Hiran Abeysekera as Peter in Peter Pan at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London, June 2015. © Tristram Kenton

Hiran Abeysekera as Peter in Peter Pan at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park. © Tristram Kenton

In my other blog today, I wrote about the “fact” that JM Barrie wrote Peter Pan as a metaphor for World War One. This was a little bit of a fib (explained fully here), but I thought I’d make up for my momentary dishonesty by sharing a few actual, real, honest-to-goodness surprising facts about Barrie’s 1904 classic.

In a programme note for the Open Air Theatre’s current (excellent) production, I learned quite a few juicy theatrical history nuggets, which prompted me to scurry off and learn a few more still. My expanded listicle version of what has kept Peter Pan flying over the past 111 years is below, but first, as extra incentive to see this current production, watch this:

14 surprising facts about Peter Pan

  1. Peter Pan began life as a single chapter in Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird.

  2. The play was first produced in 1904 at the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre. It was hugely popular and ran until 1913.

  3. Fairy dust enabling you to fly was introduced to the story later, to deter children from trying to fly from their beds or even windows, following reports of accidents.

  4. Broadway producer Charles Frohman, known as the Beaming Buddha of Broadway, was so enamoured of Barrie’s work, he offered to produce Peter Pan without seeing the script. As the holder of the Duke of York’s lease, Frohman was behind both the West End premiere in December 1904, followed swiftly by its New York premiere in January 1905. Frohman died on the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. He was offered a place in one of the ship’s lifeboats but refused, reportedly saying, “Why fear death? It is the greatest adventure in life?”

  5. Barrie instructed George Kirby’s Flying Circus to produce a revolutionary flying system for Peter Pan.

  6. Hilda Trevelyan, the first actress to play Wendy, didn’t know she would be flying until she was asked to take out a life insurance policy.

  7. Tinker Bell was represented in the play by a darting light and voiced by bells, although ‘Jane Wren’ was listed in the original productions as the actress playing her. This was a joke that fooled HM Inspector of Taxes, who sent Miss Jane Wren a tax demand.

  8. Barrie originally intended for the role of Captain Hook to be played by a woman and Peter to be played by a boy. However, when Gerard du Maurier (considered a box office draw) expressed an interest in playing Hook, the roles were reversed and Nina Boucicault took the part of Peter. The female casting of ‘the boy who never grows up’ became the standard.

  9. And not necessarily a young woman. In 1973, Maggie Smith, then aged 39, played Peter Pan to David Allen’s Hook at the London Coliseum.

  10. Other actresses who have played Peter include Mary Martin, Veronica Lake, Mia Farrow, Millicent Martin, Wendy Craig, Susan Hampshire, Lula, Sandy Duncan and Cathy Rigby.

  11. Actors who have played Hook include Alistair Sim, Boris Karloff, Danny Kaye, Ron Moody, Charles Laughton and Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman was the Captain in HookSteven Spielberg’s 1991 screen update of the story, which also starred the late Robin Williams as a middle-aged Peter Pan.

  12. After the success of the play, Barrie’s publishers, Hodder and Stoughton, extracted relevant sections from The Little White Bird, added illustrations by Arthur Rackham, and republished them as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. The full piece wasn’t released in novel form until 1911, under the title Peter and Wendy, with Barrie adapting and expanding the storyline from the play.

  13. The play was performed either in London or on Broadway almost every year from its premiere until the 1970s. In the UK, the story is now staged in myriad adaptations every Christmas, and regularly ranks amongst the country’s top ten pantomime titles.

  14. Barrie gave the copyright for all his works featuring Peter Pan to London’s leading children’s hospital, Great Ormond Street, in 1929. The UK copyright originally expired in 1987, 50 years after Barrie’s death. But in 1988, a Parliamentary Bill was passed granting a perpetual extension of some of the rights, guaranteeing Great Ormond Street Hospital continued royals for any performance, publication or adaptation of the play.

Peter Pan continues its limited season at London’s Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park until 14 June 2015.