Political correctness takes a hunk out of Peter Pan at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Banished from Neverland

Just when you think that political correctness has done its worst, some fresh horror comes along. What possible excuse could the Stratford Festival have for banishing Tiger Lily and the Indians from Neverland?  

Among all the fantastic denizens of Neverland, the Indian princess is by far the worthiest. Captain Hook murders his own men when the whim strikes. Peter Pan is impossibly vain and selfish. The Lost Boys tell lies about the mothers they never knew. The crocodile is a monomaniac. Amidst these villains and rogues, Tiger Lily alone is decent and heroic.  

James M. Barrie’s Indian princess is the essence of courage under pressure. Captured by the pirates, tied to Marooner’s Rock to be drowned by the rising tides, and facing spiritual torture, Tiger Lily stands resolute, as Mr. Barrie tells us in Peter and Wendy (his novelization of his play):  

Her hands and ankles were tied, and she knew what was to be her fate. Yet her face was impassive; she was the daughter of a chief, she must die as a chief’s daughter, it is enough. She was to be left on the rock to perish, an end to one of her race more terrible than death by fire or torture, for is it not written in the book of the tribe that there is no path through water to the happy hunting-ground?  

A prototypical feminist, Tiger Lily is in control of her own sexuality. From Peter Pan, Act II:  

She is the belle of the Piccaninny tribe, whose braves would all have her to wife, but she wards them off with a hatchet.  

Accomplished in woodcraft, she is a natural leader. Again from Peter Pan, Act II:  

TIGER LILY comes first. She puts her ear to the ground and listens, then beckons, and GREAT BIG LITTLE PANTHER and the tribe are around her, carpeting the ground.  

As the Indians track noiselessly along the warpath, Barrie shows us Tiger Lily “bringing up the rear, the place of greatest danger.” She is “proudly erect, a princess in her own right.”  

From a 1907 book

And to her friends, Tiger Lily is loyal to the death. Grateful to Peter Pan for rescuing Tiger Lily from the Marooning Rock, the Indians guard the home of the Lost Boys and suffer heavy casualties when the pirates attack.  

What finer fictional role model could a girl have? What better symbol of feminist empowerment? No wonder that young women clamor to play this strong, brave, virtuous, loyal heroine.   

But there’s no Indian princess in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2010 production of Peter Pan, which we recently saw.  Yes, there is a female character named Tiger Lily who is part of the “Marooning Rock” scene, but she’s not an Indian princess, does not lead a band of braves, and has no “Indian” characteristics.  Out of an absurdly misplaced sense that she and the other Indians are offensive to native Americans, director Tim Carroll has cut them out of the play and replaced them with preening, bare-bellied “Amazons”. 

The cover page of a 1915 book illustrates the three-way balance of power on Neverland

Consider the violence this does to the integrity of the play. First, it distorts the balance of power in Neverland. Anticipating Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four by 45 years, Barrie created a violent world with three powers in perpetual states of war and shifting alliances. But the Stratford show has only the Lost Boys against the pirates.  The nameless Amazons have no higher profile than Neverland’s mermaids, wolves, or fairies.  

Eliminating the Indian princess also destroys the parallels between the Darling household and the fantasy island. The play is so constructed that the actor who plays Mr. Darling, who pretends to be a stern master in his house, can also play Hook, who is a bona fide tyrant. (For example, Christopher Newton played both parts in the Shaw Festival’s 1987 Peter Pan.) The actress who plays the patient Mrs. Darling can also play the stoical, virtuous Tiger Lily. (In the Shaw Festival’s 1987 Peter Pan, Nora McLellan played both parts.) Indeed, the playwright means us to understand that, in the children’s imaginations, their parents are Hook and Tiger Lily.

But in the Stratford show, Mrs. Darling has no counterpart in Neverland.  In fact, the faux Amazon “Tiger Lily” jumps into the play as a fantasy projection of a character invented solely by Mr. Carroll for this show: Lily, the narrator’s (Mr. Barrie’s) maid.

The base of the statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Park, which we visited on our trip to London several years ago, is composed of a jumble of the magical and wonderful people of Neverland

Most important, replacing the Indians with bland “Amazons” violates the premise that Neverland and its inhabitants as the ultimate projection of the children’s fertile imaginations. Even in their Bloomsbury home, the fantasy life of Wendy, Peter, and Michael is so powerful that pretense can hardly be distinguished from reality. The children imagine the dog Nana as a nurse — and she is a nurse. They imagine their father as an overgrown child, and that is just how he behaves.  

