‘Finding Neverland’: One Hundred Years of ‘Peter Pan’, A Brief History

Finding Neverland, which opens our 17/18 subscription season, tells the incredible story behind the creation of the story of Peter Pan, and the real family that inspired playwright J.M. Barrie to come up with a story that has been beloved for generations.  Below is a brief history on the creation of the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

“The story of Peter Pan has always held a special fascination for children of all ages, and with good reason – it offers a swashbuckling adventure combined with some of man’s most secret desires, to fly and explore another world somewhere beyond the stars, and never to grow old.”    – Didier C. Deutsch, American theater historian

The character of Peter Pan was first mentioned in a 1902 book by Sir James M. Barrie (he was knighted in 1913) entitled “The Little White Bird.” In 1904, the character of Peter was perfected and became the lead character in the full length play, “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.” In 1906, the section of ‘The Little White Bird” that originated Peter Pan was published separately as a book called “Peter Pan in Kensington Garden.” Then in 1911, Barrie turned his popular play “Peter Pan” into a novel called “Peter and Wendy.”

James Barrie never had his own children (one of the reasons his marriage to actress, Mary Ansell ended in divorce), but spent a great deal of time playing with the children of his good friends, Sylvia and Arthur Llewelyn Davies. He loved to create skits for the children’s entertainment. It was while writing and acting out skits with the Davies children that Barrie developed the characters and plot he would use in the writing of the full-length play version of PETER PAN.

Barrie even acted out the part of the over-the-top comic villain Captain Hook to the delight of the boys. As he explained in his dedication to the play, “I made ‘Peter Pan’ by rubbing you (the Davies boys) violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame.” (Of the five boys, Peter was the one most closely linked with his fictional namesake, an identification he hated all his life. Though he was a highly successful publisher, Peter spent most of his life depressed and committed suicide in 1960.)

Barrie also drew his inspiration from the boys’ parents. He modeled Mr. Darling after the young lawyer, Arthur Llewelyn Davies. Mrs. Darling was based on the refined, nurturing mother Sylvia Davies.

After Sylvia and Arthur’s early deaths, Barrie adopted their five boys. Wendy, who was modeled after a young girl name Margaret Henley, had died at a very early age.  The name Wendy originated from Margaret calling Barrie her “Friendy” which, when you add a lisp, comes out “Fwendy” – thus, we have Wendy.

The play also has strong roots in the reality of Barrie’s life. Like Peter Pan, Barrie was a boy who refused to grow up. He took such elements of life as his awkwardness with, yet dependence upon women, his love of children, and his own longing for childhood, shaping these elements into one of the most-loved stories of all time.

Barrie came up with the last name Pan based on Greek mythology. Pan was the Greek god that symbolized natural forces. Pan was the ancient god of forest, flocks and shepherds. Peter’s enchanted Pan-side granted him the power to remain a child forever.

Despite the quality and originality of the piece, Barrie still had a hard time getting it produced. Unlike today, plays in 1904, usually did not have special effects like flying and major scene changes.

Finally, English producer Charles Frohman agreed to produce the play. He cast one of England’s most popular actresses, 37-year-old Nina Boucicault as Peter.  Nina’s brother, Dion Boucicault , directed the first production, giving the cast only a few pages of script at a time. He was a perfectionist as a director, often having cast and crew rehearse up to 15-18 hours at a time.

Even with its major technical requirements and unique plot and characters, PETER PAN was a great success. It was a big hit throughout England and then in the United States in 1905, with famed actress, Maude Adams, performing the lead to great critical acclaim.

PETER PAN has been shown on television, was made into a famous 1953 full-length animated Walt Disney film, and been made into three other movies: “Peter Pan” in 1924, the Steven Spielberg version, “Hook” in 1992, and most recently, “Peter Pan” in 2003.

Why is PETER PAN still so popular all over the world?  It might be because it speaks to the smallest child with its spectacle and fantasy, especially the thrill of flying. Older children can also relate to the characters that are their own ages and the great adventures that Peter and his friends have with Captain Hook and the pirates. Adults enjoy PETER PAN because it rekindles the magic of the first time they saw it when they were children, and, let’s not forget, the glorious songs and the universal theme of ones desire to never grow up.

In 1929, Barrie presented all rights to PETER PAN to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London, which continues to receive income from all of the various productions mounted all over the world.


Finding Neverland plays the Aronoff Center November 7-19, 2017 as part of the 17/18 Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati season presented by TriHealth.  Tickets and information

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