An anthropomorphic canine, a flying boy, a wayward shadow, a one-armed pirate, swordplay, faeries, redskins, lost boys, mermaids – and a very wicked crocodile…
Not long ago I had the pleasure of seeing the 1924 silent ‘Peter Pan’ at the beautifully restored Orpheum Theater as part the Los Angeles Conservancy’s ‘Last Remaining Seats’ program to benefit historic theaters in Los Angeles county. Robert Israel accompanied the film on the Orpheum’s ‘Mighty Wurlitzer’, tickling and pumping out the playful and evocative original score by Philip Carli – a score that included whistles, birdsong, Indian whoops and tom toms and had the 1926 pipe organ sounding very like a modern synthesizer, only in deep breathy analog and through a three-story forest of pipes.
As with all four of the major 20th century fairy tales written in English (The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars (1977) are the other three), ‘Peter Pan’ continues, a century into its life, to bubble up rivers of surprising narrative insight (a central hypothesis on this blog and elsewhere being that narrative – in all its conceits and devices – is to consciousness what syntax – in its parts of speech and grammar – is to language¹).
We’ll be visiting Peter Pan again in these pages, but for the moment I want to point out something new and revealing – it’s actually old by the standards of the tradition, but new to me and not in evidence in any of the versions of Peter Pan made after 1924.
Among the many doublings in the story and especially in the original stage play (two of the other conspicuous pairings [or perhaps parings], are Peter and his shadow and the traditional dual casting of George Darling and Captain Hook²), among these many doublings, the ticking time bomb of the Crocodile counting down the last hours and minutes of Hook’s life, it turns out, was always played on stage and again in the 1924 film version by the same actor who plays Nana, the Newfoundland in the nursery.
The actor was George Ali, he’d been doing the roles on stage for two decades since ‘Peter Pan’ opened theatrically in London in 1904, and his exquisite pantomime alone is worth the price of admission and then some. But the revelation of his performance is to be had in the duality. As Nana he is all bashful tenderness, humbly warming Michael’s blanket at the grate and handling all of the Darling children as tenderly as a puss with her kittens. Yet there’s something terrifying in Nana’s hugely restrained delicacy too. Wild, animal energies are at their mute breaking point in Ali’s conception of the biggest breed on earth, abused by George Darling, ursine in tooth and claw, and left alone with three sweet-faced toddlers: I’ll eat you up, I love you so – indeed.
Now here’s where we get some real narrative and neuronal fireworks. Without doubling Nana later in the character of the crocodile, we’re forced in other versions of the story to suppress our uncanny terror of her by resorting to an access of sentimentality (loving Nana, in Salinger’s formulation, more than god could love her), and I would say again of the really great modern Fairy Tales – and this may be definitive of them: they are not sentimental; rather, they are uncanny, transcendent and transgressive. Ali’s performance in both parts makes sentimentality impossible and so restores the stakes Barrie must originally have had in mind: they make Nana dangerous. With her huge paws, massive muscular jaw and hesitant, passive-aggressive restraint (particularly against the hapless, interfering papa Darling), Ali is already telegraphing something of Nana’s reptilian future as Neverland’s Crocodile id; and as the Crocodile – the most terrifying, relentless incarnation of any I’ve seen – there’s still some relic of goofy canine amiability in the performance (which naturally makes it all the more terrifying). After all, wagging his great lizard’s head, he allows Peter to extract the enormous clock unharmed (after Peter half disappears, head and shoulders, into the dreadful maw). In this the Crocodile shows his own twisted restraint and a lustful aptitude for delayed gratification – though for different ends – it’s the meatier prize of Captain Hook he’s really after.
Slavoy Zizek in his marvelous ‘Pervert’s Guide to Cinema’, clarifies Freud regarding the knotted relationship of id and superego, pointing out that they are not at odds so much as they are in an obscene conspiracy against the ego – the superego stealing id energy to drive the prosecution, the id supplying an endless stream of grotesque and ridiculous witnesses for a jurist (picture the rectal judge in ‘The Wall’), who can never be satisfied. And while it may be more than we need say that by linking Nana and the Crocodile in one performer, we are given the story’s superego and id energies (and by proxy our own, while we’re in the tale’s thrall), it is very much worth allowing the split characterization to tell us something about the other dual characterization, and dual nature, of George Darling and Captain Hook.
