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Essay

From the Artistic Director: For Peter Pan

By Tim Sanford, Artistic Director

“It is for the older folk to see the symbolism and philosophy that lies behind [Peter Pan], the pathos of Peter, the utter sadness of the Never, Never Land.”
Patrick Braybrook, J.M. Barrie; A Study in Fairies and Mortals

“Man, as he grows older has nearly always the feeling that he is growing nearer his childhood.”
Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, Vol. I

Hannah: …A church can be a very useful place to visit. Because it’s one of the few rooms in the world where terrible grief isn’t unwelcome.
Keith Bunin, The Busy World Is Hushed

Commentators have long noted the dark undercurrents of Peter Pan: the boy who wouldn’t grow up, whose shadow is cut from his body, the island of lost boys, the Freudian pairing of Father with Dr. Hook, the death and resurrection of Tinker Bell. Of course these dark elements are more than matched by Peter Pan’s underlying quest for transfiguration. Taken together, these qualities make Peter Pan a natural subject of interest to Sarah Ruhl, even had she not grown up hearing of her mother talk about playing the title role in the Davenport, Iowa community theater production of it. Mortality and grief are animating components of almost all of Sarah’s plays. Her breakout play, Eurydice, reimagines the Orpheus legend as an illustration of the intertwining forces of grief for her dead father with a dawning love for Orpheus and his music. The overarching aesthetic of this play, that proves to be the organizing principle of all her plays, elevates the artistic impulse as a harnessing and mastery of the great cosmic forces of Aion, Thanatos, and Eros (Eternity, Death, and Sexuality) in the service of beauty. Few writers commit to the power and purpose of art as wholeheartedly as Sarah. But there is another element to Sarah’s work that precludes pretension, and that is her irresistible humor and modesty. Small moments of day-to-day life often bind us to each other as steadfastly as any of the loftier notions I strove to articulate previously.

All of these elements are in For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday as intensively and explicitly as they are in Eurydice, but the structure of it separates out each of these components into three discrete parts. The first section takes place on the family patriarch’s deathbed. The second section is a Jameson-drenched wake. The third section is a metatheatrical fantasia of a Peter Pan played by the decidedly no longer young siblings. So the engine of the first part is grief. The engine of the second part is mundane time. The third part seeks a transfiguring eternity through art and memory. The passage through these parts feels both surprising and inevitable, almost painfully intimate then breathtakingly theatrical.

Few writers commit to the power and purpose of
art as wholeheartedly as Sarah.

Sarah refers to the writing of the play as a gift to her mother. I have found writers are frequently reluctant to talk about the personal origins of their work. Sarah’s openness about her feelings toward her family, even sharing that part of her research for the play was to conduct interviews with her siblings, should not be taken for granted. I find this openness a mark of bravery. And it is worth noting that the prevailing subject of the unerringly truthful and irascible second section of the play centers on politics. These siblings cannot talk about politics without arguing, and their views are as entrenched as what we find today. Sarah does not pretend that persuasion or reconciliation are within reach, either in art or reality. The best that she can do is put everyone in a play together when suddenly everyone shares a common narrative. Maybe that humble but also lofty goal can provide a common ground still for us all. For me, that is the “now more than ever” takeaway of For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday. And the generosity, beauty, and universality of this play stand as Sarah’s gift to us.