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What if Peter Pan’s arch-enemy was a woman?

J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan; or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up has exercised the popular imagination since its first performance in 1904. Yet not everyone is aware of Peter Pan’s stage history or the darker currents that underlie the apparently escapist story of Wendy Darling and her brothers flying away from their nursery to the “Never Land”, a fantasy world of make-believe and adventures with Captain Hook and his pirates, mermaids, and other characters drawn from children’s games. Sally Cookson’s production at London’s National Theatre in the winter season 2016-17 returns to the darker roots of Peter Pan, reaching back beyond its first performance to Barrie’s earliest notes towards the play, where he imagined Captain Hook, Peter’s arch-enemy, being played by a woman.

Captain Hook is traditionally played by the same actor who played Mr. Darling, Wendy’s father. This adds an extra layer to the children’s “escape” to Never Land, and underlines the idea that they are acting out roles and relationships from the “real” world. The villainous pirate captain doubling the father who works in a bank may suggest that the children are revolting against the prospect of a nine-to-five job and a programmed adult existence. As Peter says towards the end of the play: “Would you send me to school? … And then to an office? … I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things. No one is going to catch me, lady, and make me a man. I want always to be a little boy and to have fun!” In early performances these lines would cause young men in the audience to cheer and stamp their feet. But it is far from clear how the flamboyant Captain Hook incarnates the bourgeois values that Peter rejects.

In her National Theatre production (first performed at the Bristol Old Vic in 2012), Sally Cookson digs into Peter Pan’s textual history to stage a different kind of doubling for Captain Hook, and a different symbolic interpretation of the antagonism between Hook and Peter. In Barrie’s original notes towards the play he jotted: “Pirate Captain — Miss Dorothea Baird (‘See how he scowls,’) His awful ugliness much insisted on.” Dorothea Baird played Mrs. Darling in the first run of Peter Pan but Barrie never acted on the idea of having her double with the role of the pirate captain, even though the play has a long history of cross-dressed roles: until quite recently, the character of Peter Pan himself was always played by a woman.

Peter Pan at the National Theatre, a co-production with Bristol Old Vic © Steve Tanner. Used with permission

The idea of Mrs. Darling doubling as Captain Hook seems to tie in, as Andrew Birkin has commented, with another relic from the developmental stages of the play. Peter Pan had many different titles in its draft stages, and at one point its full title was Peter Pan; or The Boy Who Hated Mothers. Peter’s hatred of mothers is still evident in two scenes of the play as we know it. Wendy and her brothers, having flown out of their nursery window to arrive in Never Land, finally decide to go home after Wendy tells a story that imagines their return. The story ends: “‘See dear brothers,’ says Wendy, pointing upward, ‘there is the window standing open.’ So up they flew to their loving parents, and pen cannot describe the happy scene over which we draw a veil.” But Peter counters this projected happy ending with a chilling story of his own: “Wendy, you are wrong about mothers. I thought like you about the window… and then I flew back, but the window was barred, for my mother had forgotten all about me and there was another little boy sleeping in my bed.”

Peter’s version establishes the mother as an enemy whose actions are to be feared. What’s more, Peter seems to be engaged in a battle with Mrs. Darling for the affections of Wendy and the others. After Wendy’s story, the children fly back to London, but Peter flies faster and gets there first. The nursery window is open but Peter rushes to close it, saying, “Now when Wendy comes she will think her mother has barred her out, and she will have to come back to me!” Confronted by Mrs. Darling’s tears he observes, “she is awfully fond of Wendy. I am fond of her too. We can’t both have her, lady! Come on, Tinkerbell; we don’t want any silly mothers!”

If Captain Hook is played by the same actor as Mrs. Darling, the struggle between Peter and Wendy’s mother for possession of Wendy becomes central to the play. Sally Cookson’s casting gives scope for all sorts of potential interpretations. She perhaps misses a trick by making Hook a female pirate captain rather than playing with the cross-dressing suggested in Barrie’s original note. But she brings to life a layer of the play that has been hidden since its pre-history, and gives the (female) actor playing Hook a much richer character to work with.

Featured image credit: Scene from Peter Pan where Peter (Mary Martin) shows the Darling children he can fly by Rothschild, Los Angeles. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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