Reviews: “The Shadows of Peter Pan” by B.L. Panther

The Shadows of Peter Pan

Growing up, all I wanted to be was a middle aged soprano like Mary Martin in Peter Pan. I already had the blonde hair cut. All I needed was the voice. And the hosiery. 

I was not alone. People love Peter’s queernesslike a lot. Perhaps too much. Peter’s always been a queer character that defies many normative boundaries. Ever since his first appearance on the English stage in 1904, Peter has been consistently played by a woman, in keeping with classic Pantomime tradition of The Principal Boy. It seems strange that this performance choice should have such a hold on the mainland United States which does not have this tradition.

The 1954 Broadway musical starring Mary Martin firmly affixes Peter’s queer shadow more than any other (re)production of the Peter Pan character before or since. The versions of the stage production filmed for television in 1955, 1956, and 1960 will be the primary sources for me here because of their self-aware performance of gender and how they sew together two parts of Peter that are often considered separate: his queerness and his relationship with the so-called “Indians”. 

It might even be best to put “Indians” in quotation marks for the duration of this piece because there are no human beings here. They are pure caricature, a racist amalgamation of empty referents. They are rarely articulate, speaking, as we will see, in a kind of primitivized gibberish. Their expressions are outrageous and inhuman. All done with the intent to set them below Peter.

Peter is a colonial character conceived at the height of the age of classical empire and rehearses much of that same worldview within Neverland. Any proper queer/trans analysis needs to contend with that. And contend we should. Paying close attention to Peter Pan can help us recognize the co-fluidity of gender and empire and the way liberalism entangles the two. 

Peter is not queer despite the logics of empire at work, but because of them. Peter is not a tyrannical despot or outward bigot. His colonial role is one of the benevolent giver of safety and civilization. The queer play with Mary/Peter as “Father” and Wendy as “Mother,” is the direct result of Peter bringing her to Neverland to domesticate the Lost Boys. So, let’s take Peter’s queer shadow out of the drawer once more and hold it up to the light. 

I. Never Gonna Be A Man

Most queer readings featuring the blockbuster 1954 musical begin at Peter’s anthem of queer resistance, “I Won’t Grow Up.” While the song rejects aging, it more explicitly protests certain gender roles. This isn’t a song about wrinkles and joint pain. It’s about masculinity. 

For Mary/Peter and The Lost Boys, becoming a man means they can’t climb trees. They’d have to wear ties and serious expressions. (In the middle of July!) It means having school and worries. 

Yet, though Peter and The Lost Boys may dread the intellectualism and urbanity of the “civilized man,” they’re more than happy to embrace a masculine spirit of adventurism full of shooting and peril. They shoot Wendy for pity’s sake. As an analogy to J.M. Barrie’s contemporaries, Peter may not want to be a Churchill, but he certainly doesn’t mind being a Teddy Roosevelt with the Lost Boys as his Boy Scouts.

II. Have You Another Voice?

The genderplay really comes to the fore in the musical with the next number, which also happens to be the piece which cements Peter’s relationship with the “Indians”.

To save Tiger Lily (Sondra Lee) from the pirates, Peter imitates Captain Hook’s voice to convince the crew he’s changed his mind. When the real Cap’n arrives (the ever-camp Cyril Richard), Peter continues his voice-play, pretending to be a spirit of the forest, a lady spirit of the forest. Mary/Peter sings beautiful high notes while weaving through the trees with Hook in hot pursuit singing “Oh My Mysterious Lady.”

It’s a kind of bedtrick, a choral catfishing, that is most definitely queer. In this scene Mary/Peter is an adult woman playing a young boy playing a (adult?) woman to tease and titillate an adult man. So queer is this scene that it’s been cut from most other subsequent versions.

Gymnast turned performer Cathy Rigby, who’s played the role off and on for the last 30 years has performed the musical with and without the song, prefers to do without because it “totally [takes] away from the fact that [Peter] is a boy.” Yes. Yes it does.

