In the sequel to “Peter Pan,” a grown-up Wendy allows her daughter to fly away with Peter, concentrating on the magic of the moment instead of worrying about Peter’s potentially unstable psyche.
“My Heart in Company” — a 10-week exhibit at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library — recognizes the wisdom of Wendy’s approach. The name of the exhibit is a reference to Barrie’s claim that, despite his mother’s advice to him to keep all his possessions secure, the only thing he ever locked up was “his heart in company.” Following the eminently private author’s lead, the exhibit is dedicated not to unraveling the enigma that was his personal life, but to celebrating the magic of Peter Pan and his creator.
While some elements of Barrie’s life story — for instance, his mother’s preoccupation with his brother, who died at the age of 14 — seem straight out of an amateur psychoanalyst’s dream, the exhibit is not about pulling a Vasco de Gama on the depths of Barrie’s subconsciousness.
Instead, “My Heart in Company,” laid out on the ground floor and mezzanine level of the library (the upper floor houses “Peter Pan” artifacts, while the bottom is a chronology of Barrie’s life), is content to look at Barrie as he appeared to his friends and neighbors at the turn of the century.
There’s the Greek textbook from Barrie’s Scottish schoolboy days – margin notes, doodles and all; “Better Dead,” a lurid-looking early novel (the title is spelled out by a hangman’s noose on this edition’s cover); and the beautiful sepia photos of theater ingenue Mary Ansell, who divorced Barrie on the grounds of marital non-consummation.
There’s a love letter of sorts to one of the five Llewelyn Davies children, whose friendship with Barrie was the tinder that sparked “Peter Pan” and a melancholy portrait of the author during what Peter Llewelyn Davies called his “baptism by fire,” the years when Ansell divorced him and Michael Llewelyn Davies and the Llewelyn Davies matriarch both died.
And, of course, there’s the Peter Pan paraphernalia: an early draft of the play with the tenses corrected in his editor’s angry chicken scratch and a photo of Nina Boucicault, the actress who first essayed the role of Peter Pan onstage and under whose neck the original Peter Pan collar was folded.
The collection maps out a life that roughly parallels the one made famous in one of this year’s Oscar nominees for best motion picture, “Finding Neverland.” But Johnny Depp’s tribute to the man who never grew up has what Timothy Young, the assistant curator of the modern books and manuscripts division at Beinecke and the overseer of the 18-month production of this tribute to the Peter Pan creator, charitably calls “chronology hurdles.”
Most significantly, “Peter Pan” was not written as a cathartic outlet for a life in crisis as the movie purports, Young said. Barrie was actually happily married, closely integrated into the Llewelyn Davies family and a B-list celebrity. He was the sort of man who solicited marriage advice from H.G. Wells, played cricket with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and received fan mail from Mark Twain (correspondences with all three avid Barriephiles are preserved in the exhibit).
Young said “Finding Neverland” is not the first to misrepresent Barrie and his most famous creation.
“Peter Pan” became a cultural commodity so fast that the Peter everyone recognizes — the by-turns-chipper-and-petulant crown prince of Neverland — bears little resemblance to the character Barrie invented who was so bloodthirsty and casually cruel that Barrie’s original draft of the play didn’t need a Captain Hook.
“His play was a little dark and very, very funny. It was intended for adults. I don’t know that it would be an easy sell today,” Young says.
In an era where “Neverland” means Michael Jackson’s ranch estate, Barrie’s close friendship with the Llewelyn Davies boys would surely have set off pedophilia alarms. Similarly, William Nicholson’s breathtaking costume paintings for Tiger Lily, who is a cocktail of Native American stereotypes (she wears wampum, porcupine quills and silver jewelry, whoops like Sacajawea and scalps like Sitting Bull) would doubtless be poorly received in today’s more politically correct climate.
Lest we commit the crime of thinking things were simpler back in the day, “My Heart in Company” shows one similarity between Barrie’s time and our own: money talks. Alongside shameless merchandising culled from the Disney empire, we are treated to, among other things, a well-loved toy theater (featuring a crocodile with the snout ripped off) and a Peter Pan deck of cards, both from the early 1900s.
But while certain items spotlight other facets of Barrie’s life and works, the legendary magic of the Peter Pan myth overshadows the entire exhibit. And that magic is why the story of Peter Pan, like its protagonist, will quite possibly never grow old.
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