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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Peter Pan at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

The Stratford Festival’s Peter Pan is not a stage version of the Disney movie, nor is it the dreadful musical play version that schools often do. It’s the original.

Two minutes before showtime, the only empty seat in the Avon Theater was right in front of us.  A woman explained to us that when her little son saw the gauze screen veiling the stage, he remembered a movie that had scared him, began crying, and had to be taken out.  The boy never did see the splendid sets or costumes or any of the wonderfully choreographed action of Peter Pan in person; he watched it all on the lobby monitor with his grandmother.

This was a shame, we thought afterward, because this was just the sort of Peter Pan that a fainthearted child could safely enjoy.  The Darling children’s father (Sanjay Talwar), lampooned and patronized by his wife and children, is neither formidable nor fearsome.  The pirates are lovably cartoonish, and the bumbling, benign Captain Hook (Tom McCamus) won’t inspire nightmares.

As for Neverland’s savage Indians — wait, this Peter Pan doesn’t have any Indians!  — merely playful, posing, sexy “Amazons”.  We’ll have more to say in a later post about this alarming capitulation to the tyranny of political correctness.  (Here it is.)

J. M. Barrie

In short, even though this Peter Pan is still a ripping children’s adventure tale, it’s painted in broad strokes and scrubbed of whatever might either offend or stimulate. And it betrays the influence of decades of Disney and Pixar cartoon features. An essay in the program reminded us that Peter Pan topped one drama scholar’s list of the finest English language plays of the twentieth century.  (Emsworth, who is devoted to J. M. Barrie’s novels as well as to his plays, would rank it nearly as high.)  But this production does not suggest nearly enough of the psychological complexity of this dark play — too little of what puts Peter Pan in the ranks of plays like PygmalionDeath of a Salesman, and Fences.

At the Shaw Festival in 2000 we were fortunate to see a Peter Pan that did, indeed, mine the riches of James M. Barrie’s play, a show that is among our most memorable theater experiences.  We will remember the Stratford Festival’s Peter Pan, on the other hand, mostly because it was our eldest grandson’s very first play.

Boy and swan along the banks of the Stratford-on-Avon

Our excursion to Stratford, Ontario with this seven-year-old was a great success.  He tolerated the long drive and back with admirable patience, had fun trying to feed the swans along the river, was mesmerized by the play, and thrilled at the swordfights and the crocodile. And he never ran out of questions.  Were these real pirates?  Is Captain Hook really dead?  Does the man write a different play every night?  (In this production there’s a narrator — not J. M. Barrie’s idea, but intended to represent him — who sits at a table to the side of the stage writing the play, which unfolds in his imagination before our eyes.)

Michael Therriault as Irving Berlin in the 2009 Broadway musical “Tin Pan Alley Rag”

There’s still a lot to enjoy in this show, including plenty of clever sight gags and fine acting from the entire large cast.  Michael Therriault bucks the tradition of casting a slender woman as Peter Pan; he is lithe and acrobatic, vain and cocky, with a strong stage presence.  Our grandson noticed right away, though, that Mr. Therriault doesn’t look much like a boy.  We had to agree; in fact, the 36-year-old actor is a good deal closer to his grandpa’s age than to his. We also noticed that the diminutive figure of Michael, the youngest of the Darling children (played by Stacie Steadman), was not very boyish.

We thought Sanjay Talwar was a riot as Mr. Darling and that the ensemble work of the Lost Boys was immensely entertaining.  Sara Topham was an excellent Wendy — although the way she delivered some of her lines gave me flashbacks to The Importance of Being Ernest, in which Ms. Topham played Gwendolen Fairfax last year in Stratford (see Emsworth’s thoughts on that worthy show).

Sara Topham last season as Gwendolyn Fairfax

J. M. Barrie’s original 1904 stage play has no part for a narrator, but this show does (James Kirriemuir, who, unlike the other actors, is miked for sound). The narration is, at least, still the playwright’s prose, for the most part, taken either from his detailed stage directions, which help make the original play a joy to read, or from Peter and Wendy, the tremendously popular novelization of the play that Barrie himself wrote five years later.  Still, we felt there was too much of it.

Why a narrator at all?  We suppose Brit director Tim Carroll saw it as a device for speaking directly to the patrons; at one point the narrator invited us to chime in on which of several episodes in Neverland they’d like to see played.

But Peter Pan already includes the most famous bit of audience participation in modern theater: the moment when, with the fairy Tinkerbelle’s life hanging in the balance, Peter Pan asks the children in the audience to clap if they believe in fairies.  We thought having Mr. Barrie address the audience detracted from the thrill and uniqueness of the “save Tinkerbelle” moment.

We missed the play’s final coda (Mr. Barrie wrote it but regarded as optional) in which Peter returns to take Wendy back to Neverland for “spring cleaning” after she has grown up and has a daughter of her own.  But this wistful, sentimental scene did not belong, perhaps, in a production like this.

As promised, Emsworth’s thoughts on the Stratford Festival’s thoroughly disgraceful capitulation to political correctness — a Peter Pan without Tiger Lily, the Indian princess! — are at this post.

More broadly, Emsworth’s pre-season thoughts on the entire lineup of shows at the Stratford Festival in 2010 are at this post.