In Neverland, where the children’s imaginations rule absolutely, the world of the nursery reappears, transformed. We need only look around Neverland to know just what toys the Darling children have in their nursery, what games they play in nearby Kensington Park, and what children’s books they burrow into on rainy days. Especially the books — luridly illustrated memoirs of bloodthirsty pirates! Picture folios of exotic, stupendous beasts (like wolves and crocodiles)! Stories of sailors, sirens, and mermaids! Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales! Treasure Island and The Last of the Mohicans.  Stories of strange, un-Englishlike peoples and their strange ways in the far corners of the world! Stories of the British empire, its frontiers, and its heroes! And more than one volume in the children’s library, surely, about the diverse customs and ways of North American Indians.  

Mary Martin and Sondra Lee as Peter Pan and Tiger Lily in the 1960 musical adaptation

When children play, anything is possible, including a world co-inhabited by such unlikely real-world companions as mermaids, pirates, wolves, and Indians.  But who would really suppose that “Amazons” were part of the Darling children’s fantasy world? The toy chest and doll house in their nursery surely included wooden pirates, tin soldiers and sailors, mermaids, fairies, cowboys, and Indians — but what girl ever played with “Amazon” dolls? In 1904, middle-class English children learned Greek mythology, but one can’t imagine that these children would ever have been taught about giant female warriors who (according to legend) cut off their right breasts so as to facilitate the use of bows and spears, and who (again according to legend) kept men as slaves and mated with them once a year to propagate the race.  

And the Darling children would never have dreamed up the provocatively dressed creatures in the Stratford show. (One blogger who saw Peter Pan in Stratford thought the Amazons looked like Xena the Warrior Princess.) It may be that in today’s hypersexualized culture, prepubescent children may fantasize about dressing up like Lady Gaga. But these were Victorian children.  

(Curiously, the Amazons are played by actresses of ordinary size who hardly suggest the plus-size women warriors of legend. While Mr. Carroll’s concern for the feelings of native Americans does him credit, he was apparently unconcerned that women like our wife might think the Amazons were there only as eye candy for male patrons like us.)

And did the Stratford Festival think for a moment that today’s kids would have any idea who “Amazons” were, or know anything about their mythical matriarchal society? The kids will instantly recognize the pirates, the mermaid, and the fairy Tinkerbelle. The Amazons will only puzzle them.  

Perhaps Brit director Tim Carroll was merely casting about for a people so imaginary that no modern-day people could possibly be offended. But if putting Tiger Lily on stage might offend people, it’s time for people to adjust their sensitivity meters. 

In writing Peter Pan James M. Barrie never set out to show us anything “true” about native Americans, pirates, fairies, mermaids or anyone else.  What Mr. Barrie did set out to do was to show us how highly imaginative children think when they play. As Mr. Barrie announced at the beginning of his play, “All the characters, whether grown-ups or babes, must wear a child’s outlook on life as their only important adornment.” The Indians, like all the other characters in Peter Pan, are only playmates who behave in accordance with the arbitrary and ever-changing rules of children’s play, as illustrated in this wonderful scene from Peter and Wendy:  

Should we take the brush with the redskins at Slightly Gulch? It was a sanguinary affair, and especially interesting as showing one of Peter’s peculiarities, which was that in the middle of a fight he would suddenly change sides. At the Gulch, when victory was still in the balance, he called out, “I’m redskin to-day; what are you, Tootles?” And Tootles answered, “Redskin; what are you, Nibs?” and Nibs said, “Redskin; what are you Twin?” and so on; and they were all redskins; and of course this would have ended the fight had not the real redskins, fascinated by Peter’s methods, agreed to be lost boys for that once, and so at it they all went again, more fiercely than ever.  

Does Peter Pan — as Mr. Barrie wrote it — include caricatured elements of native Americans? Of course it does — and wildly inaccurate stereotypes of mothers, fathers, pirates, and mermaids, too. In conceiving Tiger Lily and her people, these Victorian children jumbled together all the romantic and exotic bits of information they thought they knew about North American Indian tribes. What else would children do? 

All that is true in Peter Pan is its portrait of three children’s fantasy life. That’s more than enough. 

