential predecessor), as Yeoman put it, ‘the ability to keep the eternal boy alive in the mature adult by incorporating creativity, openness, imagination and life-enhancing ‘play’ into his present role’.
In terms of Barrie’s play, Yeoman’s advice on how to maintain a healthy psychology and life-affirming attitude was: ‘keep the window open to Peter. That is, keep yourself open to imagination and creative potential; find a way to keep alive the ‘magic spark’ that is Peter Pan no matter how young or old you may be.’
Nicolette Jones has been the children’s books reviewer of The Sunday Times for more than two decades. In 2012 she was nominated for the Eleanor Farjeon Award for outstanding service to children’s books, and she has judged many book prizes including Booktrust’s Ten Best New Illustrators and the Macmillan Prize for Illustration.
Now or Neverland: Peter Pan and the Myth of Eternal Youth (Studies in Jungian Psychology by Jungian Analysts), Ann Yeoman, Inner City Books, 978-0-9191-2383-0, £11.99 pbk.