Stage mishaps a soar point for Barrie’s hero
It was the last night of the Kalgoorlie season for the play Peter Pan, doing its first Australian tour in 1908. Playing the title role was American actor Minnie Tittell Brune, who since arriving in Australia in 1904 had become one of the most popular stars of the stage in the country.
Critics and audiences had loved her performance. One writer stating that Brune “acted with a vivaciousness that was necessary to the piece and her mischievous though human childish pranks were charming.’’
But on this July night at Kalgoorlie’s His Majesty’s Theatre something went badly wrong with the set.
According to a newspaper report “a heavy solid iron framework and horizontal bar, used by six boys in a playing scene, fell across Miss Tittell Brune’s right foot, which badly crushed some of her toes.”
She cried out in pain, but “gamely” continued through the longest act of the play, limping the whole time. A doctor tended to her foot at interval and she bravely took the stage again for the final two acts. Fortunately no permanent damage was done and in August she continued the tour in Melbourne.
It was not the first time something had gone wrong in a production of James Matthew “J.M.” Barrie’s famous play, nor would it be the last. The technical difficulties of staging a story in which children fly makes it hard to avoid mishaps — a fact that is exploited for its comic potential in the new show Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which opens on Wednesday at the Sydney Lyric Theatre.
Peter Pan made his debut in Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird. In that book Peter is a one-week-old boy who flies out of his bedroom window to Kensington Gardens where he has to live with the birds after losing his power of flight. He later asks the queen of the fairies to grant him the wish to be able to fly again. He flies back to the window of his mother’s house but finds it locked and his mother holding another baby. He spends the rest of his days resisting growing up.
Barrie’s own brother had died on the day before his 14th birthday and had therefore never grown up, which became part of the inspiration for stories he created for sons of his friends Sylvia and Arthur Llewelyn Davies. He often acted out scenes with the boys.
The success of The Little White Bird, led to a full-length play. Barrie requested a woman be cast in the lead role, because laws forbade children under 14 being in professional productions. Nina Boucicault, 37, was cast as Peter. Barrie also requested special equipment be designed to make Peter and the children fly. But on December 21, 1904, the night before the show was scheduled to open, a mechanical lift collapsed bringing down a large part of the set.
The opening had to be postponed until December 26. Fortunately, that show went without a hitch and reviews were generally positive. The Guardian called it “absolutely original — the product of a unique imagination”.
In 1905 the play opened in the US starring Maude Adams in the lead role, to huge box-office success and rave reviews. Her costume popularised what became known as the “Peter Pan collar”. A young Walt Disney went to see the show and became obsessed with the story. He even played Peter in a school production and rigged a way of making Peter fly and crash into the audience.
In 1911, Barrie published a book of the story titled Peter And Wendy, which became an instant bestseller. The play continued having several successful revivals and it was not until 1924 that the story was first adapted to film. Barrie rejected suggestions that stars such as Mary Pickford play Peter and selected 17-year-old Betty Bronson. The author later complained the film was too much like the stage play.
In 1950, Leonard Bernstein revived the play as a musical, with Boris Karloff playing Captain Hook and Jean Arthur as Peter. But Bernstein’s score had to be cut to just five songs because most of the cast had limited singing ranges.
Perhaps the most famous adaptation was the 1953 animated feature by Disney. Although he filmed a live action version as reference for his animators there were no mishaps on set. However animator, Fred Moore, died in a car accident in 1952 while it was still in production.
One of the most famous productions was a 1954 Broadway musical starring Mary Martin.
In 1960, during rehearsals for a TV performance of the show, Martin crashed into the wall of the TV studio. She was in The Sound Of Music at the time and had to perform wearing a cast on her arm.
Nina Boucicault as Peter Pan in the first stage production; (inset) Mary Martin soars high in her TV performance.