This song plays on the audience knowing Peter is a woman. Mary Martin was already a famous Broadway actress and the reason most people came. Gender in this scene shimmers like Peter’s veil, flickering glimpses of different sides. We cross over the binary and back again. 

With this, Mary/Peter demonstrates his allegiance to the “Indians” through queer gender play. And just when Peter thinks he’s about to be killed by Hook, Tiger Lily and her merry band ride in on scooters and scare them off. She and Peter then celebrate their new alliance with what is known to some as the “pow wow polka.”

III. True Blood Brothers ‘Till The End

In a song called “Indians” surreptitiously (and rightly) cut from other productions without any fanfare is a racist showcase of faux-Native rhythms, gestures, and broken English along with the “Indians” own guttural “language.”

Tiger Lily: UGG
All: UGG!
Tiger Lily: WAH

ALL: WAH!

Tiger Lily: UGG-A-WUGG-A-MEATBALL
ALL: UGG-A-WUGG-A-MEATBALL!

Meatball is right. This is a slopped together mix of stereotype entrails. And people ate it up. In his review of the stage musical, Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times wrote, “Sondra Lee, as Tiger Lily, the Indian Maid is uproarious. She dances and acts a sort of gutter “Indian” with a city accent that is mocking and comical.” In keeping with the majority of his peers, Atkinson fails to care that both Lee and songwriter Moose Charlap are mocking Native Americans, who exist.

Bruce Hanson, when writing his compendium, The Peter Pan Chronicles: The Nearly 100 Year History of the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (2000), can’t contain his nostalgia for the meatball. Of Lee’s performance, he laments, “her dancing, her delightful mugging, and her look seemed to belong to a bygone era that was taken for granted and will never be repeated.” A “bygone era that was taken for granted” sounds more like a statement on today’s “politically correct” culture than any helpful assessment of the performance. And what is this “mugging” in service of?

It’s to enhance the ridiculousness, the childishness of the “Indians.” And it’s why Peter forms a bond with them; it staves his fear of growing older. The Pirates are adults. What could be a better metaphor for aging and adulthood than being forever pursued by a ticking crocodile? But the “Indians” are perpetual children (though they are all played by adults). They ride scooters!  

So while we want to attribute the aspirations in “I Won’t Grow Up” to some sort of radical queer realization innate within the Mary/Peter performance, it’s clear that Moose Charlap with co-writer Carolyn Leigh were not interested in the explosion of gender norms, but the active compacting of highly colonial ones which repeat a centuries old colonial tradition of loving & loathing indigenous peoples for being “infantile,” “immature,” “childish,” and/or “less burdened.”

Far from loathing, Mary/Peter loves the “brave noble redskins.” He wants to “smoke em peace pipe.” Having just played a flighty feminine spirit of the forest just moments before, now Peter is now playacting a masculine chieftain role. And so gender play, ceremonial play, and colonial play merge with their treaty song “Ugg-A-Wugg.”

Much continues to be unpacked about Peter Pan’s harmful legacy of Native representation. But just as queer interpretations don’t consider the colonial and anti-Native context, the reverse is also true. Discussions of anti-Nativism in Peter Pan don’t mention or link his queer status or possibility. 

Later versions will try to contend with “Ugg-a-Wugg” the most recent 2014 NBC Live production changed the lyrics, which not only didn’t solve the meter problem, it also didn’t solve the power dynamics. (Or the Sondra Lee problem.) 

Though the original title of “The Great White Father” was eventually stricken from the 1911 novelization, Peter is still imbued with a patronizing paternalism typical of the age of empire in which it was written. He is the mighty purveyor, a bridge to the colonial wild with all its immaturity and untamed otherness. Peter still gets to be a brother as well as “The Sun, The Moon, and The Stars,” the de facto leader. Changing “Ugg-a-Wugg” doesn’t do anything without changing the power structures that wrote “The Indians” into the story as props in Peter’s queer-coded dreams of perpetual childishness.