Aside from missing Tiger Lily in the show — no small point — Emsworth thought that the Stratford Festival’s Peter Pan was pretty good entertainment. See this post

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16 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Sondra Lee as Tiger Lily (along with Mary Martin as Peter Pan) from a 1960 musical version of the play. Image from an article that is dismayed by a decision to take the Indians out of a version of Peter Pan, and which misses the point entirely. […]

  2. This article is the a perfect example of what was wrong with Peter Pan: it normalizes and even promotes the use of the word “Indian.” This misnomer is extremely offensive to the Native community. It’s basically saying “all brown people look the same to me” via Colombus’s false conclusion that North America was India. Does this look like India to you?
    While politically correct when the book was written and the film made, it is now similar to the word “negro,” which was also “correct” then. And the lost boys run around chanting “injuns,” which is equivalent to the n word. That’s a word that’ll get your kids suspended from school.

  3. I do not know your festival, or your plays. My 3 year old wants to be “an Indian like tiger lily” so she can carve circles on rocks (make petroglypys, we live near desert tribes). It is nice to have more thorough information about the character and person of Tiger Lily before I let my daughter immitate her. I for one despise the hypersexualization of our culture and do not want that low estate for her.

  4. Thank your for making the correction. I don’t think you need to change your opinion. It’s been a good conversation and after all isn’t that what theatre is all about?

  5. Aaron:
    I must admit that I missed seeing that Lily the maid jumped into the story as an Amazon — I must have been looking at something else on the stage. So I’ve edited my post accordingly and am grateful to you for the correction. But I stick to my thesis: this was still a bad idea. I really do appreciate your comments.

  6. You are correct in that the Lily listed is one that serves Barrie. But she then enters the story and the Amazons place her feather duster in her hair to become Tiger Lily, and if you look at Tiger Lily’s costume closely you can still see the feather duster on top of her head.

  7. Aaron:
    I don’t think the “Lily” listed in the program is one of the Amazons. I think she’s just the narrator’s (James Barrie’s) maid, who serves him tea while he’s writing Peter Pan and later sits in his chair reading the manuscript. She doesn’t have any lines that I can recall.

  8. The comment about the Amazons being a strong role model for the girls actually came out a comment made in the original post:
    “A prototypical feminist, Tiger Lily is in control of her own sexuality. From Peter Pan, Act II:

    She is the belle of the Piccaninny tribe, whose braves would all have her to wife, but she wards them off with a hatchet.”

    And to show that he felt Amazons resonated with the audiences of today.
    As for role reversal it happens regularly in theatre, males are changed to female or the other way around. The idea was not to remove all Indians but look at a different tribe of aboriginal people. And I think it should also be said that changing a group like that makes a new play, rather like any show put on stage it creates a new interpretation, a different angle.
    As for Tiger Lily not listed in the program, she’s not listed as such. You will though find “Lily” in the program, with or without Tiger it’s still the same character.
    I can appreciate the points that have been made and glad it has sparked this conversation…which is the ultimate goal of theatre.
    Aaron Kropf
    Social and Online Media Coordinator
    Stratford Shakespeare Festival

  9. Yes — Smokin’ Joe’s! That’s near the prominent signs near Lewiston announcing that you’re entering the “Tuscarora Indian Nation.”

  10. I remember that Peter Pan did refer to the Amazon lady as Tiger Lily when he having a perplexing discussion with Wendy about Tiger Lily’s “infatuation” with him. And Hook referred to her as Tiger Lily, as well.

    Having started to read the book to my son before we left to see the play, I had to explain to him that there would be no “Indians” in the performance. It confused him! I tried to take the opportunity to tell him that Native Americans no longer wish to be referred to as Indians. He became more confused when we got gas from the Smokin’ Joe’s Indian Gas Station.

    Still, overall we really enjoyed the performance, with or without Indians.

  11. Aaron:

    In the Stratford show, do the other characters really refer to the Amazon on Marooning Rock as “Tiger Lily”? I just don’t remember hearing that. Of course I might have missed it. But even if the Amazon is called “Tiger Lily,” she can’t possibly be regarded as the same character that J. M. Barrie created in his play. That character was an Indian princess; she is gone, and there’s no reason to pretend she isn’t.

    What I do know is that no “Tiger Lily” character is listed in the program. There are only several nameless “Amazons”.

    If Mr. Carroll claims that he put “Amazons” in Peter Pan because he thought they were something children tend to dream about – well, that’s hard to buy. You and I and Mr. Carroll know very well that kids don’t dream about Amazons. They don’t even know who they are.

