Sunday, July 9, 2006; BW13
The nexus of relationships that inspired James Matthew Barrie's masterpiece, "Peter Pan," would be out of the question in England or the United States today: A responsible parent would not let a grown man play with her young sons for hours at a time, day after day, year after year. But as viewers of the movie "Finding Neverland" know, Barrie did just that with his neighbors the Llewelyn Davies boys, informally adopting them after the death of their father. As a grownup, one of the boys, Nico, insisted that Barrie's love for them was entirely chaste, adding, "I don't believe that Uncle Jim ever experienced what one might call a stirring in the undergrowth for anyone -- man, woman, or child." In Hide-and-Seek with Angels: A Life of J.M. Barrie (St. Martin's, $27.95), Lisa Chaney stresses that while Barrie was undoubtedly smitten with the boys in some way, he was also standing apart and studying them as an artist. He had previously struggled to capture what Chaney calls "the mystery of growing up" in such plays as "Sentimental Tommy," and now -- with the brothers serving as a kind of living laboratory -- he was ready to perfect his "anatomy of childhood." The result was the play "Peter Pan," which became not only a classic but a proving ground for some of the greatest actors of the 2oth century. Among those who have played Peter have been Mary Martin, Jean Arthur, Margaret Lockwood, Glynis Johns, Mia Farrow and Dorothy Tutin; Capt. Hook has been played by Charles Laughton, Boris Karloff, Alistair Sim, Cyril Ritchard and Dustin Hoffman. Barrie expressed the impulse that lay behind his children's plays and novels in a passage that shows what a self-conscious artist he was: "I wish that the universe were radically different, since the world as it is is not just tragic, it is for me an impossibility. To be completely human -- with its full range of both practical and imaginative potentialities -- and to grow up; these are in a sense contradictories. By growing up, by co-operating in social order, living, one has to curtail the imagination; by doing this one is obliged to give up so much that one becomes an unacceptably diminished person."
-- Dennis Drabelle