Friday, February 15, 2013

"To die will be an awfully big adventure"...

In the play Peter Pan, at the end of Act III, the boy who refuses to grow up finds himself lingering on Marooner's Rock, the place where traitors or enemies are sent, hogtied, to die a slow death, drowning slowly with the incoming tide. Peter, the waters rising slowly over his own ankles, contemplates his mortality and finds himself "afraid at last." "With a drum beating in his breast as if he were a real boy," he utters the following words to a moonlit lagoon: "To die will be an awfully big adventure."

Peter Pan is a play largely about our fear of mortality. Peter's utterance above amounts to my whistling into the void as I descend the basement stairs, flicking on the lights to ward off my welling fear of darkness. Here's the thing about Peter Pan: he's a rather treacherous figure. A riddle. A conundrum. In one sense he represents the fantastic appeal of eternal childhood.  "I'm youth, I'm joy, I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg," he crows. But on the other hand, he represents the immoral refusal to face facts; in turning toward eternal childhood, he refuses to live, to grow as a person, to claim any kind of meaningful identity beyond the Dionysian boy lording it over his own creations in the ephemeral space of Never Land. Everything in Never Land is a figment of Peter's imagination, an extension of himself. More importantly, he controls what happens. That's why Wendy entering Never Land is so disastrous. He can't control her desire for him, not entirely. She doesn't fit the island's contours. It's shape is not her shape. It's the shape of a heart with a piece missing (quite literally, take a second look).

Peter's fear of death almost forces him to live. Almost. But, in the end, he decides not to live in order not to die. And not to live in order never to love. Consider these perplexing stage directions that close the play, after Wendy gets on her broomstick and wends her way home:
In a sort of way he understands what she means by 'Yes, I know' [in response to Peter's refusal to allow her to touch him], but in most sorts of ways he doesn't. It has something to do with the riddle of his being. If he could get the hang of the thing his cry might become 'To live would be an awfully big adventure!' but he can never get the hang of it, and so no one is as gay as he. 
"The thing" here, from my perspective, is touch. To touch Wendy would mean that Peter would have to grow up, to become a lover of this girl who desires him so much, to become her husband and generate his own offspring. Peter can't live because he refuses to love someone other than himself, he can't live because he can't be human.

Peter Pan, to me, is a play about failure. Peter isn't something or someone to be celebrated, his ecstatic ship sailing across the sky to the strains of "You can fly, you can fly, you can FLYYY!!" as in Disney's version of the play. For Barrie, in the end, Peter has no memory, no identity, no power outside of his playworld. And he's an egotist. And, perhaps worst of all, at the end of the play, he is utterly alone. Marooned in Never Land in a state of perpetual non-existence.

So live. And love. It's an awfully big adventure. ~Alice



Junsui said...

Some interesting thoughts about Peter; I've never read the actual book (so many things on the list, so little time!), so I feel my knowledge of the character has been shaped by Disney (the movie and "Once upon a Time") and the Johnny Depp movie from about 10 years ago....In short, not the best sources. :)

Alice in East Washington said...

You must read this play. Must. ;)