    And what business was it of Mr. Carroll’s to decide that Neverland needed more women – or to decide that Peter Pan needs to teach young girls that they too can be strong? It’s not Mr. Carroll’s play, and girl power wasn’t one of Mr. Barrie’s themes.

    If Mr. Carroll wanted to write a new stage play of his own, roughly based on the story of Peter Pan (like the movie Hook), that would be a different matter, and he could do as he wanted. He could change the story, add or delete major characters, add new themes, and ignore the old ones. But Mr. Carroll was hired to direct J. M. Barrie’s play, and in Mr. Barrie’s play Neverland has no adult women except Tiger Lily.

    Mr. Eriksson has already beaten me to my point, which is that Mr. Barrie intentionally created Neverland without adult women, and that arbitrarily putting in a group of them throws the play out of whack. (At the Shaw Festival this summer they’re doing Clare Booth’s The Women, which has no male characters by the playwright’s deliberate design. When we see it in a few weeks, there’d better not be any!)

    Mr. Carroll has too much experience in the theater not to notice the architecture and the rules of the plays he’s directing. Peter Pan is designed with groups of threes. At the Darling home, there are (a) three children and (b) three competing centers of power (Mr. Darling, Mrs. Darling, and the children). And there is no sex in the Darling household. In the first act babies simply arrive; in the final act Mr. Darling sleeps in the doghouse.

    In Neverland there are also three powers, led by Pan, Hook, and Tiger Lily. And there are three female characters on Neverland, whose characteristics foreclose anything like erotic attraction: Wendy is prepubescent, Tinkerbelle is not human, and Tiger Lily is sexually impregnable. Mr. Eriksson is entirely right: injecting a group of sexually provocative adult women (Amazons) to complement the group of adult men (pirates) is extremely problematical. It distorts and undermines the real themes of J. M. Barrie’s play.

  12. @Aaron

    While I have actually never seen the play, I have read the book repeatedly, including as late as last year—and I, in turn, find your comments perplexing:

    The central themese of Peter Pan includes the wish to not grew up, conflicting feelings towards adults, and the wish for a mother(-figure). Notably, the lack of grown women on the island is likely to have been a very deliberate choice by Barrie—and the introduction of a tribe of amazons throws the entire play out of balance.

    Using a group of adult women (amazons) to complement the group of adult men (pirates) is also a potential source of problems: At least the original Indians were in a state of some-time alliance, some-time competition, with the Lost Boys. This implies two dangers, namely that women/mothers can be turned from protective or friendly figures to something potentially antagonistic (which seems to fit poorly with the original intentions); alternatively, that a very unfortunate polarization into evil men and good women takes place.

    (While it is very possible that the pirates are intented to represent adult men or fathers in general, they were hardly so in further-going way than a child’s sometype impression of fathers as more distant, stern, or similar—and more likely, as in the movie Hook, the contrast was intended more between adult men gone astray and boys, not men and women. It should further be born in mind that many children have the exact opposite impression of mothers and fathers, with the father as a kind benefactor and the mother as the sterner and stricter.)

  13. I find your comments regarding the changes made by Tim Carroll, particularly the issue with Tiger Lily missing from the show rather perplexing because Tiger Lily is a part of the show and is seen on marooning Rock, complete with rescue by Peter Pan. During an interview with Tim Carroll he mentioned his reasons for using Amazons, and they were twofold. First he wanted Never Land to be a place that little boys dream of, just as Barrie had done for the Victorians (dinosaur instead of an ostrich) so he used something that he believed children are inclined to dream about. Secondly, and perhaps the more important, he want to use a tribe of Amazon women because of the absences on women in Never Land. A tribe of women to empower the girls and show they can be strong just like Tiger Lily is on Marooning Rock.

    This looks like it could be a great conversation and look forward to how it progresses.

    Aaron Kropf
    Social and Online Media Coordinator
    Stratford Shakespeare Festival

  14. Like Amazons and Irishmen, mermaids have no champion to defend them from slander and caricature.

  15. I wish people would quit inaccurately stereotyping mermaids.

  16. Horrible.

    An interesting (but too time consuming) experiment would be to take a few of the classic childrens book (say Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, Dr. Dolittle) and cut out anything that could be considered steretypization, be offensive to some group or other, and similar. I suspect that fairly little would be left.

    For that matter, do the same with some adult classics: Take out the sexual inuendo, violence, and “inappropriate behaviour” from Romeo & Juliet and it would be a very different play.

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