Childhood's End

Where have you gone, Peter Pan? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you

Ballet Austin's <i>Peter Pan</i>
Ballet Austin's Peter Pan

A certain boy whose permanent address is Neverland and who has been known to jump on the wind's back and say funny things to the stars has been buzzing our town quite a bit this spring. In March, he flew into the Paramount via a production of Peter Pan by the New York company TheatreWorks/USA. He spent the month of April swooping about the B. Iden Payne Theatre, thanks to the UT Department of Theatre & Dance staging a version of his story. This week, he wings into Bass Concert Hall for Ballet Austin's take on his tale, originally choreographed by onetime Austinite Septime Webre for the Washington Ballet. And that doesn't even count his soaring through assorted local cinemas since February, courtesy of Disney's animated sequel, Return to Never Land. You practically need an air traffic controller to coordinate the landings and takeoffs of all the Lost Boys over Austin.

While it may seem like a conspiracy instigated by the heirs of J. M. Barrie, Peter's creator, this sudden plethora of Pans among us is happenstance, a coincidence of scheduling not unlike the run of Romeo and Juliets earlier this season. Then, it was the Mary Moody Northen Theatre, Ballet Austin, Rob Nash at the Vortex, and choreographer Rennie Harris at UT's Performing Arts Center all descending on Shakespeare's young lovers within a few months of each other; now, it's the ballet, the Paramount, and UT converging on Neverland. Every so often, little clusters of productions rooted in the same material pop up on the scene, and most of the time they have nothing to do with each other. Juliet, Romeo, Peter Pan -- they're household names, big draws at the box office. That's why they -- and Alice, the Macbeths, Scrooge, Pinocchio, Huck Finn, and the other usual suspects -- show up on so many seasons. Simple economics.

Still, even if these clustered shows aren't always connected consciously, they may be connected unconsciously. The characters they feature and stories they tell typically strike chords deep within us, so deep that they cut across lines of class, race, and creed. They are archetypal tales that can be both universal and culturally specific, speaking to every age and yet at times seeming to speak directly to our age and the problems we're wrestling with as a city, a country, a society. As artists look for ways to address issues of their time, they will sometimes hear in one of these familiar, fundamental stories a voice that sounds distinctly contemporary and will revive it for us. And as several artists hear that same voice, the story will resurface in several places, often in variations on the original. Right now, Peter Pan looks to be one of those stories.

In Peter Pan, we have a boy who refuses to grow up. He left home, Peter explains to Wendy when they meet, "because I heard father and mother talking about what I was to be when I became a man. I don't want ever to be a man. I want always to be a little boy and to have fun." The combination of a never-ending childhood, nonstop frivolity, and rebellion against one's parents has a natural appeal for baby boomers, a generation that made a virtue of rejecting parental values and pioneered the nostalgia for the toys one had as a kid: the Davy Crockett coonskin caps, the Barbies and G.I. Joes, the Hot Wheels cars. They have insistently held onto the defiant music of their youth and the counterculture that rose up around it even as they've grayed and long since settled into the mainstream. For the group that continues to sing "Hope I die before I get old" long after they've gotten old, Pan is the national hero, the poster child for eternal youth, his motto "Never trust anyone over 10."

(To cut the boomers some slack, nostalgia has now become institutionalized in the culture, with each successive generation no less eager to embrace and celebrate the sounds, styles, and souvenirs of their youth than the boomers were. Just ask the folks at Rhino Records or the producers of That 70s/80s Show.)

Peter Pan is still having adventures, still fighting the good fight, still sticking it to the Man (in the person of Captain Hook, that is), still living free. He cannot be conquered by time, a fact that must make him ever more enticing to those in the audience who now find themselves tied down to lives of mortgage payments, soccer practices, and stretch-waistband Dockers, who now watch his story with their own young charges. They, and perhaps many others both older and younger, see Peter onstage and feel the distance between his youth and their own. Even when he's being played by middle-aged women, we envy him his boyish energy, his vitality, his agility, that youthful spirit that makes you want to crow.

Of course, as a society we don't do well with aging. For at least half a century, we've been fixated on youthfulness, deifying it in the media, selling it in the marketplace, rewarding it in business. The younger the better is the chant echoing across America, so we crave youth and grasp at any means to hold fast to it: the diets, the liposuction, the Wonderbra, the Grecian Formula, the Viagra, the Botox. That makes Peter Pan a symbol of our inner desires as well: a manifestation of some physical ideal that has slipped beyond our grasp and can never be retrieved, no matter how hard we try, no matter how fervently we wish it.

