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The Peter Pan syndrome

Peter Pan continues to enthrall but, writes Gerald Isaaman, the first man to play Captain Hook – Gerald du Maurier became haunted by the boy who never grew up


JM Barrie (Johnny Depp) and Peter Davies (Freddie Highmore) at play in a scene from Finding Neverland (2004)


The Black Castle in the 2003 film adaptation of Peter Pan


Gerald Du Maurier


Above: Dustin Hoffman in the 1991 film Hook.

IT’S a centenary since Peter Pan appeared and, like JM Barrie’s classic tale of the boy who refused to grow up, which remains a vital and popular Christmas panto, the story of its creation has flown around the world.
But only part of that astonishing success story, as sweet and sentimental as those who still believe in fairies, has been told.
The dark saga behind it and, in particular the role played by Sir Gerald du Maurier, is virtually forgotten. It is a story worth telling, the more so since Sir Gerald, son of George du Maurier, the admired Punch cartoonist and creator of the haunting novel Trilby, was born at No 27 Church
Row, Hampstead – and now lies buried, alongside his parents, hardly 100 yards away in the parish churchyard.
He has been deemed to be the last of the great actor-managers, the debonair hero who played Raffles, the upper class crook, Arsene Lupin, the gentleman burglar, and the forever patriotic Bull-Dog Drummond among his many roles.
He is credited with bringing dashing new life to the West End stage with his light-hearted performances, in the wake of Sir Henry Irving, and, moreover, giving his name to the once fashionable du Maurier cigarettes. It was Gerald too who created the dual roles of the ferocious Captain Hook and the sympathetic Mr Darling in Peter Pan’s opening run, who was launched on December 27, 1904, at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Yet, though he didn’t perhaps recognise it, Gerald was himself a Peter Pan.
His biographer James Harding records that his father was denied becoming a great artist because he was blind in one eye and the feeling of regret endured until his death.
“When Gerald died a few weeks after his 61st birthday, he felt he had squandered his gifts,” he said.
“Success made him take the easy option and he sensed that he had not displayed the full measure of his ability.
“He left everything too late. Moreover, the thought of growing old filled him with horrified despair.
“He wanted to stay eternally young. He was no Captain Hook. He was, really, Peter Pan.”
The direct connection came through his sister, Sylvia, her barrister husband, Arthur Llewelyn Davies, whom she met when the du Mauriers lived in New Grove House, Hampstead, and their five perfect sons.
Barrie saw them playing together in Kensington Gardens, when he and his wife went walking with their dog Porthos, coincidentally named after the dog in George du Maurier’s novel Peter Ibbetson.
It was the younger two, the new famous “lost boys” George and Jack, aged five and four respectively, who captivated his imagination, and he theirs too with his romantic tales of pirates and fairies.
Then, surprisingly, Barrie found himself sitting next to their beautiful mother at a dinner party, and the family became involved with the celebrated author.
And in a strange way. Young George became Barrie’s favourite and he inspired the central character, David, in Barrie’s novel, The Little White Bird, which reveals more than a touch of paedophilia with its descriptions of the boy being undressed for bed and bathed.
“One needs a tough stomach to put with Barrie in this mood,” writes Harding in his biography, published 15 years ago.
“No writer today would publish such an account without inviting accusations of paedophilia and worse. Yet Barrie, in the manner of Lewis Carroll and his nude photographs of little girls, was consciously innocent.
“His snapshots of the tiny lads frolicking bare-bottomed on the beach, the cowboy and Indian adventures he made up for them, the coy letters he wrote and the amateur dramatics he organised, were a means to enjoy the pleasures of fatherhood with none of the pains.”
But while the boys’ father resisted Barrie’s close attention to his family, the association encouraged Barrie to write first of all a book called The Boy Castaways, then a “fairy play” about them, called, of course, Peter Pan.
Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the actor manager of the day who is buried just yards away from the du Maurier grave in Hampstead, turned down Barrie’s extravagance which require da cast of 50 and five elaborate sets. But the American impresario Charles Frohman did not.
And Gerald, now also a family friend, found himself cast as the villain Captain Hook after Seymour Hicks had rejected the part.
The benevolent Mr Darling he took on too, possibly as a theatrical device to contrast good with evil or perhaps to show off his acting skills.
Barrie insisted that Hook should be truly terrifying and not some comic opera figure. He called in the artist William Nicholson to design his costumes and he produced a huge purple wig made to look like squirming snakes, but Gerald’s wife, Muriel, protested it as unsuitable and the monster wig was replaced with something else.
Gerald didn’t mind. He thought Peter Pan was likely to be a flop and, initially, it seemed to go that way.
But the critics loved it, especially that “Do you believe in fairies?” question Peter Pan demands of the children in the audience.
The critic WA Darlington ranked his Hook “as one of the great comic creations of our time”.
And, in later years, Gerald’s novelist daughter, Daphne, wrote of her father: “How he was hated, with his flourish, his poses, his dreaded diabolical smile.
“That ashen face, those blood-red lips, the long, dark, greasy curls; the sardonic laugh, the maniacal scream, the appalling courtesy of his gestures...”
Barrie, the lost boys and Gerald had a smash hit, and Gerald went on over the years playing Captain Hook in revival performances during the heyday of his career he spent living in Cannon Hall, Cannon Place, Hampstead, and which today bears a blue plaque in his memory.
He was knighted in 1922 when, aged 49, he ruled the theatrical world, an emotional man who could easily be moved to tears. Yet his early success blinded him to reality of getting old, he got into debt.
“And he did not have the resources to grapple with it,” says Harding.
“He was left puzzled and frustrated. On March 26, 1934, he reached his 61st birthday.
“Peter Pan was old, irrevocably and incontrovertibly old.”
He also had cancer and died two weeks later, on April 11.
It was his 31st wedding anniversary, a dramatic time since his mother had died on her wedding anniversary too.
“Late one evening his coffin was borne into Hampstead Parish Church,” records Harding.
“Lit only by candles that were carried before it, the small procession trooped over the cold stone floor in darkness except for pinpoints of light that flickered and threw grotesque shadows. It was a setting the actor-manager would have appreciated.”
As do those children today, who love Peter Pan, Captain Hook and Wendy, but know nothing of Gerald, the man who helped to create the abiding legend of the boy who, like him, never grew up.