On Sunday afternoon, we took Alex (age 7-1/2) and Emma (age almost 6) and their parents to see an amazing, in-the-round production of Peter Pan. It was a wonderful, magical way to introduce kids to the experience of theater, and we all enjoyed it a lot. They particularly liked the flying against a 360-degree panoramic projection of London, while I favored the crocodile -- a huge puppet on wheels propelled by the feet of two strong young men, ticking and roaring in fine fettle.
Thinking about the play itself, however, left me feeling a lot less delighted.
The usual qualms about Peter Pan and its author have to do with whether Barrie had an unnatural interest in little boys, but that isn't what bothered me, at least not primarily. As I watched the story unfold, what struck me was every character's yearning for a mother, even the pirates, and Barrie's apparent urge to turn all little girls into mother figures, with a corresponding lack of understanding that little girls also yearn to have mothers, not just to become them.
As someone who lost my mother at age 13, I could empathize with the lost boys and their stories of being literally "lost" -- abandoned on the street by mothers (where are the fathers?) who in some cases seemed unable to care any longer for their beloved sons and in others simply threw them away. In Peter's case, he returned home from his imaginative flight only to find the window barred against him. Interestingly, in this time period, when death in childbirth was one of the main causes of mortality among young women, no mention is made of the even more likely scenario of being barred from a mother's loving embrace by death. Barrie's issue seems to be all about being rejected. I can empathize with that, as well.
In Peter's (and Barrie's) world, what does motherhood consist of? The main duty of the mother seems to be telling enthralling bedtime stories, followed closely by imposing the order of a bedtime ritual. These seem kind of trivial, until you think about what they represent. The bedtime ritual is fairly obvious, as it represents the safety of having limits set and the physical nurturing from which those limits stem. The story-telling is a little bit more subtle. I think it represents nurturing of the spirit, encouragement of imagination, adventure and fun -- in other words, all the things that being a boy means to Peter.
What place do fathers have in this world? Clearly, they (as men) represent all the things that Peter hates and fears: growing up, getting a job, being responsible, as well as setting more disagreeable limits, such as making Nana sleep outside instead of in the nursery where the children -- and their mother -- want her. But there is an even more sinister implication in the fact that in most productions of the play, Mr. Darling and Captain Hook are played by the same actor. Hook is Peter's arch-enemy, someone who is always trying to kill him, as Mr. Darling is the arch-enemy of his children, always trying to make them grow up and be responsible. He, like Hook, feels he doesn't get any respect and is humored by his family the way Hook is humored by his men. The difference is, of course, that Hook controls them through fear of injury and death, while Mr. Darling is pretty much completely ineffectual, yielding all control of the household to his wife.
One of the ironies of the play is that, despite the focus on girls as mothers, each of the female characters except for Mrs. Darling (the actual mother) saves Peter's life. While you could regard the fierce protectiveness of Tiger Lily, Tinkerbelle and Wendy as maternal instinct, in fact they each behave in ways that are as physically heroic as Peter's own actions. And certainly, Wendy gets to enjoy flying around London as much as either of her brothers. In the strange and wondrous world of Neverland, girls may be mother figures, but that doesn't seem to mean simply waiting on the sidelines waiting for the boys to come home.
On the other hand, it does seem to mean that girls spend all their energy taking care of boys. I would worry about that being the message my granddaughter took away from seeing the play if I weren't convinced that the things she's most likely to remember are the flying and Tinkerbelle's rude behavior!
Still, as a lost girl myself, I find myself feeling sad for all the lost children and wondering what made Barrie so sensitive to that need for nurturing. Perhaps we all need to learn to be our own "mothers" and find ways of nurturing ourselves and providing ourselves a structure in which we can function happily and productively. I know that's what I'm working on.
And who says the theater is not relevant?
A hui hou.