But that yearning one feels while watching Peter Pan isn't just about youthful vigor, and it isn't only for oneself. We yearn for the innocence of youth, too, and that innocence is in short supply these days. The world is less forgiving of naïveté than it once was; it expects us to understand how harsh a place it is, how crass and cruel its people can be, and to just deal with it. And being young is no excuse.

That attitude, combined with the saturation of violence and sexuality and what was once considered adult language throughout the culture, has bred a nation of kids worldly beyond their years. The recent spike in the number of teen stars in the music business is one more reflection of this trend; the Britney Spearses and Christina Aguileras, the LeAnn Rimeses and Li'l Bow-Wows, push the envelope on adult sexuality. They're racing to be grownups, to look like them, talk like them, dress like them, get undressed like them. And in the process, they're finding they get problems like them, too -- unwanted pregnancies, venereal diseases, divorce, single parenthood -- and, even sadder, they're dealing with these problems like grownups: with alcohol, drugs, abandonment, abuse, suicide, homicide. Kids kill kids, and we mourn not only the victims but the innocence that has been lost to children today. Peter Pan and the Lost Boys represent a childhood in which violence was the stuff of fantastic adventure: swordfights with pirates, encounters with mermaids, dances with wolves. Any blood shed was rarely malevolent and never permanent. We yearn for that innocence for the lost boys and girls around us.

And perhaps in some way, those of us who have long since passed out of childhood yearn for it for ourselves. In the long shadow cast by the events of September 11, we feel bereft of a kind of innocence. The level of inhumanity and the scale of destruction witnessed on that day aged us in ways beyond the physical, tore at our hearts, our spirits, and will leave us with scars for as long as we live. The pain is so profound that we might turn back the clock if it were within our power -- to save lives and erase the pain, yes, but also to reclaim our innocence, to return to a time before we knew that fellow human beings were capable of this measure of hatred and cruelty.

Peter Pan retains his innocence as he does his youth, but only because he never remembers what has happened to him. In the book that J. M. Barrie wrote from his play Peter Pan, he describes Peter in this way:

Quick as thought he snatched a knife from Hook's belt and was about to drive it home when he saw that he was higher up the rock than his foe. It would not have been fighting fair. He gave the pirate a hand to help him up.

It was then that Hook bit him.

Not the pain of this but its unfairness was what dazed Peter. It made him quite helpless. He could only stare, horrified. Every child is affected thus the first time he is treated unfairly. All he thinks he has a right to when he comes to you to be yours is fairness. After you have been unfair to him he will love you again, but will never afterwards be quite the same boy. No one ever gets over the first unfairness; no one except Peter. He often met it, but he always forgot it. I suppose that was the real difference between him and all the rest.

The cruelty of memory. That's what we learn from. We know we must remember, even when the memory is so painful, when it would be such a balm to be able to forget, because without memory we cannot grow. In that sense, the story of Peter Pan is as contemporary as a couple of more recent works, the play Fuddy Meers and the film Memento. All three use figures without memories to show us how much we need them.

This may seem like a heavy weight to load onto a story of flying boys and stitched-on shadows and fairies and ticking crocodiles, but Barrie's tale has always been laced with a strain of melancholy. It's there in Wendy's mother, in her concern for her children when Peter first appears and after they're gone; it's there when the Darling children have been too long in Neverland and begin to forget what their home was like; it's even there in Captain Hook's comical concern for good form. But most of all, it's there in Wendy when we see her many years after her first encounter with Peter, when she has grown up and he is still a boy. There is in that scene a tremendous ache for what was and can never be again. That is part of what keeps this work alive: Peter Pan knows what it is to be a child and just what the value of childhood is.

That is why it speaks to young and old alike, to generation after generation, to us, here, in Austin, Texas, in the spring of 2002, and why it will go on speaking to people, in Barrie's words, "so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless." end story


Peter Pan will be performed by Ballet Austin May 10-12 at Bass Concert Hall. Call 469-SHOW for tickets.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie, Neverland, Peter and Wendy, Return to Never Land, Disney, Paramount Theatre, Peter Pan, TheatreWorks / USA, UT Department of Theatre & Dance, Ballet Austin, Septime Webre, Washington Ballet

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