Peter Pan, Lost Childhood and Role Reversals in Traditional Children’s Tales

At the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon on Friday night ( 24th January 2014) we saw a reversal of roles for Peter Pan and Wendy.

I always like to give myself time to read the programme notes before a performance (if at all possible!) And the most intriguing notes on this production of  Wendy and Peter Pan 

Wendy and Peter Pan at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon
Wendy and Peter Pan at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon

were written by the playwright, Ella Hickson .She had, she explained, set out to break away from the stereotypes that surround the story. So she would subvert the tropes so familiar to us from The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, Snow White – in endless tales of girls just waiting for salvation to arrive in the shape of a prince.

She wanted to give Wendy a chance to have as much fun and show as much fight as the boys without losing what it is that makes girls different.

So we saw an empowered Wendy, and a Neverland which was Wendy’s as much as it was Peter Pan’s or the lost boys’.

It wasn’t, Ella Jackson wrote, about pushing political correctness on the young but it is about making sure we aren’t camouflaging unhealthy narratives with the soft glow of traditionalism.

This production of Wendy and Peter Pan focused on the theme of bereavement, presenting us with a third brother for Wendy, Tom, who died in childhood. And so it focused on Wendy’s search for the lost boy who would never grow up – grief for a brother who died young.

We saw a Wendy who rescued herself – she didn’t wait for Peter Pan to rescue her. He was off being irresponsible and having fun. The roles between Wendy and Peter were reversed. We heard Captain Hook bemoaning to Mr Smee about people who are prepared to lay down their lives for those they love: “Why doesn’t anyone care about me like that?”

And we saw a Tiger Lily and a Tinkerbell who were both radically different from the Disney versions!

Tiger Lily in the Royal Shakespeare company's production of Wendy & Peter Pan
Tiger Lily in the Royal Shakespeare company’s production of Wendy & Peter Pan
Tinkerbell in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Wendy & Peter Pan
Tinkerbell in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Wendy & Peter Pan

JM Barrie’s own early trauma fuelled his creation of this story. His own brother David died age 13 when JM Barrie was six. He was haunted by the loss as he could never replace his brother in the eyes of his grieving mother.I was struck by how psychological trauma, grief and loss can be so fertile if we choose to create from it.
JK Rowling has said, the whole story of Harry Potter would never have happened if not for this one thing; that she loved her mother, and her mother died.

Of course it’s now very popular to subvert the tropes of different fairy tales and we have seen it done brilliantly by, for example,  Roald Dahl and by the creators of the Shrek films.

But what do you think about our traditional fairy tales? Are the original version necessarily “unhealthy narratives”? Should Cinderella no more be rescued by the prince, but headhunted instead, to be the CEO of a major multinational corporation? I’d love to know what you think, especially if you have young children who are approaching these traditional stories for the first time.

Published by SC Skillman

I'm a writer of psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. My latest book, 'Paranormal Warwickshire', was published by Amberley Publishing in November 2020. Find all my published books here:

2 thoughts on “Peter Pan, Lost Childhood and Role Reversals in Traditional Children’s Tales

  1. Hi Sheila, what an interesting performance! I am considering these very questions at the moment as my elder daughter explores traditional stories both through our books at home and in preschool. I like the traditional fairy tales, and they have never reinforced any negative stereotypes to my mind. My husband and I will raise our daughters to be independent, confident women who make their own choices in life. We read the stories for pleasure.

    1. Hi Catherine, I tend to agree with you about taking pleasure in the traditional fairy tales. To me it’s an unfathomable thing, to determine whether these tales fed to young girls will result in women who spend their whole lives “waiting for salvation to arrive in the form of a prince” (taking the prince as a metaphor, of course) or whether those stories will be seen for what they are, along with all the other messages that come in, and not enter into our unconscious and affect our future choices. Human beings are so complex, they will always react differently to the same stimuli anyway. This is how I feel. And I admit to loving the Disney film of Cinderella! (And, of course, Peter Pan).

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