- The “Boy” Who Wouldn’t Grow UpPeter Pan and the Dangers of Eternal Youth
Peter Pan is one of the great icons of childhood. He exists in popular consciousness as the “boy who wouldn’t grow up,” and J. M. Barrie’s dramatization of Peter’s story,1 which he called a “Fantasy in Five Acts,” was an immediate theatrical hit. Peter Pan premiered as the Christmas entertainment at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 1904 and was revived as the Christmas show there for a number of years thereafter. The plot of the play owes a clear debt to the conventions of pantomime, and the eponymous role is a part of the English stage tradition of the principal boy, but Barrie’s play has always been as much for adults as for children. A “W.T.S.,” in a review of the first production, noted: “The touches of tender pathos, the exquisite picture of a mother’s love and suffering and joy can come home to but a few of the young ones.”2 While it amuses children with Indians, pirates, and the famous ticking crocodile, Peter Pan manages at the same time to demonstrate and reify the “appropriate” spaces and roles for gendered Edwardian bodies. I argue here that the traditional casting of a woman in the title role is precisely what allowed the play its early success; by avoiding the presentation of a male body refusing to grow into its legitimate and ordained place in the structure of British gender roles and imperial politics, Peter Pan negotiated for itself a theatrical space that presented an eternal male youth without threatening the social status quo.
By the 1880s, British pantomimes had taken the form they still use today. The story of a panto is a fable for children; the hero of the story undertakes a journey or adventure which requires him to defeat a villain, and the experiences of his quest help him to reach maturity and to win the hand of the heroine. It is traditional to cast a cross-dressed woman to play the “principal boy,” the romantic hero. Peter Pan utilizes an actress in the role of Peter, in keeping with tradition, but although both Wendy Darling and Tinkerbell might wish otherwise, Peter [End Page 30] never evolves into a credible romantic interest; the principal boy becomes a new type in Peter Pan.3 He is the boy who defeats his nemesis but chooses not to grow up. Peter’s character avoids the conventional pantomime resolution that affirms a society underpinned by “heterosexual” romantic pairings.
The conventional principal boy was not expected to succeed in making the audience accept that she was male. A significant part of the tradition was that her female body was visible and immediately recognizable as such. “There was nothing boyish about the principal boys of late Victorian pantomime, who dressed, undressed, and frequently even padded so as to emphasize female secondary sex characteristics,” Edwin M. Eigner points out.4 Additionally, the traditional principal boy was a socially ambiguous figure. Although she could be found on the legitimate stage during the Christmas season, she also appeared on the stages of variety palaces and in ballets and was associated with the same presumed sexual availability which marked chorus and ballet girls, who were popular figures of eroticization in the Victorian period.5 The principal boy was classed with her skirted sisters not only because they could be found in the same venues, but because the bodies of both behaved in ways that were outside the bounds of well-mannered feminine movement. The freedom of the lower limbs made possible by the short skirts of chorus girls or the breeches of the principal boy was a usurpation of male prerogative and placed an obviously female body outside the bounds of accepted female behavior. The costume of a principal boy lays claim to being male dress, but is so only on the first level of perception; within the breeches and tunic-bodice traditionally used onstage, the boy’s body always retains its femininity and displays its sex to the audience. The costume calls attention to the very thing it...