IV. Somewhere From The Past

Many of the queer appraisals of Peter Pan, and the 1954 musical with Mary Martin in particular, are attempting to locate queerness in the past to show how it has always been with us. This is at worst a blatant blindness towards colonialism and at best a naive understanding of good faith queer criticism that enchains more than it liberates.

Empire has permeated every version of the Peter Pan story since it was written at the turn of the 20th Century and cannot be separated from any queerness read into it. Yet by 1904 when Barrie was writing his play, The British Empire had already reached its acme; so, whose empire is Peter repeating?

If we look at Barrie’s original screenplay for the 1924 film, it’s clear he knows the Pan story would be warmly welcomed by Americans.

They near New York. The Statue of Liberty becomes prominent…Then we should get the effect of the statue mothering them by coming to life, to the extent of making them comfortable in her arms for the night. This should be one of the most striking pictures. Next we see them resume their journey. They cross America, with Niagara shown. Then they are over the Pacific, where the Never, Never Land is.

The Native American elements clearly show a lingering British fascination with The Wild West Shows where they were the first to export Native stereotypes abroad, but this passage reveals Barrie’s deliberate intent to set Neverland within America’s map. 

Because while his British Empire was beginning its decline, when he first dreamt of the Pan story, The United States was just beginning its experiments with empire having concluded the Spanish-American war in 1898 and were currently embroiled in land-grabbing expeditions in the Pacific including the Philippine-American War (1899-1913). 

America’s own classical colonial era was itself waning by the time the Mary Martin musical version appeared before American audiences. It’s final television appearance in 1960 came just one year after Alaska and Hawaii became states. 

Having concluded World War II within recent memory, American audiences in 1954 and 1960 were still fascinated by their Pacific acquisitions like Guam, Bikini Atoll, and the Mariana Islands with tourism, or leisure adventurism, beginning to boom. Even Mary herself was closely identified with this fascination, having originated the lead role of Nelle Forbush in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific (1949).

And though Mainland America doesn’t have the British Panto tradition of The Principal Boy, it does have a more salient history of gender play tied to empire. As Peter Boag’s insightful Re-dressing America’s Frontier Past (2011) demonstrates, as white folks continued to raze and settle The West during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was an explosion of gender play that in many ways helped many of the players settle stolen land. It seems that when nations are taking on new shapes, it’s a time/space for its citizens to do so as well. There’s a false sense of tabula resa that allows colonialism and gender feel as playmates.

And this is important because if we look to the colonial past with a tunnel vision for our modern queer objectivities, we commit neo-colonialism. There may be queers who think that because Mary/Peter shakes hands with “Indians” that he’s somehow a praise-worthy example of multiculturalism. That linking the queerness of “Indians” and Mary/Peter presents a decolonized approach to gender or this makes Peter somehow akin to “two spirit.” 

But this has a dangerous real world precedent as Scott Lauria Morgensen’s exposes in his brilliant Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization (2011). Queerness can be colonial if it sustains what he calls “Native disappearance,” that it supports the erasure of Native peoples in favor or in service of reaffirming a white identity.

Morgensen’s queer settlers are white gays who adopt “two-spirit” as an identity without any recognition of how the gender terrorism of colonization itself helped create the category in the first place. In the case study of the 1954 Broadway musical version of Peter Pan, the queerness is played up at the expense of the imaginary “Indians” who are lowered and diluted of all recognizable respect. 

I’m a lot closer to the middle-aged soprano I’ve always wanted to be, but working on this project has made me take a backwards look at a very long shadow. This is not to say that gender fluidity is inherently colonial by any means, rather to reaffirm that the two are not mutually exclusive. 

Colonial cultural narratives want Neverland to remind the “home of youth and joy and liberty,” but, we need to remember that the queerness of Peter Pan and Mary/Peter especially resides within a colonial paradigm that cannot be disentangled. And perhaps to ask: Why do we keep dragging Peter out of Neverland and expecting him to have grown up?

About B.L. Panther

B.L. Panther: Folklorist by training, Pisces by nature. They are a frequent contributor at TheSpool.net.