The Darling’s nursery as directed by Herbert Brenon and photographed by the great James Wong Howe is a sensual, incestuous eden of the late Gilded Age. It is flouncy, albumenal, wet and warm. Mother’s kisses come delicate to the open lips of her ecstatic children and linger suggestively over their thrilled, open-eyed faces; nightly visits are made by an adolescent boy played by a young woman; all of the children seem on the brink of various sensual realizations; Wendy is pining for her first kiss – the ‘thimble’ (ahem), she never really gets. The innocence of the Darlings is redolent, baroque and fragile. And into this chamber occasionally stumbles the clumsy, cruel and conceited George Darling, always in street clothes where the others are in nightgowns. He has never been as absurd or brutish as he is here. An interloper and a trespasser, George is the real danger to the nursery’s fragile innocence, and it’s Nana who recognizes it. Nana who might otherwise have been George’s animal id, is instead his oppressive superego, an enormous insult to his patriarchy, and a humiliation to which the rest of the family is openly a party. And so George is at his most petty and ridiculous in his dealings with Nana, slyly putting his ‘medicine’ into her bowl (an act which will be precisely doubled later, in a more destructive reversal, as deadly poison for Tinkerbell), and eventually banishing her from the nursery altogether. Whereupon the younger Darlings are saved from him by Peter Pan.
Once in Neverland the roles are amplified and reversed. As the Captain, George Darling becomes openly fillicidal, a hook-handed, perverse child killer, seeking to destroy Peter and to deprive him of sexual experience by killing Tiger Lily, Tinkerbell and Wendy – all three, and to have his own ‘sons’ John and Michael, as servants or marched off the plank to their deaths. He is pride, vanity and an obsessive lust for parental control unbound. Peter’s freedom, the innocence of the redskins and the lost boys, the blooming sensuality of the young women, all are a threat to him. This is George’s superego run amok, yet superego it is: the incarnation of Hook’s desires may be frightful, but his actions are luckless and impotent. He can make the law, but he cannot enforce it. He is, in fact, even less effectual than George Darling. Enforcing anything is left to his uncontrollable reptilian desires and the steady march of time.
And so we have the Crocodile and his clock, a wonderful, modernist enjambment of earthly desires and cosmic forces, relentless and inescapable. The Crocodile shows us George Darling’s id energies run just as wild (and unsupervised), as Hook’s superego. The two must come together, sharing a matter anti-matter destiny. Once finally and fully sated, with Hook in his belly, the Crocodile sinks beneath the waves and disappears from the tale.
And amid all the conflagration, the really important question is – where are we? And here, I think, Barrie, through one of the great tales ever written, helps us to see what is most important about narrative art and story telling. Of course the ego at the center of all the whirling gyre is JM Barrie’s, and by the magic faerie dust of story and his great skill, it is also us. We are the tension – we provide it and exist in the ether of it – between all of these baroque and compounded doublings (and we’ve only just made a beginning with Nana, the Crocodile, George Darling and Captain Hook). Almost effortlessly we juggle them, move through them, climb their aggregate steps as on the face of a temple to find ourselves solitary and clear-eyed at the summit. And in case you haven’t lately considered the actual importance of narrative art, and what it offers and affords the mind, consider this: as the id and superego (and a hundred other facets of consciousness), slug it out in this and many other of the great narratives and fairy-tales, the ego, the persona – the self – is given space, it is given room to breathe. It can exercise its muscles, consider its options. It can grow.
Narrative provides the microscopes and molecules for humanity’s best moral laboratory. It is here that the self – which has access to both the analytical abilities of the superego (we might as well transpose ‘pre-frontal cortex’ here), and the drive to action of the id (or the limbic system) – can work out the vagaries and varieties of its ethical motivations. In story after story, the ego, suspended in the primordial play of narrative, is freed from its usual constraints; freed to observe them in action; freed to enlarge the possibilities for finding balances and counterweights among all the doubles of the self; freed to develop more and more progressive and sophisticated ethical positions and to put them into action.
This is the job, and this is what great narratives and great fairy tales always avail us. It’s why Nabokov called Dickens’s stories fairy tales too, he meant it in the best sense (I think he had the same ambitions for his own carousels); he meant that in the midst of all the baroque menageries – Copperfield and Steerfroth, Carton and Darnay, Scrooge and Tiny Tim just as much as Pan and Hook, Wendy and Tinkerbell, Michael and the Mermaids – we are given a theater in which to more completely find our selves.
¹If, as Lacan had it, ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’, then by my estimation, consciousness is structured like a narrative.
²Though this, curiously, was not honored in the ’24 version and didn’t make its return to film until 2003.