Last week I had the privilege to see a new production of Peter Pan. This new version, produced by company aptly named Threesixty, is performed inside a circular tent. The stage is in the center, and the entire audience is surrounded by a huge, circular movie screen. The scenery for every scene is projected in full circle – completely immersing the audience in the world of story.
The audience flies through the nursery window with Peter and the children and accompanies them on their flight over Victorian London. It is a beautifully realized event, but it doesn’t stop there. The screens take us into the Lost Boys’ hideout, through the jungles of Neverland, onto the pirate ship, and even underwater to swim with mermaids.
Peter Pan is one of my favorite stories on earth. The original play has been adapted countless times into numerous forms. The story is such a masterful use of archetypes and allegory hidden within the innocent veneer of children’s fiction that master playwright George Bernard Shaw once called it, “ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people.”
The original story had deep themes about the value of childhood, the protection of innocence, and the destructive nature of modern society. It was later fashioned into a children’s story, with many of those themes glossed over. This new production brings us full circle, back to the original intent.
And the story is indubitably Pagan.
Let’s start with the context. The first performance of Peter Pan was in 1904, only a few years after the death of Queen Victoria. This was a time of breathless industrialization, where people seemed to worship the gods of Factory, Pollution, and Profit more than any other Deity. Everyday life was stifling. Naturally, people wished an escape.
Enter Pan. Pan was a little-known Greek nature Deity at the time, but he was thrust into the limelight during the 1800s to represent a return to nature, youth, innocence, and enjoyment. Sounds like Peter, doesn’t it? Any author invoking Pan’s name intentionally brought these values to the Victorian mind.
Why would I want to grow up if, in the words of the musical, “Growing up means it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree”? Pan, and his namesake Peter, represent the glory of nature natural – the glory of all things undignified.
Within this stultifying, but dignified Victorian setting, you have three stultified children. As they play in the nursery, their father screams at them to be more dignified, begging for “a little less noise, please!” Mr. Darling is concerned about his position and appearing dignified in the minds of the neighbors, so he has to be sure his children grow up nice and proper, removing all of their silly fantasies from their heads.
Then we meet the boy who never grew up; the most undignified boy of them all. In fact, he heard his parents discussing all the prestigious, boring jobs he was going to have when he grew up, so he ran far away. He lived with fairies for a while, then moved on to Never Never Land, where he spends his days fighting pirates and having adventures- everything the Darling children can’t do.
So, in a scene that resounds with the theme of “crossing the hedge,” Peter brings these three mundane children into the Otherworld of Neverland, a world that symbolizes all the magical possibilities available to anyone who wishes and believes.
Next, the story moves into its version of the Oak King/Holly King battle. Peter and his Lost Boys live in a tree (oak tree?), having fun and enjoying all the benefits of childhood that one can have without parents. The closest things to parents that they have are the pirates, who-like any good parents- are ever on their tail, trying to stop a good time. The pirates talk a lot about “work to be done,” echoing the stifling theme of the Darling family back home in industrial London. As always, the adult world of work, jealous of youth’s freedom, is nipping at the heels of children. However young and innocent you are, adulthood is after you.
Indeed, the leader of the pirates is the infamous Captain Hook, the Holly King figure who was physically and metaphorically disfigured by childhood when his nemesis Peter cut off his hand. In another parallel of Neverland’s Pirates to Victorian adults, Captain Hook and Mr. Darling always are played by the same actor.
Hook and Peter constantly battle for superiority, and each wounds the other, but neither ever is able to gain the permanent advantage. One gets the sense that this is and eternal battle.
But just as time turns oak into holly and naïve children into hardened adults, time- in the form of a tic-tocking crocodile- also is Hook’s most feared enemy. Adulthood stalks the Lost Boys, but death stalks the adults. Both are the results of time. Time got its first taste of Hook when Peter threw the captain’s hand to the beast, and it is hungry for more. Time will always win.
This second battle in Neverland delivers the very Pagan theme that it is futile to fight the turning of the seasons. Flow with them. Honor them. Don’t obsess over the enemies in your past; you can’t defeat them. Hook’s obsession with Peter only brings an earlier demise. Heal your wounds, learn from your mistakes, become wiser at each new stage and guide other along their own paths.
Let’s not forget Tinkerbell. She may normally be portrayed as a ball of jingling light or a sexy, scantily clad little sprite, but Tink is a pre- neopagan homage to The Good People. When Peter escapes his parents as an infant, he lives in Kensington Gardens with fairies. Being a child, never taught to disbelieve in then, Peter could see and understand them. Tink remains with him as a guide and guardian, even to the point of sacrificing herself for him.
And Tink is no cute, cuddly cartoon fairy. She is as mischievous as any fairies worth her wings. Jealous of Wendy, she convinces the Lost Boys to shoot an arrow through her heart. She cavorts around, calling everyone she can a “silly ass.” The Threesixty version portrays her much closer to the mythological concept than most other productions. This Tink is a spirit of the land. She wears a dirty white tank top and a pink tutu, sports wild hair, and stomps around in high heel boots. She has a throaty, maniacal laugh and a weird Russian accent. As a Pagan, I much prefer this characterization to a tiny sexpot or a blinking light.
Overarching all of this is a theme that will warm the cockles of any Wiccan’s heart: the desperate search for a mother. All the men on the island are out of balance, searching for a woman to bring them into equilibrium. The Lost Boys may be having fun, but it is their need for a mother that brings Peter to Wendy’s nursery window. Their name says it all, without a mother they are “lost boys.”
They love and follow their new mother immediately, even as she barks some very Victorian orders about “washing up” an “tidying” their things.
On the other side of the island, the pirates also need a good dose of motherly love. A group of violent bachelors, they also seek a mother to tuck them in and tell them stories. Again, balance. Their nefarious plans to kidnap the boys and murder Peter all stem from their desire to take Wendy as a mother for themselves.
Both sides, old and young, are incomplete without their mother, their Goddess, to nurture them along. Neither is truly happy until they find her, and the Lost Boys eventually follow her into the mysteries of mundane Victorian life out of their love and respect for her.
Peter Pan is the story of a magical land to which all can escape if they remember the way. It is the story of leaving the pressures of ordinary life and crossing into an extraordinary otherworld, where anything is possible. It implores us to resist the illusion that the physical world is all there is to life. It passionately speaks against the mindless pursuit of prestige at the expense of living a beautiful life. It reminds us to dream, to believe, and to fly.
Peter Pan by Threesixty currently has published performance dates for Orange County and Atlanta. If it comes to your town, I strongly recommend taking the opportunity to see this unique re-imagining of a classic tale. If you’re only familiar with the children’s versions, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise.